First off: I had no idea Bookslut was closing its doors. Second off:
I see young writers all the time who are overwhelmed by the need to brand themselves, to get their career going, to build up to respectability. I don’t think that’s healthy. ... There’s always space to do whatever you want. You won’t get as much attention, but fuck attention. Fight for integrity. ... This weird conformity just takes over as soon as the possibility of money or access or respectability comes up. That’s disappointing.
I feel weird talking about this — am I going to jinx myself? that kind of thing — but here goes. I've been trying to find representation for the last book I wrote, but I'm also attempting to not take the process very seriously. In other words, it's nice if it does happen, but I'm not going to make a concerted effort to recenter my entire career (such as I have one) around it if that's the case.
I come back often to an interview David Cronenberg once gave after he'd released The Dead Zone, where he noted with some joviality that he would never be able to make anything as popular as E.T. He eventually was responsible for The Fly, a critical and commercial success, and perhaps also a cultural one (most of us, I think, know the line "Be afraid. Be very afraid"). But he didn't suddenly recenter his career around knocking out stuff in that vein; he did what he was drawn to personally. Not all of it worked, but all of it was his.
"If I have to choose—" How I hate to start any sentence that way! But all too often, we do have to choose, and by definition a choice is something that narrows things down and reduces our options.
I don't like the idea that it comes down to a choice between having not much of an audience but being able to do my own thing, and having a sizable audience but also having that much less freedom to choose my own star to follow (because something isn't "marketable"). But if it does in fact come down to that, I'm picking the first option.
It's hard to ignore the genuine benefits of having a larger audience. The money doesn't hurt, and you also have that much larger a pool of genuinely useful feedback to draw on. But the other costs loom larger than those things. The money doesn't mean much if the creative work you're doing isn't the creative work that matters; and it's always possible to find good feedback if you look for it. The only time a larger audience makes sense for me is if it's a happy by-product of the work, and not the goal.
I never got into this to be rich or famous. I got into this because there seemed to be a small pool of stories, entirely mine, that seemed worth telling, and because I was Just Pretentious Enough (™ Henry Rollins) to think other people would be interested in it as well. I never figured I could have been rich or famous even if I'd tried, because all the things I was most curious about weren't things most other people seemed all that interested in. Every time I tried to make myself create something in what to me seemed like a mainstream vein, I couldn't do it — in big part because I knew full well there were a zillion-billion other people out there all trying to do exactly the same thing as everyone else. But there was only one of my trying to do my thing.
I'm recapping all this because I now want to put a twist on it — a twist I've aimed, rather pointedly, at some other fellow creators as well: Without an audience of scale, how do you know you're not simply creating garbage? Isn't there something to be said for the idea that maybe a story that doesn't have a broad appeal simply isn't very good? In short, how do you know you're not just kidding yourself?
For a long time, I didn't have an answer to that one. Whenever I found I was pointing that very skepticism at myself, I ducked away and changed the subject. But now I'm finding I have to reply to it, so here goes.
1) One of the things I have done as of late is cultivate a small but trustworthy group of people to give me feedback. The more diverse the directions they come from, the better. As I noted above, there don't have to be many of them; they just have to be able to give good, substantive feedback, the kind that makes me feel like I'm in a conversation and not the back of a lecture hall.
2) If they thought I was wasting my time, I think they'd tell me.
3) I don't think I'm wasting my time.
It's not much, I know. But it's all I've got. Which is, by the way, what I'm giving my work: all I've got.
I would rather contribute one original story to the world than a dozen pieces of the "very professional, shiny, happy plastic version of literature" Jessica Crispin decries in the above piece. That said, I have every intention of making sure that one story is the best possible thing it can be — that it benefit from being the product of my approach, and not be injured by it.
Other Lives Of The Mind