by: Jonathan Marcantoni
The long awaited sequel to Jonathan Marcantoni’s terrifically controversial essay on how to become a successful writer…
In the year since I penned “How to Become a Successful Writer,” a mass movement of authors, both known and obscure, have picked up the practice of model representatives. JK Rowling, one of the best known and beloved authors in the world, following the indifferent reaction to her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, chose to hire a 19 year-old Japanese schoolgirl to promote her latest book. James Patterson has hired out not just one, but five models, of varying ethnicities and sexual orientations, to advocate for his books. Delighted by the success of this movement, I began researching what new trends were quietly rising in the writing world. After scouring the internet for months I found a wealth of ideas to pull from: the massive con that is the How-To Guides for writing bestsellers and writing professionally; overpriced conferences that promise the world but whose workshops double as glorified kindergarten classes for writers; the unending lists of “rules” for writers to follow in the name of becoming successful or getting an agent or getting published. The culture of the writing industry, or “Big Literature,” in this country is like a Saturday Night Live marathon that will never end (those tough years, I think you all know which ones I mean), where the jokes just keep coming and you can’t stop watching even when you want to, and by the time you pry yourself away from it you are left with that disturbed feeling that you just wasted an enormous amount of time that contributed nothing to your life.
How could I pick just one of these trends to publicly humiliate? Feeling much like one does after a particularly shameful episode of masturbation, I went out for a run to cleanse my soul, then met a friend for coffee, went on a hike with my wife, played with my kids, cooked an amazing dinner, spent a few evenings relaxing, some more days running, joined another friend of mine for rock climbing, and before I knew it, it was summer and the editors at Across the Margin wanted to know why the hell I hadn’t written my long-promised follow up to “How to Become a Successful Writer.” Before I knew it their Chief Editor, Michael Shields, was barking at me over the phone while he lounged in his hot tub full of money while hugging his gold plated basketball signed by Dennis Rodman. Anyone who has ever experienced the wrath of “Master Shields,” as he insists all contributing writers call him, knows it is on par with being on the wrong end of a drunken tirade from Hunter S. Thompson. So you better believe I jumped right back into my research, and in no time I had my target.
Facebook feed after Facebook feed, Twitter hashtag after Twitter hashtag, there it was, a relentless litany of nobodies telling whoever might have the misfortune of following them not only that they #AmWriting ((Which if you are posting such a hashtag on a website most certainly means that you are not, and should therefore shut the fuck up!)) but rambling on about how many hours they have been writing, how many words they wrote, how far along they are in their WIPs ((The first time I saw that acronym I thought it was at least something interesting like a new class of WASPs who were even more desperate and dysfunctional, but no, it just means Work in Progress, which when I read that I choked on my coffee laughing.)). Who were these jackasses obsessed with bragging about the fact that they weren’t finished doing something? Absolutely none of the names posting about their incomplete work rang a bell. Had they written bestsellers I was unaware of? Certainly possible, I’m busy and don’t read as much as I used to. But when I checked their feeds the amount of followers was in the hundreds, some a couple thousand, but nothing spectacular, and their Amazon rankings were either in the hundred thousands or even in the millions, which is to say, no one was buying their books.
The confusion of it all was tormenting me. I couldn’t even enjoy binge watching the latest Marvel show on Netflix, even though my mind kept telling me it was awesome. I needed answers, and so the next day I reached out to two of these writers to get to the bottom of this…
ME: Absolute horseshit, there is no way that these posts are helpful in any way.
TERRY: Why not? It is inspiring others to follow their dreams.
ME: By reminding followers on social media that instead of taking out the garbage, exercising, eating a snack, flirting with possible underage girls online, whatever, that you’re writing?
CARLOTTA: I take great offense to your attitude. Do you know what it means to be a professional? To really be dedicated to a craft?
ME: Actually I do, and I tell people when they can buy my books once they are available. That’s all anyone really wants to know.
CARLOTTA: So you write every day?
ME: No, why would I?
CARLOTTA: Stephen King says that a profession is a job, that means a set schedule, dedicated hours, pushing through writer’s block—
ME: I’m going to stop you there. One, I’m not Stephen fucking King. If that works for him, great, but no writer in the history of storytelling has ever had to practice their craft based on what a complete and total stranger does in order to be taken seriously. Writing is an art, and artists are moved and work in different manners. Two, writer’s block is a complete fiction.
TERRY: You are delusional!
