“So nat’ralists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em.”
Jonathan Swift, On Poetry: A Rhapsody
We’re all a cheerful heaving mass of parasites. Parasites on parasites at times. A delightful thought, one of the joys of having a biologist write about writing…
Some of these parasites do no real harm – we can survive them, although we might do better without them. Some of course, do harm. They can maim, hobble, weaken and indeed kill. There are tales of cows being killed by mosquitos, by sheer blood-loss (not, thank heavens where I live). Other parasites stray a little… or even quite a lot into the area of commensualism, and right through to outright symbiosis.
It might, for example be said that the male anglerfish particularly in the deep-sea ceratiidae (the sea devils) is perfect example of parasitism that is essential to the survival… not of the host but the host’s products – well, offspring. Genes.
You see out in the deep blue desert – well, ocean, but it is de facto rather like a desert in that food is sparse and scattered (although there is plenty of water) – but it’s nutrient poor, deep and cold. The possibility of finding prey is small, and find sex when you need to breed, well, let’s put it this way, you’d have more luck finding a nudist colony in Riyadh. So the sea devil females have a way around this. They keep one… well I was going to handy, but it more like hanging around their butts.
Now, as I said food is scarce, and taking someone for dinner down there is well, usually digestive, for at least one. If you have ever seen an anglerfish you’d know they are like banks – a little dangly ‘bait’ on the end of the illicium – held just above a vast mouth full of evil teeth to make sure dinner doesn’t leave undigested. The males are more like politicians, they can somehow – despite having lousy noses or eyes or anything else except testes, find females in watery waste. Perhaps there is a sea-devil pub.
Once they find a female… they bite her. This may be just as well as she’s all too well equipped to bite them, and they’re small and feeble compared to her. Females need to be big to accommodate a lot of relatively large eggs – males do not.
And at this point things get really, really weird… as he bites and then releases an enzyme that digests the skin on his mouth, and her body, where he has bitten… and the ‘wound’ heals up with the male and female joined in sense humans can never experience. The male and female join at the tissue level, and share blood-vessels.
He gets what he needs to live directly from her bloodstream. The bits he no longer need atrophy. He’s there to be sperm when she needs it. Sometimes as many as eight males can be found like ticks that have actually grown into the host (and you see why biologists look at arts graduate sf writers blathering about ‘non-binary sex’ with amusement.).
I suppose too many would kill her, but it is a system that works, despite the fact that the parasitic males draw all their nourishment, and indeed oxygen from the host. Without them, the species would die. With them, individuals may.
It has parallels in our lives (and no I don’t just mean the waste of space who does little more than father children) and of course in the writing world.
Most of life involves ‘carrying’ a ‘freeloading parasite’ load which may do you (or at least humans in general) some good – or not. There’s a fine line between the benefits (if they exist) and the sheer cost of carrying this load. Governments (national and local) and bureaucrats with their slew of petty rules and associated costs and taxes are good example. Yes, they might protect you from being eaten, but they’ll make up for it by devouring much of your subsistence without doing much positive, most of the time. Still, rather like the male anglerfish, they’re supposed to be there when you need them.
In writing there is some difference of opinion as to who the degenerate freeloaders are. From the point of view of agents, traditional publishers, and at least some of retail, we are. We’re interchangeable widgets, sucking their blood and giving precious little in exchange. Without them, we are nothing, and while they need us as a group, as individuals we’re worthless, instantly exchangeable if we want too much of their precious lifeblood for doing the trivia we do. After all, any fool can write books. Look at Freer for example… It’s one point of view.
As with so much of writing, the point of view makes quite a difference, as I for one am reluctant to see myself as an exchangeable widget. However, while I may want and benefit some – or all – of the services that agents, Trad publishers, and retail provide (almost as an afterthought it seems at times) – I can do without them. Some writers can do very well without them, selling directly. You can certainly cut some of them, and benefit a lot from carrying less of a parasite load, and simply do what they do yourself, or contract it out for less. The agents, traditional publishers and retailers can do without me, but they cannot do without writers.
It then becomes – for the writer, anyway, an equation of can he survive and have his work thrive alone in the deep blue sea of making a living from writing, or does he need all, or some of the ‘parasites’ so they’re there at the right time, so his work does not fail to find readers. That equation varies from writer to writer. Honestly, I believe if you can, you’re wise to outsource proofing. Unless you’re a wiz at covers or the cost cannot be met, well, they’re your display. If you can afford – and if you can find a good structural editor, take this opportunity with both hands. They can turn a mediocre or even bad book into something great, just by finding where and how to tweak it. This is difficult, because most Trad publishing houses don’t have them either. Copy editors have value, but seriously, most of them are widgets. If you find one that isn’t, hang onto them. Marketing… well IF you can do it well, great, if you will probably do it better than any publisher’s employee, even though they have the contacts etc. You will work only for you. He or she will work for the publisher – who has lots of irons in the fire. Even outsourcing here is tricky – so much marketing these days is social media.
When it comes to retail – unless you have a social media platform par excellence and/or a mailing list, retail still are ‘have to have’. That’ll cost you. But some parasite load has to be carried.
It’s always good to know what you’re carrying, and to work out if it has value relative to the cost.
Otherwise ditch the sucker.
As the anglerfish didn’t say, ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea.’
And biology is very useful for designing implausible aliens.