In my last newsletter, I mused about thinking the unthinkable, by which I meant self publishing. I framed this largely as a complaint about the state of the publishing industry, and its attempt to narrow rather than broaden the tastes of the reading public. But this got me questioning my own motives. What are my reasons for writing, and for seeking publication?
I think there are probably four things that writers are looking for, in some combination:
Some write for their own amusement and don’t much care who else reads their work. But for most writers, and for me, certainly, the aim is to reach an audience. This desire to share what we have seen and what we have found seems to be pretty fundamental to human beings. Children are forever bringing their parents thier latest discoveries. “Look what I found in Mr. Smith’s garden, Daddy. Can I keep it?” No sooner do we hear a juicy piece of news but we run to gossip about it to our friends. “Mary, you won’t believe what the horrid Jones kid did to Mr. Smith’s garden!” We are a storytelling species and we need an audience.
Partly this may be attention seeking. Partly it may be knowledge seeking. But I think this need to share goes deeper. I believe that art is, at its base, about the mystery of the other.
We are born into one particular skin. We see out of one particular set of eyes. We think and feel with one particular mind. And yet we know that we are surrounded by, and depend upon, others of our own kind who see and think and feel as we do. Or do they? We can never quite be sure. And sometimes they surprise us so much with their behaviour we can’t imagine what they are thinking or seeing. There is a secret part of them, something closed, something unknowable. And in that lies our loneliness, and the mystery of the other.
Art is our attempt to solve the mystery of the other. It asks, “Do you see it too? Do you feel it too? Does this move you as it moves me? Show me that I am not the only one who sees or knows or feels or cares.” The novel, in particular, addresses itself to the heart of the mystery of the other. The author creates characters unlike themselves and in so doing asks, “Did I get this right? Is this what it is like to be someone like this?” It is because it asks these questions that art requires an audience. It cannot approach the mystery of the other if no one other than the artist sees and hears it.
Audiences, for their part, seek out art because they too struggle with the mystery of the other. They listen to music, read books, look at pictures asking the same questions. They seek assurance that they are not the only one who sees or knows or feels or cares like this.
Finding an audience, therefore, is confirmation to the artist that they have, in some measure at least, approached the mystery of the other. This confirmation comes precisely because their audience comes to them seeking the same reassurance that these other people around me really do see and think and feel as I do.
As high minded as the need for an audience makes it sound, the artist is usually in it for the money as well. Or, at very least, most of them need money to live. Get a bunch of writers together in a room or an online forum and they will mostly talk about money. “What is the right price point for my book?” “Should I use a reader magnet to gain paid subscribers to my newsletter?” “Should I sell swag with deathless quotes from my manuscript emblazoned on it?” “Should I get a side hustle editing for other people.” “Should I teach?” (People who write literary fiction typically make most of their money teaching other people to write literary fiction--a kind of high-brow pyramid scheme that can only end in disappointment for most.)
Making money from art has always been difficult because, unlike, say, apples or gasoline, using art does not consume it. The same song can be played thousands of times. The same book can be lent to a dozen readers. The same painting can be viewed by millions of visitors over centuries. It is only very recently that we have had the technology that allows and requires a reader to pay for just what they read. And that is owned by Amazon.
Writers talk about money, and ways of making money, because money is a problem for writers in a way it is for few other trades. In a traditional publishing scenario, the writer only gets 10% of the price of a book. One of the biggest talking points of self publishing advocates is that the writer gets to keep more money from each sale. (Still not all of it, but more.) But, of course, that only helps if the self-published author makes as many sales as they would if they were traditionally published, which raises a whole other set of questions.
If finding an audience serves our need to solve the mystery of the other, finding money serves our equally basic need to not starve.
But it’s not just about money. There are easier ways to make money. Ditch digging. Salt mines. Rowing galleys. Licking the road clean with your tongue. These all pay more, and more reliably, than writing novels. Another important factor for many writers, and other artists, is creating and enjoying a reputation.
Again, there is nothing peculiar or specific to art about this. We all crave a certain amount of acclaim, recognition, and respect from society at large. We see this desire expressed in cups and medals, in certificates of achievement, in such small but significant things as citations in journals, seeing our name in print, or overhearing someone discussing us or our work or ideas in the corridor at a conference or on the bus. As a social species we have a deep seated need to know that we are valued by other members of our tribe, so that we will not be thrown out of the circle around the fire to freeze and starve in darkness.
I chose to use the word “reputation” here, rather than “fame,” though “fame” would have made for a punchier headline. Fame tends to be an undifferentiated property. The Kardashians are famous, largely for being famous. Vanna White is famous for turning letters around when they light up, a task that could be performed by a simple machine. Mother Teresa, Thomas Edison, William Shakespeare, and Donald Trump are all famous. But these famous figures each have different reputations, and most of them, I suspect, would not covet anyone else’s reputation but their own.
