Wednesday, 25 March 2015
The Literary Life: Pondering 'Success' and 'Failure' (an essay-in-progress)
Success and failure — and the meanings and measurements of each — has occupied my mind more often than usual with This Location of Unknown Possibilities. The first bout related to the challenge (which occasionally felt like an ordeal) to secure (1) a literary agent interested enough in it (its literary merit, to a degree, but more so — I suspect — its saleability) and (2) a publisher willing to offer me a contract and bring the benighted novel to market.
This rough period reminded me of thankfully bygone days of seeking employment. You know: you're greenly young, have no practical experience to speak of, and pad your resume with enough material so that its one page of content doesn't look too sad and empty. You screw up your courage to walk into strange businesses and ask for "the manager, please." You hear one of two responses: "We're not looking for anyone right now" or "We'll keep this on file" (with the image of the resume sheet landing in the trash can a shadowy truth in the eyes of the speaker).
So it was with literary agencies, only worse. Typically, not even an automated line of reply to the self- and talent-promoting letter of query so artfully crafted. Or else, a response that simply emphasized the ineligible nature of the project. As such, an implicit message: you and your work would be a losing venture for us...with a roster of writers like you, we'd be bankrupt in a season.
Less bottom-line oriented perhaps, or just staffed by nicer and more generous and caring people, the publishers responded with generally positive and even lauding words, but also with the familiar brute facts: that they're able to publish only a relatively small number of titles each year; that with so many people writing books, the field has become fiercely competitive; and that the novel submitted isn't quite right for their catalogue.
"It's the nature of the business," you tell yourself. Beneath that and myriad other feel-better and hate-the-world platitudes, there's another: "Loser." The persistent j'accuse-ing finger is pointed at right at you, a so-called representative of the creative class.
Then you're offered a contract and you celebrate that small, wonderful miracle. Attractive cover and all, the book comes out. You get a few lauding reviews, and you're thankful, but at the same time you notice how many review venues, the national ones everyone desires and prays for, ignore your book. Just as they did with your first novel. You can rationalize their thinking, true. Limited available space for book reviews. The smallness of the press. The obscurity of the author. Etc. All the while the furious thinking is returning to condemnatory words: failure, loser. Giving up and not leading yourself into disappointment or self-doubt appears as an insight that has all the markings of True Wisdom.
And at last a royalty cheque, paltry of course, well under half of what your first book earned, which in itself was nothing to brag about. Not enough be pay a month's rent. You joke that if you'd really wanted to earn tons of money, you'd have gotten a realtor's license. But still. You can't help but feel — and think, and zealously believe — that all of these events form a pattern that has an unpleasantly plain message woven right into it: by the measures that matter, your book was and is a failure. Ditto for you, since you're its author. How could anyone argue otherwise?
More on this later...
The above might come across as tiresome, whiny, and childishly self-pitying, I realize. There are moments when that’s more or less exactly what I tell myself. (Says my harsh inner parent: “Boo hoo, in the time it takes you to feel wallow in woe-is-me, a fellow human has died of starvation.”)
So, don’t get me wrong. Essentially, writing in itself has ordinarily felt like — and usually feels like — a worthwhile experience. Despite discouragement, I write and will no doubt continue to write. I publish just about whatever I do manage to finish. On good days I enjoy spending hours (how many of which is of course contingent on my full-time, real-life paying job) tapping on a keyboard and figuring what I want to say and how I’d like to phrase it.
Still. As a hedonist and someone who doesn’t particularly want to loiter under a grey cloud mood or to feel that a chosen endeavour that could give me both pleasure and a sense of accomplishment is in fact not, I’m interested in stepping beyond a paradigm that I’ve fallen into (in part because that paradigm has become so normalized and widespread as to seem natural).
And if I don’t want to accept the daily self-directed accusation (ie, low sales = failure, no prominent reviews = failure, no literary prominence = failure, no literary prize = failure, and so on), then it’s clear to me that opting out — says me, writing right now; send me a Giller nomination, and I’ll no doubt change my tune! — of a particular system or at least the mindset encouraged by that system, might be of stupendous benefit.
What’s that system, you ask? Writing as a commodity that’s solely produced to be sold in epic numbers.
As an enterprise and a kind of adjunct profession, publication — the single goal of writing when writing is a sales-driven profession — is often woefully lacking. If the measure of success is sales and the pinnacle of that is sales plus recognition, then there’s no mystery why I don’t feel very contented with the contemporary version of ‘the writer’s life.‘
In large part that’s because in associating writing with the very word “profession” I’m necessarily also taking it closer to “business” (and with it toward entrepreneurialism and, ahem, marketing and sales). And once I’m there, comparing myself to a business results in the deflated states of mind mentioned earlier. If as a writer I’m also a business, then I have no doubt that I’m a flailing business, deeply in the red. Numbers don’t lie, right? If a small business, my doors would have shut years ago due to lack of customers interested in my unique inventory. Writing-as-business (that must thrive to remain afloat) and writer-as-brand (that constantly needs to grow its market) seems anathema to writing-as-art or writing-as-fun or writing-as-intellectual-activity because if the steady growth of sales is the primary goal of the business model, then finding ways of widening the market and moving more and more units becomes the primary purpose of the writer-as-entrepreneur. Anything less is backwards thinking, anti-business.
That business view — which is on the ascendant — encourages me to see any publication (a novel, a review, a short story) as a part of my expanding brand portfolio. It leads me to consider each story and each novel and each review and each public reading and each appearance of my name somewhere as part of a brand-building undertaking, the goal of which is not brand maintenance but steady growth, quarter after quarter.
