cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

The Myths of Authorship

A while ago, I promised an essay on the Myths of Authorship. It ended up taking a lot longer to write than I thought it would, mainly because I kept starting to rant insanely. Then I'd re-read what I'd written and delete a few thousand of the more insane words.

That went on for quite a while. Anyway, there's still a fair bit of ranting going on in this version, but I'm telling myself it's all *good* ranting :)

The Myths of Authorship

by cupidsbow

Most of my adult life, I've been running up against a certain attitude about authorship that has left me puzzled and disillusioned. Most of the world, it seems, has this conception of what an author should be, and it's a conception that runs counter to my lived experience of being an author.

At first I thought maybe the problem was with me. Despite being published, maybe I wasn't really an author after all. So I tried a lot of stuff to make myself fit into the pigeonhole of author better. I tried writing mainstream fiction and selling to literary magazines, and felt like a pretentious twit with nothing to say. I tried writing science fiction, but became despondent when I couldn't get it "hard" enough. I considered becoming an essayist but was mainly interested in writing essays about stuff no magazine would ever buy. Like the myth of authorship.

The end result was that I wrote hardly anything and was unhappy with myself, and despite achieving a string of publications, awards, scholarships and so forth, wasn't very sure that I was really an author.

Then two startling developments overtook my life, and they made me question everything I'd "known" about authorship. Those two things were slash and finishing my Doctorate. Slash taught me a whole hell of a lot about my trade. I've ranted about that before, and I won't go into it again here, except to say that the most important lessons it taught me were: 1) if you write from passion there's never a lack of story ideas, and 2) it's joyful to put such stories into the world. Then, when I finished my Doctorate I discovered, to my bewildered delight, that in my heart I had also finished my apprenticeship as a writer. This happened the moment my examiners reports came back and I knew I was a Doctor of Creative Arts. After fifteen years of practicing my trade, I was good enough to convince two experts in the field that I knew what I was doing.

I'm an author.

For about two whole minutes I didn't feel defensive about labelling myself that way. I always have in the past, because it's a trade that everyone I meet, it seems, feels perfectly comfortable questioning. People recognise other tradespeople as having expert skills. Plumbers don't get looked at oddly by casual acquaintances at a party and asked, "But what's your real job?" Or told, "I have a good idea for renovating the pipes in the bathroom. I'll get around to it one day," with the condescending implication quite clear that anyone who picks up a wrench can do it. No, that is a privilege reserved for artists, and not even all artists. Most people recognise that it takes more than picking up a guitar and hitting the strings to produce music; and that sculptors actually need to know how to work with three-dimensional shapes. But writing? Hell, everyone learns to write at primary school. Everyone can do it. Authors don't have any special skills. They just stick words on a page. Anyone can do that. Take a novel for example, any novel--the words are so simple and easy to read. A ten year-old could write like that.

How many times do I have to hear this? How many times do I have to smile politely while I listen to lay people telling me that they can do the job it's taken me fifteen years to learn?

The real bummer is that it's not really their fault. Our culture has mythologised the author in certain ways, and that process of mythologisation is really, really convincing. So convincing, that until we try writing for ourselves, there is no way on earth that we could know that authorship is not as advertised. So convincing, that even then, some authors still buy into the myth without ever really questioning it, despite all the evidence that the myth is inaccurate in a number of ways.

What, then, you must be wondering, are these so called myths of authorship?

The Myths

Myth 1: Anyone can be an author. This is also known as the "everyone has a novel in them" myth.
This is patently untrue, as LiveJournal demonstrates beautifully. LJ is a democratic medium--pretty much anyone with internet access can post a story. The result is a wide variety of stories, some told well and some told poorly. Interestingly, the poor stories are poor for a variety of reasons: some have uninteresting content (Mary Sues, cliche fics and so on), some are never finished (either abandoned, ended before the plot is resolved, or literally never-ending serials), and some have poor technique (bad grammar and spelling, lack of flow, inappropriate word choice and so forth).

Even if everyone were capable of coming up with at least one decent story (which I would argue they are not), LJ ably demonstrates that most people don't have the skill to turn that idea in to readable prose (which isn't to say most people can't attain a certain level of skill if they are prepared to apply themselves; but many refuse to bother because writing is an "innate art that can't be learnt." Please!).

This is because prose which is easy to read is actually very hard to write. Easy to read prose is, I would argue, analogous to the way in which elite athletes make difficult stunts look like any fool could do them. Yes, it looks simple, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Myth 2: You're not a real author unless you get paid for your writing.

