How many times have you stood clutching a drink at a dreadful gathering when your annoying host introduces you to a “writer”? As in “This is Charles, he’s a writer (too).” Chances are you’ve never heard of Charles or read any of his work. Charles may or may not have actually written much of anything, or he may have several completed works stored safely under his bed or hidden on an ancient hard drive. He probably also has a real job that doesn’t involve writing, but it’s hard to tell and you may be afraid to ask. Charles is in fact, somewhere between forty and sixty, a bit scruffy, and may not have attended to his personal hygiene lately.
Charles might just as well be wearing a t-shirt that says Failed Novelist. If you go to the trouble of engaging Charles on any topic, in a mere moment or two he will get around to his favorite subject; the Vast and Ongoing Conspiracy Against Him as Organized and Executed by Publishers Everywhere. Charles’ second favorite subject is the growing inventory of hacks who while lacking even a speck of his talent, have somehow managed to be legitimately published. Charles will speak knowingly of how these “non-literary” defilers of prose have used their social connections and the popularity of the vulgar arts to achieve notoriety. After a few more drinks, Charles will probably admit that things are so bad, he really wouldn’t deign to be published anyway, because publishers don’t market you at all and after a few weeks they’ll give up on you and you know then you can never get published again because you’re now not even a mid-list writer and really it’s all completely pointless and self publishing is for losers and really who buys all the garbage that passes for literary fiction these days?
Poor, pathetic, miserable Charles has it all wrong. He’s a bit like a sad soul who purchases lottery tickets every day and can’t figure out why he isn’t rich. He perhaps believes that if he wears the hair-shirt of the literary monk, he will some day be rewarded with the respect and admiration of whoever it is that bestows status upon the earnest. And he has let the indignity of being a failed novelist (his company is legion) wear him down, when he could be living the romantic imaginary life of an author without ever putting his poison pen to virgin paper. Ultimately, Charles is laboring under the mistaken notion that suffering creates art. It’s the other way around. Ask anyone who’s lived with an artist. The fact is that it is not the least bit necessary to suffer and toil and work at one’s craft in order to live the faux bohemian literary lifestyle. Yet everyday and everywhere millions assume it is.
But how, you ask, having read this far, can one do that? Is this not a blog about writing? To which I can emphatically respond; oh hell no. Living the life of an author has nothing at all to do with learning how to write, in college or in a writers group or from some tome penned by a bored mid-list type. Please. Name a literary great with an MFA or writers group background. Admitting to such associations is tantamount to writing “hack” across one’s forehead. But I digress… In the following pages you will discover what you’ve been doing wrong all these years. And I don’t just mean writing all that drivel about your unhappy childhood, weak metaphors piling up like unsolicited short stories in the New Yorker’s recycle bin.
Perhaps you recognized a bit of yourself in Charles. Perhaps you are Charles, in which case my lawyers and I can assure you that any resemblance herein to persons living or dead is pure coincidence. Read on and learn what posing as a novelist is all about. Trust me on one point – it has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with becoming that literary bon vivant you’ve always known you are. No need to walk on hot coals. Crack open a fifth and come with me.
Let’s pause to make an important distinction. Regardless of the various genres failed novelists work in, most imagine that they are engaged in a literary enterprise. They may be writing (or thinking about writing) a mystery, sci fi, a coming of age story, a family drama or an adventure/thriller or whatever, but the standard they believe they adhere to is somehow literary. By “literary” we mean the stuff taught in college lit classes, authored by dead white guys, which has more or less stood the test of time. Many of these writers were not particularly well known in their eras, except perhaps as alcoholic sociopaths. Most lived and died in relative obscurity. They may have been famous for a few years but became better known and appreciated over time. You may be a dead writer, you may be a famous writer, but to be literary, traditionally, you should be both.
To be sure, most “great” works might have been thought of in terms of genre when they first appeared. But over time, these achieved a classic status that makes them literary, and convinces the amateur that by mimicking the style, the amateur is also engaged in “literary” writing. Of course, in our day and age, no one can wait to be thought a “literary” writer. The literary mid-life crisis is about right now. The amateur announces to the world that she is engaged in literary writing without waiting for history to decide that she is both dead and famous.
So we find ourselves in a bit of a quandary. When challenged, most mid-life-crisis-I-know-I’ll-become-a-published-writer-any-day-now types will admit that getting legitimately published is a pipe dream. They will even admit that most published writers don’t sell enough books to hang out at Starbucks. And they probably look down their noses at most of the best seller list as being the work of hacks. All the while, the failed novelist is pursuing a result even more impossible and unlikely than hitting the lottery – immediate real-time commercial success, literary respectability, AND the eventual immortality afforded dead and famous white guys.
This may be the hardest part so let’s get it over with quick. I’m going to tell you something that even your meanest gay friend won’t spew after several brown drinks: There is nothing special about you, and you are not destined to be a famous writer. A certain former talk show host is not going to choose you for her pretend book club. The New York Times is not going to herald your arrival (late in middle age) and you are not going to top the best seller lists. How can I know this? Well, for starters, there’s the fact that you have read this far, what with the blog title and all making it pretty clear that this is advice for people who hope to POSE as a novelist. There there now. There is no shame in this. But yes, statistically it’s a fact. You are no more likely to become a literary legend than the poor bastards that the talk show host picks and they SELL BOOKS. Yes, I have looked deep into your imaginary soul and I know that more than anything, more than selling books and getting laid, what you really want is to be taken seriously as a literary writer, even though you will never be one, and by definition, all great literary writers are dead white guys who can actually write. In this regard, you are no different than Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen, who so far, let’s face it, may some day be dead white guys but that is about it. And they SELL BOOKS. But they are not literary writers, and indeed, imagining that one must be “literary” is really of no help in becoming a published writer. Write crap if you want to be published, but you’ll not have your cake and eat it too.
So let’s be clear. Your goal is really to be thought a literary writer. However, such status will be of no use to you when you are dead. This is about enjoying the benefits here and now, not doing the work and dying drunk and broke. Trust me, you aren’t cut out for the life, let alone death of a real writer, which often involves your liver slowly shutting down or some more direct method of self inflicted demise. Now that we have that bit of business out of the way, it will be necessary to remake your image into that of a serious author. It’s a very serious business, being a serious author, so you’ll need a bit of background. Stay tuned.