As the language and expectations of the business model creeps in, I gradually become a weird kind of corporation in which I’m at once the sales force, the corps of workers on the factory floor, and the imperious Board of Directors that notices the laughably puny royalty cheque, the dismal sales numbers (and utter remoteness from a bestseller list), the lack of reviews in prominent, national-level media, and absence of the brand on literary prize longlists and shortlists, and the overall under-performance of the brand at the level of consumer recognition. That same Board demands results, but as for the right answer to the question “How?” all the underlings — the sales force, the product developers, and the grunts at the assembly line — seem wholly incapable of generating.
The business model also encourages shuttering the whole place and saying “enough’s enough” since the business hasn’t proven to be competitive enough. What fool, after all, keeps the door to their business open day after day when no customers come in? What entrepreneur in their right mind spends countless hours sitting at the till of an empty shop? What salesperson would continue pounding the pavement when, after a few years’ work, their earnings amounted to considerably less than the monthly wage earned by a McDonald’s patty-flipper?
If the philosophy of business is “Sell and succeed or quit,” then that simple combination of words informs me of my obvious option.
[August 2015, several months later.] The advantage to blog-writing is its immediacy. The disadvantage is the same: what might seem pressing and relevant and oh-so-important on the hour it’s being written about may seem wank-y, whiny, or wildly overstated by the next day. The comments above stemmed from a need to write out my feelings, to organize and make some sense of them. Feelings related to failure and shortcomings occur in everyone, I suppose. I think that by writing out my feelings related to my perceived severe limits as a writer I was trying to write my way to a solution, a eureka that would make me see a tired old subject in a fresh light and give me solid reasons to continue.
Since I last wrote about my feelings of failure above, I’ve of course continued to write. Arts journalism like author profiles and film and book reviews, mostly, along with scholarly stuff.
And there was that novel to read one more time. (Not one last time, though. Currently the typeset manuscript is sitting on my kitchen table, being ignored. When I do get to it, my read-through will be the final opportunity to make any changes before off-stage magic at the printer turns it into an actual book.)
Also, there was the writing of letters to American and UK publishers, all of whom to date have sent back kindly-worded rejection emails that simultaneously praise my novel and its style while telling me that the book does not fitting into their current publication vision (whatever that means).
As you’d expect, the trickle of rejections has kept the failure subject within my thoughts.
Despite knowing better, I’m still drawn to the writing-as-business view and the writer-as-brand perspective. Those ideas circulate through the air and, for me at least, unavoidable.
Still, other perspectives have made their way to me and offered ways out of being in the position of the small business operator whose unequivocal failure as an entrepreneur is made clear as he writes GOING OUT OF BUSINESS, EVERYTHING MUST GO on a cardboard sheer after his banker has declined an extension of his line of credit.
Lately, I’ve been considering another option: writing as a hobby. Similar to kite flying. Or knitting. Or bonsai-keeping. Or being in a dad band.
The advantages of the hobby strategy strike me as limitless. (But please keep in mind that I’m writing this as someone who has no hobbies. My speculation, then, could be completely off the mark. I could be idealizing.) For one, you choose a hobby because you enjoy both the thing itself (standing in a field on a breezy day, say, and watching the kite flutter and swoop in the blue sky) and you find pleasure in its challenges (keeping the kite aloft as a breeze subsides). It’s relaxing and stimulating; essentially it’s leisure. It’s fun. If there’s a goal—a Buckingham Palace from Lego, all the recipes from Julia Child’s first cookbook, making jam from berries you grew—the enjoyment’s the foundation and primary goal. It’s all inherently unprofessional because it’s a form of play. And as a hobby, it’s exclusively for you. There’s nothing much at stake. The jam’s too runny, try again and learn from previous mistakes (but also eat the failed version because it still taste good even if its looks leave something to be desired). As a result, it’s uncompetitive. While you’re standing there, smiling with a tilted neck at the fluttering kite, you’re not fretting about crafting the perfect letter of introduction to an agent who, if she discerns enough salability in you, might deign to represent you. Knitting that scarf for your nephew Colton, likely as not you’re not wondering how you can make sure the National Knitting Post and maybe even the New York Times Knitting Review will notice you and assign a reviewer to sing the praises of your latest project.
As a strategy, there’s much promise in the humble hobby.
The other came to me heavy-handedly via House of Cards. I’m pondering it, but not sure I’m going to make a purchase.
On an episode when all of Frank and Claire’s machinations appear to be amounting to pursed lips, high blood pressure, and not much else, there’s a group of contrasting figures—Buddhist monks spending a week in the lobby of President Underwood’s house constructing an elaborate mandala from coloured sand. The effort is exacting and physically demanding; it consumes whole days.
At the end: bye bye. It’s swept away, the entire week devoted to a sustained meditation on and lesson about impermanence.
Relatedly, an acquaintance, another writer, wrote to suggest that writing should be meditative and therapeutic. Yoga with a keyboard, in essence.
Intellectually, I can see the appeal of that approach. At the same time, it strikes me as “not me,” just as a suit and tie and working at a bank seems impossibly foreign to my personality type (The type, you ask? The type that balks at formal woolen clothing the same way a dog reacts to plastic anti-itch-scratching collars.)
Should I take the monk’s lesson in spirituality to heart and begin to write as an exercise that teaches me something valuable about the truth of human existence, I’ll be sure to report it here (before, of course, I erase it from existence).