Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Publish or Perish


Remedios Varo: Creation of the Birds

Like all art, writing places harsh and divergent demands on the writer. We first have to sit for long stretches in a silent, empty room, and there struggle with the work like Jacob with his angel. Then we must step back, examine our creation dispassionately, and ruthlessly alter whatever we think falls short. To venture into the wider world, we are required to do work that has little to do with inspiration, although it, too, requires passion. We must write proposals, send letters, find agents, listen to criticism and adapt both our expectations and the work in response to it. And if we manage to navigate through all these shoals, we must be prepared for a significant portion of readers to dislike our work.

Until the early 20th century most authors paid to have their works printed or printed them on their own small presses. In other words, such luminaries as the Brontë sisters and Virginia Woolf would be considered “vanity authors” by today’s definition. Now, with the advent of e-books, print on demand and online publications, the boundaries are starting to blur and shift again. At the same time, both writers and readers are getting increasingly isolated in non-overlapping online universes dedicated to smaller and smaller subgenres.

Given these circumstances, what defines a writer? I have read informal writing that is of better quality than published works. Also, given the atomization of today’s readership, few writers can make a living exclusively on their writing unless they are recognized geniuses or can write very fast (there is, too, the occasional random lucky hit of a best-seller). The traditional advice to aspiring writers — found once in private letters, now in public livejournals — is to keep writing, no matter what. Unquestionably, writing is among the most creative and constructive hobbies. However, I noticed that these exhortations tend to come from people who are already published in official venues and/or have independent incomes.

After giving the matter a good deal of thought, I concluded that a writer is someone who writes with the goal of publication. Amusingly, two formidable institutions, the IRS and the NIH (National Institute of Health), agree with me. The IRS allows deduction of writing-related expenses if the writer can show that s/he attempted to publish the work, regardless of success. The NIH (and all agencies that fund research) allow investigators to list only published works on their grants. The Brontë sisters agreed as well: unworldly though they were deemed to be, they mailed their stories to London publishers the moment they completed them.

Publication rarely brings fame and fortune, especially in today’s climate of soundbites and short attention spans. Its major boon is that it takes us out of the lonely room where we stretch ourselves on racks of agony and ecstasy, out of the tiny ponds where social interactions overwhelm the primary objective of writing. It gives us perspective, it keeps us grounded. And it allows us to consider a particular work finished — finished enough to let go, like a child that grew up and finally left home.

7 Responses to “Publish or Perish”

  1. rocketscientist says:

    It rings of truth!
    I know very little about writing, although I try to be a quick study. I have a number of friends who are published authors (present company included) and recently I’ve been listening to their writing meta with interest. A year or so ago when I made my first stab at writing anything that would be read by a larger audience, I realized how much I needed to learn. I can’t stand doing anything half-assed if I can help it, so I started studying the craft in a different way than I ever had before.
    I’ve discovered that it is like any art. One can become obsessed with it. As a matter of fact to be any good, I’d say one would have to be to a degree.

    And there is no doubt that a certain amount of quiet is needed. 😉

  2. intrigued_scribe says:

    No truer words, here! Dedication and inspiration do play equally significant parts in this particular craft, even before the goal of publication itself is tackled. Moreover, aside from the varying obstacles of shrinking subgenres and uncertain success, one often ends up fighting with oneself when it comes to the question of whether a work is or isn’t finished, or should or shouldn’t be revised, redone or abandoned altogether. Beyond that, the growth and learning involved often make the endeavor well worth it–indeed, like many art forms.

  3. Athena says:

    There is no question that you have to be obsessed to a degree to write well (unless you’re writing on spec). It also helps to be reasonably familiar with what you write, whether it is the place or the emotions you depict.

    When to consider a work finished is an insoluble dilemma (which is why a editor is a boon). Here, the egineer’s motto applies: “The perfect is the enemy of the good!” This, incidentally, applies to non-fiction and scientific works as well.

  4. Ooo! a Remedios Varo painting! I love her stuff. And the article is great; there are always those who disparage (in poetry, anyway; not so much within sf) writers who try to publish, as if that somehow made their work crass. Or those who explain why they aren’t submitting with the specious excuse that they wouldn’t respect an editor’s crass judgment. This to me is what differentiates writing from journaling or diary-keeping, although, sadly, a few masterpieces (Islandia comes to mind) have been produced by those who wrote only privately. Me, I want to write not only for publication, but for large quantities of money! Actually, what I really want is a patron. Which is why it angers me to see those who are already deriving an income from literary institutions endorsing scams that prey on beginning writers.

    Self-publishing is a lot easier when there are few other sources of books available.

  5. Athena says:

    Yes, I love the three women surrealists — Varo, Kahlo, Carrington. Their lucid dreaming paintings are remarkable, and although they knew and influenced each other, each is totally unique.

    Writing for a small circle of friends (or friendlies) is not new. What’s new is how widely the phenomenon has spread, courtesy of the Internet.

  6. Asakiyume says:

    That’s very interesting, that the IRS permits you to consider yourself a writer if you try to publish, regardless of success. I guess it makes sense: you are allowed to call yourself an entrepreneur even if your venture fails, a farmer even if your drough-stricken fields don’t produce much, and an investment banker even if your firm collapses.

    I love that painting! I don’t know the painter, must go look at more of her work…

  7. Athena says:

    There were three major women surrealist painters. Interestingly, they knew each other and spent large portions of their life in Mexico: Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. Each is very distinct — once you’ve seen a few of their works, you recognize the rest on sight.