On Failing as a Writer
Authorship in the age of the selfie
The publication of my first novel, The Ocean Container, brought me a number of until then inaccessible opportunities. I was paid for readings, flown to a literary festival in the United States, and accepted for an artist residency. My book was endorsed and supported by all sorts of smart people (it’s gauche to drop names, but you can look them up), and I entered an elite of writers—those who earn anything at all from their writing. And yet, in the launch of my career as a novelist, I had certainly failed.
To begin with, have you heard of The Ocean Container? Likely not—and that’s the first sure sign. My book hasn’t been shortlisted for any of the better-known awards. Nor has it been reviewed in any national or international mainstream newspapers, or in other popular media. More importantly, my book hasn’t generated the necessary revenue to fund writing the next one. As an author who earns anything at all from writing, I should clarify this means breaking even on the purchase of ink cartridges, paper, postage, and maybe a cheap hotel room once in a while. I am certainly not earning enough to fund, say, a three-month retreat to focus solely on writing.
My writing still gets done piecemeal, at five or six in the morning, for an hour or two, prior to the start of my day job—clearly not ideal. When we consider our favourite artists—writers, painters, musicians, film-makers—usually they had copious amounts of time to do nothing but make art. And on top of that, they generally started at the top of their respective fields, which in most cases explains their access to time. If research published in Science is anything to go by, artists who fail to start at the top—that is, who fail to buy the time they need to make art—usually never make it to the top.
This raises the question of why I’ve started at the bottom. I thought I had a catchy premise for my novel: a fugitive environmentalist who takes to hiding in a shipping container, where he struggles to uncover his past life as a soon-to-be extinct species of whale. I was writing the kind of story I would like to read, and I thought others would like to read, too. Yet, as I have been told over and over again, my first novel, The Ocean Container, is “uncommercial.” One reviewer—someone who knows about these things—refers to it directly as such. And one of my editors suggested it would be a better second novel, after a more “commercial” first novel. But what constitutes “commercial?”
Before defining “commercial,” it perhaps goes without saying that “uncommercial” starts in motion all sorts of vicious cycles. Literary agents won’t deal with a writer whose work isn’t sellable. Most big publishers won’t talk to writers who don’t have agents. Mainstream journalists are either too overworked or too lazy or too elitist to deal with any but the noisiest of literary publicists hired by big-name publishers. And the same goes for big literary prizes. There are few exceptions. And what sells is what gets seen. And on and on.
To be sure, the definition of “commercial” shifts over time—as do levels of readership and literacy. In my own country, Canada, there has been a gradual decline in the number of people who read books at all, and a notable growth in “inadequate literacy,” which now applies to roughly half the population. (This is not an unusual finding across Anglophone OECD countries.) It follows there would be more pressure for publishers to stick with predictably easy-to-sell titles, and avoid “uncommercial” books in particular. Somewhat more complicated, changes in the way capitalism deals with arts and culture (a topic I’ll leave for someone else to address in adequate detail) have also affected marketability. In short, a novel like mine, which would be tame by 1970s standards, is now “strange” or “difficult.”
What the market appears to demand, more than ever, is “middlebrow.” Here I invoke Virginia Woolf’s definition. The middlebrow novel would be one “in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.” A relevant update would be Curtis White’s framing of the “middle mind” and “the appearance of a ‘serious’ culture… usually not all that different from the entertainment industry in the end.” This is what the book industry calls “literary fiction.” Its pretense of enquiry is only a thin veneer for a very certain position. It reassures the reader with its apparent meaningfulness (it’s a step above the romance novel) and reassures again by precluding the reader’s imagination. It is about “reality,” and more often than not about the “reality” closest to the author—which synchs up quite nicely with our age of the promotional selfie.
Back in 1967, Roland Barthes denounced the “prestige of the individual” as the “culmination of capitalist ideology,” and proposed the death of the author. This was to benefit the reader’s imagination through a more open text. But now we have come full circle, to what might be called the resurrection of the author. The author is back, perhaps louder than ever—as in the high-res publicity photo author, whose novels are interpreted by the biography of the author. (It is no wonder this resurrection coincides with that of the rightwing populist strongman, also driven by “money, fame, power, or prestige.”) The grainy author photo, or no author photo at all, or the novel that is not about the author, are not in synch with our times.
In my own country, perhaps more than any other, the resurrection of the author is mixed up with the politics—the Balkanization—of identity. It is common, even expected, that author biographies give prominence to cultural background. And there is certainly an expectation that the content of one’s art matches the content of one’s cultural background—of one’s genealogical ancestry, even: there have been a number of controversies regarding artists’ genealogy vis-à-vis their output. Now the novelist’s biography is as or more important than the content of the novel, and the two frequently coincide. The mania for “creative nonfiction” (and marginalization of imaginative fiction) that began in the 1990s has merged with the mania for identity and the author biography—which is perhaps soon to be accompanied by verified genealogical DNA test results from the Artist Eugenics Council of Canada.
Some are riding this identity wave, landing on the shore of an at least moderately sustainable writing career—and perhaps I could, too. I noticed recently an anthology of writing by Canadians of such-and-such ethnic background. It happened to be my ethnic background, and might have been a good opportunity to raise my author profile. But I was unaware of any call for submissions, and no one contacted me about it—maybe because I’ve never announced my ethnic background in the context of my writing, and my writing has nothing to do with my ethnic background anyway. So, as I miss out on such opportunities, my profile as a writer drifts farther offshore, along with the profile of the book I’ve written.
I raise such factors merely by way of explaining my failure to achieve a sustainable writing career, which is certainly the result of a market in which—whether right or wrong—there is little demand for a book like mine. This is, to be sure, a microeconomic concern. Although it matters to me, personally, I have to doubt what importance it has in the larger scheme of things.
When I consider the big picture, I observe there is already plenty of art in the world—there are plenty of books. There is “Book X” of Plato’s Republic, for example. And there are myriad retellings, whether acknowledged or not, by myriad writers. How many different versions do readers truly need? In a world already cluttered with art—paintings, films, songs, books—artists may question if what they create isn’t just more stock for the pile. Often it looks to be a very big pile indeed. On the other hand, “uncommercial” art is but a tiny, tiny fraction of it, and I’m not ready to say we have too much of that.
The market seeks only to repeat past commercial successes. It isn’t interested in pushing the kind of mind-opening surprises that are, in fact, sorely needed. Despite this, occasionally—very occasionally—we encounter less compromising artists who have made big impressions in the wider world. This happens not nearly as much as it should, of course, but when it does happen I feel hopeful and inspired… but also, I admit, a little bit jealous. That’s because more often than not these are artists who, unlike me, had copious amounts of time to do nothing but make art. However, if they make something that opens my mind in some way, I too benefit, and can be thankful that someone, anyone, had access to that kind of time. And for those of us who feel left behind, there are still the profound intrinsic benefits of making art—of writing—and of connecting with an audience, even if it is very small.
The feature image is of Kusama Yayoi’s Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field, on permanent display at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.