More on Not Being a Novelist

by F.

For about three years, I wrote novels and short stories as a hobby. I’ve since stopped and have blogged about this before, here, but from time to time the subject comes up. People ask me, “Are you still writing your novel?” I say, sheepishly, “No,” and I invariably feel like a failure. Because I hate-hate-HATE not hitting my goals. Hate it!

But worse than not hitting my goals, I hate-hate-HATE being stupid, and when costs outweigh benefits, my brain says to me, “Dude, time to bail.” I did it with bike racing. I raced and raced and raced my ass off for five years. And then, one night at the track, I asked myself, “Is this fun?” And I heard a little voice inside me say, “No. This is not fun. You dread coming out here to race.” My voice was right. So the next day I quit. I still ride, but I don’t race, because it’s not fun. I did the same thing with my last job. Costs were higher than benefits. So I bailed. Life is too short to be stupider than I need to be.

So I’ve been asking myself two question about my failure to become a published novelist: Why did I want to do it? And, Why did I stop?

Wanting to Do it.

First, it was unfinished business. Sometime in grad school, I started writing fiction. In fact, when I was supposed to be reading something else (usually for a seminar) I would go to the undergrad library and UCLA and read a novel. I remember reading almost all of John Fowles books. I read all sorts of stuff, from James to Conrad to Nadine Gordimer. I wrote stories and tried to learn how a novel or story or play was constructed. What were the parts? How did it work?

I never figured it out. Reality intervened, as it so often does, and I went to law school. But than unfinished business sat there in my brain. It wouldn’t go away. I hadn’t figured it out. How did these stories work? What was the logic of it? What were the pieces and how did they go together? God, it drove me crazy thinking about this, largely because I couldn’t find any good guides to dramatic and fiction writing. And, back then, search costs were higher than today. Back then, you had to use the library. You didn’t just go to Google and Amazon. It sucked.

So I go to law school and that scratched my writing itch for a while, because you write a lot as a lawyer, especially at the beginning. This game me a comparative advantage over my peers because I could write well—and fast. Not that my skill was always recognized. It wasn’t. For instance, once I wrote a brief that I thought was quite good. I gave it to the partner I was working for. Later that day, she called me from her cell phone. She had a lot of concerns. The brief just “wasn’t coming together.” It “wasn’t convincing.” It had “serious structural problems.” I was horrified. Shit! I hung up and went back to the brief, looking for mistakes. Couldn’t find any. Seemed pretty tight. So I changed the headings—retitled some sections and moved a couple of paragraphs around. Really trivial stuff. Then I sent it back to the partner. She loved it. Later, she said that I had turned the brief from mediocre into a “nearly perfect piece of advocacy.” Her words. And all I did was change some headings.

Such is the life of an associate, but it’s a well paid writing gig and I was able to leverage my advantage into better and better opportunities. Yet still, some where in my brain, there was this unfinished business: write a novel. Write a big, huge, bursting, crazy-ass novel. But when? I didn’t have time. I worked and worked and worked. But then I started to get blocked at work. I couldn’t advance—at least not as fast as I wanted to. I could see I had no real future. Sure, I could hang out and be Mr. Median. But that’s not my style. I can do it for a while, but then my self-respect kicks in and I want to do something.

So, while still employed and making a good salary ($150,000+ 10-20% bonus and stock), I basically “retired on the job” and spent most of my time researching and writing a novel. 250,000 words later, I was done. It was a big disorganized mess. But, having re-read parts of it the other day, I still like it. Because it’s a snapshot of the time. And it’s my creation. I don’t expect anyone else to like it. But I did it.

And it was fun. More fun than I’d had in a long, long time—maybe ever. Why? Well, there’s the writing part. I just like to think with a typewriter, as you can probably see if you’re still reading. And the thing about writing a novel is that there is no answer. You can do it however you want. You can do Finnegan’s Wake or Lord of the Flies or Get Shorty. Whatever floats your boat. So, being immured in a large company with little freedom and much oversight, I really wanted to play—like a kid. Unstructured play. Just smear paint on the wall or throw Lincoln Logs. It was that simple. And I did. The benefits were huge, the costs nil.

This novel writing experience opened up something in me, and it made me quit my job. Not because I thought I would become John Grisham. Not at all. I’m not stupid. But because it showed me that there are other things in life. Not just having a BMW or a big house or whatever. There is—fun! I hadn’t had fun in a long time. I was having it and it was great.

So I quit my job, though not before careful planning and saving. It may have looked, to the outside observer, that my decision was precipitate. Not at all. My wife and I ran the numbers, then ran them again, then ran them again. And then we waited about a year and a half. We saved and saved and saved. And when we could, I quit and started my post-lawyer life.

And people asked me, What are you going to do? And I said I was going to write. Which was true. Again, I didn’t think I would necessarily have a career at it. In fact, I got a bunch of market research on the publishing industry and started to study the business side of it. It didn’t seem like a very good business. But I didn’t care. I thought, first I’m going to figure out how to do this, then I’ll figure out how to sell what I make. Now, that isn’t the most rational approach. I mean, if there’s no market, you shouldn’t make the product. But I had the luxury of not having to worry about that. I wanted to smear paint and play. So I did.

There was another thing, too: curiosity. I still wanted to figure out how stories—fiction, novels, plays, movies—worked. How did they go together? I’d wanted to know that for ten or fifteen years. And it’s hard to find out the answer, even in the Google era. I read lots and lots of books, started with the highbrow (absolute shit, most of it) and ending with the screenwriting manuals (mostly shit, but with a few diamonds mixed in). And I figured it out. I learned how these stories work. There is a pattern, the success of which is due to human psychology. It all fit together. It was a wonderful thing to find that out. And as long as I live I’ll be thankful for taking the time to understand it. Because storytelling is a human activity—no other animal does it. It’s amazing, and the more you understand it, the more amazing it gets.

