“I call ‘commercial’ every work, not only in literature but in music and painting and sculpture — any art — which is done for such-and-such a public or for a certain kind of publication or for a particular collection. Of course, in commercial writing, there are different grades. You may have things which are very cheap and some very good. The books of the month, for example, are commercial writing; but some of them are almost perfectly done, almost works of art. Not completely, but almost. And the same with certain magazine pieces; some of them are wonderful. But very seldom can they be works of art, because a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers.”

Thus Georges Simenon in interview with Carvel Collins in The Paris Review, Summer 1955.

Is this reasonable? I’m almost tempted to put my hesitations down to a problem in translation — not that I’ve any idea what the original was. Surely almost all writers write with some kind of audience in mind, which might be described as “such-and-such a public”. Good writing almost always takes the form of an argument between the writer and the ideal reader. The real point Simenon is making is perhaps to be found in the last sentence: “a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers”. Certain groups of readers can love a work of art, but a work of art cannot be created in order to make them love it.

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Maybe Dr Johnson didn’t actually say this: after all we only have Boswell’s word for it. It always struck me as a silly thing to say: it’s obviously not true, unless we count love-struck poets as blockheads, which maybe he did. Of course not everything one says over a pint of bitter has to make total sense, even if you are Dr J. — thank goodness we don’t all have acolytes following us around recording our every pronouncement. (Naturally I consider most of his jibes at the Scots as falling into the same category; probably directed at getting a rise out of poor Boswell.)

But getting a reasonable return on your labor is obviously a rational aim, while writing in order to make money might be considered a potential drag on quality. It’s the old Edwin/Jasper debate. Just because Dickens made a bundle off his writings, are they disqualified from being works of art? Because George Eliot made £7,000 for Romola, does this mean that the book is trash? Simenon, who clearly knew a bit of commercial fiction when he saw it, “wanting to rescind an agreement that had proved disadvantageous to him . . . achieved his aim by putting to good use his intuitive knowledge of the human heart. The novelist assessed how much it would be worth for him to redeem his original contract; then filled a briefcase with banknotes and won his negotiation simply by emptying the briefcase over the publisher’s desk.” (From Simon Leys: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, NYRB, 2013.)

However dismissive we may like to be about trade publishing, it has to be admitted that the occasional trade book will aspire to and achieve the status of “art”. I suppose one could posit a work of literature, written with extreme art, whose aim was to show us our true nature by being written to appeal (and sell to) the highest possible number of people. But until that genius of public mood comes along, we will, I guess, have to go with the working assumption that a novel written in order to get onto the bestseller list cannot achieve the status of “literature”, while literature can occasionally, almost by accident, sell in huge numbers.