School’s Out (Sympathy For The Devil)
by Sarah Hoyt
Kris Rusch says writers are dumb. She’s right. And wrong.
She’s right that writers can do the most absurdly stupid things when it comes to trusting total strangers to steer their careers. She’s wrong in thinking that we as a group are dumber than other people, or that other people in our circumstances wouldn’t act exactly like us.
Let’s begin with the type of person fiction writers are.
As a rule, we’re odd ducks.
There are, of course, exceptions. Don’t come and tell me about your gregarious, perfectly adjusted, quite average authors. Or at least authors who present as such. There are fewer of those in science fiction than in other fields, but yes I’m aware they exist.
In fact, I can easily pass for one of them. I did, through most of my college career, pretend to be a perfectly normal student, with aspirations of becoming a teacher or professor or translator or interpreter or something else that my degree could qualify me for. But inside, it always felt like the degree was a pro-forma, something I was taking because my parents didn’t think school ended till graduate school, not because I wanted it or had any need of it for my life. It didn’t much signify what I studied, I just took the path of least resistence, because whatever career I had as a “grown up” wasn’t going to be the career I wanted.
I wanted to be a writer. And I want to say here, that though I had a completely different idea of a writers’ lifestyle – all those stupid movies – as being a lot more glamorous, that wasn’t what I craved. I craved sitting down and making up stories and writing them and sharing them.
And I knew I couldn’t do that. Not in Portugal, when books were all physical and international commerce slower. In Portugal at the time, even if every single person who read for pleasure – let alone who read science fiction and fantasy or even mystery for pleasure – read my books, I’d never be able to make a living from it. So I needed to do something with my days, it didn’t much signify what. I’d write, of course, but I was resigned to the stuff never seeing the light of day, because the publishing establishment managed to be smaller and stuffier than ours and, to be blunt, you had to know someone.
But even while acting perfectly normal, even while keeping my aspirations to myself – and a few moans and b*tching to my best friend since first grade – inside I knew I was different. Hearing people actually get ENTHUSIASTIC at the idea of a translation job gave me a funny turn of the stomach. Oh, sure, I could do it. No problem there. When I finished highschool I was the fourth best German student in town (Sic Transit Est Gloria Mundis and all that) and German was my weak language. But getting excited about it? It seemed rather like getting excited at the prospect of learning the multiplication tables. I could fake it, but I couldn’t feel it, and inside I always WAS aware of being a round peg pretending to have edges.
So it started that way. And then when I got married and my husband discovered my awful secret, and encouraged me to write. And I felt weird. Because our writing lifestyle IS weird. It’s not just the “you stay home all day and waggle fingers on the keyboard.” THAT is bad enough. It’s more the long walks that absolutely count as part of writing, because you’re thinking story the whole time. It’s the walking around in a dazed state and doing the most absurd stuff because your mind is in another world.
Your nearest and dearest don’t get it – my nearest and dearest don’t get it. My husband, for instance, refuses to admit that the meaning of vacation is “writing in another place where I don’t need to do any of the housekeeping” AND he’s a writer, himself – so why should anyone else?
And then – at least in the olden days (let me tell you sonny, I’ve seen empires rise and fall) – a few years ago, when you sold, you were faced with a business that worked like no other business (no, not even show business) mostly because it was busy disemboweling itself dishonorably by severing the connection between demand and supply. I have writing friends who say “No one understands writers, but other writers.” And it’s not because we’re that weird. Okay, it is that we’re that weird. But the business outweirded us and kept on going off weird bridge with a rocket pack strapped to its back. And you couldn’t explain that to ANYONE who wasn’t in it. (“Wait, so your book didn’t sell? And this is your fault? But your book was never on the shelves! Wait a minute. WHY do they publish books they don’t even TRY to put on shelves?” Ladder, rinse, repeat. My standard answer was “I think they’re a cover for money laundering operations by Columbian drug lords.” Did I believe it? No. But it shut people up. And didn’t make them call the men in white coats as did “They’re run by space aliens, here to destroy our fiction.”)
So, we writers tend to feel like misfits, the degree of misfitness depending on how much we can surround ourselves with like minds and how well we can pretend to be normal. Alas, unfortunately, we writers also tend to be humans. (You’re excused if you have multiple tentacles and more than one antenna. This post is not for you.) And humans are social animals. We want to fit in, we want to pretend we’re normal. We want to be part of a group.
Up till now, publishing by its very weirdness, gave us a sense of being in a club. No one understood writers but other writers because you couldn’t bitch about your editor dropping your book on the floor because you didn’t agree on changing a particular line to any sane human being. They’d think you’d made it up. But to a fellow writer? Likely to have similar horror stories.
So, the publishing industry was horrible, but it also gave us a sense of normalcy. We too had employers (and this is why we treated publishers and – some people – even agents as “boss” even though they were at best buyers for our product.) We too had jobs. There was a career path, a logic progression. There was a way to get to the top even if not everyone did. There was a “ladder” just as for all our friends in normal jobs. We could say “I’m a beginning novelist” or “I’m a midlister, but…” OR “I’m a bestseller.” And bestseller got VERY fine-grained indeed, going down to “locus bestseller” and up to “New York Times bestseller.”
