School’s Out (Sympathy For The Devil)

Kris Rusch says writers are dumb.  She’s right.  And wrong.

She’s right that writers can do the most absurdly stupid things when it comes to trusting total strangers to steer their careers.  She’s wrong in thinking that we as a group are dumber than other people, or that other people in our circumstances wouldn’t act exactly like us.

Let’s begin with the type of person fiction writers are.
As a rule, we’re odd ducks.

There are, of course, exceptions.  Don’t come and tell me about your gregarious, perfectly adjusted, quite average authors.   Or at least authors who present as such. There are fewer of those in science fiction than in other fields, but yes I’m aware they exist.

In fact, I can easily pass for one of them.  I did, through most of my college career, pretend to be a perfectly normal student, with aspirations of becoming a teacher or professor or translator or interpreter or something else that my degree could qualify me for.  But inside, it always felt like the degree was a pro-forma, something I was taking because my parents didn’t think school ended till graduate school, not because I wanted it or had any need of it for my life.  It didn’t much signify what I studied, I just took the path of least resistence, because whatever career I had as a “grown up” wasn’t going to be the career I wanted.

I wanted to be a writer.  And I want to say here, that though I had a completely different idea of a writers’ lifestyle – all those stupid movies – as being a lot more glamorous, that wasn’t what I craved.  I craved sitting down and making up stories and writing them and sharing them.

And I knew I couldn’t do that.  Not in Portugal, when books were all physical and international commerce slower.  In Portugal at the time, even if every single person who read for pleasure – let alone who read science fiction and fantasy or even mystery for pleasure – read my books, I’d never be able to make a living from it.  So I needed to do something with my days, it didn’t much signify what.  I’d write, of course, but I was resigned to the stuff never seeing the light of day, because the publishing establishment managed to be smaller and stuffier than ours and, to be blunt, you had to know someone.

But even while acting perfectly normal, even while keeping my aspirations to myself – and a few moans and b*tching to my best friend since first grade – inside I knew I was different.  Hearing people actually get ENTHUSIASTIC at the idea of a translation job gave me a funny turn of the stomach.  Oh, sure, I could do it.  No problem there.  When I finished highschool I was the fourth best German student in town (Sic Transit Est Gloria Mundis and all that) and German was my weak language.  But getting excited about it?  It seemed rather like getting excited at the prospect of learning the multiplication tables.  I could fake it, but I couldn’t feel it, and inside I always WAS aware of being a round peg pretending to have edges.

So it started that way.  And then when I got married and my husband discovered my awful secret, and encouraged me to write.  And I felt weird.  Because our writing lifestyle IS weird.  It’s not just the “you stay home all day and waggle fingers on the keyboard.”  THAT is bad enough.  It’s more the long walks that absolutely count as part of writing, because you’re thinking story the whole time.  It’s the walking around in a dazed state and doing the most absurd stuff because your mind is in another world.

Your nearest and dearest don’t get it – my nearest and dearest don’t get it.  My husband, for instance, refuses to admit that the meaning of vacation is “writing in another place where I don’t need to do any of the housekeeping” AND he’s a writer, himself – so why should anyone else?

And then – at least in the olden days (let me tell you sonny, I’ve seen empires rise and fall) – a few years ago, when you sold, you were faced with a business that worked like no other business (no, not even show business) mostly because it was busy disemboweling itself dishonorably by severing the connection between demand and supply.  I have writing friends who say “No one understands writers, but other writers.”  And it’s not because we’re that weird.  Okay, it is that we’re that weird.  But the business outweirded us and kept on going off weird bridge with a rocket pack strapped to its back.  And you couldn’t explain that to ANYONE who wasn’t in it.  (“Wait, so your book didn’t sell?  And this is your fault?  But your book was never on the shelves!  Wait a minute.  WHY do they publish books they don’t even TRY to put on shelves?”  Ladder, rinse, repeat.  My standard answer was “I think they’re a cover for money laundering operations by Columbian drug lords.”  Did I believe it?  No.  But it shut people up.  And didn’t make them call the men in white coats as did “They’re run by space aliens, here to destroy our fiction.”)

So, we writers tend to feel like misfits, the degree of misfitness depending on how much we can surround ourselves with like minds and how well we can pretend to be normal.  Alas, unfortunately, we writers also tend to be humans.  (You’re excused if you have multiple tentacles and more than one antenna.  This post is not for you.)  And humans are social animals.  We want to fit in, we want to pretend we’re normal.  We want to be part of a group.

