Grocers of Despair

— by Sarah A. Hoyt

*And I will have a workshop post later today, as well as send critiques out.  Since today includes a fun and exciting doctor consult, I can’t promise as to time, but it will be up before evening.  I apologize for delay.  I can take work or family obligations or illness.  But when all of them collude, something gives — usually my schedule.*

UPDATE: And this is where I give you good news/bad news.  The good news is that the consult went well and at least one of the dread possibilities is eliminated.  The bad news is that it really ate most of the afternoon and by the time I got home it was dinner time, and I had no brain.  I’m sorry.  I will finish workshop this weekend.  I hate being unreliable, but sometimes things happen.

This is a post about the qualities and the effects of despair.  There are several reasons for it, the proximate one being that we are fed a lot of it – purposely? – by our art and entertainment complex.

I’m well acquainted with despair.  You could say it is an old friend of mine, except that despair is no one’s friend.

Despair accounted for how long it took me to break into publishing, to an extent, by creating long gaps of silence in my production, and several attempts at doing something else – anything else – with my life.  My basement is littered with the beginnings of would-be-money-making projects I tried to engage in to avoid what seemed to be a hopeless attempt at getting published.  Despair has accounted for how few of my books have been out the last two years.  Those of you who have followed my blog through that time know I hit the nadir of despair about a year ago, when it looked like despite all my best efforts to keep running on ice, my career in writing was over.

I was wrong.  I was wrong for several reasons, one of them being that Darkship Thieves – my heart’s darling at that point – did well for itself, and continues to do surprisingly well.  I was wrong, because indie possibilities opened.  I was wrong because I lost it – truly lost it – and started telling it like it is, and weirdly, surprisingly the “me” I’d suppressed so long, in order to have a career that would allow me to feed the kids, allowed me to find readers who helped my career.  Go figure.

But the point is not that I was wrong.  The point is that I know from despair and what’s more, I understand why despair is considered a sin.  This is not always the case, and I’ve always had an issue with, say, sloth, since – being active by nature – I can’t imagine a worst punishment than being forced to do nothing.

Despair is a sin because it eats you, from the inside out.  Despair comes with “I will never” and “what is the use” and “the game is rigged, so why bother?”  Despair comes with beating your head against a glass window that shouldn’t be there, and yet is.  Despair, in its ultimate form has blighted more artistic careers, destroyed more souls (and by soul here, I don’t require you believe in an immortal entity.  I refer only to that which makes your mind and spirit yours) caused more suicides than anything else.

Despair is that feeling you get when you’ve run the maze, you’ve done your best, and you come to the end and there’s nothing but a blank wall.

It is a powerful emotion, at least for those of us who have faced it.  It is dramatic, if you end a story with it, after a good run and a lot of hope.  It stays in the mind.

It is in fact a primary color, and it’s small wonder beginning writers use it, just like beginning artists – say kindergarten – use primary colors.

And it is a sin.  It is a sin against your future self.  It is a sin against humanity.  It is a sin against possibility.  Remember that.  We’ll come back to it.

However, the fact that it is an easily identifiable tint and primary doesn’t explain why there is so much of it larded around science fiction and fantasy, which SHOULD be the literature of possibility.  Sure a lot of this can be explained by the youth of writers (in truth or in practice,) the youth of editors (most of the ones working with newby writers are just out of college) and a certain fashionable air of the times, when it is considered smart and hip to dress all in black and moan about the evils of the future.  (Kind of like it was fashionable for Goethe’s Werner.  Never mind.  Hip, I tell you.  futuristic even.)

But wait, there’s more.  There’s what despair serves to do.  People who despair don’t try to change things and/or undermine the establishment.  People who despair, at the very least go away and shut up, even if they don’t deliberately kill themselves.

There is a striking scene in one of Leo Frankowki’s books, in which a Mongol Lord gets peasants to line up so he can behead them.  And when the hero comes along and kills him, the peasants turn on the hero because “now you’ve gone and angered them.”  And when the hero asks what can be worse than being killed, they have nothing, except “they will make it worse.”  THAT’s despair.  Despair makes you embrace death willingly rather than rebel, no matter how bad things get.

While I don’t believe in a grand conspiracy among publishing outlets and entertainment venues, I do believe in a tribal culture in what is – after all – when it comes to influential people maybe a few thousand people: a small village.  Tribal cultures are easy to influence.  I’m not saying anyone is, I’m saying it’s possible – and we’ve found that type of influence behind a lot of the recent “trends.”

