The Writer’s Lament

Timothy Egan put the lament of all but the most successful writers into his column on Sunday in the New York Times. His complaint?

A plaintive why.

Why do publishers shovel out so much crap (witness Joe the Plumber’s book deal)? Why do people who can barely string together a sentence – like Sarah Palin – get $7 million advances? Why do so many people think they can write? And why does celebrity crowd out real writers in the marketplace?

As someone who has experienced publishing rejection firsthand, I feel his pain. But everything is relative, a matter of degrees. I have been told by my agent that if I was Bob Woodward or Thomas Friedman, my book (which I now intend to self-publish) would have been published. (A palliative explanation perhaps, but not impossible to imagine).

Those two, as examples, are celebrity writers crowding out a young unknown. Why shouldn’t I feel resentment for them? Why shouldn’t I feel resentment for Tim Egan? I wouldn’t mind writing a column for the New York Times.

Furthermore, who is to judge who is a writer? True, writers must demonstrate command of the language, but otherwise the barriers to entry are ridiculously low. A pen and a piece of paper. Who is to judge whether or not someone is a worthy writer?

Right now, it is simply the gatekeepers of America’s literary and journalistic brands. And, in this world, they are increasingly pressured to sell. What sells? Celebrity, name recognition, and really lousy fiction. (And, by-the-way, it doesn’t hurt if you roomed with that future editor back at Vassar.) Once in a while, something new, original, and previously unknown squeaks through by virtue of mere talent alone. But that is indeed rare.

So what is to be done?

Storm the ramparts. Blog, self-publish, start your own journal or imprint. Thousands (if not millions) of writers are already doing these things, and by doing so, they are shaking the foundations of the literary and journalistic establishments. Yes, they’re largely unpaid, and that is painful to writers who seek to make a living from the word. But don’t blame a writer for writing. Real writers are going to write whether they are paid or not.

And don’t blame the business of publishing for shoveling out crap that sells more than the hidden gems. If you want to make a living writing, then you’ve got to respect the marketplace. As a voracious reader of fiction and non-fiction, I can tell you that even among the “respectable” work by “real” writers, there is a hell of a lot of crap.

So do not lament a dying business and standards that protect a lucky few. Sure, Hemingway and Joan Didion deserve(d) their places and fees, and yes, Sarah Palin is an ignorant disgrace, but, ultimately, the market will decide who makes their coin as a writer.

Your best option is to put yourself in the role of gatekeeper. This is a time of empowerment for writers. Seize your moment and reach out to the marketplace directly.

Save your lament for the poor fools who actually put down their hard earned money only to find the Sarah Palin story doesn’t include nude photos.

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2 Responses to The Writer’s Lament

  1. Writer says:

    When you’re on the outside looking in, there is no difference bet. Tom Friedman and Joe the Plumber. They’re both stealing your advances.

  2. […] are now the gatekeeper. Writers should utilize all the tools at their disposable to reach their audience without the […]

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