I have a friend whose first book did much better than mine, and who got much bigger advances for both their books, and I love complaining about the writing world to this person, because they’re always like…yes, it is terrible, yes it is difficult, yes it is all luck.
I have another friend whose first book was brilliant, was fought over by agents, but which never sold, and they love complaining to me, because I’m like, wow, your book REALLY deserved to be published. You have been so hosed. You deserve to be profiled by the New York Times, sitting on the steps of brownstone, wearing a sweater, talking about your influences.
People like me and my more successful friend aren’t as common as one would want. Many writers have fully bought into the values of the system, and they jealously guard their own prerogatives. I understand the practice of policing the boundaries of our little garden: oh, I’ve sold a book, so I have more status; I have an agent, so I have more status; I’ve sold stories to major publications, so I’m legit. We’ve worked hard to get where we are, and we want to feel like it means something. But the fact is that if anything should confer status in the writing world, it’s not your success, it’s the quality of your work, and quality isn’t necessarily correlated with publishing success. Nor, for that matter, is quality necessarily perceptible to any given reader. I might read something and think it has no merit, and only later realize that there was a lot going for it.
I understand why other writers don’t feel this way, because it would be exhausting, but to me every writer–published or unpublished–is a peer until proven otherwise. On the one hand, this is just good sense, because as you progress in this career, you’ll meet lots of people who start off unpublished and rapidly become more successful than you. But it’s also just, I don’t know…it’s just common courtesy.
When I was first starting out as a writer, I’d go to conventions, and I’d feel like, well, I’m nobody, and nobody respects me, nobody wants to talk to me, and I used to leave with my eyes burning, thinking, I’m never going to come back here until I’m somebody. Part of that was social awkwardness–I was shy and wasn’t good at talking to people. But now I do carry some kind of status. I’ve published books. I’ve had stories to the right magazines. Sometimes I still feel like the low woman on the totem pole because I haven’t won award or achieved material success, but I know now that to the extent that feeling is not just in my head, it’s the problem of the people putting it on me.
But anyway, back then, I swore to myself that when the time came, I would be better. I wouldn’t make assumptions about people. I wouldn’t be inclusive toward everyone, because, obviously, I’m not going to get along with everybody, but I’d judge people by their talent and by how well we got along, and not by their level of success. And I would not stand on my own tiny bit of status, but I’d willingly give it up to anyone who deserve it. And I think that is a really, really important thing one writer can give another. I think it’s one thing to know that you have a lot to learn, but it’s also a not uncommon experience to know that you are doing good work, and to know that you’re writing publishable–or even awards-worthy–fiction, and to feel frustrated that the world still treats you like a wanna-be. And as perceptive and sensitive readers, who’ve walked this path ourselves, it’s our job as writer and colleagues to ease some portion of that hurt for our friends.
Sorry, it’s early, and I’m tired from being up with the baby, so I fear this blog post isn’t as coherent as I’d like it to be, but that’s what I had to say on this morning.