Writing: an intellectual diversion, or a vocation?

I’ve been trying to understand the very negative attitudes towards self-publishing and self-starting a writing career among many so-called “professionals” in the field.  (Sarah commented on the views of one such individual earlier this week.)  I note, too, that very few of those “professionals” appear to have enjoyed any meaningful success, if one defines “success” as actually making a living out of their writing (as opposed to talking about writing).  They may be highly acclaimed in academic circles, or even lauded for preserving the “purity” of their “literary talent”, but they’re sure as hell not earning enough from it to call themselves successful writers.

There seems to be a lot of that going around.  Even professional bodies get caught up in the intellectual trappings of writing, rather than the nuts-and-bolts of making a living from one’s craft.  Witness the Arts Council England last month:

“It would have been obviously unnecessary in the early 90s for the Arts Council to consider making an intervention in the literary sector, but a lot has changed since then – the internet, Amazon, the demise of the net book agreement – ongoing changes which have had a massive effect,” said ACE’s literature director Sarah Crown. “It’s a much more unforgiving ecosystem for authors of literary fiction today. We inevitably end up with a situation where the people best positioned to write literary fiction are those for whom making a living isn’t an imperative. That has an effect on the diversity of who is writing – we are losing voices, and we don’t want to be in that position.”

. . .

The novelist Kit de Waal, whose 2016 debut My Name Is Leon was a bestseller, was one of many writers interviewed for the report. “A career in writing is really, really difficult,” said De Waal. “There is zero chance of taking two years out of life to concentrate on writing for many people. All the big questions for writers from my background are about writing in your spare time. If you have to take time to write, you are living on the poverty line. All the things that would feed you as a writer – lectures or writers’ groups – cost something. If you are truly broke, it’s too much.”

Let’s examine some of the buzzwords in that excerpt.  They’re telling.

  • “Making an intervention”who asked you to?  Why is it important that you should?
  • “The literary sector” – who says it’s a sector?  Isn’t it part of the entertainment industry?  (Yes – gasp! – I used the dreaded ‘I’ word!)
  • “Ecosystem” – we’re talking about books, not bloody biology!
  • “The diversity of who is writing” – why is ‘diversity’ an important concept when it comes to ‘who is writing’?  Why not just worry about ‘writers’, period?
  • “Taking two years out of life to concentrate on writing” – I don’t know a single successful author who takes time ‘out of life’ to write.  We can’t afford to!  Our writing reflects and is informed by our life – it’s not separate from it!
  • “All the things that would feed you as a writer – lectures or writers’ groups” – I don’t know about you, fellow writers, but I can honestly say that I’ve never been ‘fed’ as a writer by either a lecture, or a writer’s group.  I’ve been ‘fed’ a hell of a lot more by my life experiences, and lessons I learned the hard way!

This is twaddle!  It’s intellectual pretentiousness masquerading as wisdom.  I’ve come to the point that when I see a lecturer or a professor of ‘creative writing’ bemoaning the state of the industry, I automatically switch off.  They generally don’t appear to know what they’re talking about – at least, they usually can’t display a single meaningful market-related credential to provide even a fig-leaf to hide that impression.

Compare this to the difference between many university students today, and many vocational students.  A university student all too often has no idea why they’re going to university at all, except that it’s expected of them.  Everyone they know goes to university, so they must, too.  Far too many of them appear to go there to have a wonderful time “discovering themselves”, going to parties, getting involved with all the trendy left-wing liberal progressive bullshit causes they can find, and generally waste their money for several years before emerging with a qualification that’s worthless in the job market (“Would you like fries with that?”), and saddled with five or six figures in student debt that will cripple them for decades to come.

Now, consider a vocational student – someone studying plumbing, or electrical contracting, or auto maintenance, or something like that.  They typically study – ‘train’ might be a better word – for up to four years, sometimes longer, but they don’t have the “luxury” of “self-discovery” or trendy causes.  They have to get their hands dirty, and make things work.  A garage owner doesn’t give a damn about the politics of the person working on an engine – he just wants it restored to working order as fast as possible.  A plumber doesn’t care whether his apprentice buys ‘fair trade’ coffee or Folgers – he wants him to hand him that wrench, right there, whenever he needs it, and to shut up and pay attention to what he’s teaching him, so that he can do it himself next time.  There’s an intense practicality to such learning that’s almost entirely absent from academia these days.  What’s more, it’s rewarded by highly paid work as soon as an individual qualifies.  I personally know people in their early twenties who are earning high five-figure or low six-figure salaries in entry-level positions in their vocational fields, because there are so few entrants and such high demand for them.  More power to them, say I!

