Friday, June 03, 2005

Catherine Wald: The Resilient Writer

Catherine Wald has this week been undertaking what is known as a virtual book tour. This means appearing in one form or another on a number of blogs, and, for all I know, other places as well. See, for instance, Galleycat (31 May) and Buzz, Balls and Hype (1 June).

As far as the GOB is concerned, Catherine's new book, The Resilient Writer, was discussed, in outline, on 9 May. Subsequently I was sent a review copy and so I am now in a position to discuss it in more detail.

The Resilient Writer is a well designed and well produced paperback; the publisher is Persea Books of New York. The subtitle of the book is 'Tales of rejection and triumph from 23 top authors', and what we have here is a series of interviews in which said authors are asked about their early (and later!) problems with rejection, and how they dealt with them.

Let me say at the outset, perhaps to save you the trouble of reading to the end of this review, that if you are interested in being any sort of a writer, whether fiction or non-fiction, and you hope to achieve some sort of success in the business, there is much in this book which will be valuable to you.

Catherine Wald has been around long enough to know what questions to ask, and she seems to have the knack of getting people to speak freely about what can be very personal and painful circumstances. The result is a great deal of useful information, and, yes, some inspiration as well.

Any reservations which follow are more related to the nature of the opinions expressed than to the professionalism with which this book is written.

The Introduction strikes a note which will be sounded many times in this book. Catherine begins by telling us that one of her interviewees, Chris Bohjalian, was once advised, early in his writing career, that he should seek employment as a banker, rather than try to write. He chose not to listen to that advice, persevered, and ultimately wrote nine novels including a New York Times number-one bestseller.

How inspiring, I hear you cry. And that indeed is Catherine Wald's view. But I am by no means sure that it is mine.

The problem I have is one of logic. Most writers are going to be told, when they begin to offer stuff in the marketplace, that they really aren't any damn good at the job. They're going to be told that because most of the time it's true. But does it follow that if they stick at it, they will all, ultimately, have themselves a number-one bestseller? Sadly, no.

Catherine tells us that authors, editors, and agents all swear that the cream still rises to the top in the publishing world. She is right, in a sense. They all do swear that. But are they correct in holding that view? I have suggested elsewhere (see my essay On The Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile) that the evidence leads to a quite different conclusion.

Having assured us that the cream rises to the top, Catherine tell us that we must believe this. Why must we? Wouldn't it be a lot more reassuring, for most of us, to believe that second-raters can make it, at least once in a while?

The 23 interviewees provide a pretty good cross-section of the writing community: some men, some women, mostly novelists but a few poets, journalists and non-fiction writers.

Quite a lot of them, by the way, do not make a living from writing alone, though they usually seem to find work in book-related activities. I'm not sure that that is a good idea either; contact with people who never read a book from one year's end to the next wouldn't do any harm.

At least a couple of the authors, by the way, were blessed by the touch of Oprah Winfrey's magic wand, which is the equivalent of winning the lottery. But fortunately there are also a number of cautionary tales, illustrating what can go horribly wrong, in addition to the inspirational success stories. Arthur Golden, for instance, was one day led to believe that a hot-shot editor was about to publish his book, only to discover the next day that a book on which he had already spent six years was going to require a complete rewrite.

Several other writers -- Bill Henderson and Betsy Lerner, for example -- speak frankly about the deep (and dangerous) depression which can result from having a novel rejected. Edmund White tells us that he found rejection so painful that he even contemplated suicide -- several times. I can only say what I've said many times before: writing can seriously damage your health. (See The Truth about Writing.)

It is not wise to allow yourself to become so obsessed with 'success' that rejection does you major damage. Bob Shacochis, when asked, 'Do writers have to be obsessed?' replies, 'You absolutely do.'

Well, in my opinion, you absolutely don't. And the smart writer is one who is not obsessed. Esmeralda Santiago seems to have the right idea. She says 'Writing is one of the things I do. My sense of who I am is not built up around my writing.' Very sensible.

All in all, this is a thoughtful and interesting book. Whether you agree with the opinions expressed or not -- and since the opinions cover a wide spectrum you are hardly likely to agree with all of them -- you will find much material to think about.

As I read this book I did what I usually do with a review copy, i.e. write pencil notes in the margin as I go along. And what I find now, as I leaf through the pages for this review, is that over and over again I have found references to how important it is to persevere. And over and over again I have felt it necessary to note that the opposite is not true. Perseverance does not guarantee success as a writer, no matter how modest your aims.

Read the book, by all means. But just don't give up the day job too soon, OK?

By the way, while I was reading this book I had a rejection of my own. A lady at the BBC returned to me a play that I sent her in 1999. Apparently it was in the back of a cupboard. 'You certainly gave up all hope of hearing from me years ago,' says my correspondent. And that's true. But at least she returned the script, which is more than some do.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that psychological motivators, such as the "cream always rises to the top," or "perseverance will lead to ultimate success" while sometimes helpful in doing their job to instill hope, are not necessarily true.
For writers to treat them "as if" they are true seems enough to serve their psychological purpose--even if, upon closer logical scrutiny and evidence, they actually aren't.

Iain said...

First off, I haven’t read Catherine Wald’s book. However, I think I have now found out enough about it to be entitled to an opinion.

Like the GOB (for the argument in detail, see On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile), I simply don’t believe that the cream always rises to the top. Where is the evidence? If you think about it, it would be almost impossible to prove. So how do people come to believe it? Well, if you define as cream whatever has risen to the top, then hey presto! -– you’ve done it. The trouble is that those who have achieved real literary success want to believe it.

As for the notion that perseverance will do the trick for the rejected writer, I am going to do something really tacky and quote from one of my own articles: ‘They [those who advise writers on how to get published] tend to go on as if such perseverance was in itself a literary quality. But who would doubt that for every tenacious genius there a hundred tenacious boneheads?’

The fact is that well over 99% of the slush pile is just that –- slush. I know, because I’ve seen it. Now it goes without saying that none of this stuff stands a chance. But the chance which the tiny remainder stands is vastly less than most would think. My own research suggests that only around one in four thousand slush-pile novels makes it to publication in the UK.

My objection to Catherine Wald and those who think like her is that they raise totally unrealistic hopes in what I call the unpublishable classes. (Clearly all those who attempt to write for publication think they are good, so the message they are getting is that if they stick at it, they will succeed.) To suggest that a talented writer who perseveres is bound to make it in the end is simply not true. It’s a dangerous lie, because it encourages people to bang their heads against a brick wall. The lie should be nailed.