November 15, 2014

What Makes You a "Real" Writer?

I don't watch many reality shows. (I can't take the stress.) But I occasionally dip into Project Runway because I believe fashion is art. And I'm always baffled when the designers discuss "real" women in an insulting way. I understand they're accustomed to dressing models. But "real" women just strikes me as such an odd term—as opposed to faux women?—especially because many designers appear unhappy with the concept. "Real" in this case is often negative.

A "real" writer, on the other hand, is something writers—faux writers?— are supposed to aspire to. I've heard that you're not a "real" writer unless you're published. You're not a "real" writer unless you've written a novel. "Real" in this case is a positive.

I read a whole string of advice from a published author the other day who was attacking self-published writers. Who basically said: If you are self-published and consider yourself an author, here's how to behave... Articles like this are all over the internet. (Some people want there to be a difference between "authors" and "book writers.") The pieces often make statements along the lines of: "You're not a doctor if you pick up a stethoscope. You're not a singer if you only sing in the shower. You're not a writer if you put up a self-published novel on Amazon."

I don't buy the doctor analogy. There's a difference between artistic fields and scientific fields. No, you don't want to go to an orthopedic surgeon who simply bought a kit. But I read that Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime. Does that mean he wasn't a painter?

In fact, "self-published" now has this bizarre negative stench. But what if you say "indie"? What if you say "boutique"? There's a difference between watching a blockbuster movie and watching an indie film. And indies have this lovely intellectual glow to them. Ooooh, let's watch an indie. 'Zines had the same feel back in the 90s. Fuck mainstream, let's read a 'zine. (The 'zine writers I knew definitely considered themselves writers.) Now that anyone can self-publish a book, there's this whole—No, no, no. Those people aren't writers. They've only written a handful of stories, only a few books. (Some of the best and brightest writers were not extremely prolific. Harper Lee? Salinger?)

This week, I read an article stating that in order to be considered a professional author you had to be able to make your living from writing alone. I'm sorry. But wasn't Melville a clerk? Many writers have had to support themselves with other jobs. Jesus.

What infuriates me is that we now have the ability to even the playing field. Fabulous writers are able to publish their books themselves. Snagging a publishing deal with an advance that allows you to support yourself while you work is not going to happen for most writers. No, not all self-published books are going to be worth your time. But neither are the ones from the big publishing houses! That is what kills me. Simply because a publisher gave a writer a nod, doesn't make the words any better than those from an indie writer. (Stay tuned, because I will rant about publishers later.)

I have spent my career as an editor supporting writers. I want to work with people who value words. Who stay up late to write because they have two other jobs. Who read voraciously. Who devour sentences. Who repeat their favorite lines in random conversation. I don't give a fuck who published you previously—or even if you've been rejected by 100 other editors. (Wasn't J.K. Rowling rejected by 12 publishing houses?) I want to work with people who worship words.

My favorite definition of a writer appeared in Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. (Just so you know, I've read this book more than 20 times.)

Years ago, when I married my second husband, he proudly told his uncle, who was a valet parker at the time, that I was a writer. The uncle's response, "Who isn't?" 

I love that. She continues:

Everyone literate "writes," and some of the low-wage workers I have known or met through this project write journals and poems—even, in one case, a lengthy science fiction novel.

You're a writer if you write. In fact, you're a real writer, no quotation marks required.


P.S. I think I've covered this topic in bits before.
P.P.S. On the topic of Project Runway, would the contestants be "real" fashion designers? They seem to think so. But most don't have their own fashion houses.


t'Sade said...

While I feel that I have failed as a commercial writer, I do consider myself a writer. Why? Because when I have a few minutes to myself, I write. When I get a weekend alone, I write. I think about writing and organize my life around it.

Now, I do have priorities, work and family come first, but when those are done... I write. And I keep doing it. There are over three million words worth of stories and novels on my website, so apparently I really like to do it. They aren't great words or even good words, but they are words that I enjoyed writing and ones that I will keep writing (just in different combinations).

I suck as a good writer, but I'm still a writer. :)

Tamsin Flowers said...

I couldn't agree more with this post - being published by a publisher and self-publishing are simply two separate business models - and frankly, self-publishing is really starting to like the more attractive option...

Lola said...

I haven't thought about this question in a while, perhaps because I accepted that I am a writer sometime back there - even without being "published." But some famous self-published authors include: H.D. Thoreau, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Friedrich Nietzsche (just to name a few). It's not a matter of whether you're self-published or not that makes you a writer, it's whether you consider yourself a writer or not. If you do, then the only question is, are you a good one? That can be answered by you and/or by others.

Miz Angell said...

Having only been published in anthologies, and not having completed a book yet, I've often hesitated before calling myself a writer.

Still do.

I've been writing since I could string a sentence together. Poems, stories, articles, letters (lots of letters, usually to myself). Have many thought my efforts worthy to read?

You did. And others followed.

So I am a writer. And on some days, I'm brilliant. And on others, I fail. But I keep going.

kathrynoh said...

I like indie writer more than self-published. I publish my own stuff but I don't do it all myself. I have bunch of people who work with me but, unlike trad publishing, I work with them myself and pay them rather than being separate from the process.

Tbh, I think the ones jumping up and down about indie writers are the ones most threatened.

Cora Zane said...

The big six/five/four/whatever-it-is-now publishing industry is currently publishing novels that include blatant plagiarism. They're excusing it by calling it mixing, and a "generational thing." I guess that interpretation came a little too late for Janet Daily, wouldn't you say? Big 6/5/4 has also offered six figure book deals to several debut authors who have engaged in thinly disguised character theft. Fan fiction based on renamed celebrities is the hot new romance genre. One fan fiction writer in particular just signed a six figure contract. So what do all these mainstream, NY authors have in common? Aside from major books deals, readers and writers alike are debating whether they're real authors or not. Another thing they have in common? Twenty years ago, if an author had engaged in any of these practices, it would've landed them in court and killed their careers head on.

My point is this: with the way mainstream publishing is choosing books and doing business these days, there should be no more splitting hairs regarding what is a real writer and what isn't, especially based on the publishing house or distribution model.

The writer who uses the publishing house they're signed with as their official stamp of validation is setting themselves up for tremendous heartache. Authors get dropped by publishers every day. A friend of mine got dropped by her publisher mid-series. Because of the restrictive clauses in her contract, she can't self-publish the remaining books. Another friend of mine released two books of a series, and then earlier this year, her publisher cut the imprint. The author/writer who laughs from on high at self-published authors has clearly forgotten (or possibly never realized) there are absolutely no guarantees in this business - even after you have a contract in your hands.

Sasha White said...

It was only 10 years ago that many traditional romance authors treated erotic authors like shit, saying sex wasn't romance, and there's 'no emotion in erotica'. Man, it pissed me off. LOL I just laugh when over they years, each one of those who slammed erotic added more and more sex to their romances in order to sell.

People can be shit sometimes.

nagadikandang said...

Prefacing: I do not identify myself a writer. But I have a lengthy academic publishing record, and I'm good at the writing part of that.

My first reaction is to figure out a riff on The Velveteen Rabbit, but I'm not there with it.

Second, the discussions here of a publishing house's imprimatur makes me think of the cherished label of peer-reviewed. Peer review is better than nothing, but it filters our a lot of good work and lets through a lot of garbage, even at the most renowned journals.

My answer? If you identify yourself as a writer, I'll give you the basic respect of not arguing with you.