The following is about books — not reading enough of them, the writer’s struggle to create an audience and generate money for their work, and how the sometimes resulting despair is really arrogant.
The greatest love of my life is books. That’s probably true for most people who write. I’m a reader before I’m a writer. Writing is just an excuse for me to read all the time.
I haven’t been spending much time with books though. I’ve been reading more than ever, just not books. I purchased my first book in over ten years, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in December. I haven’t read one word of it. You know what I did last night instead of read Infinite Jest or another book in my pile of books? I watched Bugs Bunny’s 1001 Rabbit Tales on Netflix. More of my time, more of everyone’s time, is being spent doing what I call “interneting” — watching videos on YouTube or Netflix, checking Twitter or Tumblr feeds, reading other people’s blog posts, checking my stats, my (least) favorite internet pastime. Or, I’m searching and researching for a post I’m rolling around my head. My time spent with books, soft-paged books, is shrinking. Still in love, but we’re in a long-distance relationship.
If you asked me two years ago what my number one desire would be, what my idea of success for myself would be, I would have said “write a best-selling book” or “be like J.K. Rowling”. Ask me today… I’m not sure what I’d say. The idea of a “best-selling book” seems outdated somehow. Even more out of reach than it was ten years ago. I think the desire to write and the idea of wanting to write a best-selling book sounds as antiquated as wanting to make a best-selling record. Record? What’s that? Someday: Book? What’s that?
Okay, it’s not as bleak as that. Yet.
The act of writing, the act of writing books, the act of writing fiction has value. Like training for and running a marathon has value. You don’t have to win or break records for the running of a marathon to be life-changing and worthwhile AND you don’t have to be published or make money for the writing of a book to be a proud accomplishment.
Warning! Potentially unpopular opinion: I think there are too many books out there. I think a lot of people (including me) think writing a book is the key to their personal salvation. I think a lot of people see writing a book as some sort of therapy. It used to be reading was therapeutic. Now it seems like writing is. Or more specifically, being a published writer is.
Every book written — before a cent is spent, before being traditionally or self-published — should be put through this test as suggested by Seth Godin:
Take your novel, make it into a PDF. It’s free. E-mail it to fifty of your friends.
If your novel strikes a chord, they will e-mail it to their friends and the next thing you know, a million people will read your novel for free. If a million people read your novel for free, you’ll have no trouble whatsoever selling your next one.
On the other hand, if the fifty people you sent it to don’t share it with anyone, then you haven’t written a good enough novel, and you should start over.
Too much time, energy and money is being invested in work that cannot pass this test.
The book and the book business (as we’ve known it) is in trouble. I’m not in the business and I know this so it’s surprising to me to read about writers who are shocked that their work isn’t being read or they aren’t making money.
I’m surprised that there are writers in this era of the decline of the book who feel entitled to make money and have readers.
One writer, commenting on a post about book pricing at Dear Author, blamed cheap readers who didn’t want to pay for books as the reason she didn’t make back the money she put into publishing her book. She compared herself to a pig’s ass and listed the time and money she spent on her book as proof of…. I’m not sure. I couldn’t understand anything other than her entitlement.
Another writer committed suicide (I’m not exaggerating) because he was a failed, unread writer, but not before emailing strangers to alert them to his plans and maybe get posthumous exposure for his work.
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips backed away from this statement but I increasingly believe it to be true: “I would want a world in which there is less art and better relationships”. Art, like writing books, may not be the answer, the religion some of us want us to be. We worship art so much that when we engage in it and treat it so preciously, we’re pissed off that it doesn’t reap the rewards expected. If creating art makes us so miserable, is it worth it?
“I worked hard!” entitled writers say. Here is a perfect response from writer Susanna Kearsley in the Dear Author comment section to those entitled writers :
…(In) an earlier time: You, the storyteller, would have gone to the marketplace, found a corner, spread your blanket out, and told your story. People might have stopped to listen. If they liked the story, they’d have stayed to listen to the end. They might have tossed a coin or two. Next market day, when you spread out your blanket, they might recognize you and stop once again, to hear you tell another story. If they liked that, too, then they might tell their friends, and every market day you’d find more people waiting in your corner, and if THEY all liked your stories, they’d throw coins as well.
That’s how it works. It’s gradual. It doesn’t happen all at once. It never did.
And here’s the thing: it really, truly, IS about the story.
There will always be storytellers in other corners of the marketplace with more expensive blankets, better clothes, and fancy props, and maybe influential friends who can persuade people to stop and hear THEIR stories, but it’s the story itself that makes people decide to come back.
In the end, it’s the choice of the listener, just as it’s the storyteller’s choice to stand in that marketplace, to spend (or not spend) money on a fancy blanket, or take time away from family, whatever.
The readers—our “listeners”—get to decide if our stories are worth their own valuable time. They don’t HAVE to throw coins (some have no coins to throw, or they have coins but need them for things like, say, bread—so you need to get over your piracy issues, it isn’t the problem you think it is). They don’t HAVE to do anything.
You want success? Here’s how you do it: you go to the marketplace, day after day, even when the wind blows hard and cold in your corner and nobody comes. You still spread out your blanket. And tell a good story, the best way you can.
I don’t think there’s anything more arrogant than an artist/writer/creator in this day and age who EXPECTS an audience.
If you expect anything in 2015, despair is your reward. Where there is despair, there is always arrogance, hiding.
I may write a book. I don’t know anymore. But, I do know that if I do I will only do it with joy in my heart. With gratitude. With hope.