Do we spend too much trying to write well when people might not even read it? Does it even matter what the quality is when success is based on the market and advertising equations? Shouldn’t we tweeting instead of writing? Or do some of us spend too much online talking about being writers and not actually writing?
Some questions and issues were thrown open by Conner O’Brien on Killings yesterday in his post, Step one: Learn how to write. Step two … ? He argues that it doesn’t so much matter how good your writing is, so much as can it be sold to a market, and one way to do that is to build an audience online, ditch the publishers and do it yourself. There’s also a bit of discussion in the comments section worth reading and possibly contributing too, such as the always insightful Emmett Stinson’s point that most writers don’t earn a living from writing, even if you write for the market.
There are a few points though that I’d like to draw out.
Writing quality or for the market?
I think there is truth to the idea that literature and books under capitalism are subject to the market. Publishers make economic decisions about what to publish. Everything is a commodity, which is a reality that we need to face, but it also something worth stating is a problem. I don’t like that anything at all produced under capitalism is done because it makes money, not because it’s useful to society or not, but especially art. It seems absurd that something of high quality could be rejected simply because it won’t appeal to a wide audience. That is why O’Brien and others argue that you need to build your own audience and go it alone catering to a niche rather than writing just to appease the widest possible audience.
Though at the same time, I’d distance myself from the kind of argument that blames how uncultured the mass of people are. Those attacks always stink of elitism. The point to make would be that if art (or anything) wasn’t subject to laws of profitability, and ideas such as producing things to suit as many people as possible weren’t so prevalent, we could conceivably cater for a whole variety of tastes.
Should we spend more time building an audience online?
It shouldn’t surprise you that I’m sympathetic to the argument of building an audience online and building a name for yourself. I started a website, later this blog, and my Twitter account, in order to get my name out there, build a profile, find people interested in my writing and to network with other writers. It’s been a lot of fun, I’ve had some success with it, and I’d certainly encourage emerging writers to blog, tweet and mix with other writers.
But my problem isn’t that people are not doing this, it’s that I think writers can be sucked into doing it too much. And I’m totally guilty as charged.
My one line of defence is that most of the time the excessive amount of time I spend blogging, tweeting and Facebooking is time that I probably can’t write anyway. Fiction writing, for me, requires the kind of solid attention that the time tweeting at work can’t provide. Of course, I do it at home too but not nearly as much.
But there can be some weeks where I’ve blogged about being a writer, moaned about rejections on Twitter and identified as a writer online whilst having written not one word of fiction in that week. Sure, you don’t have to write all the time but I think I (and others) have a tendency to talk more about being a writer than actually producing words.
So the problem for me is that I can be building myself to a level where I have an audience, a profile, where people know my name, want to read my work, but my work isn’t at the quality yet that meets that profile, or any standard. There can be a pressure that you should have things out in the world by now because people might recognise you – but you just blush and admit you’re still piling up rejections or have most of your decent work languishing on your hard drive because, whilst you might have blogged every day that week, you didn’t put aside time to do any editing.
I think it can lead to impatience as Toothsoup points out responding to some of the issues around my self-published eBook. You have a profile so you want to get something out there, when really you need to realise you’re not quite there yet.
And yes, it is ironic that I am spending my afternoon constructing a response that says we spend too much time online talking about writing instead of writing.
I guess if my Facebook profile indicated I was in some kind of relationship with the trolls guarding the bridge to publishing goodness, it would read: ‘it’s complicated.’ I think I hate that there is a need for gatekeepers, but am cautious about defying them or ignoring them. As I pointed out above, publishers are often more concerned with publishing something that has an audience than something of quality – and so that and numerous other reasons can judge whether or not you get a ticket through the gate and your work reaches anyone.
The idea of building your own audience is based on a desire to bypass those gatekeepers and digging out your own niche, finding even just a minority of people who want to read your stuff, profit margins be damned. I like the idea and as with my eBook (now offline) I’ve tried to do it before and am thinking of trying it again, but much further down the track after I actually spend some more time writing, editing and honing my craft. I’m sympathetic to the idea of going it alone because ‘Marxist horror’ isn’t really something I feel would appeal to the mass market, much like Marxist ideas at this point in history aren’t the most popular, and even most horror doesn’t reach a mass audience.
But the thing that always gets me is how do you differentiate between being rejected by the holy gatekeepers because it doesn’t fit a mass market or because it’s just crap (I have a distinct feeling as I ask this that I might have asked it before, perhaps several times). How do you know your work meets a certain standard that means you can just go it alone? It makes me feel that, at least for now, I need some kind of tick of approval from a gatekeeper.
I don’t think that us as writers necessarily do spend too much time learning how to write well. Then again, O’Brien refers to those studying writing at university, which I haven’t done, but the online environment is often a way new writers try to learn about the craft as well, to good and bad ends. I feel like I still have a lot to learn about writing before I can decide whether or not to use an audience I’ve built to go it alone and try other methods other than through the channels provided by gatekeepers. And I could do with spending more time doing that than writing long blog posts addressing these concerns.
* One point of clarification I’d like to make is on publishers and their motives. I realise that a lot of publishers and editors do love books, do judge quality and not every decision is based on the laws of the market. I think this applies more so to small press and independent publishers than the big houses. It is more a general point that publishing like most industry is subject to the need to stay afloat and make some sort of money, even if they do run at a loss for a while. Even self-publishing can’t escape the laws of capitalist economics in the end.