Monday, September 18, 2017

Adapting to Chaos

A post by Mary Fan
Every writer and aspiring writer has, at some point or another, seen some inspiring article/meme about the humble origins of successful authors—tallying up the rejections received for famous books, describing how these authors had to slum it before being showered with riches, etc. They’re meant to encourage: “Hey, even [famous author] struggled, but look how awesome things turned out! You can do it too!” Lots of successful authors add to this sea of inspo by humblebragging about their journeys, “10 years ago, I was poor and depressed. Look at me now! I’m a New York Times bestseller with a movie deal! Yay me! If you work hard, you can be me too!”

While well-intentioned, these inspiration stories have… something of a dark side. Underneath them all, there’s an unspoken message: “If you’re good, you’ll get discovered.” And underneath that, there’s the flip side: “If you’re not getting discovered, you’re no good.” The latter thought is an insidious demon that crawls into your subconscious after reading story upon story of relentless authors who find success and wondering why, even when you’ve done everything they’ve done, you still haven’t reached their level of success/fame/whatever.

We like to believe that publishing is a meritocracy where talent is discovered and the cream rises to the top, but the fact is, any creative enterprise is bound to be highly subjective. Which means it’s also highly chaotic. Random. Who decides what’s good? Who decides what’s worthy?

While there’s certainly a baseline of work every writer needs to do – learning the basics of storytelling etc., whether through courses or by reading a lot – publishing is ultimately one giant game of chance. You can do everything right and still wind up with no deal. Last week, writer Anjali Enjeti wrote about her own publishing woes in The Atlantic (“Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After 10 Years”). Now here was a writer who did it all – attended conferences, got an MFA, etc. And her talent was recognized – she twice landed agents, and her articles have been featured in prestigious publications. Yet no publisher would pick up her books.

Suffice it to say, her story is thoroughly depressing for most writers. Yet, I found it weirdly reassuring, since it said to me, “If your books aren’t selling, it’s not necessarily because they aren’t good.” It reminded me that being “good” and being “successful” are two different things (what is “successful” anyway?). And by the end of the article, Enjeti has made peace with herself, accepting the randomness and finding balance.

I suspect that her story is far, far more common than those of the J.K. Rowlingses. And it needs to be told more, and by more people. Even though it’s not fashionable to talk about one’s lack of success (particularly since it draws a spotlight to said lacking). But it demonstrates just how chaotic the publishing process is, how little relationship there is between merit and reward. Some people crank out their first novel in a few weeks just for the heck of it, then land a publishing deal right away and find themselves on bestseller lists. Others spend years and years on a novel, conscientiously crafting a thing of beauty, and yet it never sees the light of day. Two authors with similar books published at similar times can put in the same amount of marketing effort, yet one will go viral and the other will languish in obscurity. There is no fairness in any of it.

What can we do but adapt to the chaos? Accept the randomness of publishing as part of the deal we made with our muses when we decided to become writers. Know that apart from the writing of the book itself, almost nothing is in your control. Some people will find that discouraging. Personally, I find it comforting.

It's fun to fantasize about one day getting to humblebrag on social media about how "X years ago, I had all these rejections, but look at me now! I'm a fabulous bestseller!" But what if that day never comes? Does that mean you were never good enough to deserve what those other writers have? I don't think so. Randomness is a powerful force, after all. As for whether all that work was worth it... well, that depends on your own definition of worth.


Brenda St John Brown said...

Such a great post and so very true! I think measuring "success" as a writer is so difficult b/c it's tied up in expectations. And then you get to the question of whose expectations, exactly? And who said you had to meet them anyway? But then what if you want to? Is that "selling out"? Because that's a whole different argument...writing commercially successful fiction isn't well-regarded in some circles, and if those are the circles you spend time in...It makes my head spin, but I've spent so much time thinking about everything you've said here. Just, obviously, my thoughts are not nearly as eloquent. :)

Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

Excellent post, Mary. I think the best part of publishing today is that we can choose to publish ourselves and (I hate using this quote) "let the free market decide." I think writers need to define what legitimacy is to them. Do they feel legitimized by a trad deal? Or are they content with a fanbase of their own making?

Mary Fan said...

Thanks for reading! And yup - everyone has different definitions of success

Mary Fan said...

Yes, exactly!

Cheryl Oreglia said...

Mary, this is such an important post. Thank you. Writing is such a isolating activity and you never know how a piece will be received, if your novel will be picked up, or your blog noticed. I thought by now I would have accomplished so much more with my writing but I'm kind of floating in the same place. I appreciate your argument, sort of gives me the nudge to keep going, if only for the love of writing.

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