Pyramid of writers

In order of increasing population:

  1. Good writers who don't sell books.
  2. Good writers who sell lots of books.
  3. Bad writers who sell lots of books.
  4. Bad writers who don't sell books.

If it happens that you area professional fiction writer who sells relatively few books, and you think you're a good writer, then the central question of your life is: are you in Class 1 or Class 4? Class 1 is rare company, and includes Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, and Emily Dickinson. In order to write at all, you have to put that question aside, but it always comes back, often at 3 a.m. It may be that some (perhaps many) writers never have these questions and believe that their lack of recognition is due to the stupidity of editors or that they are all in the pay of the Illuminati. That way lies madness.

Anyway, what is a good writer? What I mean by good is people who write what George Orwell once called a “good bad book.”This comprises popular fiction without pretensions to modernity or post-modernity, with reasonably fresh language, a plot that makes sense, the relative absence of melodrama or sentimentality, and an indication that the author has considered the human condition and said something interesting about it. This is a pretty low bar, and it’s remarkable that so few people can consistently clear it.  Of these, some sell a lot of books and have films made of them, while others don’t. What’s the difference between Class 1 and 2?  Here the sages are silent. William Goldman, the screenwriter, once summed up Hollywood by saying, “Nobody knows anything.” It’s true of publishing too.

Of course, now we have self-publishing, so writers who don’t get picked by the Illuminati can do all the things that publishers once did—editing, design, printing, distribution and publicity—which requires writers to stop thinking about writing a good deal of the time and start thinking about what makes books sell. This jangles the writerly brain, or at least it does mine. I was raised in a tradition that said that the writer’s life was of no interest; the sole legitimate consideration was the text itself, and it still weirds me out when I find readers interested in my process, history or personality. Maybe we’re moving toward a world in which the actual book is an afterthought, like the souvenirs that rock stars toss out to their crowds, and writers are mere celebrities rather than carriers of the culture. Some 70 years ago, Cyril Connolly wrote, “It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.” He was defending the idea that we should be interested only in the book, but that battle seems to have been lost, at least down in the mid-list.

Now we’re all outside the garden, on the cruel streets, with our folding tables full of words, yelling to attract attention from the passers-by. I have to say the quality of my despair is pretty good, although my solitude is not nearly as resonant as it used to be. But, mustn’t complain. The model by which writers have earned a living for the last few centuries is in flux, and writers seem to be following the musicians into the unknown. It remains the case that someone has to produce the content, at least until the robots get better, but it’s not as much fun as it used to be. Maybe we’ll all post first chapters on a Kickstarter-like platform and see if anyone bites, and only when we’ve created a public do we approach a real publisher.  

But Connolly also wrote, “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self,” and what an antique sentiment that seems now that many writers seem to live on likes and stars. And yet so many people seem to want to be writers, nearly all of them just widening the base of the pyramid. Becoming a writer nowadays seems to be like what they say about divorced people marrying, the triumph of hope over experience. I have stopped trying to understand it.