Up till now, publishing by its very weirdness, gave us a sense of being in a club.  No one understood writers but other writers because you couldn’t bitch about your editor dropping your book on the floor because you didn’t agree on changing a particular line to any sane human being.  They’d think you’d made it up.  But to a fellow writer?  Likely to have similar horror stories.

So, the publishing industry was horrible, but it also gave us a sense of normalcy.  We too had employers (and this is why we treated publishers and – some people – even agents as “boss” even though they were at best buyers for our product.)  We too had jobs.  There was a career path, a logic progression.  There was a way to get to the top even if not everyone did.  There was a “ladder” just as for all our friends in normal jobs.   We could say “I’m a beginning novelist” or “I’m a midlister, but…”  OR “I’m a bestseller.”  And bestseller got VERY fine-grained indeed, going down to “locus bestseller” and up to “New York Times bestseller.”

And if you think all that is silly… well, of course it is.  But again, repeat, humans are social animals.  When caught at a party in the middle of otherwise normal people, and they ask what you do for a living, if you say “I’m a writer” they ask “Who do you write for?” and if you don’t have an answer, people think you just stay home and write poems on purple paper, decorated with dried pansies.  Few are rude enough to say, as a guy told me (and this, yes, after I was published) “So, you’re a housewife but you don’t like to say it.” but most people will think just that.  And – is it still true in these days of mommy pride? – in the early nineties that was the same as saying you were a highschool dropout with a sixty IQ.  People tended to wander away from conversations with you at that point.  (There was also of course, the company my husband worked for where my writing sf/f made me the red woman of Babylon.  I’m still wondering if they thought it was a DIFFERENT kind of “fantasy.”)

So, in social occasions we learned to say “I am a novelist with three books out with a New York publisher.”  Or “I have published several short stories in science fiction magazines.”  Or… whatever.

The problem is – again that being human stuff – that all this became a security blanket.  We internalized it.  We believed it.  We read books on how to break through to the next level, and we believed that too.  We learned to sneer at each other’s work in the terms laid out from above, “Well, he’s pretty good but he’ll always be a midlister.  His books just aren’t BIG enough.”

And like all downtrodden social groups (Someone in another thread was talking about how fine the social distinctions can get in a ghetto) we self-divided very finely indeed.  You might be dust under your publisher’s chariot wheels, but by gum you were better than people who’d never sold professionally.

The system provided plenty of rules to judge those other people, too.  Some of them were okay – I mean, you do have to reach at least the level where people can follow what you’re saying, to sell to a press.  Unless, of course, what you’re doing is high literature, in which case you can write whichever words your weasel steps on while running across the daily newspaper – a lot of them were arbitrary and most of them were faddish.  Take how we decided that minimalistic style was the way to go.  No other words than “said.” [Yeah, okay fine, I’m all for not having characters ejaculate words (which would be some sort of circus trick, anyway, and make you famous in the more risque sort of reality show.)  BUT let me point out Heyer did it, and no one cares, least of all me.] That was a rule.  And it was a silly rule.  Perfect if applied with half a brain, insane if applied like the guy who judged one of my contest entries way back did: “you can’t use shouted or whispered either.  The reader should be able to tell that from the context.”  (I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but I’ve both shouted and whispered “such bullsh*t.”)] Or, no more than two adjectives per chapter, or whatever.  Some of them were started because they seemed like a good idea at the time and were a reaction to criticism of the genre.  I’m sure that’s how the “Science fiction has to conform to current science” and “Mysteries are NEVER solved by amateurs” rules started.  The fact that they ruined the fun of the readers and shrank the fields didn’t matter.  It was the hoops you had to run through to get to the “published” (or “bestseller” status) and you did it.  Of course, once you got in you were proud of it.

You know why hazing occurred before political correctness stopped it?  Or why many colleges put artificial barriers to entrance?  Or why human mothers feel pain when giving birth for that matter?

Because the more difficult something was to obtain, the more you’re attached to it.  Becoming a professional writer was difficult, it was often irrational, but once you were in you were proud of that status and you’d defend the rules against all comers.

And this brings us to writers’ perfectly normal human stupidity.

A lot of writers – and the funny thing is that they’re not ALWAYS the darlings of the establishment as you’d expect – are JUST ticked that their chains have dissolved and that they’re set free overnight, and can write whatever they want in whatever way they want, and probably make more money doing it.  (I won’t go into that.  Dave Freer did in Monday’s post at MGC.  Go read.)  They sneer at indie published authors.  They pile on in making fun of copyediting standards of self-published people (which is funny because the traditionally published standards have gone STRAIGHT down.)  They will do anything and everything to hold on to the frayed blue ribbon that says “professionally published.”  And yes, the stupid things DO include, as Kris says, signing idiotic agency clauses, accepting ever-smaller advances and generally acting like chickens with their heads cut off, running in circles.  It also includes sneering and attacks on anyone – ANYONE – who reminds them the cage door is open and they can JUST walk out.

