A couple of days ago I got myself in a pretty serious funk. Took myself right out of the rhythm I was in that had me thinking I was nearly done with this latest novel.
Sad fact of working on any long project is the inevitable funk, followed by a dead end. At least for me. An emotional crash leads to the creative energy getting sapped, and then I write myself, seemingly, into a corner. So, here I am, taking a few mornings to write a one-off blog post that may or may not make it up on the blog. I need to move some words and get some thoughts down. If you’re reading this then success! I needed a success, such as it is.
Everything gets questioned at times like this. Why have I spent so much of my life trying to be a writer? Why is it so hard for me to write query letters? Why can’t I just stop writing and be happy as a corporate automaton making “useful” or “utilitarian” things? Does living in Kansas hurt my chances of being taken seriously? Why is searching for an agent so much like searching an online dating site for a date?
In the past, when I’ve trotted out concerns or insecurities about writing, I’ve had at least one person respond with the directive to self-publish. I wrote a long post about why that most likely won’t happen, and I won’t rehash that particular argument here or even give a link. It’s down there somewhere. But there have been some things related to the idea of self-publishing that have been creeping around the surface of my consciousness lately. which may have finally come to a point.
During the first day of this funk, I listened to a podcast episode of the Wisconsin Public Radio show To The Best of Our Knowledge, which was about why people write fiction. They had Hugh Howey on to talk about self-publishing and his series Wool. He doesn’t bullshit about his choices, and I respect that. He also has, in some of his posts, stated that self-publishing isn’t right for everyone, just like traditional publishing isn’t right for everyone, and I agree with him on that, too. The big thing that has come up in listening to him and reading a couple of things he’s written about self publishing, especially his piece on author earnings back in 2014 (http://authorearnings.com/report/the-report/), is that he has a very . . . utilitarian view of what he’s doing.
When I was last assaulted by the highly sensitive and defensive champions of self-publishing for attempting to explain why I, personally, will never self-publish, I read a number of comments that sounded an awful lot like Howey did in the TTBOOK interview. The primary thing being espoused was that a writer should write a book a year with the implication being, at least in the way it was, rather aggressively thrown at me from a darker corner of the self-publishing world, that if someone isn’t writing a book a year then they aren’t a “real” writer (at best) or, more pointedly, they’re a snobby pouty literary MFA princess who is stamping his feet because the world won’t admit his arty-farty brilliance (at worst).
One thing I’ve come to dislike, and especially since grad school have tried to avoid, is making prescriptive statements about what a writer should do in order to be a writer. Really, the only thing a person needs to do to be a writer is to write. Now, if that’s too broad a postulation for those who want to think calling oneself a “writer” shouldn’t be so easy because then that makes a five year old who writes a six word email to grandma a writer, let’s go with this: A writer is one who practices writing whether they think of it as a hobby, an art, or a commodity. That’s it.
Hugh Howey and I both “practice” writing. Now, maybe someone who has a view of writing that is more similar to Howey’s would say that I practice and Howey does since he has far more books out in the world being read at the moment than I do. But that’s just snark, at best, or, plain old counter elitist elitism at worst. Howey writes a book or two a year, maybe more, I don’t know for sure. I write a book every three years or so. Michael Ondaatje publishes a novel, on average, every six years. Ernest Hemingway, published novels, while he was alive, about every 4.5 years (he had 2 novels in 1926, and I’m not counting the story collections, nor the two posthumously published novels).
I’ve never read Howey’s work, and I probably never will. I also think it’s safe to say that he’ll never read anything of mine, and that’s cool. I’m not really into series sci-fi anymore, and he’s probably not into quiet literary novels about emotional cripples. But I have, for years, read a series of post-apocalyptic sci-fi books called “Deathlands.” At the moment, I’ve got about 24 unread books from the series, and no plans to read them. Their stable of writers come out with a new one almost every three months, which might be part of the reason I’ve lost interest in reading them. Back when the series started, books came out erratically (sometimes two in one year, sometimes more), but it was under the control of one writer only for almost a decade. In 1996, though, the series made its first steps toward being a team-written story mill. Several writers have worked on the series since (see this list): some have been more skilled than others, and so the writing has become inconsistent to me. Of course the writing itself was never, shall we say, “artistic.” I used to say that it was solid and functional. The primary writer before 1996 was pretty good at what he was doing, the writing did its job of keeping me in the story, and it had some life to it. I could pretty easily slip into that imaginative space and be content. When they started rotating writers, and I got older and read more widely, I began to lose interest.
It wasn’t that the writing got sloppy, exactly, or even awful, it simply became, I suppose, what best could be described as utilitarian. It had ceased to have any life to it and became mechanical and predictable. But it’s that word, that concept, utility, that has been on my mind a lot lately in relation to writing in general, and the profession of writing specifically.
My day job is in the business and manufacturing world, and in the business and manufacturing world, everything is utilitarian: toilet paper, hammers, vacuum cleaners, fertilizer, watches, computers, cars, plungers, drugs, and so on – even dildos, to an extent, are utilitarian. If you need a roll of toilet paper, and usually you buy Charmin, but the store is out of Charmin, you’re not going to stop wiping your ass until they restock the Charmin. You’ll buy a few rolls of Northern to get by. Brand names are mostly meaningless in a world of utility anyway. The brand name painkiller Aleve is naproxen sodium, which comes in a cheaper, generic brand as well. There’s really very little difference between a hammer made by Stanley and one made by Black and Decker, and if you need a hammer, but wanted one made by Stanley that isn’t available, you’ll get the Black and Decker rather than wait to finish your roof until the there’s a Stanley hammer. Utilitarian things are interchangeable, that’s the whole point of utility.
