A friend of mine sent me this quote from Annie Dillard.
Publication is not a gauge of excellence. This is harder to learn than anything about publishing, and very important. Formerly, if a manuscript was ‘good’, it ‘merited’ attention. This has not been true for at least 20 years, but the news hasn’t filtered out to change the belief. People say, ‘Why Faulkner couldn’t get published today!’ as if exaggerating. In fact, Faulkner certainly couldn’t, and publishers don’t deny it. The market for hardback fiction is rich married or widowed women over fifty (until you all start buying hardback books). The junior editors who choose new work are New York women in their twenties who are interested in what is chic in New York that week, and who have become experts in what the older women will buy in hardcover. Eight books of non-fiction appear for every book of fiction. The chance of any manuscript coming into a publishing house and getting published in one in three thousand. (Agents send in most of these manuscripts. Most agents won’t touch fiction.)
I don’t know why a rich married or windowed woman would not want to read my novel, but I suspect that is not the demographic that would jump to an agent’s mind.
My friend included this other Annie Dillard quote too.
Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself. In the democracies, you may even write and publish anything you please about any governments or institutions, even if what you write is demonstrably false.
The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work alone is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever. You are free to make several thousand close calls a day. Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality. A shoe salesman-who is doing others’ tasks, who must answer to two or three bosses, who must do his job their way, and must put himself in their hands, at their place, during their hours-is nevertheless working usefully. Further, if the shoe salesman fails to appear one morning, someone will notice and miss him. Your manuscript, on which you lavish such care, has no needs or wishes; it knows you not. Not does anyone need your manuscript; everyone needs shoes more. There are many manuscripts already-worthy ones, most edifying and moving ones, intelligent and powerful ones. If you believed Paradise Lost to be excellent, would you buy it? Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more manuscript on which to gag the world.
What do you think?
I think I’m going to make my own copies of my book–on real paper and in a PDF file–and I’m going to send it out into the world. If you’d like to be on the guest list, let me know. Remember, you can read a few chapters of both books at Lake Belle.
Do you have any writing quotes to share? Any words pinned over your desk (or your heart) that help you with this writing life? Pin them here.
And thank you, Sophie.