I’ve been a professional author for 30-odd years now and I think it can be fairly said that I’ve earned a reputation as someone who stubbornly (ruthlessly?) defends my aesthetic autonomy.
With that in mind, I guess it’s understandable that I field the occasional question from other artists who find themselves wondering whether or not they have the right or strength of character to resist the suggestions and/or demands of editors, agents and fans.
I tell them:
Listen, as far as I’m concerned your inner editor should always take precedence over any external influences. It’s your name on the story or book or painting or piece of music, not someone else’s, which means you have a personal, vested interest in making sure your work is presented exactly the way you envision it. Brook no compromises or attempts to dilute the power and integrity of your project.
Editors and agents aren’t collaborators, that is a mindset that must be impressed upon them right from the get-go. You might welcome their opinions, but their input is not necessarily required and won’t be followed if it runs counter to your own thinking. I have encountered more than a few inept, dim-witted editors in the past three decades and I’ve learned to take everything they say with a grain of salt. They aren’t all bad, of course, but, truthfully, most are poor-to-mediocre, their contributions to literature existing largely in their own heads.
Agents, well, agents want to make money. That’s their primary focus and never think otherwise. They aren’t interested in developing the next DeLillo or Nabokov, they’re seeking clients who follow trends and deliver bright, shiny, commercial product. For which they will collect a tasty percentage. It’s all quite cold-blooded and transactional. Why should they hold your hand when they’re more interested in the contents of your wallet?
As for fans, who gives a shit? Your role as an artist is to frustrate expectations and short-circuit preconceptions. Your work shouldn’t reassure or offer words of comfort; if it does that you are kowtowing, truckling to popular opinion. Wrap everything up into a nice, tight bundle, adhere to formula, offer happy endings and you might as well be a ten-dollar hooker on a seedy street corner. You’re laboring on behalf of filthy lucre, rather than contributing to the legacy of creative endeavors extending back to the timeless cave paintings of Lascaux.
Art that resists imitation, that refuses to be derivative, is the work that lasts, achieving posterity because of its uniqueness, a courageous, unprecedented approach to your chosen discipline.
Why yearn for fifteen minutes of fame when you should be seeking something far more permanent and profound?
Finally, on a completely unrelated topic, let me say to those idjits who insist there are no new stories to tell, that they’ve all be told, you are out of your tiny fucking minds.
Every single minute of every single day, billions of human beings are interacting with each other, talking, engaging, sharing space, and each of these encounters represents a narrative that is distinctive and unrepeatable.
Each restorative walk you take, a trip to the bank or back fence discussion with your neighbor is a short story waiting to happen. No two individuals are exactly alike, every encounter potentially fraught with drama or humor (or, ideally, a bit of both).
Open your eyes, ears, hearts to possibility and it will find you.
Remember that the next time you’re out and about.
Turning a corner, bumping into a stranger…watch what can happen when two ancient souls meet for the first time.
Sometimes it makes for great Art.
I’ve been accused of lacking a certain amount of, well, esprit de corps when it comes to the plight of my colleagues in publishing. These are not the best of times for people in the biz: staffs are being cut, longtime employees dismissed, whole divisions lopped off in response to plunging book sales and evaporating profit margins.
But rather than commiserating with the editors and book folk who have been handed their walking papers, my reactions have been cold-blooded, remorseless and decidedly ungenerous. Why?
Try to see it from my point of view: these people have failed. They have failed to excite the reading public, they have failed to choose and promote books that appeal to the tastes of their purported readership. Their gross ineptitude has led to their bosses absorbing big financial losses and, quite understandably, looking to clean house. Honestly, why should we care if they’re called to account for their incompetence, summoned into an office and given ten minutes to collect their name plates and personalized coffee mugs and get the hell out of Dodge?
Is jetissoning them any great loss? Are they irreplaceable? Tireless advocates of excellence in literature and the power and glory of the printed word? Not in my experience.
Don’t forget, I’ve dealt with publishing types for nearly twenty-five years and I have all too frequently found myself on the receiving end of their stupidity and outright dishonesty. When I think of editors and those who serve with them as cogs in the corporate publishing mega-monster, I’m not exactly overwhelmed by warm, fuzzy feelings.
Occasionally, as I read the latest casualty rolls in some industry mouthpiece like MediaBistro’s “Galleycat” site, certain names make me perk up. ____________ and _____________ (names removed for legal reasons) were both editors at major New York publishing houses who were given the boot within a few months of each other.
The two editors treated me abominably, hanging onto my manuscripts for ungodly periods of time, refusing to respond to my communications. In desperation, I finally called one and at first the editor in question seemed genuinely contrite. “Oh, God, yes, I remember liking that one. I’ll get to you next week”. But a week passed and then a month…and when I called a second time, I was given a rude brush-off.