I’m not surprised.  Why should anyone be?  If you read Exodus, and whether you believe it’s true or just a story it has elements of truth in it, you’ll find that the Israelites, in the desert, longed for the fleshpots of Egypt – despite the fact that Egyptians had taken to killing their male children.  (And let me tell you, the Israelites had nothing on writers.  Many of us, the publishers killed ALL our “children” regardless of their classification.  I started referring to delivering books as “I’ve thrown the baby into the volcano, at last.)

As in Exodus, this generation might need to pass away before we can experience true freedom… Or not.  I for one don’t have forty years to wander in the desert.  You?

Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think that these people running around trying to prop up the system will – when this fails – manage to form just as dysfunctional a system of irrational hoops one has to jump through to be “a real writer.”

Wouldn’t put it past them.  My people are not only human and odd, they’re also – most of us – at best walking wounded.

But that’s my cynical moments.  I think so long as we keep stuff like SOPA at bay, technology has not just opened the cage door but blown it wide.  I think they can’t put humpty dumpty back together again.

Oh, sure, they can still create their own hierarchy.  They can form clubs and associations that judge of each other’s excellence and award each other prizes.  And a lot of people will take them seriously.

Don’t care.  All I ever aspired to is write stories and make a reasonable living.  Don’t care if I’ll always be called a “hack.”

They’re perfectly welcome to forge manacles and put them on their own wrists (I hear the velvet padded ones are the thing in certain scenes.)  They’re welcome to look down their noses at me.

As long as they leave me out of it, I don’t care.  School is out forever.  I don’t have to write like teach thinks I should.  I understand the people who feel bad about this, but no law on Earth or heaven can make me want to be one of them.

Y’all go back to them fleshpots, darlings.  See that up ahead?  I hear there’s rivers of milk and honey.  And even if it turns out to be just water and fertile soil, that’s okay, so long as no one can kill half of my “children.”  I’m okay with that.  The promised land is where you find it.

51 responses to “School’s Out (Sympathy For The Devil)

  1. Tell them Sister Sarah!! [Wink]

  2. Yeah!

    It’s interesting – when I was young and worked a slacker job, I saw the anti-artist attitude a lot, but I think that’s more because of the general (and deserved) disdain for slackers. Now that I have a Real Professional Job and work in a Honking Big Corporation, I find a lot of support and interest. But I’m surrounded by readers, and readers think writers are cool. I’ve met two of my best friends here who’ve become my alpha readers. I don’t go around trumpeting that I’m tryiing to write, but I’ve told a few people, and you can bet I’ll tell everyone if/when I get published. And I’m not the only person doing creative things here.

    Now, there are companies and circumstances where I would never tell anyone at work, but that would be more because I didn’t want people to think I might slack on the job, or think “flaky artist” about me in their heads if they didn’t know me. It depends on the culture and the people.

  3. And my weird mind goes on to the “stillborn” literary children whom we knew would never be bought by Trad Pubs, and therefore never got beyond a few pages of notes and stuck away, out of sight. I suppose a lot of us also used contraceptives, to space our children out to the accepted spacing.

    And I need to get off this track, because I’m starting to think in terms of abused children raised in closets and basements . . .

  4. Idiotic ghetto parsing rules: my current bete noir is “Don’t do prologues” along with it’s equally witless “I don’t read prologues.”

    After all, what’s a prologue but just another chapter with a different title? Do we not read flashbacks, either? (Well, I skip the poetry in Tolkien, so we all have our quirks.)

    Why should I listen to anyone who offers such moronic advice?


    • I know. Part of the reason I never really submitted DST first time around was the “no first person. First person is for amateurs.” Forget that Heinlein used it more than anything else…

      • Oh, I love breaking those rules. In my current lesson homework, you have a fragment of a chapter of an epic told in the third person ominiscient, present tense. Can you imagine how that exploded on the Online Writers’ Workshop?

      • Strange, to me first person has always been the hardest to write and not seem stilted. I always veiwed well done first person as the mark of a superior writer.

    • Yeah, I always used to skip Tolkein’s poetry, but then I got the audiobook of The Trilogy and heard it done right. Outstanding!!

