Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Writer of the Future


I think it’s becoming obvious—and I have read similar thoughts on other blogs—that the model for literary success no longer lies in the writer/agent/editor combo, where the agent recognizes the author’s genius, takes him under his wing and finds a benevolent editor to nurture his latent talent.  If this model ever really did exist, it is long gone now, and replaced by the one-man-band.  These days, if a writer hopes to be successful, he must do it all—the marketing, the advertising, the business planning, the networking, the artwork—which does not account for the fact that creative people tend to not be very good at those things.
I don’t see myself fitting in.
I make no secret of the fact that I am a poor marketer and self-promoter.  Much of this (more than I like to admit) has to do with laziness, both the physical “I can’t be arsed” type and the mental “Okay, now I’ll brainstorm 100 new marketing ideas before lunch” type.  A lot more of it has to do with a lack of ability, meaning that, when I do attempt to brainstorm 100 new marketing ideas (or even 10) I generally come up empty.  But ultimately, what keeps me from connecting with my inner huckster is a fear that I will end up looking like…well, a hunkster.
Is it, therefore, up to the people who have marketing in their blood, who possess the soul of a salesman and can exude unflagging sincerity for their product to fill the shoes of Hemmingway, Woolf and Wolfe.  Will the new literary stars be like Stephen King—laboring in obscurity until their audience discovers them, and then being surprised and slightly embarrassed by their success?  Or will they be more like Ed Wood on the set of Plan Nine From Outer Space—genuinely, enthusiastically and evangelically convinced of their own genius?
If writing success becomes the territory of those who excel at marketing, not those who are good at writing, are we doomed to a future of mediocre books?  I can openly point to John Locke, because he openly admits his books aren’t great; they are serviceable, they fill a purpose, he sells ‘em cheap and often.  He understands he is a salesman, not a writer.  But others are not so honest with themselves.  There are a few writers I follow, not for their books, but because I am awestruck by their marketing.  These aren’t the heavy hitters, but they have each built an impressive soapbox and wield an effective megaphone, and they preach with zeal and infections confidence.  There is much to be learned from people like that about marketing and getting your message to as many people as possible.  But, alas, they have little to teach about writing because their books are uniformly bad.  In one instance, a sample of the very first chapter left me with my mouth literally hanging open at its awfulness.
Is this what we have to look forward to: bad books shilled by good marketers who happen to have the perseverance to string 90,000 words together?
Some pundits maintain the market will self-edit, that good writing will find its audience, but I am less optimistic.  If I buy a Kindle and download a couple dozen 99-cent self-published books based on the glowing reviews the authors gave themselves, and each and every one of them is total tosh, I’m just going to stop buying self-published books.  Sure, you can find a gem in a small pile of manure, but this is a massive cesspit we’re talking about; it’s not a case of quality floating to the top, it’s finding a needle in a haystack.  Because of this, people are going to eat a lot of straw (we’ll keep the metaphor firmly on the haystack here, oaky?) and the few needles are going to remain undiscovered.
This isn’t a future I’d like to see.  Our only hope is that a new breed of writer—one equally at home in a boardroom or a garret, who can nurture their own talent while being honest with themselves, command respect, remain empathetic and balance the books at the end of the day—arrives on the scene.  This new writer will need to be versatile, multi-competent and a multi-tasker.  Does this mean, then, that the future of writing belongs to women?
That may be better than the alternative, but I still don’t see myself fitting in.

Monday, September 05, 2011

What About the Writers


I am very fortunate to live in a town that pays a lot of attention to its artistic community.  There is a folk club, music festivals, festivals for dance and an annual art exhibition, all of which feature local talent.  Just yesterday, at the music festival, there were six stages set up around the town and at least six acts scheduled for each stage throughout the day.  That’s a lot of exposure for a lot of bands.  And the day of dance shakes loose more Morris Men, Morris Women, Irish dancers and Cloggers than I knew existed.
But what about the writers?
Sussex has a grand and long-standing literary tradition, from William Blake, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Percy Bysshe Shelley to Rudyard Kipling, A A Milne and Virginia Woolf right up to today’s Tom Bale and Peter James.  Yet there is never any sort of recognition or outlet for local writers.
I suppose I shouldn’t find that strange; writing is such a solitary occupation it would be difficult to collect enough of us together to make an event.  And then what would we do?  The bands had no problem drawing and entertaining a crowd, but a group of people jotting in notebooks or discussing the relative merits of adverbs isn’t exactly going to get anyone’s feet tapping.
I’ve often thought, when things are going slow, that I should take a small table and folding chair out to the high street and sit amid the rest of the buskers, typing away into my laptop, next to a sign reading, “Writing as Performance Art,” or something equally enigmatic.  It probably wouldn’t earn me a lot of money, but at least it would provide a change of scenery without obligating me to drink the coffee at Starbucks.
An option—an actual, viable option—that keeps poking its nose into my mind is that of a writer’s group, either joining or starting one.  It seems a great idea, until I start thinking it through; then I feel I’d rather get the table and folding chair out and sit on the high street.
I did, once, long ago, try joining a local writers group.  It was in a town about 18 miles away so it wasn’t exactly local, and although I attended three meetings, I cannot honestly recall anyone actually saying anything to me.  Mostly, it seemed like a mutual admiration society whose purpose was to ooh and ah over the samples people read; there seemed to be no real critical analysis, no helping people become better writers and, most importantly, no social interaction, so I stopped going.  When I checked their web site a year or two later I found they had formed their own publishing company and had set about publishing each other’s stuff.
This experience didn’t encourage me to try again elsewhere.  Lately, however, I have to admit that I am becoming a little tired of tapping away in my garret all by myself (okay, it’s really my living room, but you get my point).  It would be nice, just once in s awhile, to chat with some other people who “get” it, who know what it’s like and suffer the same frustrations and triumphs and setbacks that I do.
There is a nice pub not far from my flat with a beamed ceiling and an inglenook fireplace; it seems the perfect place for a group of writers to gather on an autumn evening to sit beside the fire with pints of ale and talk about their latest work, or read a few pages or just sit and enjoy the company.
I could do it; I could post a notice on the community bulletin board and take an ad in the free newspaper and then go down there on the appoint evening.  But I know that prying other writers out of their respective garrets would be a difficult task, and I would probably end up sitting there alone.  Just me, a pint of ale, a warming fire and my laptop.
Actually, that really wouldn’t be so bad; it would be a great opportunity to get some writing done.