Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jaundiced vision

Last night I heard one writer talking about another writer. I'll call the writers Lila and Anne.

Anne was celebrating a three book deal, her first, and I heard Lila call Anne a liar. She didn't say it directly to Anne but to three other writers sitting with her at the meeting. But when Lila saw a copy of Anne's contract she couldn't deny the truth.

"It was nothing but luck but luck won't finish those books." One of the other writers asked Lila why she was so negative. "I know her," Lila said. "She is a hack. I could do better. I should be the one writing those books."

One of Lila's friends reminded her that she didn't have the contacts or the experience to write the books. All it took was one look from Lila to silence her friend who should have known better than to question Lila's judgment. Lila forced a laugh and patted the friend's hand. "I was just joking," she said. Her friends smiled weakly and changed the subject.

It wasn't enough to call Anne a liar. Lila had to let everyone know she was the better writer. The fact that Lila hasn't written or sold anything since her first book three years ago wasn't mentioned. It's not something Lila wanted to hear and her friends, uncomfortable as they were with Lila's comments, know better than to cross Lila.

Lila belongs to a lot of clubs and writing associations. She's active in the writing community. She's an organizer, and a good one, using her charm and skills to draw other people in and get them involved, but few people really know what she's really like. They know her public face, not her private face. They would be surprised to hear how Lila talks about them when they're not around or how she criticizes their work and writing choices. Lila is no different than a million other writers who believe their kind of writing and minimal to moderate success is the only success. It's nothing new.

Journalists see fiction writers as hacks pandering to consumers and publishers to create the dregs of writing: romance, mystery, thriller, fantasy, science fiction . . . every genre of fiction. Journalists stick to the facts and few would be willing to admit that since Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood and turned hard journalism on its head to create a new kind of journalism that combines the tools of literary fiction in bringing the facts to life, journalism isn't what it used to be. Journalists will grudgingly admit to the dream of retiring or taking time off to write the Great American Novel, but that's as far as they go. The club journalists belong to is exclusive and doesn't admit the hacks, even though there are plenty of journalistic hacks in the ranks more interested with fame and Pulitzers than of keeping the public informed of the truth.

Authors of literary fiction look down on genre writers and within the ranks of genre writers mystery writers and writers of thrillers look down on romance authors and they all look down on science fiction and fantasy authors -- or did once upon a time before the lines between the genres blurred and genres mixed, adding romance to science fiction and fantasy and fantastical elements to mystery and thrillers and vice versa. Nonfiction writers give the cold shoulder to fiction writers and so it goes.

When it comes right down to where the rubber meets the road, humans are social animals, creating clubs and associations and organizations that are supposed to bring people together and end up serving to keep people out. After all, a club can't be exclusive if everyone is allowed to join, defeats the purpose of being exclusive. And people respond by either creating their own exclusive clubs that exclude the people who excluded them or seek legal means to force their way in. It has always been this way and it will likely always be this way as long as people see everyone else as rivals or less than they are.

A writing teacher once told me that getting published is 90% luck and 10% talent. He was right. What he failed to mention is that writing is also about hard work. The words may come easily, editing could be a breeze or merely going through the motions, but none of that matters if a writer sits on the writing or doesn't move far from their comfort zone to try something new, to keep growing and changing and evolving. Some writers, like Harper Lee, only need to write one book to be wealthy and famous for the rest of their lives. Those writers are rare. Most writers keep plugging away and failing, becoming famous after they die and someone find their work and realizes they have lost a gem -- John Kennedy Toole comes to mind. Some writers stay in their comfortable niche, happy to write what they like and what works for them -- something they can phone in and still be brilliant -- or nearly brilliant. Other writers fail and never write anything else or sit on the sidelines, smug and satisfied that they at least got one or two contracts and their books are on the shelves with their name on the spine; they never write anything else or spend so much time organizing and criticizing that they feel they don't need to prove themselves or keep company with writers who are less talented or just luckier.

Harper Lee wrote another book but it was, by all reports, awful and she never wrote another, hiding behind her one success. Truman Capote wrote several successful books but then fell into a life of drugs and booze and rarely wrote anything good, demoralized because his cousin Harper Lee was more successful than he was and despite his success with In Cold Blood. He felt he had failed. The critics couldn't praise his work enough because he felt he was a failure. He fell into a comfortable niche and never came out again, never challenged the boundaries or tried another path.

It doesn't matter if a writer or poet puts their work into trunks in the attic and is discovered after her death or writes only news articles or book reviews or recipes or whatever they choose; they are still writers and poets. If the only success they ever taste is finishing a book or fifty stories or being published in anthologies or literary journals or on the pages of national papers and magazines, they are still writers and as such are worthy of recognition and respect. If a writer manages one contract for one book with the help of a friend, he's a writer. If you write for your own amusement or for your children or for publication, you're a writer and deserve to be recognized and respected. You belong to the club of writers and poets, no matter whether you write fiction or nonfiction, and it is an exclusive club. Good thing the club of readers is more forgiving and will allow writers and poets to join. One is not better than the other; both clubs are symbiotic. Writers need readers and readers need something to read, and everyone is a critic and some critics are published.

What Lila forgets is that Anne has worked hard for her success even though it seems like she has been standing still. Yes, she was lucky to land the contract and to be finally recognized for the excellent writer she is. Lila's criticism has less to do with Anne's abilities or talents or luck and more to do with Lila's fear that the sleeper has awakened and she is about to be eclipsed. She needn't worry because Anne knows she's lucky and she also knows how much hard work has gone into making her reputation for good, solid writing and clear, evocative prose. It has been a long hard climb up the ladder for Anne and she stumbled and stopped along the way, but she deserves her success. It's too bad Lila can't see that with her jaundiced vision.

Every writer feels a little jealousy at someone else's success, especially if it seems the success is unearned. That's only human. But to hang on to the jealousy reeks of sour grapes and bad sportsmanship. The cure is simple. Take a moment to feel the jealousy completely and then go over and congratulate your rival. After that, get back to work and use your rival's success as a reminder that publishers are still willing to buy good work (yours if you work hard) and there's plenty of luck -- and publishers -- left to go around.

Unfortunately, Lila is like too many writers who have tasted a little success and realize that it may be all they will ever have no matter how hard they try because, like my Gram always said, her eyes are bigger than her stomach. Personally, I wish both Lila and Anne well, as I wish all writers -- successful and struggling -- well. After all, we all need a pat on the back once in a while.

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