The other day, I was watching Hank Green’s (in)famous “Joke” videos. Let me clarify before we go any further that they were hilarious and I loved all of them- even the ones that started off the chain of thought I will follow here. But one managed to strike at a tender spot in my armour, mostly because it is related to what I like doing; after all, jokes are only funny as long as they are not aimed at you. Even Hank’s hilarious facial expressions couldn’t stop my face from falling when he said, “What’s the difference between a writer and a bench? A bench can support a family.”
I’ll admit it: the only reason that joke did not sting as much as it normally would have was because I had been forewarned by the comments below… and because, as much as I hate to admit it, let’s face it- it’s true. Artists in general are, more often than not, some of the most poorly paid people out there. I mean, that’s how Greenwich Village came into existence- being Bohemian ain’t all that romantic. The condition of writers is similarly precarious and is closer to my heart, considering the fact that I really want to follow in their footsteps one day. So today I thought I’d take a look at what it is that makes a writer ‘successful’, commercially speaking, or otherwise- the elements that I think form a chain reaction to launch literature. Of course, there are many genres within that scope. Poetry, for example, always has been and will continue to be a specialists’ subject: a surgeon’s area as compared to a physician’s, I suppose you could say (do you see the Grey’s Anatomy fan in me here). No, I’m referring to the novel- that darling of the masters and the masses alike.
After much thought and discussions with, er, myself, I alighted upon four elements that I, personally, would use: elements that are involved in supporting the writer of the twenty first century. (Disclaimer: In no way am I saying that these are the only ones; these are just the ones that I like and would use to bolster my writing and its readership and acceptance.)
The first and most important element in today’s world, I think, is audience creation. Writing is a medium that is not very flexible in terms of those who can interact with it; while it is an extremely rewarding one in myriad ways, there is a reason for many more people being addicted to TV or Youtube than to books. Having recently been drawn into the vortex that is Youtube, I can personally sympathise with anyone who prefers the visual media to reading a book (I know. I’m more horrified than you are). How, then, can one ensure that your book is not led the way to dusty death in an obscure corner of a broken bookshelf? Why, ensure your readership exists before you put it on the public domain. The best example of this that I can give is John Green. The meteoric rise of his books, while, of course having much to do with his characterisation, plot construction and philosophy, is also related to the fact that his immensely outspoken, vast numbers of Nerdfighters were ready to embrace them before they were published. In fact, in a world where platforms of media are vying for our attention and marketing is the word to go by, this is one of the the only practical ways to ensure due attention and justice is given to good books. There are many ways to do this other than Youtubing, obviously: one is to appeal to the sappiest, most commercialised and most vapid of human emotions through your book (hint: Twilight). Another obvious way is to be a badass journalist or editor associated with a big-name newspaper/magazine, but that possibility, although one that I like to fantasise about, is at best a long-term shot. The one that I personally like the most is, in fact, what I’m doing right now: blogging. Create your readership by putting up good quality content in a way that people enjoy. Independently this is much harder to do as it is tough to get noticed amongst the many voices jostling for space on the Interweb, so getting attached to an already well-established blogging group seems like a good way forward. I have absolutely no idea whether such a thing exists, though (and no, I’m not referring to fanfiction dot net). What a Utopian world that would be .
Secondly, writing technique plays a huge role. As society changes over time, so do its demands on Literature. While good literature and great Art is eternally contemporary, the style of language plays a huge part in determining whether a work is mainstream or for a specialised, niche audience. John Green’s conversational style makes a vast difference in the approachability and relatibility of his books: just ask my friend Sumedha, who changed the way she presented her work after reading The Fault in Our Stars, recognising the fact that today’s impatient generation responds and assimilates mainly that which truly speaks their language.
However, in doing so, one must be, or at least I would be, careful not to dilute Art. For me, the greatest Art is that which can preserve the delicate balance between technically sound literature and accessibility for all. It is that which is simple, brief, lucid and crystal clear, so that anyone can read it and understand it; at the same time it conceals layers of intricate implications, allusions, and finely integrated technique just waiting to be delicately peeled apart, like Philip Larkin or Seamus Heaney’s poetry. (Some of my favourite works that illustrate this vision are Old Man and the Sea, Like Water for Chocolate and Animal Farm.) This vision holds true for any form of Art for me, but especially so for literature, and the kind of art I want to create. Hopefully some day I will be able to achieve this, although right now it’s a work in progress. I think it would be easier to convince Hannibal to stop eating people. Ah well.
One major reason that writers are often commercially or even critically unsuccessful is the fact that truly great literature is often ahead of its time. Look at The Great Gatsby; when it was published in 1925, it failed to excite either the general audience or the critics, both of whom panned it and dismissed it entirely; now, it is considered to be one of the greatest books ever written. Fitzgerald was far ahead of the curve: at the height of the American dream, he laid bare the spiritual cost of that obsession with materialism and the resulting isolation and selfishness creeping up like a nightmare. Few could accept this idea then, for few could see that far. However, Art cannot be stopped or be frightened by this- therefore artists shouldn’t be either. Although I completely agree with Raymond Carver’s declaration that “Art doesn’t have to do anything. It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it,” art is built around and born of the human condition. Thus the greatest art has a way of making one look within oneself as well as at the world, of forcing one to think about issues that they may be uncomfortable with. I can’t suggest anything about this, except the trick that G B Shaw used: sugar-coat the bitter pill to make it easier. I can’t employ that, because frankly, I have no sense of comedy at all (I can’t even come up with those humorous retorts that people on Tumblr seem to be so good at, sigh). The best I can hope for is to be honest, but gentle. This seems to be working so far- let’s see if it holds good!