ME: I’m the delusional one? Not the person who thinks that some magical muse is either preventing them from writing or feeding them words from the beyond? If you can’t come up with anything to write, then the story isn’t ready, you just do something else, that’s why people have hobbies, families, other jobs.
TERRY: You remind me of that writer-type Frank Ham mentioned in his last seminar, the naysayer, the excuse maker. You are being held back by your fears and need to decide that writing is your calling, and model your life around making sure you can dedicate all your energies to the craft.
CARLOTTA: Nobody joins the writing game unless they want to be known, and you only get known if you hit that pavement every day and sell, sell, sell.
ME: Carlotta, how many books have you sold?
CARLOTTA: Well, my first book, I think, after a couple. Well, about twenty or so copies so far…
ME: Did it just come out?
CARLOTTA: A couple years ago, ya know, I took it with me to AWP when it first came out and got a lot of interest for it.
ME: So it was picked up by a publisher?
CARLOTTA: No, not, um, not quite. It was self-published because I have a very particular vision and I didn’t want it compromised by some know-nothing editor. I made this book and I deserve to get the rewards for it. Self-publishing is the future you know. And my second WIP is getting a lot of attention on Facebook.
I walked away from the conversation more annoyed and confused than ever. The way Terry and Carlotta spoke was almost robotic. Nothing they said had any self-awareness. It was as though they had been reduced to little more than highly trained bonobos. Someone had done this to them, and it was at that moment that I stepped in a pile of dog shit in front of Random House’s New York headquarters.
Only a major publisher could answer the questions that troubled me, and so I arranged a meeting with the president of Random House, who asked to be referred to as ARHIGOS ((The publisher has a great fondness for obscure Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas, of whom he stated, “Now there was a man who knew how to handle communists.”)) for the purposes of this interview. He surprisingly agreed to talk to me with little resistance. We met in his office, and much to my surprise he, too, had a gold-plated basketball in his possession, although this one was signed by Dr. J, a far more impressive feat than that of my overlord.
ARHIGOS: Let me just say first, Mr. Marcantoni, how much I admire your work.
ME: My work? You mean my books?
ARHIGOS: Oh, I have no time to read books, I don’t even like the damn things. I mean your articles at Across the Margin, breaking wide open the movement to replace writers with models.
ME: I wasn’t trying to replace writers. I was just trying to help their public image.
ARHIGOS: Mr. Marcantoni, I think you fail to grasp the consequences of your suggestion. If a public face can be exchanged for a newer, better model, so can everything else. Come with me, I’ll elaborate.
A door appeared in the side wall and slid open. I followed him into a long hallway encased in glass. Behind the glass was what appeared to be endless rows of capuchin monkeys typing on laptops and being fed nuts and berries through a mechanical apparatus every time they completed a sentence.
ME: Capuchins? I had imagined bonobos.
ARHIGOS: Most people would, but capuchins have a lesser propensity for feces throwing. As you have already deduced in your search for the secrets of the publishing industry, our community is becoming increasingly dependent on formula. We now have a full generation of writers who believe that the path to success is a simple ten-step plan, promoted by none other than bestselling novelist James Patterson, who by the way, has been dead for twelve years but whose brain we have kept cryogenically frozen in order to control his clones and inform them of his memories and speech patterns.
ME: Fascinating. So, where do the monkeys come into play?
ARHIGOS: Have you any idea the level of crap most writers produce? No self-respecting publisher would ever sign those morons, and unfortunately our endless cycle of conferences and How-To books has created a culture of uncreative, bland writing, leaving on the outskirts many a talented writer who hold on to Literature as art and a vehicle for expression and protest. Big Literature had no choice but to occasionally sign people who attend AWP just to keep up the front that this whole process works, that the artists need not be listened to. And then came your article.
ME: Oh fuck, you’re replacing writers with monkeys?
ARHIGOS: These monkeys, unlike hack writers, actually know how to imbue genre formula with emotion. They have highly inventive minds that easily mimic human emotion better than most humans do. The writing isn’t art, but then again, we don’t want art. We want escapism. And these monkeys turn out fantastical worlds without any of the angst, self-doubt, or diva bullshit that comes about when an author’s Twilight fan fiction becomes a bestselling novels. Now that people know that authors use model representatives, we don’t even have to rely on ugly people writing half-decent books anymore, we just need monkeys.
ME: But what about the system? You have millions of people thinking if they buy into the industry expectations that they will eventually be signed.