So, let’s bring this back to writing.  How many of us are approaching writing from an intellectual, educational perspective?  How many of us see it from a vocational, practical perspective?  Which is better, and why?  Which is more likely to produce focused, practical, marketable output, and which is more likely to waft around ivory towers for so long that it loses track of how to get out of them and back to the real world?

The same author whom Sarah fisked so well, Daniel Lattier, had this to say in a subsequent article:

To be purposeful in our reading, and to better avoid wasting time, we need to have a good self-awareness about what questions are motivating us in our search for knowledge and truth. Our reading of books should be attempts to find answers to those questions, just as the writing of them were the authors’ attempts to do the same.

That’s all very well, provided one wants to have ‘purpose’ in one’s reading.  What if one doesn’t?  What if one’s reading to unwind – in other words, deliberately enjoy ‘wasting time’ with a book, and take time off from an otherwise stressful day?  What if I’m not reading to ‘search for knowledge and truth’, but to relax and enjoy myself?  I figure most of my readers fall into those categories.  It’s no good pontificating that writing books should be ‘attempts to find answers to those questions’.  If our readers aren’t even asking those questions, why are we, as writers, trying to answer them?  If I write that way, I’ll merely ensure that my readers won’t remain my readers for long!  They’ll take their money to another writer, who will give them what they want.

I think most of us – the writers who pen columns at Mad Genius Club – are more vocational writers than intellectual;  more practical than affectational.  We’re in this because we have the same creative muse as any other writer, but we can’t afford to be artsy-fartsy intellectuals about it.  We have to make a living.  If we’re not able to do that, then we can’t afford to sink so much time and effort into this pastime – because that’s what it will have become for us;  a pastime, not a vocation.  In today’s world, and today’s writing market, I don’t believe the former is economically sustainable.

And the measure of our success?  Larry Correia has provided one brilliantly funny (albeit rather profane) perspective.  I tend to agree with his basic principle.  Your success as an author, as measured by the market, is defined by the money you earn from your writing.  Of course, there are many other aspects to success.  If you just want the enjoyment of seeing your name on the cover of a book, and aren’t worried about how much money you make from it, more power to you!  However, even if you sell only half a dozen copies, you’ll still have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re earning more from your actual writing than any number of so-called ‘creative writing experts’ – and the authors of articles like those cited above!

As for ongoing success in the market;  yes, it’s tough out there.  I’m finding that, just like every author of my acquaintance.  The market’s a tough place to be right now, and it’s getting tougher.  However, that merely means we’ve got to be up-front and realistic about our chances of success.  They’re slim.  That’s the way it is.  Now let’s get going and write, and make the most of the chances we have!  If we let the odds deter us, we’ll never get anywhere – just like most of the purveyors and teachers of creative writing courses!

41 thoughts on “Writing: an intellectual diversion, or a vocation?

  1. I’m a reader, not a writer. I read serious stuff and I read to relax (more often to relax). It’s your customer base willing to give up dollars that decides. I look at authors as story tellers, who’s stories do I listen to? I don’t want perfection, and for entertainment I don’t require intellectually stimulating (I don’t mind something that makes me go hmmm, but entertainment first). So let the market decide. But if you want my money, entertain me.

  2. Time off to write? Two years for a book? Buddy needs to up his game.
    Totally agree with your assessment on the state of the “industry”. Sounds like they are getting ready to really attack indie publishing or worse justify their miserly existence.
    (coffee hasn’t kicked in yet so probably a bit of a ramble).

    1. Read that and could not help but be reminded of any number of past authors who worked a full time day job, spent quality time with the family, then somehow managed to squeeze in an hour or two each evening on their work in progress.

      1. For most of the history of the field, all but a few authors had day jobs. Hal Clement, who pretty much was the exemplar for Hard SF, was a high school chemistry teacher. When Zelazny was writing Lord of Light, he was working for the Social Security Administration. Clifford SImak was working for the Minneapolis Star from 1939 until he retired from the paper after three dozen years there. Etc.

        It’s hard not t think of people whose writing careers sold hundreds of thousands of books as anything other than professional SFF writers.

