May 5, 2009

Storming the Gatekeepers

On Nathan Bransford’s blog comes one of the worst blog entries ever penned by an agent. It perfectly summarizes the vast stupidity rampant in the gatekeepers of publishing. I’ve written screeds before about how agents themselves aren’t that talented. They can’t necessarily recognize talent because they don’t really care about writing as art. They care about writing as money.

He begins:

One of the more unique aspects of writing is the way people associate themselves and their identities with their words on the page. People don't just spend time in the evening reflecting on the capricious vicissitudes of life and/or zombie killers from another planet. It somehow becomes more than that.

You can see this in the way people talk about writing: some people compare it to oxygen, i.e. something that they can't live without. They don't say, "I like to write, it's fun, I enjoy it." They say, unequivocally, "I am a writer. It's who I am."

I'm going to be honest here and say that while I don't judge people when they define themselves as writer, whatever their publication status, I find it a little unsettling when they make it an overly intrinsic part of their identity.

First of all, people just don't tend to define themselves by their hobbies. You don't hear anyone shout to the rafters, "I AM STAMP COLLECTOR!" or "I AM A CONNOISSEUR OF REALITY TELEVISION!" And until you're making a living at it, writing is a hobby. It's something you do in your spare time. (Right?)


Let’s put aside the phrase “overly intrinsic” for a moment, which is kind of like saying “darkly opaque.” But how on earth is a person who thinks writing is a hobby supposed to separate good writing from crap? Writing is a vocation. Great art is an expression of a person’s soul – and an expression of the audience’s soul as well. To say you can achieve that in a mere hobby is seriously not understanding what it takes to create art. And if you don’t understand that writing’s a hell of a lot deeper than a hobby, you’re never going to be able to recognize writing that has any longevity.

Have I created a great work of art? I can’t say I have, but I know what it is to believe in writing like it’s a religion. I know that I write to reach beyond myself, not to pass the time. And if you’re not trying to do that, chances are you’re not writing something worth reading. It also implies that writing only becomes a vocation when you make a living at it. This is gatekeeper-think: that the gate is more important than the process.

Do I take rejection too close to heart? Absolutely. This entry is anger-filled in a way that I wouldn’t be if I’d been readily accepted by the publishing establishment. But I have such limited faith in that happening that ideas like this go very deep under my skin. I don't like seeing the system die. This is regressive thinking: it’s just art. Art matters. To say otherwise is actually kind of tragic.

Unsurprisingly, the entry has a bunch of cheerleaders. One of the curious things about the popular agent blogs is that they’re populated by people who write commercial fiction:

I think of my writing as a product, so I don't take it so personally when I et rejected. when you're producing widgets off an assembly line, it's hard to get all choked up when when of 'em doesn't sell, because you know there's another one about to fall off the line.


That’s a real comment, not a parody of a comment. The entry is an embarrassment, but I’m glad that it was written. It makes me believe more and more that I shouldn’t put my literary future in the hands of people who don’t understand what drives me as a writer.

I’m sure there are agents out there who understand that agents like this are lightweights, who understand that writing’s deeply important. But these are the agents that are the most vocal online and have the biggest fan club. Hopefully the old school agents aren't a dying breed.

9 comments:

Nathan Bransford said...

Henry-

I like you a lot, but whatever disagreement you perceive in this post comes down to a semantic definition of "hobby." I meant hobby as in something someone does in their spare time (as opposed to what someone does for a living), and was at great pains in the post to show that obviously writing is something more than, say, stamp collecting because it involves bringing the interior to the surface. That's something to be respected. All I was trying to say that wrapping up one's identity solely in writing and publishing is a dangerous path.

I've been working with an author who wrote an amazing literary fiction novel for the last four years. Four. Years. It's looking (unless I'm jinxing it right now) that we're going to get an offer this week from a major publisher. To say that I don't care about literature or am a lightweight or whatever else... needless to say I'd disagree.

