While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Failure Will Not Be Tolerated: Why Writers Shouldn't Be Given Any Free Passes

Yesterday I argued that novelists should be allowed to warm up in the public eye; that by publishing their promising but ultimately flawed books, it might increase the chances they will write a Mr Pip or a White Noise, and give fanbods something to search for in secondhand bookstores.


I can just as easily argue the contrary: that only the crème de la crème (to borrow a phrase from Miss Brodie) of novels should be published. In fact, there are three pretty good lines I could, and will, run.

One: Financial

Why should publishers subsidise writers who haven’t yet mastered their craft? What guarantee is there that a mid-list writer will ever break out? I would be wary of any publishing house (or agent) that accepts work that they do not believe in. The novel emerged as a commercial form pretty much from its inception - - and a popular form to boot. The worst thing we could do to the novel is remove it from the marketplace completely.

And, now that I’m well into my devil’s advocate role, what’s the role of all those writing workshops if it isn’t to get all of those amateurish, imperfect, unsellable books out of the way before a writer thinks about publishing?!?

Two: Market dilution

There are already too many books being published. Far too many to read. And some of these books, I’m sure, are responsible for turning people off reading. It’s commonly bandied around that reading a book beats immersion in any other media, but it’s not easy to write something -- to use words and words alone -- and create a believable world. One word out of place or out of character can be as damaging as the projector chewing film in the cinema.

As Douglas Coupland said:

We live in an era of genuinely diminished attention spans. I'm competing with reality TV and with shows written by 24 to 30 professionals per episode. If I have something to say, it had better be something fucking important, and it had better be said in some new and unexpected way.

[Aside: the novel he was spruiking when he said this, jPod, isn’t exactly the best example of writing, or storytelling, but I still agree with what he said.]

Three: The Writer’s Responsibility

It might have happened, somewhere, perhaps in a small town, one where tractors are still a common sight on the main street: the townsfolk ask the resident genius, “Please become a writer.” He politely declines. They pull out their pitchforks. He changes his postion.

But for everyone else: No one is forcing you to be a writer. You chose this path, knowing full well it was a difficult one. If you can’t toil away without payment or praise until your book-length manuscripts are good enough to receive payment and praise, then maybe you don’t deserve it?? Maybe this is Literature’s form of hazing new-comers? Maybe it’s the constant kicks to the abdomen that build the killer six pack, which, years down the line, will make the fanbods swoon?

The thing that I’ve noticed while trotting out my arguments for and against writing apprenticeships in the public eye is that it’s difficult, either way, not to romanticise the act of writing and the result. Perhaps this is because I’m a wannabe, currently in the kicks-to-the-abdomen-phase, who, in his weaker moments, lets his thoughts drift to the swooning fanbods stage.

[I imagine becoming a novelist is difficult for those who are immune to romanticism.]

So, to keep this on a personal level for a moment longer, what do I really think? I have submitted two novel manuscripts to publishers (NZ and Aus) and agents (UK and US). I have written portions of two more novels this year, one of which I will complete in 2008, Scouts honour. Would I like to have had one or both of my unpublished novels published at the time?

Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, there are pros and cons. As Rachel King mentioned in a comment to yesterday’s post, if your first published book bombs, no matter where you publish it, the hill is that much harder to climb the next time. But if you aren’t given the option to publish, the hill is still a daunting thing to stand before. What if I spend all this time on a new book and nothing comes of it? What if I really am just fooling myself? Very real fears, my friends. (I would worry about any writer who does not have these moments, because it would suggest they don’t care enough about readers and/or that they are a robot, and based on current technological constraints I’m sad to say robot’s do not make good writers).

Being a writer is about conquering the fear and writing. The best writing is fearless. These statements are difficult to mesh. It is a complicated game. Sometimes you don’t know you’ve won until after you’re dead (let’s not get into the metaphysical debate my poor phrasing just threw up).

With regards to me, personally, this is all moot. When I send something off to publishers and agents, I want it to be published / believe it should be published. When I stop sending it out (as happened with both "complete" manuscripts) I don’t want it to be published anymore. There’s no great theorising going on about apprenticeships and capital-L literature. When I finish something, I either believe it’s the best thing in the world and submit, or I don’t believe and know that it’s not really finished.


These arguments are for novels. Although creating a book of short stories is a difficult task, it’s a very different proposition. The key to a good short story collection is good stories. Overarching themes and interconnections between stories help sell books, so I’m told, but you can link and overarch all you want: if you’re stories suck, your book sucks. As with any form, you learn to write good short stories by writing and reading a lot of them. But the investment is not normally as big as with a novel. It’s easier to write off a short story as flawed and move on than it is with a novel. It’s easier to draft and redraft and redraft and redraft a short story than it is a novel. You can submit short stories to competitions and litmags and websites and get published, do your apprenticeship in public, so to speak, before thinking about anything as daunting as a book-length collection.

The novel and the short story are different forms; thinking of short stories as baby novels is like calling a dog a baby elephant (though they both walk on for legs, the wee one will never grow into the big one). But still, to continue my dodgy simile, if you are good at training dogs, some of the skills will be useful if you find yourself coaching an elephant football team.

1 comment:

Rachael King said...

Short answer to a long post: my argument is about novels that don't sell by the truckload, not novels of poor quality. There be a difference.