Sometimes I tell people I’m not an author. I work for a living. It might seem I’m making a joke, but I’m not. The word author evokes for me the halls of academia, the rewards of spouting the party line, the preening and showing off of the latest intellectual fashions. Intellectual fashions are like clothing fashions. Some of them might suit you very well and look great on you, but you can bet most of them will look pretty awful to people in fifty years. And yet wearing them marks you as part of the in crowd.
When you say “the author” you conjure images of someone sitting at his desk, noble brow furrowed in the act of creation. This is someone who produces maybe a book every two or three years and cares more for the opinions of reviewers and award-givers than for how much money he makes.
You see, he doesn’t WRITE for a living. The real reward of his writing is tenure, or a raise, or simply an increase of his status among other academics his peers.
Meanwhile writers, workaday writers are the people these “academics” sneer at. Even those of us who are bestsellers are never really accepted by the intellectual community. And that’s fine, because what would they do with us, or us with them?
Despite the recent invasion of science fiction by “authors” who care more about their academic standing than whether their books entertain anyone, most of the academic establishment still looks down on all writers of genre. I’ve stopped more than once in the middle of an how-to book (the latest being a book on writing immediate fiction) because the author says if you’re one of those people writing science fiction and fantasy, or romance, or mystery, you shouldn’t be reading his book. Your readers will read anything. You don’t need craft.
He was wrong. He was also a shining example of the “academic authors” who can insult their audience because their REAL audience are academics and other authors.
He was wrong, because — and I can’t find the exact quote from Heinlein — a writer, one who works for a living, has to compete for the reader’s beer money. This changes how the writer writes and what he chooses to do, and it — I think — increases the odds that he will be read many centuries into the future and (ironically) considered a gem of literature. Like, say, Shakespeare, who worked for the greasy pennies of London apprentices.
Somewhere, Heinlein said something about his reasons for writing. I can’t find the d*mn quote to save my life, but when one of you does, I’ll insert it here.
It was something about first writing to feed his family, which necessitated his writing to entertain. A distant third (or more, because there might be things I forgot) was to write to make you think. If he failed at that, he was still being entertaining and feeding his family.
It is amusing — well, to me, but I have a dark sense of humor — that trying to seek out that quote I came across various people telling how they wrote to improve the world and — the laugh out loud moment — an essay entitled “so you want to be a college professor.”
Why this is relevant today, besides the fact that it is Heinlein’s day (Happy birthday sir, wherever you are): Yesterday on facebook, on the page of a very popular author, someone took offense to Larry being in an anthology (not me, though, d*mn it. I must strive to be more offensive) because he wants to push all women and non whites out of science fiction. The laughable and unsubstantiated declaration, (at war with reality, again) devolved into someone telling us how we “need” “representation” in genre fiction, because minorities are reviled and put down every day, and they need to be represented.
She is right, you know? Minorities are reviled and put down every day. Just not the way she thinks. What I mean is, how much more reviled and put down can you be than being told that you can’t have individual opinions, and that you must forever be a representation of the “othered” and reviled minority? That everything you write, everything you think, your very existence are nothing more than a waving of the bloody shirt by some Marxist academic, who knows more than you do about being Latin, or black, or even a woman, the CORRECT way?
Sounds pretty reviled and oppressed to me. In fact everyone who thinks the only “authentic” writing I can do has to do with my being reviled and oppressed is a stone-cold racist. So is everyone who thinks you can only write what you are.
This denies the very purpose of story telling which it to allow you to be and live what you can’t be or live: to break you out of your confines and show you humanity at large.
After all, some of Shakespeare’s best characters are women. They’ve spoken to women throughout the ages. And if you think Shakespeare was really a woman, we’re going to have words, and you will not enjoy this. I am not your professor. Shakespeare wrote immortal men too. And you will eventually grow past the pap they fed you in school.
But if you are a college professor, who is an “author” because publish or perish, there is an advantage to being conspicuous in portraying “the other”. Correctly, of course. Which has convinced a lot of well meaning and not particularly bright trend-followers that this is a rule of writing fiction, even — the good Lord help us — genre fiction.
Hence all the magazines and publishers, which compete with each other to “give a voice to the voiceless” thereby leading sane people to wonder how they can be voiceless when everyone gives them a megaphone.
There is nothing wrong with being “an author” or with sporting political correctness as a sort of fashion to show how good and important and “smart” you are. I mean, it’s probably less trouble than the incredibly complex coiffures of French ladies before the revolution. Less likely to grow physical lice at any rate.
Pretty bad for intellectual parasites, though, who carry with them the idea that writing is a sort of holy pulpit, from which you can preach to the masses who will, of course, listen in rapt attention to what you have to say, since you’re so self-obviously smart.
They won’t you know. Or as many memes proclaim “Do you want a populist revolution? Because that’s how you get a populist revolution.”
People who work for a living will roll their eyes at your intellectual coiffures, even the six feet tall ones with the battle ship in it. If you’re lucky, they’ll ignore you. If you’re unlucky, that’s when madame guillotine gets fed. Because at the end of the day, people outside your bubble know to believe their lying eyes, not what you tell them.
Which is why I’m glad I learned from Heinlein, and that he was a working man. He grew up in unimaginable poverty. If I grew up poor as Job, he grew up poor as Adam after the angel with the sword kicked him from the garden. We didn’t at least ever have to fight over pillows. Cloth was not that expensive, and we had a kapok tree in the backyard (never understood why we didn’t make pillows out of feathers, but the Kapok fruit gave us filling enough.)
But both of us come from a background of “root, hog or die.” And I instinctively understood his command to “first feed your family.” That means writing entertaining things. If, after that you want to write to expound your pet theories or make people think, that’s fine. BUT your job and your craft is all devoted to entertaining FIRST. Because no one gave you a pulpit from which to preach to the benighted masses. A writer earns his living and his readers one by one, beer pack money after beer pack money.
A writer writes for a living.
Keep in mind that still keeping with his mandate, Heinlein managed to counter a lot of the ideological fog of his days, and speak real truth to real power. His inclusion of then “reviled and oppressed” (for real) minorities, like Irish, Italians and Jews and his insistence that they could be real Americans earned him problems with his publishing houses.
But he still managed to publish those books, and to carry his message, because he was FIRST OF ALL entertaining, and he sold well enough for people to allow him his oddities. If you sell well enough FIRST people will allow you unpopular or even what they think at first are crazy notions. And you’ll have a chance to influence them over the long run.
That is all predicated on earning their attention first, though, not in singing in the choir of their “betters” and therefore claiming authority over them.
There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Not for those of us who work in the vines of words and story.
Happy Heinlein Day.