ARHIGOS: They won’t know the books coming out are written by simians. The illusion that people are being signed will continue, and artists will be even further marginalized as an outdated relic, until you might as well be extinct.
ME: This is about crushing dissent then?
ARHIGOS: The people who run things know how powerful art is. Once you strip entertainment of artistic value, then you can truly control the masses. Mike Shields knows this, and we thought you would come around as well.
ME: That’s how you got a gold-plated basketball, isn’t it?
ARHIGOS: Don’t be a fool, Mr. Marcantoni, that’s how he got his.
Not believing that I had been betrayed, ARHIGOS took me down another hallway and opened a door that led to a studio where none other than “Master” Shields was freestylin’ with RZA, GZA, and the reanimated corpse of ODB.
ME: That son of a bitch sold me out!
ARHIGOS: Oh, we’ve been following you for some time. Now we just need to know, will you be a part of the future, or a casualty of it?
ME: This is not what I wanted.
ARHIGOS: There is no turning back, Mr. Marcantoni. And no matter how unpleasant you may find this to be, just remember…
And then he said the words that have kept me from sleeping for months.
ARHIGOS: None of this would have been possible, if weren’t for you.
Your article is somewhat discouraging. Is this the end of novels like “The Glass Bead Game”, “Notes from the Underground”, and “Heart of Darkness”? Are we doomed to an endless succession of “Game of Thrones”?
There’s got to be good books out there somewhere!
The comedy side of me says yes, the scenario is bleak and likely to only get worse. The serious side of me, is actually more hopeful. I believe a renaissance in the way we view art needs to occur. Part of that is getting away from self-promotion taking precedent over artistic expression. Too many writers are trying to play a game of ‘look at me’ and adjusting their writing to fit that outcome, instead of being dedicated to their craft and then forming a following out of who they are as artists and as people. The Big Literature industry plays to insecurities of worth that sucks writers dry of money and creativity. If literature were to be viewed as a craft that is at once personal and a part of building community, you wouldnt have these exploitative conferences and self help books. In order to increase support for artists, there needs to be outlets and infrastructure to give artists platforms to be themselves and cherish that individuality. Fame is uncertain, wealth is evasive, human connection is possible and honorable to dedicate oneself to. Artists can still have impact and smaller houses and places like ATM are the sorts of platforms I previously mentioned. Which is all to say, art won’t die, but our perception of success must die so we as artists can move forward as a collective.
This is eye opening and really made me think about how I look at myself and the ART of literature.
Those self-promoting tweets have bugged me for years and twitter has done nothing to help. Hell, I can not even follow most of the writers I do like because they have hired a college kid to pump out PR in 120 word shit-stained increments.
I also want to state that the only good book I have ever read, directly on writing not to be confused with so-called scholarly works, has been Stephen King’s On Writing. King tell us right up front that the book we are about to read is worth less than the medium in which it is being delivered and should be used as single ply toilet paper.
The nuggets of wisdom that are there are re-wordings of all the old adages and some of them are bullshit. Write every day? I would write every damn day too if everything I shat out went straight to market and then to film like King’s.
Hey Sean, thank you for your response. I am happy the piece resonated with you. Let me just say, regarding King, that his On Writing is a very good book, which I enjoyed immensely, mostly because the book is much more of a memoir than a how to or self help guide. I agree with your reason for praising and criticizing it. I cannot help but find these books on writing to be very easy, lazy ways for bestselling authors to make even more money.
But what worries me, ultimately, about Big Literature, this massive cultural industrial complex of big trade publishers, conferences, and how-to books, not to mention MFA programs, is that it keeps writers in a perpetual adolescence.
–You’ve written five books and they’ve all been published but haven’t become big sellers? Well then you must be doing something wrong, here is a ticket to AWP and another to a lecture on improving your writing, since maybe you haven’t fully developed as a writer so you need our help.
Bullshit, if you got your five books published by indie or small presses, then you know how to write a book (same is true if you’ve only had one published). You also know (or should know) who you are as an artist. You also have gotten validation for the quality of your work. You don’t need to have a bestseller to be a legit writer. But unless you are a bestselling author, you are treated like a complete newbie. Sure, you could use some help networking and marketing, most writers do, but as far as your writing goes? If you’ve been doing this for years, even decades, then you know your shit. Its a matter of instilling confidence and finding an audience for your vision. Its also a matter of changing your perception of success. Rather than success being selling a million books, perhaps it should be something more realistic and attainable, so you aren’t condemning yourself to a lifetime of bitterness and frustration.
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