So, before you give in to despair, ask yourself qui bono?  (And if you’re not into asking yourself Latin questions and are now wondering if you should have been paying more attention to Dancing With The Stars and supermarket tabloids, let me dispel your confusion.  That means “Whom does this profit?”)

Dave Freer talks about sheep and goats.  Most of humanity are sheep.  Some of us are goats.  The problem of any establishment, any power, anyone who abrogates influence over human hearts and minds is to control the goats and to make the sheep do more than stand in place and bah.  The more brutally repressive regimes eliminate the goats, often physically, and leave only the sheep.  The result is all the innovation and elan of… North Korea.

The best regimes manage to allow the goats their head, keeping them only off the things that will hurt other people.  They usually result in the highest production – both artistic and material.

In between there are several types of goat-herding schemes, including tolerating them within certain bounds and shipping them abroad to claim new pastures for the sheep.  The British Empire used both strategies with great success since the Elizabethan age.  They eventually stopped using it and resorted to despair.  The British Empire didn’t survive much longer.

So ask yourself what about the current establishment makes it resort to despair?  It’s surely the mark of a philosophical system that has nothing else to offer its goats.  It’s the mark of a philosophical system that is doomed, and wants to keep things quiet “just a little longer.”

And it has been THE culture in publishing since the seventies.  The embrace of declining numbers, declining revenues, declining living standards for writers – the willing embrace of decline – the meek submission to the people who are killing us, because you wouldn’t want to get them angry.  They could really make it unpleasant then.

In According To Hoyt, we’ve talked about how going Indie is a mark of impatience… or something – at least according to the establishment.  We’re supposed to stay still, and let despair permeate us, and slowly tighten around us like a band, allowing us to make only the approved noises, which increase the cultural despair and get everyone accustomed to decline and darkness, and no way out.  When publishers say the mid-list should die, they expect us to curl up and do so.  How quaint.

Despair is a sin.  And, to quote Jerry Pournelle, it might not even reflect the truth.  Look at Heinlein, a smart man and most of us would say an optimist, who chose not to have children, avowedly (yes, I’m aware there might have been other reasons) because “the world was such a mess.”  And yet, if he’d had a child in his first marriage, that child would now be older than my dad, who has had a full life, and not an unpleasant one.

Do not take Mr. Heinlein’s example in that particular aspect of  his life.  Take his example in his writing.  Despair is a sin.  And there is usually another way: a way through, a way around.  Find the way.  Pull the Mongol horseman down.  If you kill enough of them, they’ll go away.  Refuse to write despair.  Refuse to believe despair.  Look doom and gloom in the eye and ask them “you and what army?”  Yes, it might all come to the same in the end, but at least you’ll have fought and died like a human being and not a bah lamb.

Tell the Grocers of Despair you have better things to do.  There is a fight going on, and you’d rather fight.  And then go on and discover new pastures.  The poor sheep need somewhere to graze on.  And you’ll have more freedom to breathe.  And everyone wins in the end.

Remember qui bono?  If they sell you despair it’s because they’re afraid of what you can do if you don’t give up.  Don’t give up.  Nothing will piss the establishment more than your continued – and cheerful – battling on.  Do it.  Let THEM despair.


  1. Hallelujiah! Say, “Amen!” (Amen!)

    “Despair accounted for how long … My basement is littered with …”

    Sounds like the tale of the most recent decade of my life.

    All the best with the consult.


  2. Bravo! Encore!
    I remember us talking a few years on Skype, back when the ball for DRAGON’S RING had been dropped (I was moving from one continent to another, really needing support. I simply couldn’t do all the pushing myself. I’d begged, seeing as I had done huge amounts for them in past, almost entirely for their benefit rather than mine, I thought, silly me, that someone might bother to help Dave along. That book sold just over 1000 copies – less 1/3 of when someone with no resources but energy was pushing it. It’s not a bad book, if I say it myself.) and your career seemed stuck between Spawn and nothing, saying ‘We carry on, because we cannot give up.’ or something to that effect. And the truth is there’s a lot of the legacy industry that love the like of us to give up. We don’t sing their song, we dare to question their pronouncements and dictats. Worse we show them to be ridiculous.

