Columns > Published on August 14th, 2014

10 Soul-Crushing Things About Writing in 2014

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that sometimes I’m a Negative Nancy. I’m sorry I have things I’m pissed off about and that I’m sharing my resentment. Mainly, I’m sorry that I began this whole thing with a two-word, attention-grabbing paragraph. It was calculated to make potential readers wonder just what it is I am sorry for. Also, I'm sorry that there are only 3 things on this list, not 10, as the title promises. (See #2.)

1. You have to be one type of narcissist to write, but you have to be another type to sell your books.

There’s nothing wrong with being self-obsessed. Or rather, there is plenty wrong with it, but ours is a culture that thrives on everyone being fascinated by how they are perceived. And most writers are narcissists anyway: they write about themselves, they talk about themselves, they write about how they write about themselves. They talk about themselves as though they were separate from their characters; they want to be known as the creators of those characters; they sue for plagiarism; they promote their own work everywhere they can. A writer writes about how the life of a writer is a constant reinvention of the self, paradoxically always sounding like the same basic narcissist. Writers, once published, Google reviews of their own work, sometimes yearly, sometimes every eight minutes.

This concern with the self has given the world many beautiful books. But it’s 2014, and whole businesses exist for helping you “manage" your online reputation, and image can feel like everything. Aside from the basic self-obsession that makes us write, we feel we must be extremely presentable as we look for readers.

A writer writes about how the life of a writer is a constant reinvention of the self, paradoxically always sounding like the same basic narcissist.

To be fair to all of us, certain “realities” (the internet, the changes in publishing) have forced us into an awkward position. We seek a balance between hysterical individualism ("I WROTE THIS BOOK!!!”) and a feeling of solidarity, even community, among other writers. After all, those other narcissists with pens are often our first readers. And a big-name blurb never hurt, if you can get one. So we must cultivate an audience by projecting an image of who we are without crowding out other people.

In practice, this means we too easily end up loud and aggressive in a community of louder and more aggressive people, in all the coy and subtle ways we’ve discovered don’t feel too degrading. I imagine it’s like being a fishmonger at the local market trying to be less loud than the most obnoxious guy a few stalls away, but still loud enough to be heard over some of the others.

It is, nevertheless, degrading. There is a difference between, on the one hand, the self-regard that goes into writing a book expecting it to be read and, on the other, the obsessive need for control over your book’s success and your own reputation, your Author’s Platform. When you’re seized by the latter kind of self-involvement, you’re likely to start wanting to pander to hypothetical readers because, well, it just felt so damned good the last time you got more than two comments on your blog post. You spend a surprising amount of money on books about marketing books, and get busy becoming a “personality” out there.

Some people do the selling-books-online thing admirably well. I know a few authors who are so good at it that I’d trust them to take over in a hostage negotiation. But emulating them can be disastrous when you don’t get what you’re doing. A few months ago, I got so exhausted by the constant self-promotion of other authors on Facebook and by my own feeling of having cheapened myself to the point of no return on social media that I just deleted my account and went for a hike. Now I use a secret account simply to manage my public Facebook page*, where mainly I post funny pictures that my friend Sam finds on the internet. I haven’t figured out how to be relaxed about any of this. I fear becoming unbearable. (I have a problem.)

Erich Fromm wrote about “marketing personalities” as distinct from narcissists and other personality types. (It is, in my opinion, a better term than “narcissist” in this context, but I was afraid I’d lose some readers if I’d started this list with “You have to be a narcissist to write, but a marketing personality type to sell your books.”) For the marketing type of personality, even the “person” they are is a kind of commodity.

Spend a bit of time surrounded by anxious writers (especially online, but also at conventions) and then read the paragraph below (lifted from here), replacing “marketing types” with “writers who spend time too much time online”:

Unproductive marketing types lack direction, as well as the ability to commit themselves to people or projects. But when productive, marketing types are good at facilitating teams and keeping the focus on adding value as defined by customers and colleagues. Like obsessives, marketing personalities are avid consumers of self-help books. […] They lack the daring needed to innovate and are too responsive to current—rather than future—customer demands.

People like Chuck Wendig are around to help incompetent self-marketers like me find our way. They market their own work beautifully, and they give good advice without coming across as smug or deluded. They are, sadly, the exception.

*Footnote: See how I cleverly linked you to my page? You could also check out my music and buy all my damned books please!

