Writers seem like such unhappy people, especially the ones actually making a go at doing it for a living. The constant pressure, the un-steady income, the long hours and relentless deadlines, it seems to make for some intense, unlikeable folks. You have to be remarkably talented and insanely driven to try and survive this way. Particularly now, as the chain bookstores are slashing their inventories to free up shelf space for toys and games.
I wonder why so many people (myself included) feel compelled to string words together, and like to dream that, someday, they might be able to make a living this way. Would we really be happier poring over page proofs and negotiating contracts, than punching a time clock and enjoying our weekends?
There's a few rock-star success stories that keep us dreaming: the J.K. Rowlings, the Stephen Kings, the Stephanie Meyerses, the Clancys and the Pattersons. These draw us back to the keyboard (though hardly often enough to actually cobble a novel together) in the hopes that such a dream might come true for us. But what blinders we wear, to ignore the fact that these few writing stars have come out of decades of publishing.
Our odds would be better in music, where each year produces a handful of hits and celebrities. Musicians are easier to love, and it's easier to love more of them, since we can consume their products in minutes, and we can do it while we're working, or walking, or driving in cars. While novelists -- well, novelists ask us to shut up, sit still, and listen for hours at a stretch, while they go on and on, unraveling this low-bandwidth string of communication, one word at a time.
How presumptious! Were I to knock on your door and ask you to listen to me for eight hours in a row, I would shudder to consider your reaction. But authors do this to us every day, and they ask us to pay them for the priviledge.
And yet there must be something primal about this particular dream, this aspiration, given that it generates so many reams of submissions to editors and agents, so many MFAs in creative writing, so many purchases of laptops and lattes. We set so much store in the story of the storyteller. Is it for the same reason the poor are so inclined to support tax structures that favor the super-wealthy? Does the same dream that, hey, I might get rich someday, and I won't want the gummint taking a slice of my pie, keep us pounding away at an activity so unlikely to reward us in money, fame, or affaction?
Or is it something even more basic than that? Is it that piecing our lives together in the form of a story is central to our identity? We're happy or miserable, we're successes or failures, and we look to our past for clues as to why this is so. We find them. We gossip. We keep journals and blogs and Twitter accounts. We call this our autobiography. (And it's telling that so many current-day literary successes are shelved under “Biography” or “Memoir.”)
The alternative -- that it's all just blind chance and one moment doesn't have any partiular linkage to the next, and certainly nothing we have control over -- is just too horrible to contemplate. Books give us the certainty that it all makes sense, somehow; that the decisions we make have consequences that make them worth making. Whether we read books or not, they're there, weaving our singular moments into elaborate, meaningful structure.
A proper story is more than entertainment. It's a roof, and walls against the night. It's a hearth.
The average American may not read many books in a given year. But we want them to be written. It's an imperitive right up there on par with having children, and believing that they're going to carry our stories into the future, whether they remember them or not.