Law Thirty-Six

You gotta go with what works

Plastic figure with biro stuck in it

Why is it okay to be rude to authors?


I came across an article by Dr Alison Baverstock in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (and let’s just pause for a second to admire the apostrophe use in that title – if you’re into writing, you’re hopefully into grammar, and those two possessives give you a warm feeling of confidence about the book even before you open it).

She opens her article:

“One of the most disappointing things about finally getting a book professionally published is the reaction of other people. You might have imagined they would be impressed by your achievement. Think again. The reality is that most will use your success as a spur to their own aspirations, and rather than even pausing to admire what you have done, they will most likely come straight out with one of the following comments: ‘That’s something I have always planned to do’; ‘I’ve always felt there was a book in me too’; or even more frustratingly, ‘Lucky you to have the time’.”

(Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2014, p148)

Based on a completely random sample of the four published authors I know, at least 25% of writers have had this happen to them. And it seems that it’s not just the unpublished masses that have these thoughts. Even for writers who can point at their name on a book on Amazon, there’s always someone doing better than them critically or financially, someone who made out their advance, earns better royalties, has had their work translated into Icelandic, or whatever it is that they’re using today to measure success today.

But there’s a difference between thinking jealous thoughts and opening your mouth and saying these kinds of things to someone just as they come bursting out with their good news. If your relative is telling the family that they’ve just got engaged, social convention dictates that this is not the time to reveal that you’re into your second trimester. You don’t jump on someone’s “my life sucks so badly today” forum thread by commenting on how your own life sucks even more badly. Not unless you’re Doc Daneeka, and I don’t think he’s on Facebook. So why is there an exception to these social norms for when you’re talking to writers?

The response belittles the achievement – casting it aside as pure luck or making it sound like something that anyone could do if only they could be bothered. Unhelpfully, ‘They’ say that everyone has a book inside them. Despite many, many minutes of Internet research, I’ve not been able to find out who ‘They’ are, or why they are so sure, but I’m guessing that vanity publishers have been around long enough to have started the rumour. Most sources reciting this saying now quote Christopher Hitchens, who clarified: “Everyone has a book inside them, which is exactly where I think it should, in most cases, remain.”

I’m not even sure what the saying really means. Everyone has a book inside them could just be a way of saying that everyone’s life is important, and that the story of one’s life is a story worth telling. Or that we are all experts in some particular niche, whether that’s potty training five-year-olds, troubleshooting HP printers without the use of a steamroller, or finding interesting things to do in Wolverhampton – and that this information is worth sharing. Perhaps we do all have a story inside us just waiting to be crafted into a work of fiction.

Becoming a writer can sound like an easy way of making money for little effort. Get up, write a thousand words before breakfast, read for the rest of the morning and call it ‘research’, then spend the afternoon looking up new and obscure words in the dictionary (if you’re Will Self) or snoozing (if you’re any other author). In the same way, film actors spend a few weeks calling each other ‘darling’, eating cakes, and talking deeply about their characters’ motivations before standing in front of a camera for 30 seconds at a time and picking up a $15 million pay cheque.

Authors like Stieg Larsson don’t help here. The superficial version of Larsson’s story is that, in a financial pinch and needing to secure his retirement, Larsson set out to write a best-selling thriller, and so The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
was born. Except it wasn’t really like that. Larsson had been writing since he was twelve, and his day job was as a journalist. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t his first book, just his first novel. And he didn’t just sit down one day and start writing the Millennium series: like many other novelists, he wrote in his spare time around his day job over a course of years.

It comes down to the same thing that Craig Damrauer said about Modern Art:

Modern Art = I Could Do That + Yeah But You Didnt

(More New Math)

Telling the newly published that they’re lucky isn’t really just. Sure, there can be luck involved in the same way that the world can be an unfair place for us all: talent and hard work do not always get rewarded or recognised as they should. The manuscript that finally got picked up by a publisher was probably preceded by a series of similar manuscripts that did not, and more still that were locked away in the author’s drawer based on their own ability to self-criticise. It’s not through luck that someone sits down on a regular basis and writes: that’s cultivating a habit, stringing two sentences together and then doing it again and again until they’ve got 90,000 words down on electronic paper.

To an extent, I can understand why so many people think that they can or one day will write a book – not having tried to do something makes it so much easier to believe that when you do try it, you’ll be exceptional at it. What continues to puzzle me is why so many aspire to it enough for this jealous reaction to pass their lips when they talk to authors. If we’re thinking about works of fiction, then perhaps it’s just that everyone wants to be thought of as a creative person, and to leave their mark on the bookshelf. Or do we all just have our own pet ideas about how we will one day achieve the fame and fortune that we’re surely destined for, and for some that’s through writing a bestseller?

Whilst we’re off puzzling that last question, let’s keep this in mind: don’t be rude to authors – it’s not nice, and they can’t help it if they published a book.

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