Monday, July 02, 2012

Authors, Then and Now

A recent discussion thread got me thinking about the differences between writers' aspirations, and self-images, before and after the advent of e-books.

I started writing fiction in earnest in the late 1980s. Print still ruled, and that meant a formidable uphill battle for any unknown scribbler seeking to get her work in readers' hands. For starters, few houses accepted unagented submissions. Finding a place under an agent's wing was an epic hassle in and of itself -- one that could go on for months and yield nothing. Then, if a writer was lucky enough to secure representation, her manuscript was "shopped around" to different editors -- another process that took months and usually resulted in a string of rejections.

So, just trying to get a book published could be a years-long ordeal that taxed a writer's patience and battered his ego. And it only infrequently paid off. One of the most famous anecdotes in literary history has to do with John Kennedy Toole and his 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. The book wasn't published until eleven years after the author's suicide. In fact, it wouldn't have been published at all if not for the stubborn persistence of Toole's mother, who submitted the manuscript relentlessly, weathered a number of rejections, and finally dogged author Walker Percy until he agreed to read it.

So what's the point of this ramble? Getting published was no cake-walk in the print era. It was a trial by fire. Mere desire wouldn't net a contract. Belief in oneself wouldn't do it either. (Toole certainly believed in himself; he thought his novel was a work of genius. But that didn't keep Simon and Schuster from tossing it back at him.) There were far more failed attempts than successful ones. FAR more. For most aspiring authors, the experience was profoundly humbling, even depressing. It was for me. I quit writing for a decade because of my inability to make any headway.

Now, with the growth of e-publishing and particularly self-publishing, anybody who pens a story simply takes it for granted that story will have an audience. And why not? It's easy-peasy to put one's work before the public. There are few remaining gatekeepers.

However, one of the unfortunate results of such ease is a bumper crop of immature writers with inflated egos and a belief their talent is unimpeachable. An almost childlike and certainly amateurish sense of entitlement seems to have taken hold of electronic-age scribes, many of whom equate publication with a confirmation of their brilliance. Any praise, no matter how unqualified the source (a doting partner, a few members of a fandom, a first-time, eager-to-please beta reader), only bolsters this delusion. I believe that's why there's so much flailing and teeth-gnashing over critical reviews and so much chest-pounding and trumpet-blowing over laudatory ones. Many current writers have precious little perspective. They aren't forced to take stock of their ability, continually reevaluate their output, and learn by trial and error. They haven't been humbled by multiple turn-downs and/or various professional critiques of their level of craft or their potential for popular appeal. Instead, they're used to instant gratification, which comes without any questioning of their readiness for publication.

I'm extremely grateful for the opportunities e-publishing has afforded me. But I'm equally grateful for earlier experiences that stripped away any delusions of grandeur. Were an unpublished writer to ask my advice, the last thing I'd say is "believe in yourself." Before you can even begin to believe in yourself -- and that belief, when it does come, must always be attended by reservations -- you must doubt yourself. It's the only way to clear your vision, the only way to learn and grow.

12 comments:

Cole said...

Yeah, this is something that I think about as a reviewer. A similar thing has happened with Goodreads and blogs, and even though I am in that category and don't consider myself a "professional" reviewer, because I haven't had that professional market competition on a reviewer-scale, I still try to critique myself and make my reviews and analytical reading better over time. I certainly don't think that just because I have an outlet for my views that they deserve to be heard. A similar concept that I think about quite a bit.

Chris said...

Such deep thoughts for a Monday, KZ! But yeah, good points. The immediacy of feedback... in both directions... so very, very different.

K. Z. Snow said...

I hadn't thought of that, Cole, but yeah, I guess self-critique is necessary for writing good reviews, too. In this day and age, it's temptingly easy to slap words together and put them out there for public consumption. Sure, they'll garner some attention. But will they garner respect?

I love your blog, btw. It's a nice combination of smart and salacious! ;-)

K. Z. Snow said...

I just got a little itchy over some writer talk, Chris. Plus it's pissing hot, so I can't go outside for a break. Might as well shoot off my mouth online. :-D

Cole said...

Thank you! :)

K. Z. Snow said...

You're welcome. I love discovering new blogs. They give me even more reason to procrastinate. ;-)

L.C. Chase said...

Wonderful post, K.Z. I absolutely agree with your last sentence. If we think we're all that and a bag of chips we'll never take the time to actually work on improving ourselves. I also think no matter how "good" we are, we can always be better. And that is my goal, learn and grow and hopefully be a little better each time out of the gate.

K. Z. Snow said...

Hiya, L.C.!

Thank you.

I think your attitude is exactly right. Author complacency, and e-publishing's general lack of discerning acquisitions editors, could easily become the biggest enemies of good fiction.

mymiddlenameispatience said...

Vindicated! I'm with Simon & Schuster, I didn't care for "Confederacy of Dunces" at all, even if everyone I know loves it for some unearthly reason.

Now I'm picturing some authors as American Idol contestants! They made it to the judges - but they can't sing. No amount of self esteem is going to help them.

But writers can hone their craft, if they're not sulking in corners castigating their reviewers.

But if you do, do it James Abbot McNeil style (The Gentle Art of Making Enemies).

K. Z. Snow said...

I'm with you on ...Dunces. Tried to read it years ago and gave up. ;-)

I'll have to look up McNeil -- not that I have much time or inclination to castigate reviewers, gently or otherwise. If ever there was an exercise in futility ...

Carrie K said...

You could herd cats..? McNeil was James Abbot McNeil Whistler - of Whistler's Mother fame and evidently a total curmudgeon. He sounds fun to know but not to wrangle with.

K. Z. Snow said...

Well, hell. It would've helped to know the last name in the string was Whistler. (I'm currently suffering from WIP tunnel vision.)

Then again, I'm not any more inclined to wrangle dead people than I am to castigate reviewers. :)