A Writer’s Enemies

In last week’s post we considered some aspects of fictional enemies – more specifically the writing of villains – and in this week’s post I’d like to stay on the same general theme but move it out of our heads and into our hearts, from pages to people, from efiles to paper forms, from the easily escapable to the stubbornly present. Lurking closer than we might imagine these folk can torture us day and night, turning our passions into torments and our dreams into nightmares. As if our struggles weren’t enough as it is, we have these others whom we ignore only at our peril. Yet who are these enemies and what can a writer do about them?

We might think first and foremost that publishers are, can be, or maybe have become, our enemies. After all, they are the ones who determine what is printed and what is not, what is advertised and to what extent, what is packaged, prepared, and shipped, and what remains on the cutting room floor. With them we can add their in-house editors, of course, for the two are of a single money-obsessed package, and the only real goal they seemingly understand is the amassing of lucre. But is this an accurate view? Without publishers our shelves would be largely empty and our childhoods shorn of many wondrous afternoons lost between pages. Sure, publishing houses might not be what they used to, they might not even be necessary like they used to, but they have done us and all readers and writers alike who went before us a great service in expanding literature to the very roots of cultural and public life. Whatever our issues might be with individuals within the industry, publishing itself is not an enemy but instead a fellow traveler on a hard road.

Agents then, perhaps. These are the true gatekeepers, and these scoundrels parasitically attach themselves to anything that smells like an easy meal, a lifeline for their continued avoidance of any meaningful work and another sucker to disguise the fact that they themselves are talentless hacks who have been piggy-backing their way through life. On second thought though, no, agents are not to blame for anything. It was only by their expertise in a dizzying array of areas that our forebears were able to navigate the stormy waters of commerce, and that is the role they continue to fill, albeit in a shrunken way amidst very different circumstances.

It must be the critics. They are the ones who cannot even write and yet have the gall, the bombast, to tear down anyone and everyone who puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and dares to express themselves artistically. If they had any true ability they’d be writing themselves. Yet they can write, and many do write very beautifully, it’s just that their writing is of a more analytic bend, their minds are differently wired and their actually formidable prose otherwise formed. And were it not for critics all of us readers would often be at a loss, we would be less appreciative and less knowledgeable, and the literary world would certainly have less of a sound foundation.

Readers? They often misunderstand what we wish to say, they hurry through our texts and make no efforts at their own comprehension, demanding instead easy answers from us and nothing but feel-good happy endings. They treat the result of our years of painstaking labor as if it were a candy bar, easily and tastily consumed and then soon forgotten about. But this is nonsense, where would any writer be without readers? Responsibility for any misreadings ultimately lies at the writer’s own feet, and occasionally hearing from and interacting with one’s audience – however small or large – must be one of the few true joys to be had in any artistic endeavor. Readers are the real heroes in the entire set-up.

Ourselves, that’s who our enemies are. What are we doing with all this writing if we cannot conquer our own fallibilities? Why would we keep at it if we constantly look outward for someone or something to blame? Writing is not a forgiving enterprise, it is not a rewarding enterprise, it is very often not even an enjoyable enterprise. To paraphrase Orwell, no one would do it if she weren’t possessed by some daemon whose relentless commands she could neither purge nor ignore. We are obsessed, addicts, we cannot help ourselves, we just keep writing. Coming to terms with that facet of our natures, that is the real challenge. Overcoming and learning to live with (love?) ourselves, that is the adversary to best. Can we? It’s a years-long journey, I fear, and I for one know of no easy shortcuts. The way is open though, and asking to be trod.


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