More than enough shame to go around

Anyone who has read this blog even occasionally knows my feelings on the psychological dangers inherent in chasing the publishing carrot and the sort of relentless self-promotion writers (and many other artists) are expected to engage in these days.

Sure, we all want readers and publishing can be lovely, but I don’t believe the way we measure success, particularly in North America, is good for either writers or literature and I don’t believe, in the final analysis of a life’s worth, sales figures and fame mean very much.

Here’s the icing on my argument’s cake:  Last week, Amazon.com pulled from its virtual shelves an e-book titled The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure.  And I hear you saying, well, of course they did.  Ah, but it’s not so clear.  The book became, according to Amazon.com, a top seller before they pulled it.  This self-published book apparently included tips for “safe sex” with children.  The author, whose name I won’t mention for obvious reasons, was interviewed on the Today show where he complained that pedophiles are wrongly portrayed as “murderers, rapists, or kidnappers.”  The book, available in the Kindle format, sold only one copy and then outraged comments began showing up on Internet message boards.  Amazon initially defended its sale of the book on the grounds of free-speech, but changed course as public opposition mounted.

Would you want fame and success at any cost?

Would you want fame and success at any cost?

Here’s the kicker — The book’s Amazon sales rank rose from 158,221 to 65 before it was withdrawn. Shame on the author.  Shame on the people who bought this book.  Shame on the Amazon.  (I’m glad Amazon took the book down, but they disappoint me.  I wish the company had rejected the work from the get go, simply because it was the right thing to do, and not waited until the public demanded its removal.)

Clearly, publishing isn’t anything, in and of itself, to be proud of, not in these days of self-publishing, when anyone can do it; not in these days of blockbuster-chasing publishing, when any politician, any celebrity with a salacious story to tell gets a deal.  And clearly, sales figures mean nothing more than the fact lots of people will buy horrible books, especially if they’re titillating.

Thus, sales figures should not be used as a measure of true success, nor should appearances on talk shows, or red carpets or anywhere else cheap glitter trumps real quality. And this is a truism that stretches far beyond literature into the movie and music industry, television, politics, and popular culture in general. There are, of course, terrific authors who get the attention they deserve (Cormac McCarthy’s appearance on Oprah comes to mind), but there are also many fabulous writers (like John Crowley or Alistair MacLeod) who get, at best, limited attention.  Other wonderful writers, like wonderful musicians or artists in other mediums, get no public recognition at all, and make little or no money.  Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I saw an author I admire on the Today show, and certainly not a literary fiction writer.

If you’re watching your Amazon sales ranking, and using it as a measure of your success, remember — the book written by this piece of human excrescence reached 65.  SIXTY-FIVE.  Margaret Atwood’s latest book, THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD is ranked 3,119 at the time of writing.

So, here’s the question to ask yourself:  Would you rather be a best-selling author at all costs, regardless of your work’s merit, or, sell modestly, or even — gasp — not at all, and yet know in your gut you are being faithful to your soul, to your art, to your compassion, and whatever you hold to be sacred in the world?  Henry James and Hermon Melville, you might remember, had low sales figures; and yet God knows, I’d rather be either of them than the soulless, hollow, predatory wretch who wrote the “Guide,” wouldn’t you?

Comments

  1. samantha j. says

    Lauren, I fully agree with your views. What was Amazon thinking? It’s clear the author has his own misguided sense of what’s right and wrong. In my opinion, the true measure of one’s success and place in the world has nothing to do with financial or other benchmarks, you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and deep down feel good about what you see. You referred to a “fractured mirror” in your essay last week – that’s seems to be what this fellow is looking at, and he has a heart that’s a block of ice.
    Thanks for your impactful essays – I’m a big fan, keep them coming!

  2. Elizabeth Hilts says

    Having recently completed the first draft of my memoir—a book that, if it every does get published will probably not be a blockbuster—I have to say that the pride I feel about having been true to my soul is a pretty great reward.

    I know I still have work to do; I’m understanding in a whole new way that “finishing” is a relative term. That said, I will be returning to this project with the intention of serving the story and the art of creative nonfiction to the best of my abilities. However, the pressure to publish is immense for me right now because, quite frankly, this is the thesis for my MFA and though I’ve got four published books of which I am also proud, they are not the “right kind” as far as those doling out jobs are concerned. The cold, hard truth is that I need to publish in order to get a job in the field.

    In addition, I didn’t write this just for myself; I want an audience beyond the good friends, family and members of my program who have read the manuscript. So, what’s a writer to do?

    • says

      Elizabeth, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I wish you every success. What’s a writer to do, you ask? Well, I think we put our energy and our faith (if you’ll forgive the word) into writing the very best book we can. There is so much in this world over which we have no control, but the words at the end of our pen….ah, that’s where the power lies. Will anyone publish it? Will the critics like it? Will readers buy it? Will it lead to a teaching position? Hopefully, and there’s nothing wrong with hoping, and trusting in our talent. What we can’t do is NEED it, for that way discontent and madness lie. We have only our very best work. All the rest is written on the wind…

  3. says

    It’s so discouraging that you can be a complete yuck and because of that,
    you get your own reality show and publishing contract. I’ve had to create,
    in my mind, a category for such people (and their admirers): I call them
    the subspecies. Just don’t make eye contact! Thanks for another
    intelligent post.

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