Gagging the World

in London--2002
in London--2002

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.

9 thoughts on “Gagging the World

  1. Such a bold move! A brave maneuver, and one that takes such courage and commitment. I don’t think I could myself follow that path. I’m too cowardly, too weak a salesperson, to market myself, my book and my life’s work (such as it is at this point) effectively.

    I’ll look forward to watching your journey!

    1. It might be braver to face up to the industry. And I’m no salesperson. But I see this little winding path over here and I’m going to take it. I must be crazy.

      Thanks for being here.

  2. “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”

    I think it’s almost criminal that the publishing world is at the mercy of people such as this – people with little to no experience of real life or what real people in the world might want to read. Perhaps the problems in the industry now are more to be blamed on what’s being offered to the public. For instance, if the public wants steak but you only offer them salad, why do you keep offering them salad and blame them for not wanting it? Why not just offer them steak?

    I keep hearing, “No one’s reading anymore!” Maybe they would if they were offered something they wanted to read.

    1. Well, I hope I’m not delusional. Maybe no one will want to read the stories I’ve got. There is no evidence that I know the public any better than junior editors. Not even sure why I’m so determined to try.

      Thanks for coming by!

      1. I doubt you’re delusional. 🙂 I think WE’RE the public and we just might have a good idea of what people might like to read, don’t you think?

        I’d like to read your stuff. So if you’re looking for a beta reader, I’m game. 🙂

  3. I’ve read those quotes by DIllard before. I do believe her, although I think they are somewhat over-exaggerated. She had her own struggles with fiction that have no doubt made her more cynical than positive.

    But these beliefs don’t dissuade me from writing, or trying to get published. I don’t think my first novel was ready for prime time. I do think this next one, will be. All I can do is write the best book I’m capable of- the rest is up to the universe.

    Here’s the quote that I keep over my computer, and the reason I keep writing:

    “Action is the antidote to despair.”Joan Baez

    1. Yes. Baez is right about that.

      And you’re surely right about the exaggeration, but I sympathize with her frustration. My first novel probably isn’t ready for prime time either–but I don’t know how to tell. Wish Baez could tell me that.

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