Friday, February 5, 2010

There's A Reason They're Called Amateurs

Those of you who read my blog know that I rank myself, at best, as a hack writer. There may be a novel or two in me, but they're likely to be really ugly little imps that perhaps ought not be born anyway.

You've also read on this blog some of the rants I have about newspaper journalists deriding the work of bloggers -- and not just any bloggers, but bloggers who care as much about their writing as do the "real" journalists. So if any of this post makes me eat crow, all I have to say about that is we all eat crow, once and a while. I'm willing to do so. I'm willing to learn.

What's prompted that is two things:

First, French publisher Hachette is joining with MacMillan in rebelling against's requirement that electronic books be offered at $9.99 or less. Frankly, I tend to agree with the publishers on this one. First and foremost because I don't buy e-books, nor do I buy many new books at all, so the price of books is immaterial to me. That will sound hypocritical in context with what I say next: Those who want cheap e-books are, in my opinion, cheapening the authors they love, not necessarily the publishers that bring them to us.

A few years ago while browsing a bookstore, I found a copy of Richard Adams' "Tales from Watership Down." I had no idea he'd written a sequel to the book I loved so much. So I bought the book. I didn't care it was a small volume, nor did I care that it cost me $24.99 -- much more than I could afford at the time; I was living on about that much in food a month. I put high value on the author and his story -- that's why I was willing to pay the full price. So to me, to insist that e-books fall under $9.99 seems odd. Yeah, maybe they're cheaper to manufacture, but only in a narrow interpretation of manufacturing. If you look at manufacturing as buying paper, ink, printing presses, printing, cutting, binding and distributing the book then yes, e-books are cheaper. But if you include the writing, editing, re-writing, re-editing, et cetera, then books aren't as cheap as you think. If I'm ever published, I want the worth of my work recognizes.

Then there's this: I have preached a lot about the democratization of writing with the advent of the Internet. I've also acknowledged, fairly, that just because one is writing on the Internet that doesn't mean one is a good writer. Writers are judged by their audiences. My audience here is small -- but that's fine. I'm writing mainly for myself and a few friends. I don't pretend that what I write here is worthy of being published, or worthy of wider attention than the meager number of visitors I get here. This is a playground, a sandbox, where I can experiment with writing and, perhaps, get a little better over time.

British author Susan Hill has penned a wonderful rant -- she calls it that -- on this subject, declaring that no, amateurs are not as good as those who have spent years practising their craft. I have to agree. I can read and re-read J.R.R. Tolkein's books and know that they're far above in quality what others are in the fantasy genre. He spent a lifetime crafting the stories, the background, and everything else that went into them. There are even published authors who can't hold a candle to him. And unpublished ones in the genre of fantasy that shouldn't even be in the same room with him -- myself included. That he spent years and years working on his novels shows through in the writing we get to read.

Just because we have outlets -- because the publisher as a middleman has been eliminated -- doesn't make us all excellent writers. I don't think there are a lot of people out there, myself included, claiming to be such. But there seem to be enough to get under Hill's skin, justifiably so:
If someone writes a marvellous short story I don`t care where they come from – the sewer, the street, prison, a palace, a university…if the story is as good as one William Trevor can write, say, or Helen Simpson - or me - then good, let them go up there. But only if, not just because they have put one word in front of another, or because they’re asylum seekers.

I can neither draw nor paint. I have zero – no, sub-zero – graphic talent. So, if I get some crayons and a bit of paper and have a go, should that have equal right to go up there next to David Hockney? Well, I mean, why not ? It’s part of the democratisation of crayon on paper isn`t it?

No. It is not. You might just as well say the ‘democratisation of sound’ means I have a right to pick up a violin and join the Halle orchestra.
Amen to that.

I confess -- and have confessed before -- that there are writers out there better than me. We're not all on equal ground, talent-wise, because if we were Tolkein's work would be a lot shabbier, ours would not be better. I'm grateful for this diversification of talent, even if it pains me to realize that I'm not as good as many, many, many others. But that doesn't stop me from writing, from improving (I hope). It doesn't stop me from dreaming that one day I may too leave the rank of amateur behind.

Hill echoes Mark Twain a bit in this quote:
Thank God that for every million bloggers there is one reader. The internet is actually as great a leveller as the publisher or the newspaper editor, because you can write what you like and post it up there but just as you cannot get a column in a newspaper just when you fancy one, so you cannot get a single reader if no reader chooses you.
Twain warns all writers that the act of seeing one's name in print attached to a story tends to weaken one's desire to work hard at producing a bit of writing even more wonderful. The act of "publishing" on the web is also a soporific, as I know all too well. But that doesn't mean, however, I'm not going to keep trying, to keep getting better. I'll not be an amateur all my life.

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