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A friend of mine responded, not argumentatively, to my original post about the difficulties of being an amateur writer who wants to go pro. I want to isolate his three main points and deal with them. I’m not quoting directly, but what he said was basically this:

  1. You can’t expect your friends to all flock to read your novel. What if they don’t like your writing? It’s embarrassing, and since their friendship is important to you, it may be best to keep your writing to yourself.
  2. It’s also probably best to only give good reviews; sincerity therefore requires that you only respond to someone else’s writing when you like it.
  3. Not everyone is going to get published, and anyway, there’s never a point at which you have definitely arrived as a writer. (Let’s leave Dante, Tolkien, and Rowling out of this.)  That’s okay, because you really only write for yourself: you write the book you want to read.

I strongly agree and disagree with him. And I’ve been thinking about this for the past four days, as I wrestled with a rotten little cold.

  1. It’s very true that you can’t expect your friends to be delighted when you plunk a novel down in front of them and tell them you’d be so happy if they read it. I was a little spoiled that my first actual completed novel, The Tale of Countess Vivian, was avidly read during its writing by about half a dozen people, and more have read it since and loved it. (Doubt me if you like.) It’s long, but it’s a nice symmetric tale of good and evil, of power and resistance, with a hero no one could dislike (well, my ex preferred Vivian’s ancestor Tereza, but that doesn’t count). Since that time, I’ve found it much more difficult to induce people to read my stuff, and I realized at some point that Viv was an anomaly.
  2. There are so many books in the world that there seems no point dwelling on the bad ones. On the other hand, as a small part of my job, I try to teach college students to write fiction, and I can honestly say that no one is horrible. It’s not new-agey to say that there’s always something good to say about anything. I think the difference between my friend and I on this is a result of our respective job descriptions—it’s in the nature of a teacher to build on the good stuff and gently push the bad aside. My friend also assumes that you are going to either <like> or <dislike> a novel (or anything else). He knows it’s not a {0, 1}-valued function. The way it really works is like this: I loved A; I thought B was an interesting idea; I didn’t especially care for C. That’s not embarrassing.
  3. I definitely agree that too many novels are chasing too few readers. Not everyone is going to get published. You can let that bother you or not: but only a fool will write solely because of a plan to see his name in lights. Novelists aren’t alone in this: actors, poets, and painters all have the problem of being great at something that will most likely never pay them back for their care and hard work. But this was a response to something I didn’t say in my first post, nor is it really true: that publication was the goal, or that “arriving” was the goal.

So much for all my swirling thoughts. When the swirling died down (I’m feeling better day by day), I was left with:

Why do we write novels?

Again, the Giesian List:

  1. I had a great idea for a character and a plot.
  2. The sheer challenge of finishing something big.
  3. Unimaginable wealth! And I have a great imagination.
  4. Can’t find anything worthwhile to read.
  5. To impress people.

I have to agree with my friend that #4 is the truly enduring reason. I write, as he said, because I can’t find what I really want to read on the bookshelf.

Of course, the human heart is muscular and is not, naturally, a follower of the Buddha. Desire soon blooms, with all its attendant aches and pains. The possibility of publication has been wafted about in my airspace, and who wouldn’t want that? My 13-year-old, who (and this is a blessing I do not take for granted) loves all my novels he’s read, wants to know who would play Vivian in the movie. (I am not saying. Rhymes with Polly Punter.) I teach a class on H. P. Lovecraft, in which the great literary lions are Rowling and King and Tolkien; I can see myself in their company! Ahhhhhh… pop. (The bubble popping.)

"We have lingered in the chambers of the seaBy sea-girls wreathed with see-weed red and brown,Till human voices wake us and we drown."

Yeah. But originally, even before Vivian, my aspiration was to journey (alone) in imaginary lands, and see sights no one else would ever, ever see. Does that seem lonely, or magical? Like so much else, it’s a matter of how you decide to view it.

So here’s the point.

Cheer up, amateur novelists!

I’m with you. I’ll read your stuff. You don’t even have to read mine, although I think you’d like it. But even if no one ever reads your novel, sees through the window you’ve built into the world and lives of people you never knew existed, you have seen through that window, and really in any case only you can see clearly, only you can walk in that land. Only Rowling can speak to Dumbledore as he really is (and not Michael Gambon), only Suzanne Collins knows the real Katniss. Only I know the real Vivian: she talks to me, and I’ll tell you, she’s not necessarily happy about all I put her through. Your worlds and characters are there. That’s why you write. That’s why you should keep writing.