    • “What’s past is prologue.” [Antonio, _The Tempest_]

  5. Oh, come on. I’m a writer and I’m perfectly normal perfectly normal perfectly normal.
    “Are not.”
    “Yes he is.”
    “No he isn’t and mom likes me best.”
    “Does not.”

    Excuse me. I have to go break up a fight between the voices in my head.

  6. Meet you by the river, Sarah. Beautifully put, thanks~

  7. Enjoyed this post.
    Yes, and sometimes when you pull off the chains and say “you’re free, you’re free” the captives try to put the chains back on.

    I am an indie-writer/publisher and I am proud of it.

    It is one of the easier jobs I have picked up and it is much easier than having a chronic illness, which I also have.


  8. This reminds me, in a peculiar way, of C.S. Lewis’ essay, The Inner Ring, talking about the danger we do to ourselves thanks to our desire to fit in:

    “The desire to be inside the invisible line illustrates this rule. As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”

    • I’m only beginning to appreciate Lewis. Actually, I’ve started to see our desire to fit in as one of the things that encourages evil in societies.
      Part of this is that I only freed myself of that desire in my late thirties, always being terrified of sticking out before (and always sticking out, anyway.) My older kid seems to have been born without it. The younger… sometimes I think we did him a great deservice by being outliers and not really trying to keep up with the Joneses, but being happy in our own way. I think he would like to fit in. I’m hoping at some point he realizes he can’t. (According to IQ tests he’s a triple niner. that makes him weird by any measure. Then there’s the fact he’s a natural, gifted writer. The rest of us work at it, he exceeds it naturally. Ditto in art. BUT you wouldn’t know it unless you really prod. He works hard at hiding.) I think he’ll only be truly himself when he reaches that point.

      • I’ve started to see our desire to fit in as one of the things that encourages evil in societies.

        I could tell you stories …

        Advertiser and charismatic leaders know this and take full advantage.

        One of the foulist characters in Davis Grubb’s Night of the Hunter is not Preacher Harry Powell, who is remarkably evil, but Icey Spoon the ice cream shop keeper’s wife. She brings the full force of societal pressure to conform to bear with the nastiest results. She then leads the lynch mob, unconscious of her own contribution, shifting the blame elsewhere.

      • Well, I admit I would like to fit in … but I will make no particular effort to do so. I’ve ample evidence it would be a waste of time, akin to a English Sheepdog trying to fit in with the poodles. One reason I like cons is that I don’t have to edit my vocabulary (a childhood spent doing crossword puzzles can have lingering effect) or concern myself about being the odd one out.

        I have no problem with not fitting in; my problem is with those I think I should.

        • Oh, come now. Shave the sheepdog, perm what’s left, feed it a steady diet of ritalin and it would fit in quite well with poodles.

          • my kids will be medicated under my dead body.

            Sorry. I have “slight” problems with medicalizing less than standard behavior that hurts no one.

            • “under” my dead body, because I’ll still be trying to cover them as I fall. Not that I can. They’re both over six feet tall…
              Mind you, when they’re out of my house, if they want the meds it’s THEIR business. While under my roof, it’s mine.

          • I fit in perfectly well. :: Looks around cyberspace :: No one but Barflies here. Oh, you mean with the rest of the world? Why?

            • Oh dear. You mean I am now a barfly?

              I feel like the day someone informed me I was actually part of the Anime club that my daughter choose for a parent/child activity.

              Well if that is the case I guess it is a consolation that I could drink good scotch at the next StellarCon.

              • ppaulshoward

                CACS, by coming/posting here, you’re an honorary Bar-Fly (Baen’s Bar that is). [Wink]

              • I probably won’t come to the next, but the one after, I’ll join you in the Scotch. And I understand your shock. I also became a barfly unexpectedly.

                • This year Speaker brought lovely Scotch I am told. I usually do not attend, as it is the only weekend I have the house to myself. (Daughter and Spouse do the SF con, Daughter and I do the Anime cons, hell I now staff at an Anime con…what was I thinking?)

          • Dost thou know poodles? They were originally bread for water hunting. My best friend from my tenth year until I left home at fifteen was a cinnamon beige standard poodle. A proper poodle has more bounce and pep that would now be allowed in school today.

            • The poodles I knew growing up were intelligent, but nervous, creatures, possibly due to extended exposure to me and my family.

              • Sorry. My companion was a lovely dog, extreamely intellegent, with a lovely temperament. He would have been a show dog, but for the fact he was born with a hernia. Momma always said that if my dog did not like someone I was to trust his judgement. She was right.