Corollary: A good writer will not only be able to make a living, but will become rich and famous.
Counter-myth: Artists must suffer for their art.
This myth gets authors coming and going. It implies that if they're not making enough money to live on, then they aren't real authors. On the other hand, if their work is clearly superior, then they just haven't "made it" yet--they are still paying their dues as artists and suffering for their art.

But is this expectation of wealth (or at least a living) reasonable? Mainstream commercial publishers usually pay something like 10% of the net profit of a book to the author. That means the publisher keeps 90%.

Let's do the sums. If a book sells 200,000 copies (a best-seller in Australia) at $20 each (and if we ignore printing costs, taxes and so forth), the book will bring in $4,000,000. Of that, a chunk will go to the book seller and distributor, so that we end up with something like:

Author: $300,000.

Publisher: $2,700,000.

That doesn't look too bad, does it? But wait... how long does it take to write a book? It can typically take an author anywhere from six months to three years to write a novel, and there isn't necessarily a guaranteed sale at the end of that. If it is accepted, it can take a further three years before the book is published. Nor is the book likely to be a best-seller (most books aren't). So how long does that $300,000 have to last? Three years? Six? More?

Suddenly the myth doesn't look quite so reasonable, does it? And that scenario is for novelists and book-length non-fiction writers, the most high-profile of all authors. A short story or essay is more likely to earn its author $50 to $200 (in Australia). That means a writer would have to sell two or three a week to make anything close to a living. Going academic isn't any better--academic presses are notorious for paying hardly anything to authors (if they pay at all; some of them expect the authors to pay to be published), because the academic credo is "prestige" rather than "profit".

Myth 3: You're not a real author unless you're published by the corporate publishing companies or academic presses.

Corollary: "Vanity" press projects (self-publication) are a waste of time; only talentless hacks self-publish.
Corollary: Only corporate publishing will make a writer any money.
It's in the corporate publishing houses' best interests for authors to believe this myth, but are there any advantages to by-passing the major presses?

There are several serious disadvantages to self-publishing. The big ones are printing costs and distribution, both of which are difficult for amateurs to handle well. On the other hand, all profits from sales go to the author. Despite that, I would not recommend going this route to any author, as it's really hard work. Having done these kinds of projects as a student (for the experience), and for charity, I can certainly say that it's possible to achieve some success this way, if you judge the audience correctly, but it takes a lot of effort and commitment.

As for the small press option, depending on the small press involved, an author can usually negotiate a much better royalty deal than 10% (meaning an author has to sell many fewer copies to make a decent income). This, in my opinion, is seriously worth investigation.

All in all, it's at least worth considering these routes, if reputation is less important to the author than readership.

Myth 4: It's only worth writing if it's totally original.

Corollary: Genre writing is less valuable as art than mainstream literary writing.
Corollary: All fan writing is a waste of time.
The cult of originality is a myth that isn't exclusively associated with writing. It has permeated all levels of our culture. Basically, we've been inculcated with the ideology that we have a right to own every idea we express.

I've ranted about how crazy this is before, as truly original thinking is almost impossible--our ideas nearly always depend on what has gone before. This is just as true of fiction as it is of other arts, or the sciences. The likelihood of any writer doing what Edgar Allen Poe or Bram Stoker did, and creating a new genre (Detective and Vampire respectively), are minuscule. Most of us, no matter how much we pretend to originality, are re-working ideas that are already in the public domain. Yet all these variations on a theme can still be wonderful reading experiences, and I think writing would be hugely invigorated if we were less obsessive about originality, and more obsessive about telling good stories. I mean, look at the amazing diversity of fanfiction... I rest my case.

Myth 5: Good writing is good writing and will always get published.

Corollary: It's only good writing if it's (name the genre).
Corollary: It's only good writing if it's published by (name the publisher/publication).
Corollary: It's only good writing if it's (name the form: poetry/script/essay/novel).
Corollary: Short stories are only a learning tool; real writers move on to novels.
I really don't feel the need to say much about this one. Literary snobbishness is alive and well. Any reader and/or writer of fanfic is aware of this.

It amuses me to think, though, that on the far future day in which an rps story is published in The New Yorker, people will be excoriating the new kid on the block--SMS fics, or whatever it may be.

Myth 6: Editors are always right.

Corollary: Authors who insist they are right in the face of editorial criticism are insane, overly-precious ego-maniacs.
A good editor is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Unfortunately, as in any other profession, there are good and less-good editors. Less-good editors have been known to "correct" things that are not errors. On one memorable occasion, an editor of one of my essays corrected a perfectly good play on words, turning the sentence into something that made no sense--clearly not only had they no sense of humour, they hadn't understood the word I'd used.