2. Everyone wants you to know that formulas are the magic way to get internet readers.

Apparently, lists are the best way to create viral content. According to this big, widely-shared article, lists that go viral tend to be Top Ten lists. Articles between 3,000 and 10,000 words in length get shared more than shorter and longer ones. You must share articles on Wednesdays for more traffic, or when there's a full moon and the stock market is bullish. I can't remember.

I have met writers who argue that asking yourself “Could this go viral?” while editing a piece is a helpful way to be self-disciplined. Looking at your own work objectively is much easier when you have a good sense of what kind of article is likely to be shared by a million people. You ask yourself: Was I clear enough? Is this readable? Does my opening paragraph need work? Then you go back and chop things up as needed.

Okay. Whatever helps with editing. But the presupposition is that a major purpose of editing is to make your writing as sharable as possible — that is, as unspecific to its audience as it can be, to maximize the chances of it being read by everyone. That’s Newspaper Editor Mentality. It is the same attitude to prose that doesn’t see much of a problem with cliches, and that disdains long sentences and slightly obscure allusions. My scientific hypothesis is that although this seems a harmless position, taking it can influence the quality of the rest of your writing in a pernicious way. Even the stuff you never hoped would go viral gets chopped around as though it were meant for the hungry masses of fast-clicking casual readers.

Call it my little domino theory of hack writing. If you pedestrianize your prose or oversimplify ideas because you’ll get more readers that way, and it works!!!!, never again shall you try any harder. I admit this is a bit conservative, perhaps elitist. My worry, however, isn’t that if the masses understand you, you must suck. It is that writing for an imagined “mass” of bored readers trivializes your relationship to your own work and to the work in which a reader likes to engage. Very few readers are quite as stupid as to need a writer to worry about them that way. It is also perfectly possible to deal with big ideas in accessible ways without patronizing your audience.

(Digression: Now that self-publishing is an entirely legitimate option — which is, I think, a great thing in general — it’s even more important to be self-disciplined. So far, while I expect there are many more, I have only ever found one self-published novel that was fiercely, unapologetically “literary" and demanding of its readers. It’s called New People of the Flat Earth, Book 1: Mosquito by Brian C. Short. If you’re into seriously good stuff, read it, and see. More generally: I worked in publishing for a couple of years, and I believe if you know what you're doing, you can do your book a better deal by taking care of its production yourself. But you need external quality checks, or you get lazy. The world of self-publishing, like so many of the worlds made possible by the internet, is a crowded place, and it's so fast to get your work out there, and you want readers, and you’ve seen what works, and Amazon Prime readers can get your book for free…)

3. Random idiots are doing weird things in their reviews of your books.

My favourite passage in Baudelaire is one of his Paris Spleen vignettes, "The Bad Glazier." “There are certain natures,” the narrator begins, "purely contemplative and totally unfit for action, which nevertheless, moved by some mysterious and unaccountable impulse, act at times with a rapidity of which they would never have dreamed themselves capable.” To him, this is "the kind of energy that springs from boredom and daydreaming; and those who display it so unexpectedly are, in general, […] the most indolent and dreamiest of mortals.” Bored and seized by "a compelling urge to do something extraordinary,” the narrator illustrates his point with the most refined urban insanity. He calls out to a glazier from his apartment window. The glazier walks up the narrator’s six flights of stairs with his glass goods. But the narrator, viciously unimpressed by what the glazier is selling — "Scoundrel, what do you mean by going into poor neighborhoods without a single glass to make life beautiful!” — sends the poor guy off again. When he sees the glazier walking out of the building, he throws one of the flower pots on the balcony at him, destroying all the merchandise. “Make life beautiful! Make life beautiful!” our hero squeals. He knows this isn’t civilized behaviour. "But what is an eternity of damnation compared to an infinity of pleasure in a single second?”

Call it my little domino theory of hack writing. If you pedestrianize your prose or oversimplify ideas because you’ll get more readers that way, and it works!!!!, never again shall you try any harder.

What indeed. Charles Baudelaire would have made a fabulous internet troll. You will find the same strange malice that so delights his narrator on just about any site that encourages random reviewers. For every helpful or interesting review someone leaves on Amazon or Goodreads, there’s an equally stupid or destructive one right next to it. “THIS SUX AND IS SOBAD. 1/5. THE AUTOHR IS RASIST!” Then someone else calls them out on their crappy review, and a flame war ensues. But the book’s overall rating has gone down a bit. When that book is Crime and Punishment, no amount of online trashing is going to make a difference. But if it’s a book you only published this year, and you’re struggling just to hit 10 reviews, this situation is a painful fact of life now. (My friend Jack and I once had a couple of afternoons of fun trying to emulate the magically stupid style of bad online reviewers, and got plenty of hate mail from book lovers.)

