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What’s It All About, Alfie?

Posted by acdtest on July 14, 2003

What’s It All About, Alfie?

eblogger Aaron Haspel writes:

It is to obsessed lunatics that we owe the greater part of the world’s permanent literature. For most of history authors not only didn’t make money from their work, but often risked their lives by publishing it. Although it is impossible to assess a counterfactual, I see no evidence that this seriously impoverished literature. To take an obvious instance, Russian literature flowered under conditions so harsh as to be nearly unfathomable. Thomas Gray may believe in “mute inglorious Miltons,” but I don’t. Neither does Ludwig von Mises, who essentially exempts art, or art worth having, from economic calculation.

Quite right. In the rarefied domain of so-called literary fiction especially, the question of economics is a non-question, and pretty much a non-consideration. Oh, sure, wannabe writers of all sorts of fiction fantasize extravagantly and often about six-figure advances; glowing reviews from the literati (which reviews the wannabe is forever mentally composing); multiple appearances on big-time TV venues; and chauffeured book tours complete with plush hotels, champagne lunches, and the adoration of the masses, all of which will conspire to bring truckloads of filthy lucre to the deserving author who, like all authors of litrachure, earns his living, cardigan-clad and pipe in mouth, in the cozy comfort of his very own book-lined writing room, crackling fire going in the natural stone fireplace of his woodsy retreat high in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

In other words, a wannabe author fantasy that even in pale part will become the real-life experience of but a vanishingly-small few.

So, is that any reason to attempt to dissuade anyone from having a go at it even in the esoteric domain of trade book literary fiction? Not a bit of it. No writer of literary fiction, or writer of any sort of fiction for that matter, decides to write based on expectations of economic return and dreams of the writerly life (an exception to prove the rule follows momentarily). He writes because he’s in some way compelled to, either by his gift (very rare), his imagined gift (very common), or his simple need to just “get it down on paper” for whatever internal emotional reason(s), and whatever the it. What’s to warn against?

True, time was not too long ago that the publishing biz was, for the novice writer, a forbidding and daunting mystery. No longer. Today, a novice has at his disposal any number of reference and self-help books and periodicals, a few of them actually even worthwhile, that can give him all the skinny he needs to get a fair sense of the treacherous waters into which he’s about to plunge, as well as provide him well-proven rules and techniques for their reasonably safe if not guaranteed successful navigation.

In short, any fairly diligent wannabe writer of fiction who wants to make a go of it today pretty much knows from the get-go the dangers and vagaries of the treacherous waters that lie before him, although he won’t really understand the full implications of their perils until he actually jumps in, and starts swimming in earnest.

About that exception I above mentioned: Some years ago I sat down to write a so-called “cozy” mystery novel, and did so in cold blood, so to speak and no pun intended. I had no inner compulsion to write a work of fiction, and knew for an almost certainty I lacked any gift for it, which is why I chose to write a formula genre work. Craft alone, I thought (wrongly, as it turned out), might there be sufficient. And I made the attempt strictly in prospect of making a modest but not paltry dollar return for my labors. My reasons for making that attempt (which, pardon me, I do not mean to share as they’re neither germane to the instant purpose, nor any of your business) were actually quite practical, and at the time, and under certain then prevailing conditions, made good economic sense as attempting freelance article work or embarking on a work of non-fiction (both of which would more properly have been suitable to any small gift I might possess) would have required time and money expenditures I was unwilling to make or risk.

My case, however, is the exception, as I said, and a rare one at that. Few — very few — can manage to be as cold-blooded as was I in the face of such a typically ego-freighted matter. Most interestingly, however, cold-blooded and practical as my attempt was, I found myself not in the least immune to the wannabe fantasies above enumerated, which insinuated themselves almost against my will, and in spite of my fairly solid knowledge of just how the publishing biz works.

‘Tis surpassing strange and marvelous, the workings of the human psyche.

Indeed it is.

So, is there a moral of sorts to all this, the rare exception notwithstanding?

There is. In the matter of the writing of works of fiction, it’s about impulse, Stupid, never economics.

Prospective well-meaning Cassandras take note.

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