13 October 2005

I'm Getting Meta All the Time

When I started doing this blog, and then started writing book reviews for other places, I often wrote here about what I thought I was doing and why, etc. etc. It was more for myself than anybody, but it helped to put it out there so a few people would tell me when I said anything other than the obvious and when I was just ... well, being self-indulgent. I've tried to avoid too much of that recently, but now and then I have to indulge in some meta-blogging just to try to remind myself of why I'm here. (Yes, this is a warning that what follows is probably worthless.)

Mostly, I try to think about these things without writing about them publicly, but I've been thinking a lot about a good response John Joseph Adams gave to a question that was posed to him: "As an aspiring writer, is it a career-limiting move to write a bad review?" My name is invoked in his response, not because I specialize in bad reviews (though I've written my fair share), but because the tiny bit of status I have in the SF world has come through blogging and reviewing. I was certainly pleased to be thought of, particularly when surrounded by ideas I agree with, but it also seemed odd to me, because I'm not used to being thought of as a model for anything.

A critic once suggested that if I wanted to get "noticed", I would post less raw material, more polished ideas, more careful prose (MORE STRONG VERBS!), and would actually try to say something that was insightful rather than thunderingly obvious and/or naive. Each to their own, I guess. I suppose there are some people who are able to use a weblog as a place for their best writing, and I suppose they try to make sure every post they put out there will be deathless and perfect, but I've tried to stick to the original impetus I had for beginning this blog: to record ideas as they occur to me, and to see what happens. I certainly never expected to gain much of an audience, nor to still be doing this now more than two years later. It was an experiment then, and it remains an experiment, because it actually gets harder to continue the longer I do it -- I don't have an infinite amount of ideas about anything, time is limited, and I'm not always good at balancing the various projects I sometimes impulsively commit myself to. I'm grateful to the people who keep checking in to see if there's anything worth reading or arguing with here, and I certainly hate to disappoint anybody, but for a blog to be effective, I think it needs to be the sort of thing someone would do regardless of whether the audience was one person (hi mom!) a week or one hundred a day.

Maybe I'm just feeling old (my birthday is Monday, and it's one of those ones ending in 0). I used to be ambitious, but somewhere along the line, ambition seemed to be less a force that impelled me toward great work and more a thing that made me endlessly unhappy with my life, because no matter what I accomplished, it didn't seem like enough. I was the sort of person who, if he'd been given a Nobel Prize, would say, "Thanks, but it's so disappointing that I couldn't be Emperor of the World." Harry Kondoleon's play Zero Positive has a line that I've often thought back to -- something like, "I used to have dreams and ambitions, but they got so tired and worn out, I took them out back one day and shot them."

It's probably naive and idealistic to hope that people who review books, write blogs, and write fiction do so because they like writing such things, regardless of the response they receive. Many of the writers I know and respect have a very professional attitude toward their work, but though I once was able to think that way, it's strange to me now. I wrote all sorts of things for so long without any sort of audience that the times when I've found an audience have been exhilarating, but also frightening and alienating. I expect it's true for many writers: that desire for communication coupled with horror at the effect of communicating. When I first realized people were paying attention to what I wrote here, it was paralyzing. But so many different discussions sprouted from it that the benefits made me suppress my anxieties. It's been thrilling to have the opportunity to put ideas out there and have people respond to them, either with agreement or such responses as, "What are you thinking?!" I still hate the fact that it's just as likely I'll look like an idiot in public as anything else, but I've spent enough time in the theatre to know that the tension between the fear of failure and the desire for success -- between fear of humiliation and the possibility of communication -- is a necessary tension, a force that propels us in directions we couldn't have anticipated.

I don't write a lot of fiction these days, because I find it the hardest thing in the world to write, but when I have a story I think might not be a complete waste of an editor's time, I try to submit it with the same attitude I had before anybody ever knew me as anything other than yet another name amidst all the others in the slush. Most editors still treat what I submit that way, and I'd be horrified if they did otherwise -- if they started feeling guilty for rejecting me because they knew my name from another context, I'd feel guilty for causing them guilt, and on and on it would go, until a puddle of misery covered the world. I've submitted to editors whose work (either as writers or editors) I've criticized, and though sometimes it's felt foolish, I nonetheless think a critic needs to stay open to criticism, too, and a rejection slip is a simple, clear kind of critique. Conversely, an aspiring writer might think that writing positive reviews will win them points with editors. I'm sure that in the history of writing there have been such cases, but my experience is that editors judge purely on whether they think what you submit is the sort of thing they want to commit time and money to publish. (I may be deluded about this, but it's a comforting delusion.)

At the risk of being ever more obvious and naive, the only thing I'd add to JJA's solid advice to aspiring writers thinking of entering the reviewing game, is: If you like doing that sort of thing, do it. If the idea of writing about what you read and making your opinions known seems repulsive to you, don't do it. If you want to do it because it will win you status, love, and eternal fame ... well, in that case, you might want to try auditioning for American Idol instead.

3 comments:

  1. If it is any consolation, after 10 years Emerald City is still an experiment, and it is still getting harder month by month. But occasionally someone writes to me and says, "hey, I bought that book X you were raving about and you are right, it is really good." Somehow that makes it all seem worthwhile again.

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  2. That was a great post, Matt. Very insightful and heartfelt -- which is the best kind of writing, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. When you put yourself out there, when you're willing to take risks and share a little bit of our own soul, people pay attention. No matter what kind of writing you do, keep doing that. Personally, when I start to feel uncomfortable writing something, when I start to worry that I'm baring a little too much, then I know I'm on to something.

    Of course, I still believe negative reviews are a waste of time. There's so much good stuff to read out there, why waste ink (real or otherwise) on something you don't want people to read or watch or listen to? Besides, I've always thought your best writing here is when you're not so much writing about whatever book or story you're reviewing, but about the themes or ideas that the pieces raise.

    And I wouldn't worry too much about editors feeling guilty rejecting your fiction because they now know your name. Trust me on this one. If anything, it seems like most of them take it as an invitation to tell you what they really think. ;)

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  3. What about people who just want the free books? Eh?

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