  3. The YA librarian’s measure of success: Hand a strange teenager (toughest. audience. ever) a copy of the book. Do they read it? Congratulations! Author didn’t screw up the cover art or the opening hook.

    Do they immediately start pestering you for the sequel(s) right now if you don’t mind?


    1. Yep – happened to me a couple of times this last market season. I was hand-selling Lone Star Sons, whenever I spotted a tween or teenage boy in the passing crowd. “Hey, do you like westerns? I wrote this adventure for boys your age! Take a look.)
      Worked like a charm, and yes, there is a sequel.
      But two years, writing at it full-time, every day? Spare me. I might very well take two years for the next historical, but that’s because I have to do a load of reading for research, as the setting is completely different … and I’ll be writing another couple of Luna City books during that time as well.

  4. Actually, about that ecosystem… It is an ecosystem, in a way. And you know the thing about ecosystems? They change, and if the organisms can’t evolve along with them, they go extinct. He who adapts fastest succeeds most, in terms of ecosystem. These guys are like frogs in the mud saying ‘The pond is going dry! We must get more water in the pond! Quick, tell the sky to stop evaporating and rain more!’ While the Indie Authors are growing legs like salamanders and waddling off as fast as they can to get under forest leaves while muttering ‘So long, suckers!’ It’s not that the frogs can’t move. It’s that they won’t.

    1. And I’m trying not to think about the paper that found that major extinction events had faster recovery time than more minor extinction events and draw some more metaphorical comparisons.

  5. From the title, thought it would be about writing to sell vs writing just to be writing. Well, “intellectual diversion” is a nice euphemism for something more akin to a unseemly activity usually involving porno mags. Getting an arts council involved just puts them into a circle.

    Dang, I need caffeine.

      1. NOTE: I do have a problem with anyone coercing people into porn. But if a guy or gal chooses to do so and receives acceptable compensation for their labor, I have no problem with it.

  6. I think it’s very simple. These people live in a sub-culture similar to the groups we saw in high school. They crave and seek group approval and the basis on which it all hinges is that the group is superior to all outsiders. For most older writers that is academia and the traditional publishing industry centered around New York.
    Praise and rewards have always been filtered through their approval and gate keeping.
    There is also a lingering feeling that you should be above groveling for filthy money as it renders your art impure. It’s similar to the Victorian lady who is horrified that people can’t spend all day riding their carriage around calling on people and leaving their cards, because they are all in business now chasing money. It was presumed that if you are a person of worth you already had all the vulgar money you needed because society recognized your worth. Thus new money was despised as inferior to old money although the merchant couldn’t tell the difference when you came in his shop. The modern version of this is usually tenure and the freedom to take a sabbatical and still be paid.
    When your worth is based on all your friends agreeing upon your mutual worth it’s vital to limit the number of people in the club. It’s also needful and fun to berate anyone who fails to acknowledge your obvious superiority.
    It’s classist and outdated and rather sad.

    1. “although the merchant couldn’t tell the difference when you came in his shop.”

      Sure they can. The old money asks for credit, while the new money pays cash. Or is it the other way around nowadays??

      1. Some years back I met an old timer of an appliance repairman. Not sure how it is now, but that certainly fits. Said a call to a rich area often meant never getting paid. But the poor fellow in the sticks might only pay him a buck now and then, but he did, eventually, pay in full.

  7. Agree completely. Nothing to add.

    One to nitpick – byline did not show up until I clicked to show comments. I do not guess well normally, much less on just one sip of coffee…

    1. Seems to be a “feature” of this new format they’ve implemented. Until you click on read more all you get is the teaser.

  8. I do read for purpose sometimes. I want to figure out how someone tells a rollicking good tale, so I can do the same.

    Beyond that, a lefty kool-aid non-nerd humanities major is going to very often hook me up with something I want to know? Better than reading technical articles, or figuring it out on my own? Sounds like a journalist overestimating the utility of news.

    Y’all’s vocational focus on writing has been a good influence on me. Even if creative writing is very much not my best choice of vocational focus ATM. Which reminds me, back to work on the best choice.

  9. These are Ivory Tower Leftists complaining that their Iron Rice Bowl is broken.

    “Littrachur” is meant to uplift the Common Man, you see, and the creators of Grate Littrachur cannot be distracted by gauche things like sales and money.

    Money is the root of all Eeeevile, you know. And so bourgeois. Ptui!

