The Gripes of the Unpublished

Here’s an interesting comment to my writing advice from a couple of days ago, from someone who chose to identify himself as “anonymous unpublished nobody”:

I do appreciate the candor, however self-satisfyingly it was worded. I further appreciate the inspiration to never attempt to be published, if your view of the publishing industry rings true. If it is the frustrating job that you describe, it has lost its purpose in our society. I hate to sound like the hopeless romantic (okay, so I don’t hate to…), but what good is the writing industry if all young dreamers with infinite and ultimately wasted potential have their pretty little illusions shattered by jaded workaholic laborers in what sounds like an occupational environment in a certain Fritz Lang film? We can include all the clever phrases and cultural name-dropping in our posts as we like, but what this seems to amount to is one self-important and bitter veteran’s vitriolic rant against what he once was. The young and the unpublished may be silly and self-important and full of arrogant little illusions, but is it not better to fight for idealistic lost causes than to throw effort into a meaningless rat race under the guise of an artistic industry? Your publishing industry is just a mind-numbing entertainment industry. The publishing industry I see is a personal battlefield. The same questions you ask can be asked of you. You see the truth of what it takes to be “a writer.” Why should I care? Someone is making more money than me as a writer because they publish photocopies of the same old novel. Why should I care? I may never get published. Why should I care? If an art becomes an industry, it has lost its purpose. And if a writer loses his illusions, however silly they are, then he has lost his ability to dream.

My response: Uh, okay.

I’ll deal with the personal stuff first. As to the charge of self-importance: well, yeah. This is not news. As to the charge of bitterness: unlikely, since while there are people who could find the dark side of being able to do everything they ever wanted to do with their professional career, I’m personally not one of them. As to the charge of being angry at my younger self: also unlikely, as my younger self had basically the same approach to writing as my current self, which is, after all, a large part of why I am in the fortuitous writing position I am in at the moment. I would imagine if the me of today could talk to me when I was 21, the conversation would go something like this:

Me Now: Hey, just so you know, by the time you’re thirty-five you’ll have written six books, have been a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, you’ll review movies, music, and video games and get paid to spout off on whatever you feel like. And you’ll be married to a superhot babe and have a supercute kid, and they’ll both be smarter than you are.

Me Then: Rock!

Me Now: Yes, exactly. Now give me your hair.

As to why this fellow should care what I think: Beats me. As I’ve noted before, I readily admit to having my head up my ass. If someone readily admits to that, clearly the idea of caveat emptor is strongly implied.

So that’s the easy part. Now let’s talk about this thing about idealistic young writers being crushed by the unfeeling publishing world and needing their illusions, which, frankly, I’m not exactly sure I follow in the manner the writer intended. But let’s give it the college try.

“Is it not better to fight for idealistic lost causes than to throw effort into a meaningless rat race under the guise of an artistic industry?”

Possibly, but even better to write what you want and then find an appropriate place to get it published. There are 1,600 magazines and 1,000 book publishers listed in my 2004 Writer’s Market. Provided you can actually string together sentences into paragraphs that don’t demonstrably suck, there’s a pretty good chance you can get published more or less on your own terms, particularly if you’re not fussy about being paid a whole lot. Short of writing gay slash porn about the hot, moist love between Transformers and prehistoric trilobites (“Kekk the trilobite positioned himself on his back and opened his multiple legs welcomingly to Megatron, who began his erotic transformation. ‘My God,’ Kekk said, breathlessly. ‘There really is more than meets the eye!'”) most good writing can get sold.

“If an art becomes an industry, it has lost its purpose.”

This makes a fabulous maxim to spout at your college coffeeshop to that hot young black-clad Marxist you really want to sleep with, but what does it actually mean? One could easily argue that when art becomes an industry, it’s an example of the democratization of aesthetics — bringing art to the people at affordable prices and thereby enriching the national discourse. In this scenario, if an art becomes an industry, it gains a purpose, does it not? I mean, come on — enriching the common man! That’ll get you sex from your Marxist for sure.

My anonymous friend clearly has a bugaboo about “industry,” but industry isn’t inherently evil — industry merely implies systematized production and/or distribution of a particular good or service. Personally, I’m pretty happy about the idea of systematized production since that system gets what I write in front of more people than I could ever do myself; I’m lazy and I also don’t have the time to handcraft distribution deals with thousands of bookstores across the country.

The obvious rejoinder here is that industry also inevitably compresses choice — in a rush to get into the stores, publishers must anticipate and publish what sells as opposed to what’s good. But aside from not being news at all (I imagine Gutenberg made Bibles because they sell well), I refer you again to the stat I quote above: 1,600 magazines and 1,000 book publishers. Your difficult but brilliant book may be an awful fit for a publisher who needs to sell 40,000 copies to break even but a perfect fit for an academic publisher who considers 1,000 copies sold to be a massive hit. Your trashy romance novel won’t get past the gate at one publisher but might be madly embraced at another.

“And if a writer loses his illusions, however silly they are, then he has lost his ability to dream.”

Oh, please. Get a grip. I can’t even begin to count all the ways this line doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.

But here’s one: Illusions, by definition, are false — and therefore not at all useful for a writer to have. Writers with illusions about their talent, or about the state of publishing, or about life in general are bound to be continually disappointed, because the real world doesn’t care about your illusions. On the other hand, if you know what you’re good at, know how things get published and have a good grip on your general situation, you’re in an excellent position to make your writing dreams come true, inasmuch as they involve actually being professionally published.

I’ll tell you one true thing, which is that I spend a lot of my time recently thinking about what I’m going to write next — the next batch of book ideas I’m going to send to my agents to make the rounds, as well as some book ideas that I’m fairly sure my agents won’t see as salable but which I suspect I’ll probably fiddle with anyway because I want to, and who cares if they can sell them or not (there’s always the Web site). Point is, I don’t have much in the way of illusions regarding the business of writing. Yet strangely enough, that doesn’t stop me from having quite a few dreams.

I think the fundamental problem that this anonymous dude might have is simply that he seems to think writing is too dear for the predations of the real world. Well, whatever. I really don’t know what to tell people who sort of airily go off about how writing is this great, honest pure thing that been subjugated to the banal ravishments of the soulless machine known as “publishing,” but I suppose that’s because my relationship with the muse has always been, shall we say, a pragmatic one. People often ask me when it was I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I usually tell them it was when I was in my first year of high school, when I realized that for me writing was really easy and most other things (math, languages, getting dates) were kind of hard. And so I — and I remember this very clearly — made the conscious decision that what I was going to do was focus on being a writer because writing well meant I could avoid real work.

So I can say that from the very beginning of my desire to write was intensely practical: Being a good writer meant I might make a living being a writer, which meant I could avoid doing the things I didn’t want to do (i.e., damn near everything else). That’s what I did. So far, it’s worked pretty well. I’m hardly bitter about where it’s taken me. Most of the time, I’m having fun.

1 Comments on “The Gripes of the Unpublished”

  1. John Scalzi, Master of Sarcastic Comebacks

    One of my favourite bloggers is John Scalzi. The clarity of his writing, his interaction with his audience and his sense of humour make reading his writing a very enjoyable experience…

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