    1. Dave, I know this is a bit off-topic (or perhaps not, really … depends on perspective) but, I had a happy/infuriating moment. Amazon sent me an email touting books I might like based on past choices. Top of the list was the book I pre-ordered a couple months ago, which you and Toni were kind enough to release just in time for my birthday.

      Happy, because it reminded me that the book will be here soon. Annoyed, because the email was *clearly* based on my previous choices, yet they failed to notice that I had already *chosen* that one … 🙂

      And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to re-read Dragon’s Ring.

      1. Stephen – their algorithms still need a bit of work but they leave the rest of the field in the dust. The BIG and final breakthrough is going to be when we can effectively link actual tastes to books, and books to readers, in much the way your friend who knows you well and shares similar tastes (but has read a bunch of different stuff) can.

        I hope DOG & DRAGON lives up to the expectation. That’s always hard to do 🙂

      2. Amazon USED to have a feature where you told them what you wanted to follow like oh “Dave Freer” in books and they would email you when something that matches came out. That’s how I followed my midlisters for a few years. It was obviously too useful so they silently canceled it. I had over 20 authors on there that I lost track of.

    2. Yes. And I’m saddened how many like us DO give up when they’re crushed a couple of times. Of course, you and I might be something other than human. In reference to self, “sewer rat” comes to mind. There is no trap, no poison, nothing that can stop them. They keep coming…

  3. I tried to leave this reply over at AccordingToHoyt, but wordpress seems to have taken a disliking to me, and as I’ve probably gotten my replies to this post and the one about sheep over there mixed up in my grossly sleep-deprived head, it’ll probably make sense here too.

    You could make a down-loadable logo for authors to put up on their sites advertising themselves as Human Wave. Or are we all supposed to be so individualistic that self-identifying as a member of a movement is tantamount to sheephood?
    Personally, whenever I’ve heard the sheep metaphor, the other species mentioned was wolves, not goats. But perhaps that was just bloodymindedness on their part.

    Everyone dying to no purpose is, of course, existential literary speak for “life has no purpose.” We’re born, we mate, we die. Or, as we say in Oz, “Life’s a bitch, then you die.” (Which is nicer than the alternative version which includes marriage to a female dog. [grin])
    I think that those of us who have/are dealing with depressive natures seek in fiction some idea that, no, contrary to what we’re constantly being told, there is a purpose to life, and it’s not just about surviving from one day to the next. It’s about the struggle to Live, to, as Kipling put it, “… fill the unforgiving minute with sixty-seconds worth of distance run.” And if you die attempting that, you will still have succeeded more than the sheep do who just float down the river of life from birth to death with no effort to steer their lives to either shore.
    If we are, as some have claimed, all slaves to the wristwatch and the dollar, then fiction is that thing that feeds our minds, enables our imaginations to strike off their chains and soar to other realms, other times, and, out of the best fiction, bring back the keys to the chains that bind our physical forms.
    This modern ‘humanity is crap’ literature would have us believe not only that we deserve our chains, but that, really, there is no such thing as freedom. I don’t know about you, but I think proving them wrong is a battle worth fighting, a war worth winning.

    1. 🙂 The goats is my variation. Wolves prey on sheep. The group of humans who are goats, if anything tend to get the sheep away from the wolf. They have no particular interest in eating sheep, just do not run with the herd, unless it suits them. Sheep follow blindly. Goats do not. Sheep hate going into a field which has that terrifying thing, an absence of other sheep. Goats you have to mighty clever to stop getting into the empty paddock. Goats are curious and will experiment. Goats will learn. Sheep… are really dim. (you can tell I live on a sheep farm). Goats of course are also smelly menaces.

      1. I agree with you about the wolf thing. I think my friend who was always making that analogy might have had cannibalistic tendencies. [grin]
        I take your point about the goats. Sheep I have some experience of, not so much with the goats. I would have changed the analogy to dog rather than wolf — definitely not part of the flock, but tend to watch out for it, try to protect it from predators, guide and direct it, but also nick off from time to time to do some exploring of their own. Oh, and they don’t smell half as bad. Or, if we’re going to stay in the animal kingdom, we could always say humans instead of goats… Now I’ve often suspected that, rather than the wolves running around in sheep’s clothing, a lot of the sheep got dressed up in human clothing. Either that or some mad buggar has been messing around with cloning and mixed in some of Dolly’s genes with the human samples giving us today’s amazingly good sheep-impersonators.

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