Wanting to Not Do it

My curiosity was now slaked, and I had the rudimentary skills of storytelling. Now came the business part. I started to research the business in more detail. I subscribed to Publisher’s Weekly and started reading the blogs of various agents and publishers. And, as with most things, it was a tremendous shock. The business sucks. I knew that I was lucky to be a lawyer—I’ve never felt entitled to anything in this world—but I didn’t know how lucky I was until I compared the economics of lawyering to that of publishing.

For starters, novels are commodities. You think you are writing this unique, special artwork. And maybe it is—to you. But guess what? Human beings are basically the same all over the world. And they all write the same stuff, in pretty much the same way. It’s quite cool, actually, but it means that there is a huge, HUGE oversupply of stories. And there are no barriers to entry. Anyone can write a novel—even a good one. I think that everyone has at least one novel in them. The craft of it is easy to learn if you like to read. And if you look at what succeeds and what fails, there’s no pattern. It seems almost random.

That sounds crazy, right? It’s not. There’s a recent paper on this topic: Matthew Salganik, Peter Sheridan Dodds, Duncan Watts, Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market, Science, February 10, 2006. Here is the abstract:

Hit songs, books, and movies are many times more successful than average, suggesting that “the best” alternatives are qualitatively different from “the rest”; yet experts routinely fail to predict which products will succeed. We investigated this paradox experimentally, by creating an artificial “music market” in which 14,341 participants downloaded previously unknown songs either with or without knowledge of previous participants’ choices. Increasing the strength of social influence increased both inequality and unpredictability of success.

I know—blah, blah, blah. But note well:

Success was also only partly determined by quality: The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.

In other words, if this result generalizes, success and failure in the arts are essentially random. What the fuck! What the fuck was I doing? It was like playing the lottery—maybe worse. That pretty much destroyed my desire to try to “become a novelist” (in the sense of publishing commercially). The game was rigged—and I didn’t know who rigged it. That was a blow. It was worse than I thought.

Second, I read a lot of stories and plays. I went through all of Shakespeare; I went back to the Greek’s and read all of Sophocles and Aeschylus (I hate Euripides), all of Homer, much of Virgil—I went through the whole history of Western literature (not exhaustively, but trying to get a representative sample) looking for the patterns and what the purpose of these stories was. Then I studies screenplays and movies, watching some 200 films, outlining many of them, getting the screenplays, reading them, and so on. All this time I was looking for why these artforms existed—and what their utility was.

But after about two years of this, I started to doubt whether I really believed in the story. I mean, there are people—I think they are likely to be religious—who really think a novel, say, says something really important and useful. Says something profound. Helps them get through life. Changes them. But what I discovered was that I’m not one of those people. Novels and stories and movies are mere entertainment. Sophocles is no better that Steven Segal. It’s just bread and circuses.

At bottom, a novel is an anecdote. And it’s all made up. It’s fiction. It’s a fantasy. This really comes how when you write one (or 4, as I have). You just—make shit up. It’s imagination, pure an simple. Which is great. It’s fun to do. But it has, to me, almost no utility, because at the end of the day, the most heartfelt, profound story is just an anecdote. Does it contain profound life lessons?

Maybe, but there’s a problem. If there are eternal verities, they have already been discovered. Go back to Greek drama. It’s great. But they pretty much sussed out most of the interesting issues. There’s a saying that the history of philosophy is just a footnote to Plato. True that. And the same for storytelling. After Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Chaucer, Bocaccio, Shakespeare and so on, there is nothing to say that hasn’t been said already—and better.

Ah, but what about new ideas? Yeah. There have been a lot of them. Homer didn’t know about germs. But, stories are poor means of expressing ideas. Stories are not about ideas, other than the basic idea that “human beings are willful, pursue goals, and even in the face of adversity overcome them.” That’s pretty much every story. And after I studied a number of these stories, I thought, “Yeah. I get that—it’s probably a myth, but I get that.”

So I basically lost confidence in the utility of this whole form—the story, the novel, the play, whatever. It doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to do. But so is getting a blowjob while eating pizza. There’s nothing particularly profound about it. And, in fact, I think there are a lot of pernicious effects from stories—myths. Just as there are from religion. People get all sorts of stupid ideas about the world from stories. They think they are real. They think that love is like in the movies.

And it’s a lot of work. A huge, huge, HUGE amount of work. If you haven’t done it, you have no idea. What’s worse, it’s hard to know if you are making progress. Because there is no model—no goal toward which you are moving. That’s the flip-side of untrammeled creativity. If it can be anything, then you need to have a vision of what it should be like. I draw, and when I draw, I solve this by drawing the world. And I copy the styles of artists I like. I draw like them. That’s what artists have always done, and always will do. It prunes the tree of possibilities down.

So why didn’t I do that with my novels? Because I don’t have a strong enough sense of what they should be like—of what I like. I don’t think I like novels. They take too long to read, you don’t learn anything, and if they are cutting edge they are usually quite annoying. I don’t have that problem with drawings or paintings. I know quality when I see it—I know what I like. In stories and novels and plays, I’m too wishy-washy. I like this, and the I like that, and then the other thing. Fuck, I like almost anything some days, and others, if I haven’t taken my Prozac, I hate everything. That’s not a recipe for artistic success.

So that’s what I was faced with: a pursuit where I didn’t know what the goal was, where success or failure was basically random, and which I didn’t think had any real utility to anyone else but me. Hey—that sounds just like my last job as a lawyer. And isn’t that what I wanted to get away from?