            • Poodles were originally bred as hunting dogs, and at one time were used to hunt bears (as a houndman that hunts bears with hounds imagining myself using poodles makes me wonder if someone slipped the wrong mushrooms on my pizza). But they have been bred for show for so long, with nothing but looks being used for criteria when making crosses that the hunting instinct has been bred out of most of them, as well as many other problems bred in.

              I had a vet who absolutely despised poodles, because he said they often died on the operating table of heart attacks, simply because traits such as hardiness and/or heart problems were not considered when breeding them.

  9. In regards to your Exodus analogy: two of the adults who had left Egypt did make it into the new land. These were two of those who had spied out the land, saw for themselves that it was occupied by both threatening forces and great promise. They still advocated risking the unknown.

    It has always struck me that the people, once they were no longer under the direct oppression of the Egyptians, wanted to go back to the land where, ‘we had leeks and onions to eat.’ Good food stuffs maybe, but at what cost? People are strange.

  10. I tried so hard to fit in forever. Then I worked out it was a doomed attempt. Not only am I out of the box, I could not FIND the box to save my life.

    Now I’m much more relaxed – especially since I went the extra step to “Screw trying to follow the rules. I’ll be polite by my lights, but I’m not going to pretend anything.”

    • Fitting-In is a mugs’ game. Outside of a William Tenn story (Null-P – must reading) NOBODY is “average” and all that trying to fit a size 9 foot into a size 7.5 shoe does is deform your toes. Celebrate diversity – accept your differences.

      • Oh, I do that now. Back when I was pre-teen and then teen, I thought the reason I was the designated person to hate because there was something wrong with me. Took me a while to undo the mess I made of myself over that.

      • Of course, if you are female and you go a bit further in foot size reduction you will fit right in with an archaic Chinese upper class culture.

  11. “I’m all for not having characters ejaculate words[.]”

    Thank you for reminding Yr. Obd. Srvt. & Hmb. Narr. of 11th-grade English class, the second-semester unit on “Arthurian Fiction”, and the Complete And Utter Pandemonium which resulted from the presence of a single line in _The Once And Future King_” in re Gawain, a man of red hair and redder skin:

    “The red man began to ejaculate.”

    (And then the teacher mentioned “a comedy of the Arthurian myths performed by the Monty Python group — unfortunately, I couldn’t find a copy”. I relish the memory of her expression when I coughed lightly, and smiled at her….)

    • well, that one is rare enough that — particularly when listening to a Heyer audio book — it can cause me to stop and go “WHAT?” Particularly because the sentence in question was “Good God!” he ejaculated. I immediately thought “Good G-d, indeed. He’s in the middle of a drawing room! With three guys. Surely this isn’t THAT sort of story.”

      • Oh dear! Not from Georgette Heyer. No. Certainly not.

        • She used it a couple of times, yes

          • It says something about the culture that our first thought on reading that word is sexual … just as it causes a momentary giggle when, in The Hobbitt Tolkein advises us that Bilbo turns a little queer.

            I don’t want to call it a degradation, or decadence — I am not sure I can put my finger on it, but I suspect Ms Heyer would be startled to think that the *hem* sub-rosa meaning of the word ejaculate would have ever become the primary interpretation and accepted usage. It is as if our culture is increasingly adopting the attitude, mind-set and yes, maturity, of third-form boys.

  12. In C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia book 4 (original not “chronological” order dammit) The Silver Chair, during their sojourn in the Giant’s fortress, eleven (best guess) year old Jill Pole “made love to everybody.”

    On first reading that was . . . jarring.

  13. My comment is awaiting moderation? That’s new.

    • I don’t UNDERSTAND why but periodically the blog decides one of you is untrustworthy. It’s nothing I set, so it’s a little odd. After ten or twenty comments, all of a sudden I have to moderate. Maybe I should post that people shouldn’t take offense… It’s really weird.

      • Eh – the system gave me some of that agita yester eve. Insisted I had to “sign in” to post a comment … no more than five minutes after accepting a comment post from me. Buggy blog code.

        On the positive side, getting “signed in” did prompt me to figure out how to upload a personal avatar, so watch me wallaby’s feet, mate, and stop and smell the roses.

  14. I think this is more evidence to support my own sense that in any workplace, maybe a quarter of the people *really* have their stuff together and know what they’re doing…and that’s probably being generous.
    The rest are just kind of along for the ride and following the lead of the really sharp cookies. I suspect this goes for the publishing business as well.