anghara (anghara) wrote,

Writerly envy

Others have written about this recently, notably Maggie Stiefvater here

What she says: (1) who ever said publishing is fair? and (2) yes, it IS fair, in the manner of publishing - because nobody cares about who you are or how long it took you to write your book or whatever, so long as you sell books

I agree completely with point 1. Who said publishing is fair? Publishing is driven by luck, talent, opportunity. Well, was. Because somewhere along the line it crossed the line between that kind of "you'll get it if you're lucky and talented and good and you put yourself out there" and the Hollywood model, where you either get to be the superstar or you don't have to bother showing up. Advances shrank (for 90% of writers) or ballooned (for the remaining 10%); publicity was either top drawer (for the 10% of the books that didn't need any) or non-existent, or at the very least limited to what the author wanted to do or could afford to do (for the books which actually needed the word of mouth to be picked up). Publishing WAS driven by luck, talent, opportunity. But since the consolidation of the publishing industry into a handful of gigantic corporations run not by editors and publishers but by accountants, publishing these days is driven by that same luck, talent, opportunity... and now a hefty dose of greed. Because, hey, if your book CAN'T make a million dollars what are you doing here? If your book DOESN'T debut on the NYT bestseller list, what are you doing here? If your book DOESN'T have instant name recognition, or doesn't have a movie about it in production, or isn't otherwise glamorous, what are you doing here? And why on Earth would you ever expect that you will be permitted to STAY here?

Which is why I don't agree with Maggie's point 2. It was never about a competition as to which author could sell more copies out on the street. or it shouldn't be. It should be about whether somebody can tell a good story or not. And these days if you're guaranteed a mucho moolah potential with a book release (yes, massively talented folks like Snooki)you have a shoe-in for a publishing deal. The rest of the hopefuls get a letter from the publisher saying "not quite right for us, sorry", or "it doesn't stand out above everything else in the market" (as though that is possible, for every book every time - how can EVERYTHING EVER WRITTEN stand out above everything else in the market?...) - mainly because there's a limited pot of money to dip onto, and when it comes to rate-of-return it no longer matters what the story is or how it is presented, it matters who "wrote" it (or at lest whose name is on the cover) and how many people can be persuaded to part with their cash on the promise that the celebriauthor might one day, some day, turn up for a signing somewhere local and you can go screaming with the rest of the devoted fans to have your book signed by that august hand, and fawn and whimper at its owner in person, in "meatspace".

Hey, don't get me wrong. I've DONE it. Years ago I bought a copy of Peter O'Toole's autobiography - okay I liked him as an actor, but perhaps I would never have wanted to know THAT much detail about his life, except that there was a signing at Harrods and I am not at all ashamed to admit that the prospect of coming face to face with "Lawrence of Arabia" played a significant part in my decision to purchase the book and get in line. As it happened, I had seen him on stage the previous night in a West End play, and when I came up to get my book signed I told him so. "Oh?" he said, looking up with a smile in those limpid blue eyes which were about all that was left of that young man who had once been so beautiful. "And what did you think of the play?"

Well, the play had been rather meh, as plays go. But I looked at him and I said, truthfully, "I thought you were great."

He rose from behind the signing table, handed me my book back, and shook my hand. I walked back along the line of people still waiting for their turn at having their copy signed, and I could see it in face after face as they all turned to look at me: WHAT DID YOU SAY TO HIM TO GET HIM TO SHAKE YOUR HAND??!?

I'm not above a little celebrity fangirling.

But I was under no illusions about what I had done or why I had done it. It was the power of personality. It had nothing - or little enough, anyway - to do with the book I was holding.

*But I have a different set of requirements for my fiction.*

You see, when I get a STORY, I don't CARE who wrote it, what (s)he looks like, and what her rating is on the celebrity scale. A good story is a good story, and it matters very little to me whether it was written by Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, or Joe Q Newbie of whom I've never heard before that moment. Hook me, catch me, throw me into the story, and you, as author, vanish from the equation.(and how fair is that...? [wry grin})(And yes, I fully expect that reaction from my OWN readers. The only moment when my name or my identity might matter is at the point where they are thinking, "I want a new book to read, just like that last one I read by [insert name of favourite author here])

But that is no longer how publishing works. If a mere thousand people get hooked by Joe Q Newbie - possibly because they've never heard of either the author or the book, given that publicity for it was non-existent - it just doesn't measure up to a million people screaming for a book which might be worse, speaking purely on a level of story and writing ability, than Newbie's but which had received huge quantities of buzz and which it is fashionable to be seen toting under your arm in public.