    Oh, and Vocational students are mere hewers of wood and drawers of water. Troglodytes, you know. They have nothing of any import to say. Can a house painter write a book? What nonsense!

    1. “Money is the root of all Eeeevile, you know. And so bourgeois. Ptui!”

      Indeed. And yet, for people who claim that caring about money is so gauche, many of these people are awfully obsessed with who has more of it than they do.

      1. I’ve noticed that too.

        [Next week my students get the lesson about consumer culture and industry, and how some men complained because once steel got cheap and corsets became cheap, they could no longer tell “ladies of quality” from house maids and shop girls just based on outline. So much for that signal of wealth!]

  10. Neal Stephenson tells a story about being invited to a conference for “literary” writers.

    Other writer at conference: “So, where do you teach?”
    Stephenson: “I don’t teach.”
    Other writer: “What do you do, then?”
    Stephenson (puzzled): “I’m…a writer.”
    Other writer: “No, how do you make a living?”

    At that point Stephenson figured it out — the other writer had assumed that Stephenson was a typical “literary” writer, so of course he wasn’t making a living from his writing.

    1. I’m starting to wonder if Stephenson tales are apocryphal. The one I heard was he’s at a writer’s conference, meets someone new, and the other writer asks him how come she doesn’t know him from her circles. They puzzle around, and he finally says, “Oh, you’ve never heard of me because I’m famous.”

  11. Wasn’t it Samuel Johnson who said that anyone who wrote for any reason other than making money was a blockhead?

  12. What I get from the article is that the author doesn’t actually know much about writers as a mass, but at least in their little corner of the literary universe, writing is becoming feasible only as a pastime for the idle rich.

    Before indy, I think that was a legitimate fear (if indy hadn’t come along, how many more working-class writers would have had to give it up?). For literary fiction (which at a guess doesn’t sell well in the indy market) it may still be.

    The moral of the story is… if you want to make a living as a writer, write something more salable than literary fiction.

  13. Robert Heinlein explained it this way: An author’s product is competing for the reader’s beer money. I can’t write, but I do read. A lot. Mostly fiction and mostly ‘trash’ science fiction. I like it and reading it is worth more than a beer or three to me. Remember, your audience has a LOT of choices to spend their beer money on. Give good measure and they will come back for more. 🙂

  14. All the things that would feed you as a writer – lectures or writers’ groups” – I don’t know about you, fellow writers, but I can honestly say that I’ve never been ‘fed’ as a writer by either a lecture, or a writer’s group. I’ve been ‘fed’ a hell of a lot more by my life experiences, and lessons I learned the hard way!”

    Maybe he means in the sense that college students are often “fed” by attending any lecture whose flyers includes the words “Pizza will be served.” When I was in school, which majors you were interested in was often determined by what the department served at its interest meeting. Cookies = “who cares,” pizza = “depends on what the dorms are serving,” Chinese food = “yes, of course, I’m fascinated by the idea of majoring in intergenerational basketweaving studies, please tell me more and pass the Sesame chicken.”

  15. Well I joined a writers group and had to pay for the privilege and got nothing at all out of it. I’ve gotten more feedback here as a new commenter than I ever got there. And I have gotten lots of helpful useful ideas and inspiration. And the number one bit of inspiration has been not to look for perfection in situation before writing … Or actually in the writing come to think of it.

    My father said it long ago — Don’t get it right, get it written!

      1. Indeed. I finished the China-based novel yesterday (the 14th) and I know it needs work. Lots of work. Part of the problem was starting it in August and just now finishing it after almost two months of non-writing. But that will come with revision and editing. It is done.

  16. As a Reader… if I want to “better myself” etc. I reach for NONfiction and want it get to the point. Have background I might need to get up to speed on, sure, but no long slog of general philosophy (the particular philosophy of field/application is another matter — that is, don’t try to tell me for example that guns are a Universal Evil OR a Universal Good. Tell me I need to treat a gun as Loaded until I personally make damn good and sure it ain’t.) A proper index is a thing of great utility – and joy! It saves that precious thing, time.

    For relaxation, fiction. A message within it is fine… but it must be secondary (or tertiary or… ideally I shouldn’t really notice it until I finish the work and think it over some). A book that beats me over the head with message should be used to beat the author’s head until they achieve enlightenment or at least unconsciousness. Either way they cease writing such crap and thus is world made a better place.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: