I got sucked into a novel yesterday, which I rarely do.
The writing is great. Opening sentence:
“In strewn banners that lay like streamers from a longago parade the sun’s fading seraphim rays gleamed onto the hood of the old Ford and ribboned the steel with the meek orange of a June tomato straining at the vine.”
But it’s not about the writing – it’s about the theme of writing. More specifically, it’s about truth in fiction, what makes a “great” book, the difference between an artist and a hack, and the publishing industry in general.
The anti-hero is a young man named Pete Tarslaw who edits college application essays for rich foreign kids (as someone who has done his fair share of that… I feel a special resonance with the main character).
But then he loses his job and the thought of showing up at his ex’s wedding a loser freaks him out. Plus he’s recently seen some media about a bunch of famous novelists, doing the “famous novelist” pose, and he realizes they are all acting out the part of a famous author.
His nemesis is Preston Brooks, who talks about art and writing in romantic terms and has everybody eating out of the palm of his hand. The protagonist’s epiphany moment goes like this:
I figured him out. I realized what a magnificent, ridiculous bastard he was. Down in the uranium mine, or at the fish-gutting plant, he’d realized that work is for chumps. And one day he got his hands on Mice and Men. He’d realized, “Hey, I could pull this off!” So he strung together some mushy novels and pawned them off on thousands of book-buying saps. He spoke in platitudes dripping with writerly juices, “In an age when zealots would blow us all to bits, I parry with something more explosive than a bomb. Words. And words alone can mend the heart.
Incidentally, I’m fairly certain that Preston Brooks is a thinly veiled metaphor for Steven Pressfield, as all of the descriptions and quotes fit him perfectly. (I’ve talked at length about how Steven Pressfield’s theories on art and writing have crippled a generation of writers).
At any rate, Pete decides Preston is a fraud and that he can write a bestseller novel just by recycling the same kind of garbage. And he does.
But first he visits a writing class and sees everybody working way too hard.
“The main thing was confidence. My classmates didn’t get it. They had some rich personal vision they were struggling to get into words. They were trying to work out all sorts of issues and ideas and personal traumas. They were strangling themselves trying to fit it all in. But that wasn’t the game. That wasn’t the Preston Brooks con. They key was to seem significant. But instead of focusing on the illusion, the showmanship, the people in class were wasting their time trying to work actual magic.”
He develops his own rules for writing. Keep in mind, he’s decided to write a bestselling literary fiction, not popular fiction… however, you could do far worse than this list for writing any kind of fiction.
1. Abandon Truth.
“What a crock of horseshit Since when has anybody wanted to hear the truth? People hate the truth. People will believe a thousand lies in successful rather than confront a single scintilla of truth. People like love that crosses the years, funny workplaces, funny dads who save Christmas, laser battles, whiny hags who marry charming Italians, and stylish detectives.”
2. Write a popular book. Do not waste energy making it a good book.
“The literary success of an author is inversely proportional to the literary worth of the book.”
3. Include nothing from (my) own life.
4. Must include a murder.
5. Must include a club, secrets / mysterious missions, shy characters, characters whose lives are changed suddenly, women who’ve given up on love but turn out to be beautiful.
6. Invoke confusing sadness at the end.
7. Prose should be lyrical.
“Since the definition of lyrical is “resembling bad poetry” I could crank it out.
8 Novel must have scenes on highways, making driving seem poetic and magical.
9. At dull points include descriptions of delicious meals.
10. Main Character is miraculously liberated from a lousy job.
11. Include scenes in as many reader-filled towns as possible.
12. Give readers versions of themselves, infused with extra awesomeness.
13. Target key demographics.
14. Involve music.
15. Must have obscure exotic locations.
16. Include plant names.
With those rules set, he spends a few weeks, gets some experimental ADD drug from his roommate, and bangs out his novel. Just days later it’s sold to a publisher (first, he had to “fool” the publisher in an interview by talking like a writer, faking his belief in the art of writing).
His book does fairly well and hits the bestseller lists. He gets invited to speak at writing conferences and university writing classes. At one writing class, all the students take turns bashing each other’s writing. “What was the point of any of this? Let’s say, after a year of polishing and rewrites and edits, this story gets published. Then what – Marianne gets like five hundred bucks? That’s how much America values a great story. It’s worth less than a PS3.” Then the class goes to a bar and takes turns telling “lonesome” stories. Pete screws it up by telling a boring one. But he knew he’d done something wrong.
“I’d profaned the evening. These people treated stories like sacraments. They looked sorry for me that I didn’t…They were living up here in this shit hole, damn near pulling their hair out, driving around in trucks with duct tape on the windows, telling each other these awful stories they’d accumulated, because of one idea. Because they believed that getting a story right, telling it right, holding it, was a holy duty. They seemed to believe that getting a story right could save the world somehow. Or at least make you a better person. And to fail to tell a story honestly was sacrilege. The story I’d put down, whatever it was, wasn’t honest. It was a fraud. For the first time, I wondered if that was a kind of crime.”
With these misgivings, the author blows a TV interview and admits to everything.
“Look, I wanted to write a book that would be popular. So I made a study of these things, I read one of Preston Brooks’ books and I just decided, Okay, fine, if that’s what they want, great. I’m gonna fill it with mushy prose, and, you know, promises, and faintly heard songs, and lost loves. All that stuff. Challenging? Not really. I mean, it’s a titanic pain in the ass to actually type out all the words. And it has to more or less make sense, which is tricky. But the big part is just figuring out what readers want to hear. And that’s easy, you just look at the best-seller list. Readers – or people who buy books – anyway, are really straightforward. Kind of dumb, even, in what they like. They like World War II, disasters, lost love. It’s not hard to come up with stuff. Shooting fish in a barrel, really.”
The response is overwhelming, most people hate him, but the controversy sells more books. So finally his publisher embraces it and even sets up a face to face showdown with Preston Brooks. Pete goes first and calls Preston “a brilliant, top-of-his-game con artist.”
Preston responds exactly in character, bringing up all his emotional images – shots over a coffin with a flag draped over it; a baby squeezing your finger; poverty; hunger; writing being the only cure to desperation.
“I’ve known clever young men like you, in love with no God save for your own cleverness. You’re always looking for the falseness in everything. The truth is, you’ve been cheated. You’ve never done anything hard. You’ve coasted by on sacrifices bought and borrowed. You wrote your little book, as some kind of joke. And my god, books are no jokes. Books save lives. So you better think twice before you make a joke of them. You put something down on paper that you knew was a lie. That you knew was bad. That’s the worst crime there is. That’s a crime against readers. That’s a crime against literature. That’s a crime against anyone with a heart and a mind and a sense of compassion.”
Preston continues, talking about his motivation for writing.
“Are my efforts adequate? Are my books good enough? True enough? Do they capture what it feels like to be a widow who lost her husband in a foolish war? Or a teacher who sees her classroom flooded with swamp water? No. Hell no. But every day I sit down at my typewriter. Every day. And I make an honest effort try.”
And that’s when Pete realizes, “maybe there isn’t something wrong with Preston Brooks. Or with the people who loved him. Maybe there was something wrong with me.
Act III (and what it all MEANS)
I divided the acts poorly, but here’s the aftermath: even though he’s widely hated as a fraud, people keep buying Pete’s books because of all the publicity, and he gets fat royalty checks, and does alright, even if he feels bad about everything.
So the basic conclusion of the novel appears to side with Preston Brooks (aka, Steven Pressfield). Art and writing is a sacred endeavor. You shouldn’t think about the audience or writing a popular book. You shouldn’t think about what readers want, or selling a lot of copies or making money. You should just be true to yourself and write a TRUE book.
But here’s the problem with all of that
Pete was exactly right in the beginning about what kind of books sell. And he pulled it off: he wrote that kind of book. And he did it quickly, and it passed. He fooled everyone.
The only difference in Preston’s books and Pete’s ripoffs were the intention of the writer.
Pete’s a great writer, and he probably put together a great story. Should it change the reader’s appreciation of the book what Pete’s intentions were? Preston Brooks meant his books, or at least he kept up the Author Image he’d cultivated, whereas Pete had been doing well, playing the same game, fooling everyone, until he let his mask slip.
He could have continued. But he told the truth and the truth destroyed him.
Pete’s commentary on the writing sphere holds weight. All those students and professors devoted to the idea of writing as sacred art form, living in poverty and depressing each other and being critical of work trying to improve their craft. What’s the point?
Writing a bestselling novel is easy – you look at what’s selling, and you write another one. Bestselling authors have been doing it for years. They usually jump on the next best trend. Stephanie Meyers’ Alien Romance wasn’t doing so well so she wrote a Vampire Romance (Twilight). Lots of other authors have switched to post-apocalyptic or dystopian genres (The Road, The Hunger Games). The truth is, you can write a great story in a popular genre and then worry about themes and writing quality and your message. Otherwise, you’re writing a book that nobody is ever going to read.
If you believe the universe has entrusted you to write the novel you’re working on, don’t you think the universe wants people to read it? Or are you writing the novel as a kind of self-healing exercise (if so, isn’t that a bit selfish?) As long as you’re going to spend hundreds of hours writing a novel, why not write one that will be successful, change people’s lives?
How I Became a Famous Novelist indicates that your novel will only be Real and Good if it is Honest – as in you passionately believed in its Truth. And that Truth is muddied if you “sell out” by thinking of marketing and target demographics.
It is easier to persevere and finish your manuscript if you believe in it. But belief alone will almost never translate to success. Instead, as Pete points out in the book, putting too much of your own beliefs and passions into the story is going to ruin it.
And belief in a universal, transcendental purpose does not necessary mean you’ll finish your book, or that it will be any good, or that you can sell it. A lot of great writers were atheists.
I work with lots of authors. That’s my business, my career. All of them believe passionately in the books they wrote. The ones that are going to be successful wrote the right kind of book for the right audience, and ticked off the checklist of what readers in that genre want or expect.
They might have done it on purpose, or on accident, but if the book doesn’t mesh with reader expectations, it’s going to fail. Personally, I’m tired of seeing authors put all their hopes on their one first book and be devastated when it doesn’t hit the bestseller lists. I’d much rather help them publish novels that make them a lot of money, so they can quit their jobs and write more books.
And I don’t think the intention of the author really matters.
I’m writing a mermaid romance and loving it. I don’t believe in mermaids. I’m not sure I believe in universal, timeless love (but I can write about it anyway). But I’m also not at all battling with what Steven Pressfield calls resistance – that painful struggle. Yes, writing is really hard, and really frustrating, and takes a lot of work. But I’m fairly certain of my success, because I’m writing in a popular genre, including all the things that books in that genre needs, and have the experience (after studying my PhD in Literature and editing about a hundred novels) to avoid the common pitfalls of amateur writers.
It may not be amazing, or knock Twilight off the bestseller lists. It’s my first novel, and I expect to make a lot of mistakes. But I’ll come a lot closer than most people writing paranormal romances, because I have the skills and platform to market it really well.
So you need to ask yourself, do you feel lucky, punk?
Because if you write from your heart, and you write the story you felt called to write, and it’s your first novel, you’re going to need to be extraordinarily lucky if you want to be successful. Sure it happens sometimes. You can still hook an agent or a publisher with a great manuscript (though your chances go up in proportion to the size of your ready-built platform and email list).
But why take a chance on luck when you’re already facing such steep competition? Why refuse to learn the rules or play the game? If you’re committed to real art for art’s sake, then be content with being a starving artists, because that’s the path you’ve chosen.
On the other hand – I agree with Pete that you need to cultivate the persona of a writer who believes in writing, and in that task, I’ve failed. I teach people how to pragmatically write an publish books to make money. I can never earn the love and faith of the loyal followers of Steven Pressfield because I don’t speak about art as a gentle lover, or inspiration as a whisper in my ear. I work hard, I figure out what sells, I publish a lot of books. I’m almost certainly doing it wrong, but I’m too lazy to hide myself and my opinions behind a feel good, positivity screen.
It’s a big, critical mistake – just as Pete’s revealing of himself on TV was.
The book /art is important, but the biography and persona of the Artist or Author is also important, and you need to play the Creative Role that society chooses to believe in if you want to be taken seriously as an Artist or Author. I myself am a hack, and most people will call me that, because I’m trying to game the system or write books without taking myself so seriously. In my generation, “hacking” isn’t even a bad thing – it just means to use your knowledge as a way to manipulate the system and get better results. It’s a shortcut. A cheat.
My way may not be the right way or the honest way (or, perhaps it is much more honest, because I’m refusing to play into society’s prewritten script they expect creators to follow) but it is also much more likely to lead to tangible results.
What do you think?
It’s a balance, of course, somewhere between inspiration and hard work and learning the rules of the system. And I know Steven Pressfield and his ilk have inspired millions of artists and writers to finish the work and he deserves gratitude for that. But after you’ve finished the work, you need people like me to polish it, fix it, make it an attractive product and market it – and I can’t do any of that if you haven’t written the right kind of book for the right kind of readers; if you’ve failed in that crucial step, you’ve probably wasted years of your life on a book that will never be successful (and for that, I also think Steven deserves credit). But that’s OK, because you’ve learned a lot about writing, and now you can start writing more books, maybe in more popular genres.
PS) You should go get the book, or at least read the 1 star reviews, which are interesting.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.