I have spent the last years not making a living at being a writer; in particular the last 4 writing 2 novel manuscripts. The first went nowhere. The second may soon follow suit.
For nearly all of that time I had as my credo an outlook very similar to this one, as outlined by Douglas Glover, writer (if you read the whole post, I got involved in quite an exchange with him, one that included regular Don Merritt, too):
A person writes because, through writing, he comes to know himself and the world better. A person may write for money or fame or to achieve social position by posing as a writer, but these are secondary and, to some extent, inauthentic motives that often result in inauthentic and second-rate writing. Inauthentic motives result in second-rate writing because they interpose someone else’s point of view between the writer and the work. The writer writes to an audience conceived loosely as a market. He writes to formula instead of form—and don’t be fooled: there are some very slick and intelligent-seeming formulas out there. Many people who want to be writers do not know themselves well enough to be able to sort out their motives. Again, don’t kid yourselves: most of what gets published is second-rate recyclable literature at best. (Why this would come as a surprise, or even be noteworthy, to anyone in his right mind I have no idea.) If you write to know yourself and the world better, as a means of becoming a better version of yourself in your writing, then certain questions need to be answered in the writing. Who are you? What does it mean to be a person? How can a person relate to other persons? What is real and how do you know the thing you think is real is real? What do you want? How do you differentiate, evade, quell, and dismiss all the false demands of fad, formula, packaging, expectation, received opinion, ideology, and commerce to achieve your own unique answers? How do you translate the answers into words on the page? And, perhaps most importantly, how can you make this fun? If you use your writing as a mode of inquiry, if your plots are dramatic collisions between self and other or between self and the real (always with the preceding questions in mind), and if you are brutally honest with yourself and your characters, then you have a shot at writing well.
But now I’m getting older and staring down the barrel of 30 years at a dayjob and with family responsibilities am not likely to take the leap into graduate school or MFA-land and thus secure a cushy teaching position (which are extremely hard to come by, in any case). And so I’m wrestling with issues of “success”, and success as defined in American society as “money”, or at least, “making a living.”
My writing to this point has been very self-consciously literary. I have taken as my models the Usual Great Ones, Nabokov and Proust and Dickens and Faulkner and etc etc etc. You know, all those hoary old great books (and God, ain’t they truly great) that no one reads except for aspiring writers and college kids keeping the GPAs up. The kind of writing that no publisher today would touch with someone else’s ten-foot pole. No literary agent living today would get through the first paragraph of The Sound & The Fury without hitting “delete”.
So recently I’ve I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t attempt a more popular mode of writing, the kind that does get read, the kind that people are willing to shell over some shekels to Amazon for.
But according to the credo above – which more or less used to be mine – I should eschew all such worldly concerns, and write solely for my own satisfaction, solely to achieve some aesthetic goal which I alone define. By extension then, I should have no concern for any potential readers. Either they see what I’m getting at, or don’t. (In reality, there will be no readers unless first some editor and / or literary agent sees what I’m getting at first.) I should not sully my pure aesthetic concerns with any form of pandering to the marketplace. Hip hip hurrah for art! Right?
I am not so sure. Not anymore. Later in the exchange Don Merritt told me to abandon all hope of making a living at writing. In truth, I have only just begun to consider the possibility. I used to ignore all that in pursuit of my own goals. And as I consider what my next writing project will be, I am considering – for the first time – if I want to consider the reader, a potential audience, from the start.
Douglas Glover says that by doing as he suggested above, you have a chance at becoming a superlative writer. I ask, who decides who is superlative? Does the marketplace decide? By that rationale, since about a billion people bought The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown must be a literary genius. Lord help us.
But if it’s not up to the people, then is it up to the writer? Can I just proclaim the genius of my unpublished manuscripts, which you’ve never read?
Do English professors get to decide? How about critics? I’m not thinking of the professionals so much as those who take the time to do starred reviews on Amazon. You can even self-publish to Amazon, so everyone has a shot. So – if a book gets, say, 100 5-star reviews, is it a good book? If it gets 500, is it a GOOD book?
Who gets to decide, is what I want to know.
These may seem like naive questions. (Douglas Glover characterized them as cynical on our comment exchange, which as I write this is still going on.) But I mean them sincerely. I admit to ignorance.
It would appear that after some years of concentrated writing, I have improved my techniques somewhat, but I actually know even less than when I began. All I know now is that I don’t know. Which is something. But not much.
POSTSCRIPT: As I was finishing this post, Don Merritt posted the following over at Numéro Cinq, which is where all this got started. It’s worth reproducing in full:
I once, in utter frustration, a long time ago, said something like this to my agent, that maybe I should just write genre formula fiction, sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and at least make a living.
She said, you won’t be able to do it. your attempt will stick out and stink like moldy cheese. Because, the successful writers of genre, formulaic fiction are not “writing down” to their audience. They are doing the very damn best they can do. They write directly to an audience that wants exactly what they produce, and they are doing it honestly and at their best ability.
You cannot fake this. You cannot write “down” to your audience and fool them. Judith Kranz (she was our example of this in those days) is writing the very best novel she could possibly write. She is better at this than you could ever be, because you have no interest in writing of this kind, you don’t read it, you disdain it, and it will always show.
In other words, if you want to be a successful genre formula writer, you have to actually be a genre formula writer.
An audience that loves Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is not going to want the Schlitz you offer them. They know the difference.
Just do whatever you do the best way you can do it. The only success, really, is being the best you can be at what you love.
Not the sort of success that pays the bills, I note – but maybe the only real kind of success there is.