Zestful Blog Post #256
My friend Jane Friedman, publishing expert and digital-industry thought leader, has just come out with a new book, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press). It’s packed with useful stuff for aspiring authors as well as experienced ones. Reading through the galley she sent me, I was struck by this short passage in the first chapter:
[excerpt begins] …I’ve witnessed many writers hit their heads against the wall trying to publish or gain acclaim for a particular type of work, even as they succeed wildly with something else— that they don’t think is prestigious or important enough. Getting caught up in prestige is perhaps one of the most destructive inclinations of all. Paul Graham has written elegantly on this, comparing prestige to a “powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Avoiding this trap is easier said than done. Most of us live under the weight of expectations put upon us by parents, teachers, peers, and the larger community. Breaking free of their opinions can be liberating, but what others think of us also contributes to how we form our identities. It’s not a problem you can solve as much as acknowledge and manage. Still, if you can at least let go of the many myths about writing, and pursue what you truly enjoy with as much as excellence as possible, you can shape a writing life that is not only uniquely your own, but one that has a better chance of becoming a lifelong career. [excerpt ends]
Wise words. They instantly made me think of one of my literary heroes, Arthur Conan Doyle, enduringly famous for his Sherlock Holmes stories. Besides those stories, perhaps you are familiar with his novel The Tragedy of the Korosko. No? Well then, maybe you’ve read Uncle Bernac. Hm, no? That’s because nobody has. They were heavy-duty historical tomes which, although published, just didn’t get popular. Not much then, not at all now. But the Holmes stories struck a deep chord with readers. That didn’t please Doyle! He resented that readers liked his gripping mystery tales over the important stuff about Uncle Bernac, whoever the hell he was. So he killed off Holmes at the end of “The Final Problem.” The public outcry was such that he had to bring him back (“The Hound of the Baskervilles”).
Many of us can relate to this. My own fiction is mostly mystery- and crime-type stuff. When I look at big famous literary authors, sometimes I think, well, I should be doing more so-called literary work. Literary work is defined as having literary merit, and a lot of that consists of social commentary. Hypocrisy is bad—see, I’ve written a novel that shows it. War is bad—see, I’ve written a novel that shows it. Mean people suck—see, I’ve written a novel that shows it. Gimme my Pulitzer. Funny how literary fiction so often likes to show us the correct moral path. Which is preaching. Which, unless the author has real humility and skill, gets pukey fast.
If you can reach readers with a good story that’s well told, while being fully yourself as you write, and having fun along the way—well, isn’t that ideal? If you’re fully yourself, your writing will feature the things you cherish, which just might include issues like right vs. wrong. The only difference is, you won’t be in your readers’ faces, telling them how to think. Far less risk of pukiness. Far more chance of success.
Get hold of Jane’s book for more wisdom and solid advice on building a writing career. If you like it, be sure to put up a review, OK? I’ll be putting one up soon myself.
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