You know the old saw about how people allegedly don't read anymore?¹ I've long believed it's horse puckey — people do read, and quite voraciously. What I'm coming to doubt is that there was ever a time when the Average Dude read more deeply than they do today. It's a sop to the idea of a golden age, another version of the social myth that we did things better once upon a time, and all we have to do is go back to doing that and all will be well.
And a big part of why it's a myth is because of why books find an audience in the first place. Hint: it's not because most of them are any good.
Try this. Go dig up a bestseller list from decades hence and check up on the general tenor of the titles published. Most are fluff of the Dan Brown / E.L. James persuasion, or pretentious middlebrow versions of cap-L literature. In short, lousy.
Few have survived except as footnotes. See how many of those titles you even recognize without the aid of a search engine. I've mentioned before that most people under the age of fifty today wouldn't be able to tell you who Grace Metalious was, let alone twig to the title Peyton Place, despite the fact it sold an ungodly number of copies back in the day. How many landfills or mulch piles are now lined with that book? Not enough, if you ask me.
So why did it ever get any attention at all? Because it was scandalous, and it reached a society that thirsted for scandal in a halfway respectable format as a way to justify wallowing in it. And because the promoters of the book knew this and capitalized ruthlessly on it, in a time when allegedly electrifying truth-telling about society was very much in vogue (the Fifties).
What I'm discovering is that the success of a book — and by this I mean commercial success, unambiguously so — is often a black swan event. It is often not about the book itself, but about what network effects and opportunistic happenings can be set in motion around it.² This is why, say, Tao Lin can write books that are barely worth reading in the first place and yet somehow achieve a following. It's not his work that gets the attention, but the aura of personality he's built up around what he does. The same might go for any other writer who self-consciously cultivates a following: John Green, for instance.
None of this is news, but one of the mistakes I see self-published authors making is believing earnestly in the social myth of just deserts. The one thing any author, any artist, has to live with, is the bitter truth that the society we're stuck living in isn't meritocratic. Good books fall into obscurity and have to be kept alive by word of mouth (often by people who are sadly underequipped to speak for the very things they live), and why mediocre-to-terrible books sell zillions of copies (for a while, anyway). You are far more likely to be recognized for what you do because you are good at making and exploiting connections than because you have something worthwhile to offer, in big part because most people don't want to be told anything they don't already know.
I say all this not because I approve of it, but because I want to recognize it and do something about it. So if you want to fight this, and I know I do, here's my suggested plan of action.
- Write because you want to write, not because you want to be famous.
- Learn how to be famous in a way that impacts the creation of your work as little as possible. Cultivate within yourself the discipline to speak of your work as if it were someone else's.
- Never forget that these two paths aid each other, but need to exist separately from each other. Reinforce them individually.
In short: write like a mofo, and make your own luck. Because when you get down to it, there isn't any other kind.
How we fight all this on a social level is, well, another story. Maybe even another career.
¹ Strictly speaking, there's a lot of nonreaders, and a small number of voracious readers.
² I wonder how many successful authors who can owe their success to clever self-promotion are not overly disturbed by the fact that the majority of their job description would be publicist rather than author, but that's worth its own blog post.