Reputation, then, is specific. Salman Rushdie and Stephen King both have reputations as writers, but they are not the same reputation. And you can enjoy a high reputation without being famous at all. Competent professionals around the world enjoy high reputations among their peers and in their local community. There are no famous dentists (at least, none spring to mind) but there are many dentists with fine reputations.
Reputations open doors. Reputations allow you into the room were the interesting conversations are taking place. But the reputation that opens one door may be the reputation that gets another door slammed in your face. Writers and artists seek reputations that open specific doors to them. (And opening those doors usually brings with it greater access to money and an audience.) A reputation cannot be entirely individual, therefore. To be useful it has to be an amalgam of the specific properties that create the key that fits the lock of the door you want to enter.
One of the most significant properties of a writer’s reputation is traditional publication. It is a property that matches a tumbler found in the locks of many doors, from bookstore shelves, to reviews, to awards and associations. You can certainly find an audience, money, and a reputation outside those rooms, but those doors will remain locked for you. Every writer has to consider what kind of reputation they want, therefore.
Some may scoff at this and say that as long as they get an audience and and income they don’t care about a reputation at all. Fair enough. But I care. I have a very specific vision of the reputation that I want as a writer. I am not sure I could express it fully in words. But I’ll know it when I have it. If I actually have the chops to get it.
The Integrity of the Work
But there are other things that matter to the writer besides finding the key to those doors. Art is, in the end, the realization of a thing seen. It is the voice reaching across the gulf between self and other asking the vital question, “Do you see it too?” For that question to actually cross the gulf, the integrity of the work is essential. The work must, in its every aspect, express the thing seen and pose the question asked. If the writer cannot forge a key that unlocks a particular door without compromising the integrity of the work, they have a choice to make.
Why wouldn’t the key made with integrity unlock the desired door, in particular that door to traditional publication, which is the antechamber for so many other doors. Sometimes it does, of course. But sometimes it does not. To begin with, publishing is a commercial enterprise and not every reader is looking for a true vision all the time. Sometimes they are not asking, “Do you see it to?” but “Wouldn’t it be nice if?” Fiction is not always about how the world is, but about how we would like it to be.
Even the writer whose work is saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if?” may find the door remains locked to them, of course. Issues of quality aside, there idea of what a nicer world would look like may not match the daydreams of the general public. Once again, the writer will have to choose between the integrity of their utopia and that of the industry and public.
This integrity between the thing seen (or wished for) and the way it is expressed may perhaps seem a grand thing. But I think it is as important in small matters as in great. The mystery of the other is pervasive. “Does a rose smell the same to me as it does to you?” This is as much part of the mystery of the other as the great questions of love, death, or marriage.
Even in the most routine of romance novels or westerns, the argument must still be either “life is like this” or “life should be like this” or what would the point be? What interest would the reader have in the work?
I suspect, therefore, that every writer, wants the expression to be true to what they have seen. A book cannot ask the essential question that the writer burns to ask if it does not capture that which is seen in its words. There must be integrity between the vision and the work, between the thing seen and the words that express it.
Few writers, I think, will expect or believe that they have done full justice to their vision. The integrity of the work will always be lacking in some way or another. And so the input of critique partners and editors can always be useful to the writer in helping them bring their expression closer to being true to their vision.
On the other hand, the input of critique partners and editors can sometimes pull in the other direction, taking the work away from its integrity to the vision. This is what happened to me during the editing process for The Rules of Trade and is the reason my publisher and I parted ways.
Of course, this does not mean that every writer who feels their integrity compromised by the demands of the industry has actually had a true vision of some significant aspect of the human experience, or that they have succeeded in expressing it in a way that will connect with a significant audience. Most will have failed in one aspect or the other. None of us can really know that we have both seen something and successfully expressed it until an audience tells us we have.
This is the reason that many people choose to self publish in one form or another. It is always possible that the next query or the next submission could find the one agent or editor who says, “I want your vision, just as it is, but let me help you express it more fully.” That is the holy grail, and one can never conclude that it does not exist. But there may well come a point where one concludes that endless questing is too long a game.
There is another way into that room. If you can’t unlock the door, you can sometimes climb through the window. Because the publishing industry, in the end, cares about selling books, and if you can find enough of an audience to boost you up to the window, you can climb into the room that way. Sticking to your vision and trying to build an audience outside the traditional publication system, therefore, can be another path that eventually leads from audience to money and reputation without sacrificing the integrity of the work. Or that is what I am hoping.
There is no easy way into these rooms. Whether you get there through the door or through the window, crossing that threshold is like climbing Everest. There is more than one way to climb it, but they are both incredibly difficult. Having been turned back at the Hillary step a few times now (or maybe I only ever really reached Camp IV?), maybe it is time to try the North Face.
New plan coming soon. Stay tuned…