I suppose you could make a case of that being "Fair" in the sense that people can only choose what's in front of them. But the more room carved out for the superstars, the less room for anyone else crowding in the back. Yes, the publishers are out to make a profit, so is everybody - but books are NOT widgets, and cannot be sold like widgets. They are not interchangeable. A voice is a voice and yes, you can build a presence on a voice until such time as no other voice can be heard - but you have to wonder what happens when that particular voice falls silent, as, being human and mortal, most voices do eventually. The current model seems to be "cross that bridge when we come to it" and perhaps some Newbie will get lucky when a choice falls upon them and a mantle of some great departed gets settled on their shoulders to fill a story vacuum. But what would be FAIR would be a situation where people who don't do as well as the beancounters wish are not dropped by their publishers in mid-series (leaving readers high and dry in the middle of the story) or where somebody who just wrote a GOOD STORY can be given the opportunity of finding readers for whom that is important, readers who might be starving on a Snooki diet.

Maybe the new ebook revolution will level the playing field. That, or it will obliterate it completely, leaving EVERYTHING in freefall. Too early to tell yet. We'll have to wait and see.

But writerly envy will persist, in the meantime - from people who never get a moment in the sun for which they yearn, to people who seem to spend their lives basking in that sunshine. Yes, I know. In real life, too, some people live in the slums of Detroit and some live in Hawaii. But nobody ever said THAT was fair, so don't tell me that publishing is if the same criteria apply.

Nothing is fair. What every writer wants is that the unfair breaks THEIR way, just a little, just often enough to make a difference. For some influential reader to pick up their book and tout it. For Oprah to be seen reading it. For a buzz on the Internet where every blog is dripping with its name. For being nominated, for the same book, for every award that's available, raising your profile even further, distancing more and more those people whose award-worthy work might have never had a chance because a single book-du-jour is making its rounds and there are only SO many berths available on an awards short list (it's like at Oscar time in Hollywood - every year they seem to pick ONE movie and they throw every award they can at it, best actor, best actress, best screenplay, best cinematography, best best boy...)Forget books, there are blogs out there where the writer gets a hundred comments in an hour if they're writing about the contents of their laundry basket and blogs which sometimes throw out a never-discovered, rarely seen and comprehensively ignored gem of passion or of reasoning, or some heartfelt rant on a subject close to the author's heart, and get left standing, alone and isolated, occasionally gathering four comments over the space of a month as someone who was looking for something else entirely accidentally trips over this particular piece and is moved to say something about it. But the people reading N. Gaiman or J. Scalzi or C. Valente or J. Hines won't suddenly and miraculously go and shift their allegiance en masse to some other blogger out there - because they are not following the BLOG they are following the WRITERS and like I said books and writers are not interchangeable widgets. People who are left wanting Scalzi content, for instance, are hardly likely to go trawling the web looking for something else JUST LIKE IT. Not off their own bat, anyway. THey will wait for their guy to come up with something new, or they might, if they feel so moved, go and investigate some new place if someone else puts in front of them a sentence like, "Hey, go look at THIS, it's like Scalzi..." But that's not FAIR. That's serendipity, and chance, and luck. And those are publishing's building blocks, from the ground up.

When it comes to publishing and books, there are many instances where "popular=good" - and deservedly so. There are many more instances of "popular=safe bet" or "good=nah, too scared to take the chance". None of it's fair. It's the way the chips fall. And so long as THAT is true - and it will be true for as long as some are seen to have luck and acclaim and fame shoveled upon them while others have to scramble for the crumbs - there will a sort of envy that fills in the cracks and crevices, no matter how hard those clawing up from the bottom try to squash it, to rise above it, or to pretend that it doesn't exist.

No, I am not "jealous" of some other writer's massive literary success. What I get sometimes, though, is envious over the looooooooong lines I sometimes see at mass signings, people queueing patiently for an hour in order to have some human being scrawl a treasured signature between the covers of a book containing the story that they have written. Some human being very much like me. But I don't envy their abilitiy to write, or the kinds of stories that they write - I don't want to "be them". I want to be ME, writing my own stories. And some day I'd like to see a line like that waiting for me, sure.

In the meantime, I'll... keep writing. The things that I know how to write. Watch this space. Line forms to the right.
Tags: writing, writing rant
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