Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Success Can Be Dangerous

by Sandra Parshall

Non-writers seem endlessly fascinated by “the writing life” and by each author’s “process” – the minutiae of a writer’s schedule, where we write, the exact number of hours spent sitting at the computer, where our ideas come from, how we do our research, whether we outline or not.

We answer these questions, usually, with a certain puzzlement as to why anybody would care, but with immense gratitude that readers are interested in us at all. Neither the questions nor answers, though, even scratch the surface of the true “writing life.”

If you want the truth, read Lionel Shriver’s essay in the October 21 edition of The New Republic. Writing is a high-anxiety occupation, she points out accurately, and now more than ever authors are driven by fear. Fear that their next books will be rejected by their publishers – for every contract permits the publisher the absolute right to decline the book to which an author has devoted a year or more of her life. Fear of being forgotten by readers. Fear of publishing something that will turn readers against them. Fear of saying no to any promotional opportunity, however much time it takes away from writing.

Success removes these anxieties for only the rarest and most secure of authors. For others, a breakthrough to big sales may make matters worse.

Shriver’s seventh book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, was a hit and became an acclaimed film. At last she had the kind of success authors dream of. And she discovered that “if you really want to write, the last thing you want to be is a success.” Shriver, now 56, has a “frenzied calendar” and feels afraid to turn down any invitation to a conference or festival, any request for an interview, a speech, a signing, a quote, a feature story, a blurb, a review. She could easily spend all her time running hither and yon – doing everything except sitting at her desk and writing – “at the modest price of scalding self-disgust.” She recognizes that “this indiscriminate, pushover availability is pathetic.”

She does it out of fear, a deep terror that “worked its way into my very bones” during all the years when she knew she could lose her publisher, her career, at any time. Success has made her afraid of losing her success.

Shriver’s frantic life is different merely by degree from that of many beginners as well as midlist authors who have hung onto publishing careers for years without “breaking out” into stardom. Writers receive their orders from their publishers and agents: Get out there and do every damned thing you can think of to sell books, and expect to do most of it at your own expense. Families and friends and favorite pastimes are pushed into the background as writers scramble to keep their names before readers. They blog, they tweet, they answer e-mail, they put out newsletters and run contests, they chat on Facebook, they do seemingly endless “blog tours” for each new book, they attend big, expensive conferences, they spend a fortune traveling around in person to do bookstore signings that can’t possibly yield enough royalties to cover the cost of getting there. They want to be everywhere, all the time, even at the risk that people will get sick of the sight of their faces and names. They want to be celebrities, because celebrities are the people our society values most.

When do they write? Whenever they can find time to fit it in. Some are scrambling to turn out two or three books a year, yet the promotion doesn’t stop. Writing, for too many authors, has become secondary to promotion.

Something is seriously out of balance in this picture.

Life wasn’t like this for writers in the past. They might have made a few appearances when a new book came out, done a tour if money was available to pay for it, accepted invitations to speak, but they didn't keep at it day and night all year long. Social networking didn't exist as a distraction. Mostly they sat in solitude and wrote.

Some writers still live and work that way. We don’t see them at every conference and every bookstore. They don't tweet or blog or do Facebook. We don’t see their names every time we go on the internet. Enough of these people become successful to make the rest of us wonder how they managed it without constant self-promotion. Is it possible that all they did was sit in solitude and write a great book – and then another and another?

Maybe it is possible.

But how many other writers would have the courage to try something so radical? 

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