“I’ll get to it when I get to it, all right?”
Never heard from her again.
I’ve detailed my many odd and surreal experiences in the world of publishing in my essay “Solace of Fortitude”. Not a word of it is manufactured or exaggerated, I assure you. I only wish that were the case. (Warning: This essay not to be read on a full stomach.)
The truth is that in my quarter century as a professional author I can count the number of intelligent and thoughtful editors I’ve encountered on the fingers of one hand (sans thumb). Ditto for agents.
So why in the name of eternal, infinite God should I give a tinker’s damn if, as a species, editors cease to exist? Should I wear a black armband because the same people who have mistreated me, lied to me and denigrated my work are dangling from every lamp post in lower Manhattan? Fat chance.
To me, all this downsizing is a golden opportunity to pare away some of the dead wood that the industry has been carrying far too long. Editors and execs who have grown old, fat, stale and comfortable in their corner offices, as secure as tenured professors (and just as paranoid and senile). Insular, self-serving, fickle. Highly resistant to change. Time for some new blood, I say, new ideas and approaches.
Traditional publishing seems to be dead, so to me the obvious question that arises is: WHAT NEXT?
Clearly the corporate approach ain’t the answer. Publishing by committee, collating and analyzing spreadsheets, projected sales figures, flow charts and pie graphs. Slitting open a sheep for good measure and rooting about in its entrails for any insights that might be gleaned there. Always on the look-out for the next blockbuster, something sort of different but mainly the same. But while the big ticket scribblers like Rowling and Dan Brown may plump up the sales numbers for a few quarters, what are editors/publishers doing to grow and sustain a stable, longterm readership? Maintaining a lifetime consumer base that’s literate (something less and less important in these days of text messaging, emoticons and three line e-mails) and devoted to the printed word, unwilling to see books relegated to the status of artifacts and curios.
The way ahead lies with smaller, tightly run publishing concerns, staffed by informed, dedicated, reader-savvy men and women. Independent in spirit, offering a more diverse, iconoclastic selection of titles thanks to the wonders of print-on-demand (POD) publishing and e-book hard/software. Works which are then promoted through podcasts, blog reviews and on-line interviews, “virtual” book tours. Live “web chats”; YouTube readings and short films.
Computer technology also enables readers to connect directly with their favorite authors through personal sites, Facebook, etc., as well as allowing them to join forums devoted to writers or genres of interest. Forming a vast, far-reaching community of book-lovers and devotees, unimpeded by geographic boundaries and undeterred by small details like race, politics, gender.
The end of corporate publishing is nigh. The signs are all there. The multi-nationals are fed up with the red ink their book divisions keep hemorrhaging. First they went at the fat with scalpels, now they’re using machetes. Desperate tactics enacted by desperate people…and I suspect it won’t make one bit of difference. The die has been cast and nothing the suits do will have the slightest effect on the massive changes technology is bringing about and a paradigm shift that is part cultural, part economic and wholly beyond the control of Wall Street, Fleet Street…or anywhere else.
These are actually great times to be a writer, or, really, anyone who works and creates in the arts. Never before have we, as artists, had access to (potentially) such a vast audience, drawn from every corner of the world. And the good news is that we can acquire this access for a relatively modest investment. No longer do writers (for example) need to kowtow to the traditional gate-keepers of publishing, the editors and agents who are largely to blame for the present moribund state of the industry. Those self-appointed arbiters of taste have been rendered superfluous, shown to be incapable of identifying or developing authors gifted with originality, power and grace—the very qualities that get people excited about reading again.
It’s my personal belief that a good deal more publishing poobahs need to have their tickets punched before authors and the general reading public have any hope of being better-served. And if the end result of these lay-offs and staff reductions is better books, a wider selection and variety of formats for readers to choose from, more authors having their voices heard, I say:
HASTA LA VISTA, YOU WHITE COLLAR, SELF-REGARDING, MARTINI-GUZZLING, TOFU-EATING, FAKE-MEMOIR-SOPHIE KINSELLA-PIMPING IDJITS! AND GOOD RIDDANCE, TOO…
Pliny the Elder
It’s an ugly word, one not found in my vocabulary. Honestly, I utter it so rarely I actually had to look it up just now to find out if there was an “i” after the r or an “o”.
Got it. Commit to memory. Or…maybe not. After all, how often will I end up using it?
Some writers see bending to the will of agents or editors or the grand-all-powerful marketplace as a necessity if one wants to be a published, successful author. They see no problem letting outside parties tamper with story lines, suggest the addition or removal of characters, chapters, subplots. I read one account in Poets & Writers magazine where an author sat down to lunch with his agent, outlined a couple of different ideas for a novel and let his rep pick the one he would work on next.
