News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Hi J: I got around to reading that Salon article The Confessions of a Semi-successful Author. It's an interesting article, but I'm not convinced that it has that much to do with my prospects. Of course, I agree that writing is a very competitive and that most people don't make any money out of it, but surely the author in this case doesn't like the fact, and is even in partial denial, that she's operating in a marketplace. One of her prime grudges is that she can't get published despite writing what she calls "quality books". In other words, and she makes this clear over and over again, she believes that the market owes her a living. She believes that the industry is out of whack, that her tragic inability to make a living from writing is somehow unfair. This of course is absurd. The market owes no one a living. The market changes in random ways and you have to adapt to it; like weather, cancer, or a natural disaster, it is not going to adapt to you.

She even goes so far as to admit, with pronounced irritation, an inability to understand what the market wants. On the one hand she despises what sells; on the other hand she is at a loss to explain why garbage books do sell and do so in droves. Surely it's professional incompetence to try to retail a product in the marketplace in this way and an incredible effrontery to be contemptious of those who've succeeded (ex: Michael Moore wrote the No. 1 non-fiction book in the US market last year). This woman's unwillingness to bend and make concessions to market tastes, and then complain that her books don't sell, surely makes her a pathological case.

As usual with such democratic phenomena, Mencken has written about this at length before. In one of his articles he mentions something to the fact that a person specializing in deciphering ancient Egyptian is not going to find much luck working in Peoria Illinois and should not complain about it. In other words, what she really wants to do is pursue an esoteric hobby and have the public support her whims by purchasing her books and making her a millionaire in the process. More denial, little common sense, and an incredibly self-centered worldview that presumes entitlement, amongst other lunacy. For someone from the upper-middle class, she has a very dreamy inner-city, welfare-bum perspective on things. She's only a step away from the Marx/Chomsky neo-animist conspiracy cosmologies...

Also, because I don't know who she is, I can't tell what kind of writing she produces. This is unfortunate as I'm sure that if we could take a look at a few pages of the quality material she churns out, we would understand immediately why she's failing. In lieu of this, the next best thing is try to get an idea of her approach.

It seems that she makes a pitch, gets an advance, and then devotes the next couple of years to putting the book together. My approach is exactly the opposite. Before launching into a book project, I first build up my knowledge base and then write the book. It's for this reason, for example, that I'm reading both Chinese and American history. With her, she's limited by time constraints and thus necessarily restricted to focusing upon a narrow area. If she's in fact doing what I'm thinking, this would also make it difficult for her to attract a general audience since a general audience wants a mishmash of material, it does not want to read a narrow academic monograph; regardless of the quality.

Also, check out the quote: "I've published several books, won rave reviews, and even sold a few copies. But I've made almost no money and had my heart broken." Her first US $150,000 advance seems to me to be a very impressive sum. I've made nothing so far.

And that phrase, "had my heart broken." Hmm... that suggest plenty to me about her failure...

Furthermore, writing her books in a given style or format that has failed to sell in the past seems to me to be pigheaded, indulgent, and financially irresponsible. She's been digging her own grave. It's one thing to make a mistake once and its another not to learn from it. Sort of a variation on the adage: fool me once a shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

And how about this quote: "Taking the job would feel like admitting failure," I told my now 19-year-old daughter, the girl I raised to believe that dreams do come true. I don't think either one of us would enjoy the writing of an author who cherishes such foolish sentimentalities.

Just throwing in my $.50 worth. Thanks for the referral.


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