"Serious writers" do not expect to become rich. Why?
Serious writers need a real job, or a spouse who has one, or generous friends or
inherited wealth or else
they expect to dramatically starve. Why?
Are we really that virtuously Marxist? Do we not WANT the money? Or do we not
think we can get it?
Let me explain what I mean by a serious writer, because "serious" isn't really
the word I want. There are
plenty of serious people out there for whom I have no sympathy. A serious writer
is a new writer, because
writers of new things are the only people that we really have to take seriously.
A writer may be hideously
serious but not really new. I can think of a number of novels, for example,
about women who have gone to
the lake to recover from the victimization of divorce and end up having renewing
sex with a water nymph,
written by very serious people, which are wholly ignorable. Of course those
people aren't getting rich
either. I guess the category I wish to address could be called avant garde,
experimental, contemporary, or
"on the edge. These words may invoke for you worlds of negative connotations.
Perhaps some of them
have been flung at you as literary slurs. I think you know what I mean, though.
I'm talking about people
who are innovative with language and theme, doing something interesting and new
with fiction, whether
that means avant-pop or postfeminism or hypertext or whatever. The poor ones.
The ones who are
struggling to get published and noticed and read.
Who is making money? Writers of genre fiction. Why is this so? Because that's
what most people like to
read. Why don't people like to read serious fiction? Why don't they like to read
what we write? Is it bad?
Is it uninteresting? Why aren't people buying it in droves? Why are these
questions never discussed among
writing groups? I think we should care about the answers. I propose that writers
should quit thinking as
isolated artists churning out tortured holy texts which aren't meant for mass
consumption. There is no
sanctity in unpopularity. I'll say right here that I think writing for the sake
of art instead of audience is
pretty much bullshit. Saying that you want to be a noble misunderstood starving
wreck of an artist is like
saying that you don't want to be popular in high school. A nice fantasy but
nobody believes you. Why not
admit that you want to be cool and loved and bought and read? If writing is a
true and worthy profession,
let's make it a profession at which one can support oneself. I think that new
writers as an industry should
analyze what is necessary to become viable, decide what must be done, and follow
that plan. It can be
Look at the music industry. I think we can compare mystery and horror writers to
pop music stars such as
Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Gloria Estefan. Now these people used to be
the rich rock stars, and
the underground "new" or "experimental" music used to be underplayed and
underpaid, published on small
record labels and played only on non-commercial college radio. Nowadays,
alternative music stations are
frequently in the 100's on the dial, and are marketed heavily in print and
television ads. Artists like Pearl
Jam and Nirvana are rich as fuck, and even the "underground" industrial and punk
acts are pulling in the
bucks like nobody's business. The Mark Amerika's and Euridice's of rock and roll
are now the making as
much money and getting as much attention as the Victoria Holts and John
Grishams. What happened?
Was it MTV? Maybe. Was it the radio? Maybe. Was it the fashion industry?
Perhaps. Whatever it was,
let's figure it out and apply the same practices and procedures to our own
careers. Why not? It can't be that
Music gets distributed on the radio, on TV, and on compact discs. Writing, to
this point, gets distributed in
books or magazines. Now we have the Internet. It's kind of like radio, in that
it's free if you have the
hardware. You don't get paid for people reading your stuff on the Internet.
Writers seem to resent this. I
don't think that musicians resent their songs getting air play on the radio. Of
course they are getting paid
for it, but that's not where their money really comes from. That's where they
get their publicity. The
money comes from CD sales and live appearances. I think that writes could use
the Internet the same way.
You're not going to publish every word you write on the web; you'll just
"release" a single. Then when
someone reads you, they'll want to own the CD equivalent - your book. They'll
want to see you live when
you do your tour. No one's going to do readings of your work on the radio. You
should be grateful that the
Internet can circulate your material to so many people. Think of it as
advertising. Think of it as air play.
Then get ready to market your real product.
Music : People listen to it over and over. They replay their favorite CD
perhaps every day for a week.
It gets stuck in people's heads. They find themselves humming it in the
Trends are set around popular musicians' attitudes, hairstyles and dress.
Writing: People read it once and then put in on the bookshelf or maybe give it
It is read to understand, not to enjoy, so people think they are done with it
when they put it down.
Trends are recorded in fiction as writers report, not create the world.
I read my favorite stories over and over. I've read some stories to the point
that I can recite bits of them.
I'm sure you're familiar with this. But can you recite things from "contemporary
fiction"? Is it Melville
and Forster you remember best? The stories you read over and over are not hard
to read. They are not
inaccessible puzzles of language that take concentration and deep thinking.
Maybe they are funny, or
maybe you like a certain character. Mostly, it's because they're easy. You like
rolling them over in your
mind. They're comfortable. Do we write comfortable fiction? Comfortable does not
equal boring or plot-
centered. I don't think anyone smart reads genre fiction over and over. Once you
find out the ending, that's
pretty much it, unless you forget the ending or you're stuck on the train in
need of entertainment. But it's
got to be entertaining the second or third time. I think maybe something that we
lost in the divorce from
plot and linear narrative is ease of reading. Now we have to struggle along with
fucked up time sequence,
characters that don't have names, and surreal landscapes. Sometimes it's a chore
to read, and once you're
done you feel finished. You don't feel like "let's go back and read that again."
I propose that what we write
should be revisit-able. It should be pleasurable to reread. When was the last
time you got a piece of fiction
"stuck in your head"?
Something that I've always noticed about "new" writing is its high "zinger"
content. There are a lot of
individual lines in these stories which really zap you, great lines that are
funny or interesting all by
themselves. They are hooky. If you know music, you know that writing a good hook
is 99% of writing a hit
song. Well, new writing is full of hooks. Often I find myself reading along
through the perhaps-boring
dream sequences just to get to those good lines that frequent the ends of
paragraphs or the transitional
apostrophed-off sections. Genre fiction doesn't have this. Genre fiction is
homogeneously bland, for the
most part, but then you're not reading for the innovative language; you're
reading for the plot.
Trends are set by movie stars, musicians, and fashion designers - the royalty of
our democratic little
colony. Why can't writers be among this highly visible and dramatic set? Well,
maybe we're shy. Get over
it. Maybe we're frumpy. Get a mini. Maybe we're too noble. Get real. It's the
way things work these days.
If you never thought of a reading as a "live performance" then maybe you should
consider that you're
competing for audience with rock bands where sweat and noise are a very
distracting variable. Don't care
to raise your voice? Don't care to put on the lipstick and hike up your skirt?
Turn on the television. Those
are the people that are taking away your audience and your attention. Wake up
and get in the game. If you
think you're an artist and a valuable contribution to our cultural consciousness
then turn up the volume on
your product. Martyrdom and noble anonymity is getting you nowhere, baby.
Lily James is co-creator, with author Susannah Breslin, of