Myth 7: Famous authors are always right.
Authors who insist they are right in the face of criticism are insane, overly-precious ego-maniacs... unless they are famous. And then they *are* right. All the time. Because, you see, there must be something magical about their judgement for them to have become famous in the first place (and let's just ignore the beautiful contradiction here: that despite myths 1 and 2, this attitude implies that it's actually difficult to become a famous author). No matter how crazy the bug-bear they've taken into their heads, people will actually give it some consideration if it comes from a famous author.

I can actually understand how authors end up like this--after years of shit from mediocre editors and publishers, they just don't want to take it anymore. But clearly this attitude is just as wrong-headed as that of editors with bad cases of god-hood.

Myth 8: If an author has had a lot published, they must be good.
To pick on but four: L. Ron Hubbard; E. E. "Doc." Smith; Anne Rice; Anne McCaffrey.

I don't say these writers have never written anything good. I would, however, say that their oeuvres are inconsistent in quality.

Myth 9: Women and men are valued equally as authors.
Ha. Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

*wipes tear from eye*

That's a good one!

Myth 10: Writing is what happens at the keyboard.
You've all seen the movie...

* * *


Cue funky music and FADE IN on writer sitting in front of a keyboard. They manically pound the keys.

CUT TO them staring into space, playing with a pencil.

CUT TO more pounding at the keyboard, with SFX of words scrolling at random across the screen.

CUT TO a rubbish bin half filled with screwed up paper.


The writer throws fridge magnets at the filing cabinet.

CUT TO more pounding at the keyboard.

CUT TO a rubbish bin overflowing with screwed up paper.

Funky music swells magnificently as they print out the manuscript.


Congratulations, Mr Writer. We're going to publish your novel.


* * *

...and I'm the first to admit that this conception of writing is very seductive. There's only one problem with it.

It's totally wrong!

What really happens is more like this...

* * *


Our Hero sits on the bus looking at a billboard advertising Orlando Bloom's new movie, which is right next to an ad for a vacuum cleaner.

Yay. Plot bunny for that Giant Killer Robot series Harper Collins is planning.


Hero writes a query letter.

The pages of a calender rip off and fly away. Two months disappear in this way.

CUT TO Hero getting a "Yes, we're interested" letter.


Hero lays around in parks, at the beach, in zir back garden, with zir walkman on, and a blank look on zir face.


What do you mean you don't have any books on the digestive tracts of ants? What kind of library is this? Please tell me you at least have something on light perception in robotic eyes?


Hero, clearly unbathed for several days, writes the outline and first three chapters.


Hero, still in the same clothes, posts the parcel.


Hero sleeps the sleep of the totally knackered.

Montage of seasons changing outside the bedroom window to indicate the passing of several months.


The contract arrives.

Thank god! One more packet of ramen noodles and I would have turned vampire just for a change of diet.


Hero gleefully banks the advance cheque.


Hero lays around in parks, at the beach, in zir back garden, with zir walkman on, and a blank look on zir face.


What about psychic phenomena in sunflowers? Surely you have something on that?


Hero lays around in parks, at the beach, in zir back garden, with zir walkman on, and a blank look on zir face.


Hero pounds at the keyboard as the pages of a calender rip off and fly away. A year and a half disappears in this way.


What do you mean, the climax doesn't work and you hate the main character?




It's good other than that though, right?


Hero pounds at the keyboard as the pages of a calender rip off and fly away. Three months disappear in this way.

CUT TO Hero staring with disgust at a bowl of ramen noodles.

CUT TO Hero scrounging down the back of the couch to find enough money to post the manuscript.

CUT TO Hero opening the "Sorry we no longer want your novel" letter.


Hero works night-shift at the local morgue to make ends meet, and uses their stationary to send out query letters on the sly.


Hero does a happy dance with an acceptance letter clutched in zir hand.


What do you mean, the climax doesn't work and you hate the main character?

(holds blue pencil of doom)



Hero pounds at the keyboard as the pages of a calender rip off and fly away. Three months disappear in this way.

CUT TO Hero doing a happy dance with the "Your novel has been scheduled for publication" letter clutched in zir hand.

Montage of seasons changing outside the office window to indicate the passing of a year.

CUT TO Hero doing a happy dance with an advance copy of the book, which has the most hideous cover of all time, clutched in zir hand.


* * *

See? Not quite as sexy, is it?

I guess that's why people prefer the myths of authorship in the first place, but I'm just really, really over the whole thing.

* * *
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