In the last day or so, I’ve been seeing a lot of this op/ed piece on The Huffington Post: If JK Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It, by Lynn Shepherd.
A brief summary of Shepherd’s thesis might go like this: the publicity machine that supports big-name writers makes it harder for small time, independent writers to get the word out about their own books.
Here’s a noteworthy quote:
It wasn’t just that the hype was drearily excessive, or that (by all accounts) the novel [The Casual Vacancy] was no masterpiece and yet sold by the hundredweight, it was the way it crowded out everything else, however good, however worthwhile. That book sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere. And I chose that analogy quite deliberately, because I think that sort of monopoly can make it next to impossible for anything else to survive, let alone thrive. Publishing a book is hard enough at the best of times, especially in an industry already far too fixated with Big Names and Sure Things, but what can an ordinary author do, up against such a Golgomath?
Well, the first thing that an ordinary writer can do is suck it up, and accept that the publishing industry is not, has never been, and probably will never be, a level playing field. The market is cutthroat, unforgiving, and very crowded, and probably always has been and always will be. And that is part of what you sign up for as a writer. And yes, it’s unfair. It’s unfair in deeper ways that Shepherd didn’t address: for instance, it’s unfair that white male writers get more attention than almost everybody else, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their work, good or bad. (This is why JK Rowling used her initials, instead of her full name, when she published her first Harry Potter book.) And yes, there probably should be an easier way for indie writers, and for that matter all marginalized writers, to get the word about about their books to large audiences. But I think this is not a good reason to punish or complain about writers who are successful. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that JK Rowling was a single mom living in a council flat, receiving social assistance, and papering her walls with her rejection letters.
To counter the unfairness in the market that Shepherd is addressing, it might be better to address the books themselves, for instance by writing negative reviews of bad books and positive reviews of good books. That might help direct the attention of readers toward better books, whether those books are popular or not, which is the whole point of the exercise. Readers are part of the marketing team and writers have to persuade them to help promote their books. Asking a successful writer to stop writing seems to me unhelpful.
This leads me to the second thing a writer can do, which is write her book anyway, and worry about the publicity later. As I have said before, writers should write because they care about writing, and because they care about what they’re writing about, and because they care about artistic and intellectual excellence more than they care about material success.
As an indie writer myself, and thus the sort of person who “should” agree with Shepherd, I find her argument a little silly. If my book sucks, then getting rid of JK Rowling won’t make my book better. And if my book is awesome, then getting rid of JK Rowling won’t (by itself) put my book on the NYT Bestseller List.
I have this dream in which my books become hugely successful because of their quality alone. But this is, after all, only a dream. For one thing, my books might suck and I might not know it. And moreover, there is simply no correlation between the success of any given book, and its quality, or how much publicity it receives, or how crowded or not crowded the market it.
Sure, I’d like to be as famous and successful as JK Rowling. But there is no way to predict or ensure that will happen. And at any rate, that kind of success has almost nothing to do with the quality of a writer’s work, good or bad — a point that Shepherd might find agreeable. What I can do right now, as a not-very-famous indie writer, is write the best book that I can write, and then write another one, and another one, and another one, for as long as I can. And yes, I’ll also do as much promotional work as is in my power to do. But the writing always comes first. In fact the writing comes before everything. And if I become JK Rowling, the writing will still come first.
I think Rowling is a great writer, and I’m glad she has done so well. I read all the Harry Potter books as an adult, and I found many of them intriguingly philosophical. I actually liked The Casual Vacancy (though I admit haven’t finished it yet). And sure, her success might make it harder for writers like me to reach the same level of success. But that has nothing to do with her personally, and it’s certainly not a reason to tell her to stop writing. In fact, I’m going to write my next book while imagining that she will read it. It’s likely that she never will. But it’s sure to make me want to write something better than I’ve done before. And that, my friends, can be its own reward.