Utilitarian objects have an objective use. Any old hammer will drive in a nail, whether you mine and forge the materials to make the hammer yourself or buy the top-of-the-line model from Home Depot, and it’s within that scope that business and manufacturing try to differentiate themselves, knowing that, really, the only difference between them is the illusory “image” created by the company’s advertising. In this utilitarian approach, the company has a few simple requirements: 1) their object must do what it is supposed to do 2) it must be produced cheaply and quickly and in sufficient volume to satisfy the demand created by the advertising department’s mythology, and 3) it must turn a profit.
That is a fine model for legitimately utilitarian objects. However, for a certain cadre of people it also applies to writing. James Patterson, Hugh Howey, the guys writing the Deathlands series, and those aggressively defensive self-publishing champions who tried to rip me a new one, seem to all be approaching writing in this utilitarian fashion. Or at least trying to by putting the production model into play, at least. They’ve found a niche (thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.), developed a production schedule and streamlined it, created a mythology they hope an audience will buy into and shell out money for the next installment, and they measure their success by their profits almost exclusively. In this utilitarian model, profit is the result of being a “good” writer in the same way that a hammer is judged to be good.
For some people, I think, reading is something like an itch and any old thing will scratch it whether it’s the back of a cereal box or the 125th book in a well plowed series where each book follows the same basic rhythm. Escapist genre fiction can be fun, if it’s done well . . . but, of course, everyone’s definition of “writing done well” is different. Some people have a much lower bar than I do, and, of course, there’s no accounting for taste – as the saying goes.
I read for pleasure, for edification, for escape and entertainment, for the chance to exercise and expand my empathy, to more deeply understand and relate to the world. I read to test my emotions, and to challenge my intellect. I read for the thrill and surprise that comes when a writer puts the right words in the right order and says something that shifts my view of the world into a new alignment. I write for a lot of the same reasons, and yes, I want to be read. The caveat there being that I don’t want to be read because I produced a utilitarian piece of fiction that simply entertains someone and, more or less, passes through them, like a candy bar, to be shit out the back end and forgotten. I want to be read because I’ve written something that resonates with the human experience. Rather quixotically, I write and want to be read with the hope of being remembered. For me literature is Art, not a utility that will buy me a yacht.
To me, it’s a bit delusional to get into writing because you think it’ll make you rich. Of course, it’s also a bit delusional to get into writing because you think it’ll make you somehow immortal.
One self-publishing champion told me that Stephanie Meyer’s books would be remembered longer than anything I’ll ever write. That may be true, if only by a few decades and by virtue of her books being made into popular movies. But that is the gamble one takes when they make art.
As opposed to things of utility, art is, well, useless. I used to balk at that description of art. To me, art is incredibly useful. The problem with art though is that it’s very personal and subjective. If you’re in need of a hammer, any old hammer will do, but if you want to hang an original painting by Picasso in your home, and not a reproduction or facsimile, you’ll have to wait for one to go on sale, but in the interim, you’ll probably leave the wall blank instead of buying a the next available painting that might be by some artist you don’t like. Do you see where I’m going? If you’ve lost all your favorite albums by New Order, replacing them with Travis Tritt isn’t going to work. Sure it’s “music,” but it’s not music that touches you, or moves you, or resonates. It’s like that with books. I like Raymond Chandler, but he’s not writing anymore, obviously, but Sue Grafton isn’t an adequate substitute. And, I bet, there are people who love to read Hugh Howey, but if he stops writing, I doubt they’ll simply drop down to the next author in the alphabetical list and be as happy, right?
A few years ago, Michael Korda wrote a book called Making the List where he looked at Publisher’s Weekly’s annual bestseller lists (you can see the lists here, but the book is enlightening and you can also access a more detailed list, including non-fiction bestsellers here). What I got from the books was that being on the bestseller list is not necessarily a sign of being a lasting writer. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is an important American novel, one of those definitive 20th Century books, but it never made the annual bestseller’s list. Only three of Hemingway’s novels ever made the annual bestseller’s list when he was alive (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Across the River and into the Trees, and The Old Man and The Sea), and the fourth made it after he died (Islands in the Stream, in 1970). Of the four, only For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and The Sea are classics. The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell To Arms, To Have and Have Not, The Torrents of Spring, and none of his story collections or non-fiction ever made the annual bestseller’s list when he was alive (A Moveable Feast was in 1964, and Papa died in 1961). Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World did not make the annual bestsellers list for 1932, the year it was published. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four didn’t sell enough books the year it was released to make the annual bestseller’s list, and neither did Animal Farm. On the other hand, Thomas Dixon, Jr. was a bestselling American writer in the early 20th Century, and now, no one reads his work except maybe white supremacists and those who study their history and psychology (Dixon wrote “The Clansman”).
It’s an interesting form of anthropology to comb the lists and see who you recognize, who you’ve never heard of, and who isn’t there that you think should be there. It might be an interesting exercise to count up who had the most bestsellers in each decade, and see if the writer is one whose name we recognize and still read today.
Even if we think of writing as a utilitarian thing, its basic subjective nature will win out when it gets into the hands of the reader. As a writer, we have this basic choice to make, and both cases involve that old cliche of catching lighting in a bottle if our goal – stated or secret – is to “make money.” We can approach our craft in a utilitarian model and hope that we’ve picked the right genre and built an interesting enough world that it will capture the imagination of the most people, or we can approach our craft as a singular act of art and hope that our expression resonates as true with those who read it.