Archive for November, 2015

Being Read

Recently I read an interview of the literary agent Jennifer Joel in the March/April 2015 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, and she made an astute comment which caught my eye.  I thought about it for a few days and realized she was right.

The interviewer, Michael Szczerban, asked her, “What would you love for writers to know before their work reaches your desk?”  She replied that she “would love writers to do their homework by the time they come to me.”  That is, to know what an agent does before you send her/him a query letter describing your work.

But Ms. Joel expanded on that comment with another statement to the effect that writers need to understand the distinction between being published on the one hand, and what they really want on the other.  Yes, there is a distinction.  Ms. Joel’s comment was that what writers really want is not merely to be published, but to be read.

That’s right, to be read.  I think many people, myself included, have misinterpreted the real endpoint of writing by assuming it was publication.  To get the damn book out there.  To get it on a shelf in some bookstore and be proud of the fact that it’s there.  I think we assume that if it’s there, it’ll be read.  I’m not sure that’s true.

Many people self-publish their books and assume that if it’s on Amazon or Kindle or Nook or present in some other such platform, that they’ve made it in the publishing world.  “I’ve published a book!” they trumpet loudly to the rest of the world.  That may be enough for them.  But I find myself silently asking them, don’t you want your book to be read?

In light of what Ms. Joel said, I’ve thought through my publishing desires.  Sure, I’d like to be published.  But will people actually pick up my book (or the whole trilogy) and read it?  As an unpublished author, I don’t feel I have the authority to state categorically, “If it ain’t good enough, it won’t be read.”  But I highly suspect that’s the case.  This is one reason, if not the main one, I’ve steered clear of the self-publishing route.  I want some (i.e., several) professional literary types to pass on my book before publication.  I’m not—and I’ve stated this several times before—ready to throw a book out to the world without some validation by someone who knows what they’re talking about.  In my opinion, that’s more likely to get a book read than just throwing it out there.

If you’re a writer (or more properly, an author) isn’t that what you want?  Don’t you want people to read your book?  Getting published isn’t the end of the road.  Getting read is.  Who’s going to download your book if it isn’t well written?  Do you think a colorful cover will get it done?  Think again.

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Good Or Best

In today’s all-or-nothing society, where everything has to be the absolute best there is, where every day has to be totally awesome and worthy of inclusion in the history books, where everyone is expected to perform at maximum intensity all day long, and where multi-tasking is not simply an uncommon though admirable character trait but an absolute job requirement, I believe we have begun to confuse the distinction between what is “best,” and what is merely “good.”  So often we are expected to be “the best,” or produce “the best” or see “the best.”  Good is, so often, not good enough.  We have ultimate expectations on our hands.  Much of what we read, see, hear and experience is touted as “the best,” as though nothing else is acceptable.  Like the character of Barney in the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” every day has to be exceptionally awesome to the point of nauseous exhaustion.  Almost weekly, award shows give out awards for the best of this, that, or the other.  As I write this, the Cincinnati Bengals have just beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers to move to a season record of 7-0, and they are being considered as Super Bowl contenders.  The winner of the Super Bowl is, and rightly so, the best in the NFL for that year.  But will the Bengals be “the best?”  Everyone waits, breathless.  (Note in passing, I used to live in Cincinnati, and so still follow the Bengals during football season.)

But there’s a profound difference between “the best,” and “good.”  As a writer, I am expected to produce written material that is not only good, but “the best.”  Contests for writers abound.  For short stories, for poetry, for first novels, etc.  Submit and win, they say, as though that were a simple matter.  Winning a contest can boost your career.  Sure, but only one person wins a contest.  And if you lose, does that mean you weren’t “the best?”  Horrors.

Take the Oscars, or the Emmys, for example.  These are two of the best known “best” shows.  Always the emphasis is on what is the best: the best show or movie or song or performer or director or producer of special effects, or whatnot.  It’s always “the best,” as though good has nothing to do with it.  It’s vitally important to keep in mind that those awards are simply for what was best during the previous season.  Nothing is ever said about how “good” the show or movie or actor or director really is.  Was the winner of the Oscar for the Best Movie of 20-whatever really any “good” to begin with?  Now, to be sure, so many movies are made and so many TV shows are produced each year that by the law of averages, one or a few are almost certain to be “good.”  Maybe even excellent.  But let us never lose sight of the real question we should ask of any award.  Was it really any good in the first place?

As a writer, I look to the book awards perhaps more critically than the movie awards.  The Pulitzers, the National Book Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and many others.  I particularly like the fact that a Pulitzer award may not always be given out if the judges can’t agree on a winner.  That happened for fiction in 2012, in 1977, 1971, 1964, 1957, and several times earlier.  This happens when they can’t agree on a winner, though we generally make the assumption that the finalists for that year were very good to begin with.

In my opinion, good trumps best in most cases.  I try to write a good novel or short story.  It may be the best I can do, but did I make it any good, regardless of whether it wins a prize?  The fact that so many agents and publishers have rejected my novels makes me wonder if what I wrote was any good at all, but I persevere with an eye toward eventual publication.  This is one reason I don’t want to self-publish.  There’s no way to really know if what I wrote is any good or not without some form of validation in the broader publishing world.  I would certainly hate to write a lousy novel and put it out there.

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