Pretty disappointing to hear this coming from you, Henry, particularly since I feel like I've been pretty supportive of your ventures even as other agents may still look down on self-publishing. Everyone has to vent from time to time, but I still kind of feel like I deserved better than this.

Henry Baum said...

You're right, you have been supportive, and this is where I vent the stuff too dour to put on my other site. I've been frankly shocked by the level of discourse on your site - especially regarding the recent "Be Agent for a Day" thing. The level of writing - both the queries and the comments - was vexing. This is who I'm losing out to? It pissed me off - so this post was the culmination of much anger, directed against your commenters (which you probably don't find any more justifiable) as much as your site. But yes, I probably went too far. I do that.

Ironic, given the subject of your post. But I don't see the problem in feeling things too deeply, especially if you're an artist. I've also been working on my current novel for five years - started when my wife was pregnant. We're now divorced. I've bled for writing. And the industry has not paid me back. In another era, I think the publishing industry would have taken a chance on me.

In a way, I was proving both our points. Passion is good, but it can lead to overzealous anger at the wrong targets. Some of what I wrote is cruel - I don't like being cruel. I'm sorry about that. But I sometimes scream what I have to say.

Nathan Bransford said...

I don't think you're "losing" at all, to anyone, and many/most of my readers would kill to have the level of success you've already achieved.

Passion is indeed good, and I think you're going to do even better with your next project.

Kristen said...

Nathan,

I ... was at great pains in the post to show that obviously writing is something more than, say, stamp collecting because it involves bringing the interior to the surface.You did go on to write that, sure. I mean, everyone knows writing and stamp collecting aren't the same thing.

But you did also write this:

...people just don't tend to define themselves by what they do in their spare time. You don't hear anyone shout to the rafters, "I AM STAMP COLLECTOR!" or "I AM A CONNOISSEUR OF REALITY TELEVISION!"(Um...writers don't do that, either. But thanks for the ridicule!)

Comparing writing to stamp collecting - which you very much DID do - in effect, minimizes the writer, as well as writing. (Stamp collecting isn't necessarily a skill one hones, y'see...)


Once someone makes the leap from writing as a fun, intense pursuit to something wrapped up in identity, it's a dangerous road to be walking on. As we all know, the path to material success in the writing world is ridden with obstacles and rejections.You put two things together, there, and in doing so you provide the first hint at what you don't understand about people who identify themselves as writers. In the same paragraph, without a break, you write "intense pursuit" and "the path to material success."

I understand you, as an agent, are discussing, specifically, people you believe are crushed when agents reject them and who will, as your post implies, probably go home and cry in the basement for a month and lose their jobs because the Agent didn't want their work, but even so...your tying "money" to "writer" is revealing.

And also condescending. The implication is that writers can't handle rejection (if they're the artistic kind, anyway - the ones who would say "I'm a writer"). The truth, really, is that certain people - no matter the vocation or passion - can't handle rejection. You have writers (whether the "hobbyists" or the "artists") who say "Well, shit!" about a rejection and move on, and you have those who'll say "Nobody loves me I suck I'm never writing again!" It's the person, not the passion.


And when people begin to wrap up their identity with the publication process, the rejections become personal, and a judgment on a book becomes intertwined, in the writer's eye, with a judgment of self.Probably true - but who wraps up their identity with the publication process? I thought we were talking about writing.

What I think you don't understand, because you're not a writer, is that being passionate about something for a lifetime, loving the craft of it so much that you actually care to do it well and use everything you've learned about it to make it the best you possibly can, means accepting that passion IS a part of who you are.

Being an agent is a job. Obviously, you're not running around saying "I AM AN AGENT! IT'S WHO I AM! IT'S HOW I DEFINE MYSELF!"

But, for many writers--the ones who treat it like an art form--if you were to cut off their hands, they'd get a voice recognition program so they could keep writing. For those writers, it absolutely IS a part of who they are. But - and this isn't meant to be a dig - for those who don't have a passion, it's difficult to understand those who do.