I won’t make the argument that unless you’re a professor of English Literature, you shouldn’t be allowed to discuss a book’s merits. As another loser who’s aching to finish his PhD and get the fuck out of academia for good, I know how empty, how sadly pointless an academic opinion can be. And a lack of education is never the problem when someone leaves a stupid review, anyway: it’s a mix of entitlement, impatience, and resentment that does the job.

"We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in Art Objects, a collection of essays you should ask someone for, for Christmas. "The audience, who have not done the work, who have not taken any risks, whose life and livelihood are not bound up at every moment with what they are making, who have given no thought to the medium or the method, will glance up, flick through, chatter over the opening chords, then snap their fingers and walk away like some monstrous Roman tyrant. This is not arrogance; of course they can absorb in a few moments, and without any effort, the sum of the artist and the art.” How often I’ve turned, wounded and belittled, to these words to console myself.

But even Winterson’s indignation seems out of place when you’re dealing with online dicks. Often, the problem is not that the reader didn’t “get” the book or give it a serious reading. When I come away from a novel having found in it something which, as I later discover by reading interviews, seems to have been nowhere on the author’s mind, I may be accused of having failed to “get” the real idea in some way, but who cares? Reading is many worlds.

The problem is, instead, that it is now extremely easy for even those who never tried to get it, or who never even read the book, or who are just having a bad day on a thousand levels, to affect your book’s reception and sales. It’s enough of a spectacle when a professional reviewer mercilessly trashes a book on the basis of some perceived ideological shortcoming. Or, worse, when Michiko Kakutani reviews a book she doesn’t like. The gatekeepers are not always adept at keeping pettiness and keeping stupidity out.

But at least these damaging reviews are (usually) not anonymous, full of typos, defamatory, weirdly personal or vindictive. This is one of those times I don’t feel I need to give an example because precisely everyone knows what I’m talking about. But I found one anyway, on my first try! One of my favourite novels is 1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray. It’s a miserable book about a miserable man about to kill himself. He drinks himself stupid, cooks up the most outrageous sexual fantasies to fight off his loneliness, and slowly comes to terms with how badly he treated a former lover. Through his snobbish contempt and condescension, his sexual immaturity and his anger, he lost something he never learned to treasure when it was there. Sad book.

Go on its Amazon UK page. There’s a great two-star review:

Potential readers should know that large parts of this book consist of extremely nasty and unpleasant pornographic sexual fantasies.

This is a quote from Alisdair Gray, the author. It is part of an interview on his own website. He cannot read his own book.

"When writing the pornographic parts of 1982, Janine I was deliberately shocking myself. Though I think it my best novel, I cannot now reread it — I'm back to being as old fashioned as I was before imagining it."

I read some of the rest of the book which is why it gets two stars instead of one.

Fair enough, if she wants to warn readers that the book contains unpleasant pornographic scenes. They really are pornographic when you look at them out of context. But in context, as anyone who’s read the book the whole way through will see, they serve a clear purpose: they reveal the narrator’s insecurities and isolation and desperation and, most importantly, his desire to be punished. But that’s of no concern to our tell-it-like-it-is reviewer. She quotes, instead, the author saying: “I think it’s my best novel” — many readers would agree with him — but “I cannot now reread it.” Therefore, you understand, this book is pure shit.

“I read some of the rest of the book,” the reviewer throws in at the end of her review. She read some of the rest of the book! That is “why it gets two starts instead of one.” You see the logic: If you read Tolstoy’s Resurrection to the end, you must award it 5 stars.

Read the ensuing discussion, and you’ll discover the reviewer taking up the heat: "Alisdair wrote this crap for money. It was a short story that became a novel by repetition. Did you know he simply reworked his early attempts to make money from pornography ? Some feminist.”

This sounds personal. Oh wait:

I live in Glasgow and have met him at least twice. Read his biography by Rog (?) Glass, it's very illuminating.

I give up.

About the author

Phil Jourdan is a writer, musician and distinctly unenlightened person. He is structural editor at Angry Robot, and a co-founder of Repeater Books and Litreactor. He splits his time between the UK and Argentina.

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