Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Why good bad books are good for books.

There's something peculiar about aspiring authors.  It's unique to virtually every profession, aside from maybe how American Psycho depicts Wall Street bankers.  It's an illogical paradox, granted that the industry as a whole relies not on hierarchical beat-downs (as with most conventional industries), but rather an intelligent channelling of creativity and appropriate marketing.  I am talking about the insane jealousy that is rife amongst these struggling artists, who see not only their peers as inferior to them ("I can't believe she got an agent with such a cheesy story, when mine is so much better!"), but already-successful authors too ("Audiences really are getting stupider if that's winning prizes.")

And I have to say, I don't really understand it.  Sure, the green-eyed monster stirred a little in my belly when I heard that an acquaintance's sister, who I've never met, had been signed with an agency that doesn't even accept manuscripts and was picked up by Random House.  But the more I thought about it, the more excited for this stranger I felt.  Consider the magnitude of her success: it's audacious.  I have no idea how she made her work stand out from the rest, but if she was the only author that agency signed in the last year, then she's obviously worked hard for her good fortune.  It didn't fall into her lap; she wrote something, and pitched it well, and she reaped the rewards of being good at it.

See? Even Stifler thinks you're dandy.
And he hates everyone.

There are plenty more people on this more qualified to write than I am.  Some have done Creative Writing degrees, and have years of editing experience... and for all of that, lots of those people who "should" be an author have written nothing.  I feel for those people, because the muse can be fickle sometimes.  But does this mean that because I'm unqualified, I'm somehow less deserving of the "right" to write? Hell, no.

But I know the feeling well.  When I was still struggling to throw my outline together, and a friend was already self-pubbing her stuff, I did flirt with the dark side of self-comparison.  But I realised something: she knew more about the process than I did, and was generous enough to encourage me when I stalled.  So why should I feel jealous now that her second book is nearing self-publication? She's worked hard to write it.  And I'll be the first to read it.

But I think it's the elitism about what constitutes "good writing" in the published world that irks me more.  I can't justify how my fellow struggling writers have such tall poppy syndrome for internationally-successful authors.  Author blogs relentlessly tear strips from people like Dan Brown and E.L. James, but you know what? There is nothing more delicious than a good bad book.

I love to read.  I've read hundreds, maybe even thousands of books, and even if the narrative is absolutely killing me, I'll generally try to commit to the end.  Even when a book, in my respectful opinion, sucks, it doesn't mean I can't see the merit in it for other people.  My taste is not the barometer for all that is sacred in the literary world.

Insert some kind of pun about "literary taste" to help this image along.

So when people refer to Dan Brown's books as meaningless pap, I can't help but raise an eyebrow.  I appreciate that some people prefer to read dense, non-fiction accounts of history rather than tearing through Rome chasing assassins, as depicted in Angels and Demons, but I'm not an academic of Roman history.  I'm a reader.  And people are supposed to have fun with those types of books, because they're entertaining.  What's more invigorating than conspiracies, history, and secret societies that set out to decimate the fabric of society? What's the issue with knowing that you might need to winch your suspension of disbelief a few degrees higher than with some books?  That's the magical thing about fiction - it's unrestrictive.

Admittedly, I haven't read 50 Shades of Grey, which was gifted to me for my 21st birthday in a swag of gag gifts.  The spine remains uncracked, and the cheeky troll face my friends glued into the corner of the front cover continues to leer at me, inviting me into a world where nobody understands the difference between BDSM and rape, and everybody murmurs.... well, everything they ever say.

But for the horde of my fellow "strugglers" to denigrate the success of these authors (50 Shades of Grey was picked up after being self-published! That's basically unheard of!) as somehow talentless, seems not only foolish, but egomaniacal.  Why shouldn't we give credit where credit is due? Are we really so self-involved?

Or are we all just feeling a bit usurped in our homesteads?

If the power-dynamic of authors, agencies and publishers is portrayed like a nuclear family, then authors are the children.  They grapple with spiteful sibling rivalry, perpetually trying to prove that another author is less deserving of love or attention than they.  But the reality is that your sibling is not the person keeping you at arms' length from your dreams.  The agents are - the ambivalent parent figure, chain-smoking and reading dense academic theses.  The agent is the one who ignores you whilst you jump at their feet, pleading for them to look over the story of a fairy princess that you wrote in crayon.  And though you worked hard on it, they will not praise it as if it's the best thing they've ever seen if it isn't.  Nobody likes their work being denigrated, which has a lot to do with why people equate the success of other in the literary world to their own failure.


The kid this video is based on will probably become an author one day.
Wait and see.

The problem isn't that the wrong authors are being picked up.  The problem is that the industry is inundated with talent, and slush, alike.  But people don't strike gold in the publishing world because agents somehow hate "the craft" and want to sign bad authors as some kind of longwinded revenge.  This difficulty to please publishers had much to do with Chuck Palahnuik writing "Fight Club", but even he confessed his confusion when the controversial manuscript was picked up for publishing.  The fact of the matter is that agents and publishers know their stuff.  If our work isn't at a standard to impress them, it should only fuel the fire to work harder more.

The fact of the matter is, we literary snobs need to face up to the truth: good bad books are good for books, full stop.  It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but we aspiring writers need to grit our teeth, and stop being so competitive.  Instead, we should dust ourselves off, solicit the bejesus out of our manuscripts better, and stop seeing the success of others as an indictment on ourselves.  It's scary to put your heart and soul (in ink) on the line.  And if it pays off for you, what right should anyone else have to say you don't deserve it?

It's my birthday.  So tweet @Scarlett_Hawk to tell me to stop eating so much cake and finish editing my manuscript.  I won't and you won't care, but at least we can go through the motions of pretending.

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