Monday, August 15, 2005

The Really Tough Question

Bartleby asks a question that cuts to the quick:
"Are you trying to discourage people from writing, or more specifically, publishing? I've come up with a couple of decent stories lately, but get a bit nervous when I see how badly [you say] people have treated you. Is that endemic throughout the industry? Are any publishers honest? Is there anyone that makes you feel good to do business with?"

Y'know, about twenty years ago, when I was a rising hot young talent, I wound up spending an evening with Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, and a third famous name who I want to say was Algis Budrys but more likely was Barry Malzberg. I remember this because I wrote about it at length in my journal -- which, luckily, is in a box in the attic, and I'm not about to go find it now -- and the thrust of my thoughts then was, "God, I hope I'm not like them when I'm 50, all cranky, bitter, and burned out from decades of just missing the brass ring."

And whadaya know: here I am, 50 years old, and looking back at the last few months of this blog, I certainly do have a certain cranky and bitter streak going, don't I?

Perhaps I need to change my ways.

Understand, I still love reading. And I certainly do enjoy writing, although not as much as I did before it became my means of making a living. And it was never my intent to make this blog another outpost of simple mindless boosterism for would-be writers; there are enough of those already. But...

But this is where it all gets really sticky and personal. Looking at the writing life as a semi-successful writer, and as a husband, and as a father, and most of all as the son of a frustrated novelist who spent years beating his head against it, I've come to realize that the writing life is profoundly toxic to marriages and families.

There's this Bohemian vision that the arts boosters sell, and it's not limited to writing, it also applies to acting, painting, music and pretty much any other artistic endeavor. The vision is that it's somehow metaphysically worth it. It's worth the long hours, the sacrifices, and giving short shrift to everything and everyone else in your life in order to chase your private muse, because if you just keep at it long enough, one day you will create that perfect work of art that will change the world, and it will make you immortal.

Unfortunately there are three painful realities hiding just beneath the surface of this beautiful vision. One is that, as with theatre, music, or art galleries, the economics of the publishing business are predicated on the assumption that there is an infinite supply of bright young talents who are willing to sell their souls in order to break into the business. The second is that once you "break in," that's just the start of the real work. And the third is, even if you do manage to write that one perfect short story that changes the world, careerwise, you're still only as good as your most recent publication.

So, to answer Bartleby's questions: am I trying to discourage people from writing? Certainly not. I love reading, and by extension, I love the people who write that which I read. So keep writing! Write new and great stuff! I want to see more! More! Am I trying to discourage people from publishing? I don't think so, but I think I am trying to get a few of you to take off those rose-colored glasses. Publishing ain't art; it's a business, and one with really ugly supply and demand curves. Are there any honest publishers? Yes, lots of them. I've dealt with a lot of people on the editing and publishing side of the business who were a pleasure to work with, and while most of them worked for tragically undercapitalized small press or regional publishers, a very few of them still do have jobs with major national publishing houses.

But here's the question that Bartleby didn't ask, and I wish he had: do I know of any successful writers with intact marriages and functional families? And the answer to that one is: far too few.

So there, I guess and at last, is the core belief that underlies much of what I have to say about this strange business of writing. I don't believe in human sacrifice.

So don't sacrifice your family for the sake of your writing career...