And if you think all that is silly… well, of course it is. But again, repeat, humans are social animals. When caught at a party in the middle of otherwise normal people, and they ask what you do for a living, if you say “I’m a writer” they ask “Who do you write for?” and if you don’t have an answer, people think you just stay home and write poems on purple paper, decorated with dried pansies. Few are rude enough to say, as a guy told me (and this, yes, after I was published) “So, you’re a housewife but you don’t like to say it.” but most people will think just that. And – is it still true in these days of mommy pride? – in the early nineties that was the same as saying you were a highschool dropout with a sixty IQ. People tended to wander away from conversations with you at that point. (There was also of course, the company my husband worked for where my writing sf/f made me the red woman of Babylon. I’m still wondering if they thought it was a DIFFERENT kind of “fantasy.”)
So, in social occasions we learned to say “I am a novelist with three books out with a New York publisher.” Or “I have published several short stories in science fiction magazines.” Or… whatever.
The problem is – again that being human stuff – that all this became a security blanket. We internalized it. We believed it. We read books on how to break through to the next level, and we believed that too. We learned to sneer at each other’s work in the terms laid out from above, “Well, he’s pretty good but he’ll always be a midlister. His books just aren’t BIG enough.”
And like all downtrodden social groups (Someone in another thread was talking about how fine the social distinctions can get in a ghetto) we self-divided very finely indeed. You might be dust under your publisher’s chariot wheels, but by gum you were better than people who’d never sold professionally.
The system provided plenty of rules to judge those other people, too. Some of them were okay – I mean, you do have to reach at least the level where people can follow what you’re saying, to sell to a press. Unless, of course, what you’re doing is high literature, in which case you can write whichever words your weasel steps on while running across the daily newspaper – a lot of them were arbitrary and most of them were faddish. Take how we decided that minimalistic style was the way to go. No other words than “said.” [Yeah, okay fine, I’m all for not having characters ejaculate words (which would be some sort of circus trick, anyway, and make you famous in the more risque sort of reality show.) BUT let me point out Heyer did it, and no one cares, least of all me.] That was a rule. And it was a silly rule. Perfect if applied with half a brain, insane if applied like the guy who judged one of my contest entries way back did: “you can’t use shouted or whispered either. The reader should be able to tell that from the context.” (I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but I’ve both shouted and whispered “such bullsh*t.”)] Or, no more than two adjectives per chapter, or whatever. Some of them were started because they seemed like a good idea at the time and were a reaction to criticism of the genre. I’m sure that’s how the “Science fiction has to conform to current science” and “Mysteries are NEVER solved by amateurs” rules started. The fact that they ruined the fun of the readers and shrank the fields didn’t matter. It was the hoops you had to run through to get to the “published” (or “bestseller” status) and you did it. Of course, once you got in you were proud of it.
You know why hazing occurred before political correctness stopped it? Or why many colleges put artificial barriers to entrance? Or why human mothers feel pain when giving birth for that matter?
Because the more difficult something was to obtain, the more you’re attached to it. Becoming a professional writer was difficult, it was often irrational, but once you were in you were proud of that status and you’d defend the rules against all comers.
And this brings us to writers’ perfectly normal human stupidity.
A lot of writers – and the funny thing is that they’re not ALWAYS the darlings of the establishment as you’d expect – are JUST ticked that their chains have dissolved and that they’re set free overnight, and can write whatever they want in whatever way they want, and probably make more money doing it. (I won’t go into that. Dave Freer did in Monday’s post at MGC. Go read.) They sneer at indie published authors. They pile on in making fun of copyediting standards of self-published people (which is funny because the traditionally published standards have gone STRAIGHT down.) They will do anything and everything to hold on to the frayed blue ribbon that says “professionally published.” And yes, the stupid things DO include, as Kris says, signing idiotic agency clauses, accepting ever-smaller advances and generally acting like chickens with their heads cut off, running in circles. It also includes sneering and attacks on anyone – ANYONE – who reminds them the cage door is open and they can JUST walk out.
I’m not surprised. Why should anyone be? If you read Exodus, and whether you believe it’s true or just a story it has elements of truth in it, you’ll find that the Israelites, in the desert, longed for the fleshpots of Egypt – despite the fact that Egyptians had taken to killing their male children. (And let me tell you, the Israelites had nothing on writers. Many of us, the publishers killed ALL our “children” regardless of their classification. I started referring to delivering books as “I’ve thrown the baby into the volcano, at last.)
As in Exodus, this generation might need to pass away before we can experience true freedom… Or not. I for one don’t have forty years to wander in the desert. You?
Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think that these people running around trying to prop up the system will – when this fails – manage to form just as dysfunctional a system of irrational hoops one has to jump through to be “a real writer.”
Wouldn’t put it past them. My people are not only human and odd, they’re also – most of us – at best walking wounded.
But that’s my cynical moments. I think so long as we keep stuff like SOPA at bay, technology has not just opened the cage door but blown it wide. I think they can’t put humpty dumpty back together again.
Oh, sure, they can still create their own hierarchy. They can form clubs and associations that judge of each other’s excellence and award each other prizes. And a lot of people will take them seriously.
Don’t care. All I ever aspired to is write stories and make a reasonable living. Don’t care if I’ll always be called a “hack.”
They’re perfectly welcome to forge manacles and put them on their own wrists (I hear the velvet padded ones are the thing in certain scenes.) They’re welcome to look down their noses at me.
As long as they leave me out of it, I don’t care. School is out forever. I don’t have to write like tech thinks I should. I understand the people who feel bad about this, but no law on Earth or heaven can make me want to be one of them.
Y’all go back to them fleshpots, darlings. See that up ahead? I hear there’s rivers of milk and honey. And even if it turns out to be just water and fertile soil, that’s okay, so long as no one can kill half of my “children.” I’m okay with that. The promised land is where you find it.