You know, it’s very easy to get disillusioned. (And I speak as someone who—all things considered, and in spite of my overwhelmingly cynical and occasionally apparently unforgiving demeanour—takes a lot of disillusioning.) The world we live in is packed to the brim with highly worthy individuals struggling to work their way up whichever particular occupational ladder they find themselves on, through accident of birth or academic qualification. And each and every one of them, I’m quite sure, has encountered numerous superior “types” barely qualified to make the office coffee. (And I’m not talking the kind of fancy coffee that none of us had heard of ten years ago—simple Nescafe instant would be enough of a struggle.)
It’s a problem. In the climate we today inhabit, the world and his brother, sister, bastard nephew and dribbling boss-eyed cousin knows better than we, the people who, like, you know, do this shit. At least, to hear them talk.
And this is especially true in publishing. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t one of those bridge burning moments. I’m not, truth be known, all that convinced I have any bridges left to burn in this regard. I do, however, aspire to have such bridges. I, like many other authors, yearn for the day when I can quietly sip my Laphroaig knowing that I have a nice three book deal with one of the big boys. But, whatever the outcome, certain things need to be said—certain truths need to be explored. So I thought … you know … why the fuck not?
I’m fallible. (That blindsided you, didn’t it? I know … I know—I kind of caught myself off guard with that one, but it’s true … no, really.) I’ve spent something like twenty-seven years developing my novel-writing ability, and have been writing far longer than that. From the age of twenty I’ve written more novels than I care to count (though I estimate it as somewhere in the region of twenty-five, with abandoned projects and screenplays on the side). I started off getting comments from agents that made it very clear I didn’t have the slightest idea of what writing a novel entailed—but within three or four novels I was receiving rejections that included phrases such as “well-written” and “challenging”. It became very clear very early on that this was not a mystical process but, rather, a learning process. And I learned, because of my love of fiction, very quickly. Nonetheless, I’ve never considered myself a writer working in isolation—someone, even now, who has perfected his art. It’s a perpetual process that is continually in need of input.
But this input has to come from the right people—and, increasingly, I find my vast experience (and as fallible as I am, I’m not quite stupid enough to deny my own hard-earned credentials) completely disregarded, often by people fresh out of Uni with very little understanding of the world I grew up in. Now, I know some of you may already be balking at this, but it is a very real problem: I’m coming up to 47 and, while I would certainly not suggest that people half my age could never begin to grasp the issues I prefer to address (they are, after all, often exceedingly universal), it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the weighting of the subject matter, the way it is presented, is in many regards not always as the industry first-contacts these days would prefer.
Now, I’m very aware that this may sound like one of those bitching author posts. “Oh, he’s been rejected again.” But this is how it is: I’ve been rejected by, and in one or two instances, briefly worked with (admittedly in the loosest possible sense), people who have worked with authors ranging from Updike to Fleming. I’ve also had the good fortune to be surrounded by very talented authors for decades. Consequently, I’m very aware of my failings as an author. I am also pretty well acquainted with my strengths—and, increasingly, I find that the very things I value in my own writing and in the writing of others are consistently and casually devalued by those I encounter in the industry. (I think it’s also extremely important to stress at this point that readers I speak to also find this as baffling and frustrating as I.)
That there is a focus on profit, of course, goes without saying. And quite understandably. Serious fiction is, quite often, unprofitable. Even well-written genre fiction, if it isn’t by an established name, can be a tough sell. And of course those in the industry are going to focus on the more marketable titles (the clue is in the word “industry”). But does this then mean that those rejecting 21st-century authors are presenting a fair assessment of the quality of the work being submitted?
Well, of course, in many instances it does. That dross is written today is as true as it ever was—more so, if anything, given that since the advent of word processing software etc all those years ago just about everyone is writing a novel. But it’s equally true that there is much fiction being written that will never fit the actually rather limited requirements of mainstream publishing today. I could bang on about Proust until I’m blue in the face, and once again extol the virtues of the new publishing paradigm represented by micro publishing, indie publishing, self publishing et cetera. But, instead, let me just state it very clearly: much incredible fiction is today being written that mainstream publishing will never touch and the new publishing paradigm is only rarely a solution to this problem.
A depressing conclusion, I know—and there are, it has to be said, countless exceptions (though these still only make up an exceedingly small minority). Nonetheless, it is becoming increasingly obvious that 21st-century authors are faced with considerable obstacles and numerous decisions. At the forefront of all this, however, is one question that has predominated all my writing “life”: why do you write?
If your primary consideration is one of profit, then I would suggest you try some other occupation. Using Amazon Kindle to push free copies of your work just might generate some interest—but, in my experience, this will lead to little more than Kindle number-lovers adding you to their endless list of freely-acquired Kindle books, Kindle books that they might get round to reading eventually. That there is the potential to generate profit from this is unquestionable; it is, however, statistically unlikely, given the sheer numbers involved and the increasingly devalued appreciation of quality. I’m not saying don’t give work away; I’m just saying be selective.
But should we, as authors, be thinking purely in terms of profit? Obviously, no. While we do have to have an awareness of our value as authors, it seems pretty basic to me that this should not be, can not be, the driving factor: if you do not love what you are doing for the sake of it, then shame on you. … And this is where I find myself retracing my thematic footsteps to my earlier comments regarding “input”: if you’ve reached the point where, like many of us, you’ve realised that many in the industry have a very different focus, are not, in some instances, even aware of the possibility of other focuses … does this not actually present a considerable opportunity? Put the numbers to one side. Forget, for a moment, that pressure to sell—and, instead, concentrate on writing what you want to write. In the past I’ve read criticism of my work—The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, for example, being described as “disturbing”—and been baffled by the responses (if the aforementioned novel were not “disturbing”, to make my point, there would either be something wrong with me as a writer or something wrong with the reader). The vast majority “get” this. That there are points worthy of discussion, readers disagreeing on certain story elements, is something else entirely: such a basic lack of understanding of what fiction aims to accomplish, an at times overwhelming disregard for the fact that sometimes fiction is intended to annoy, disturb, upset, disgust, challenge, confuse and demand reveals that we, as authors, have to grasp that a substantial part of what we do is learning who to trust.
It’s important that we are open to feedback, that we understand the value of criticism. It is, however, equally important that we, once we have paid our dues, are aware of our own strengths, and our individual experiences. We have to learn to value our own abilities, and feel less reticent about questioning the opinions of those who have never in their lives written a novel (and, in many cases, haven’t read anywhere near the number of novels we ourselves have).
That some may not enjoy what I write is inevitable and natural. I’d be worried if this were not the case (I guess). But whatever particular individual’s view of my work, I have now reached the point where I can quite confidently state that there is absolutely nothing accidental about it (the occasional typo aside!). I know what I’m doing; if a particular reader does not take from it what I had hoped, then, just maybe, that isn’t my failing.
My job, as I see it, and whatever the requirements of 21st-century mainstream publishing, is to demand something of my reader. Blessedly, the majority seem to be up to the task (though, alas, they are not always those at the forefront of the “industry”).
Available on October 5—The Legacy of Lorna Lovelost. Read your free sample chapters here!