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?
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!