I’ve had a long and somewhat excruciating journey back from San Francisco, although thanks to standard airline practice of overbooking and begging for volunteers, I am now the owner of a free trip to anywhere in the continental US. Depending on future travel plans, I actually made a profit on the trip. So it’s not all bad. Be that as it may, I have to play catch up on a number of things, including invoicing my clients for the month. In short. no recap of my journey (I can assure you, however, that I had a really fabulous time). Maybe later.
Instead, I present to you an article I wrote for the Dayton Daily News, which appeared this last Sunday. It’s a response to a NY Times article by author Joseph Epstein, in which he suggested that everyone who thinks they might want to write a book should just keep that book to themselves. As you might expect, I think Epstein’s opinion on the matter is entirely full of crap.
I’d've linked to the article on the DDN site if it were up there, but it’s not. I’m presenting it here instead. This is the “unedited” copy; it differs slightly from the printed version, which was edited for space and does not have me using the phrase “shove it” — which to be entirely honest, I didn’t really expect to survive the editing process anyway. Anyway, here we go.
By John Scalzi
Author Joseph Epstein had a message for would-be authors this week Drop dead.
“According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them — and that they should write it,” Epstein wrote in the September 28 edition of the New York Times. “As the author of 14 books, with a 15th to be published next spring, I’d like to use this space to do what I can to discourage them.”
And discourage them he does. Epstein — a professor at Northwestern whose most recent book, curiously enough, is called Snobbery The American Version — notes that every year 80,000 books are already published in the United States, “most of them not needed, not wanted, not in any way remotely necessary.” Many people who want to write a book, Epstein suggests, do so with the idea of leaving something for posterity, and to proclaim their personal significance to the world. However, Epstein notes, “Writing a book is likely, through the quickness and completeness with which one’s book will die, to make the notion of oblivion all the more vivid.”
Ultimately, Epstein concludes, “Misjudging one’s ability to knock out a book can only be a serious and time-consuming mistake. Save the typing, save the trees, save the high tax on your own vanity. Don’t write that book, my advice is, don’t even think about it. Keep it inside you, where it belongs.”
Well, as the author of or contributor to several books, I’d like to offer a counter-proposal for you would-be authors As nicely as humanly possible, tell author Joseph Epstein to take his advice and shove it. There are many things this world has too much of, but books and storytellers are not two of them.
Epstein is right about some things. Most of the people who think they want to write a book never will. Of those who start, most will give up about 50 pages in, when they realize writing a book is actually work. Most of those who manage to finish writing a book will never see their book published, or will have to resort to vanity presses, and most copies of the book will sit the boxes in which they were delivered. Of those authors that do get published (and get paid for it), most will have the dubious pleasure of watching the book disappear off bookstore shelves in a few short months, to migrate to the remainders bin or sent off to be pulped into paper towels. If you want immortality, negotiate with your higher power, not a book publisher.
But to say that book-writing is difficult and publishing industry is competitive is not the same as saying that people should not write books. That’s like saying that because most people will never get signed by a major label or make an album, they shouldn’t bother to learn an instrument. Or that since most people will never be hired as a chef or open a restaurant, they should just stick to microwave meals. Thing is, most people have figured out that they’ll never be a four-star chef or a rock star. Most people don’t even worry about it. In each case, the skill is its own reward.
That’s why people should write books. They should write books because it shows a love of language and because writing is a skill worth having. I don’t think anyone would argue that we as a people should leave literacy and self-expression up to the professionals; among other things, that’s a fine way to narrow down that professional class.
People should also write books because despite Epstein’s implicit dismissal, every human being has a story to tell, and most of us have more than one. Admittedly, most people can’t write well enough to write a whole book. Most people can’t knit a sweater or compose a song, either — but could with time, effort and encouragement. Likewise, writing is a skill that improves with practice. Could having 81% of the American population working on their writing skills really be such a bad thing?
Anyway, here’s a secret writers don’t want you to know: Good writers are frequently not the professionals. As just one famous example, “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling was a divorced mother on public assistance before she started writing, scratching out pages in a café while her daughter napped. Presumably Epstein would have encouraged her to smother Harry Potter in the literary womb. Good writers come from everywhere; good stories — and good books — are often where we least expect them.
Let me provide another example closer to home. There’s a guy down the street from me named Darrell Gambill. He’s not a professional writer; he has a farm and works as a machinist at Goodyear. He had a story he wanted to write, about boxers and guardian angels. So he wrote it His book, The Lion’s War, was published last year. I don’t know how well The Lion’s War is doing; I don’t expect to see it on the bestseller lists or taught in classrooms around the US, or made into a feature film. But so what? The author wrote the story he wanted to tell. I’m glad he didn’t save the typing, or the trees, or the tax on his own vanity. His book is outside, which, contrary to Epstein’s opinion, is where books belong.