My immediate and visceral reaction: what an asshole. Imagine giving someone that much influence over your writing. Now, I don’t really have a lot of hard and fast rules when it comes to my work but there are certain tenets that I live by and here are a few, strictly FYI:
1) Editors should remain unseen and unheard. They are non-entities. Spell-checkers and proof-readers and if they try to raise themselves above that lowly status, slap them down. Hard. Writing is not, repeat not a collaborative exercise. Anyone who credits an editor for saving a manuscript didn’t work hard enough on it, chickened out when the going got tough.
2) Agents have one job and one job only: protect their clients from greedhead publishers. Pitbulls when it comes to negotiating rights and contracts, pussycats when it comes to dealing with their clientele. No creative input, no vetting of manuscripts. No career advice. Here’s my completed manuscript–now it’s your job to sell it and get the best deal you can. Oh, and by the way, I expect to have final clearance over cover art and jacket copy. Make sure I get it…or you’re fired.
3) The writer is always right. There might be rare exceptions but, for the most part, the writer should know his/her work, its strengths and weaknesses, better than anyone else. Any wordsmith willing to abdicate responsibility, autonomy over a book or story, should take up flipping fucking burgers for a living. You don’t belong in our sacred guild of artisans. You ain’t good enough, strong enough…so do us all a favour and fuck off.
Now, admittedly, some authors aren’t comfortable with such a stance. Timid, insecure creatures, they need to be reassured, stroked. They’re willing to cede control of their self-esteem, their vision and integrity, as long as they have a pretty book they can show their friends and impress the proles. Their greatest dream is getting published and if that means opening themselves up to every indignity and humiliation, well, that’s part of the price they’re willing to pay.
I’ve been on-line for a couple of years now, poked about hundreds and hundreds of blogs and websites devoted to authors, established or otherwise. With very few exceptions (my friend Peter Watts being one), few scribblers take issue with the treatment accorded to writers and fewer still express the slightest antipathy toward a system designed to belittle their importance.
It’s fear, I suppose, but it’s something more than that too–an innate cowardice, a reluctance to make waves that is nothing less than craven. This fawning, milquetoast attitude I find in our little community makes me nauseous.
Other disciplines feature far more mavericks than the literary world.
How about a band like Tool, who refused to release any new albums for four years until they finally secured complete artistic freedom from their record label? I’ve already alluded to Trent Reznor, Ani DiFranco and Radiohead, musicians who tired of executives and A & R people fucking with their musical direction.
Kubrick demanded and received “final cut” throughout his career. MGM treated him with something akin to awe, enduring the lengthy hiatuses between pictures, editing suites booked for months of expensive post-production, mediocre or insignificant box office receipts…as long as he kept making films for them.
Welles wasn’t so lucky. After “Citizen Kane”, Hollywood never again granted him creative control. “Magnificent Ambersons” was butchered and rather than accept his reduced status, Welles broke away and spent the rest of his life in the wilderness, scraping together financing for films that were never made, left half-finished or suffered badly due to poor production values. There were occasional signs that his genius was undiminished–portions of “Chimes at Midnight”, “The Stranger”, even “F For Fake”.
I read an interview with Welles reprinted on the website for Senses of Cinema and, despite his frustrations, the soul-sucking necessity of expending 95% of his energies on searching for financing, he remains as defiant as ever, God bless him.
Orson was one tough sonofabitch.
But I don’t see the equivalent of these strong-willed personalities in the writing world. A willingness to break with convention, defy authority, maintain one’s independence and vision even if it costs you any chance of achieving fame and fortune.
And that says something.
After my Mediabistro rant was published, where I “burned bridges” and “committed artistic suicide”, I received a few cranky notes but I also got quite a show of support from other writers…most of whom were unwilling to go on the record with their remarks.
“Good for you”…”Glad someone’s finally taking these fuckers to task”…etc.
The point I was trying to make was that you can tell editors, agents and publishers to take a flying fuck at a rolling hand grenade and it doesn’t mean the end of the world. Thanks to the burgeoning indie movement that the new technologies are facilitating, authors can achieve a decent readership, gain fans and followers around the world and not have to jump through hoops to do it. The balance of power is shifting, the old edifice is crumbling. POD means “print on demand” but also “piss on dickheads”.
Dickhead editors. Dickhead agents. Dickhead publishers.
Poets and writers: your readers are out there, waiting for you. Take my word for it. Seize control of your career, refuse to cater and kowtow to people who move their lips when they read and have the social skills of a badger with mange.
Friends, colleagues, fellow wordsmiths: the revolution starts NOW.
Coming soon: So Dark the Night (the podcast).
That’s right, Sherron and I have been spending long hours up in my office, figuring out the software, doing sample recordings, trying out theme music. We’re laying down the tracks, baby, getting ready to release a full-length, unabridged audio version of the best occult thriller around.
Keep watching this space…