A Writer’s Life: the Dark Side First

This spring I attended an event comprised mainly of writers much younger than me whose short stories were being published by Joyland: a digital hub for short fiction. Three young writers were interviewed by three other young writers and they answered questions instead of reading from their work although one writer Natalee Caple read a limerick. Her name is Natalee Caple and she is a friend of mine. Her poem was about the federal Conservative government winning a majority in the recent election.

Culture is broad, Natalee said, and a community of writers is important, and she wrote her short stories as a way to express her own joy and interest in magic and allegory even though her agent had told her not to do this because she has a novel coming out soon and a digital collection of stories might interfere and possibly dampen her readers’ interest in the novel.

Natalee was interviewed by Andrew Pyper, who writes thrillers, and there was some wisecracking back and forth about how he wrote bestsellers while she believed in writing for its own sake and I thought–this is what we’ve come to–any writer who talks to another writer publicly has to reference bestsellerdom and their place in it and it is not an easy place to find, not for the young writers who are on their way up or for me, an older writer, who has, so to speak, most of her best work behind her and who was told recently by a publisher that her sales figures were not high enough to excite the marketing department about her next book. Not high enough at twelve thousand for a novel about a girl cutting off a man’s penis to win the love of another girl and not high enough at eight thousand for a novel about Casanova who is often seen in skeptical hard-working Canada as a frivolous figure.

And I thought, why is this? Why must writers be judged primarily by sales numbers and not on the cultural merit of their work? Has the Internet convinced everyone, through its sheer volume and scope, that being popular is the most important thing? And not just popular but very very popular. And I thought, if publishers feel so free to use math to judge the worth of what I produce, why shouldn’t I feel just as free to judge them? Or at least free to talk about them and the life of the writer in the most honest terms possible, not to be unkind but to apply the same fussy unforgiving standards to the things they do to writers? Immediately it struck me that as a writer I have been too forgiving of what passes for culture and government in my own North American context and that it was time to get it right for the record.

So this will be the first of a series of posts about what really goes on in a writer’s life.

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