And what makes it more obvious that you don't quite get it is this:

"And until you're making a living at it, writing is a hobby. It's something you do in your spare time. (Right?)"

But, I'll use your post's closing, because you edited out the "hobby" part. It works just as well:

this post could have been summed up: "Don't let the publishing process define you."You're confusing writing with publishing (probably because you're an agent during the day), and you're arguing incorrectly that writers should define themselves the same way you define them.

That you don't think a writer is a writer until they've been anointed one by an agent or publisher is evidence of not only your own idea of what you think the role of the agent/publisher is (to decide who is a "writer" and who isn't), but also that you simply may not understand the difference between vocation and passion, hobby and art.

And I don't know that, lacking that understanding, it's prudent to talk to writers as if you're an authority on writing. Your area of expertise is, at least in connection with your blog, being an agent. Not being a writer.

Nathan Bransford said...

kristen-

Wow. I'll say three things.

First of all, I really enjoyed your work when I read it a few years back.

Second, as I said in the post, I don't think only published or agented authors get to call themselves writers. Everyone gets to call themselves writers who wants to call themselves a writer!

I mean, you took a comment that said "don't let the publishing process define you" and said that I'm saying I define people by the publishing process. What you took from it is the precise opposite of what I was saying.

I expect this kind of treatment from people I don't know, but geez guys. I really don't think the heart of what I was saying was particularly controversial, and certainly not worth this kind of disproportionate response.

Kristen said...

you took a comment that said "don't let the publishing process define you" and said that I'm saying I define people by the publishing process. What you took from it is the precise opposite of what I was saying. My response points out several examples of your post that repeat a similar theme.

I expect this kind of treatment from people I don't know, but geez guys. I really don't think the heart of what I was saying was particularly controversial, and certainly not worth this kind of disproportionate response. I don't agree that the response is disproportionate - you made some fairly strong statements and assumptions, and they're being disagreed with. That's all.

I think if a non-agent were to post a blog entry about who an agent is, how involved an agent should or shouldn't be in her or his work, or anything else like that, you'd probably have something to say.

Nathan Bransford said...

kristen-

I just think you guys are kind of reaching for some evidence that I'm slighting people who haven't found an agent or a publishing deal or whatever when the main thrust of my post is that I don't believe people should be so consumed by their writing that they define themselves by how materially successful they are. And I really don't believe this, and particularly in my follow-ups have been very clear that I'm not equating writing with a hobby or looking down on anyone who writes.

I regret that I wasn't particularly articulate, but the reason I'm surprised by this is that I thought I'd at least get the benefit of the doubt from you guys.

Henry said...

For me, it was an overall tapestry of your post plus all the comments that were in lockstep agreement that got so deep under my skin. Most people said, writing shouldn't define you, which is another way of saying writing's not that important. Being defined by material success is another issue, but the gist was writing itself doesn't matter that much, such as the anonymous commenter saying writing was like working on a factory line. I mean, that's sort of tragic kind of thinking.

And what I find frustrating is people who think this way are not just writers, but readers, so how can I reach people who think of writing totally as a product? I know there are plenty of people who care more about writing, but maybe there are more who don't.

Nathan Bransford said...

It's not that writing doesn't define you (I think it defines everyone who writes), I just think it shouldn't solely define you.

What I think you saw in the comments is that there is a wide range of feelings about writing, even among the really good writers. Some are really wrapped up in it, some can take it or leave it. And both perspectives are fine. To some people their writing is a product. Some think of writing as a high-minded pursuit. They're all writers, published, unpublished, serious, unserious, and I don't judge that.

Where I personally feel it can get dangerous (and this is just my personal opinion) is when people get so wrapped up in it that it begins to blot out the other meaningful aspects of life.

It wasn't my best post, and certainly not the most articulate, but hopefully I've clarified things.

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