Roaming at the intersection of fiction and reality
The Awkward Conversation
At the end of February this year, I reached the age of 70. I guess I’m now officially old. And I’ve been thinking about this, as you might expect.
I’ve had an earlier version of this post on my computer for a long time now, but given that at 70, I’ve just released a new book into the wild, let’s start this awkward conversation…
Several people I’ve met over the years have said variations on the following to me: “You’ve written and sold lots of novels and short stories. You taught creative writing students at university level for over two decades. You play music, even some original tunes, and sing. You’ve produced pieces of visual art and even sold a few. How is it that your name’s not better known?”
When I get that question, at least in public, I usually just shrug silently and leave that as my answer. Honestly, I find the observation slightly intrusive, as there’s (at least sometimes) a sub-text hidden behind the words. But let me try to respond, as best as I can.
First, let’s take care of that unspoken subtext. At least occasionally, what the person who asks that question is inferring is they suspect the reason I’m not better known is I’m actually pretty mediocre and not very good at what I do. I understand that this viewpoint serves as a decent hypothesis. After all, no one gets to know how those who come after will consider their work. But in my (non-humble) opinion, I don’t think the evidence supports that view. The reviews of my fiction have been generally good-to-excellent (no writer’s reviews, no matter how well-known, are ever uniformly great—you can find horrible reviews for every single best-selling, award-winning author’s work). My editors have enjoyed my novels and short work well enough, believed in them enough, and found them good enough to risk their reputations (and their money) by buying them—for thirty-one novels and about sixty or so pieces of short fiction now, as I write this. I’ve sold multiple stories and novels in every decade from the mid-1970s to now in the 2020s. My first professional-level sale was in 1976, 45 years ago, and I have commitments for more stories and as well as another novel as I write this. Editors continue to ask me if I’d be interested in writing a story for them. I’ve been nominated for awards in my field and even won a few. So no, I don’t think the quality of my fiction is at the core of the reason I’m not one of the Big Names.
But I can give you a few personal qualities that I suspect do apply.
Even though I’m a self-admitted applause addict and despite the way I might appear when “on stage,” I’m far more an introvert than extrovert. By standard definition, an extrovert gains energy from being on stage or being the center of attention; introverts, in contrast, lose energy in those situations and can find themselves exhausted and drained afterward. When I step off stage (of whatever sort), I generally don’t plow into the crowd schmoozing; I often seek out a private place so I can be alone and ‘recharge my batteries.’ Especially in crowds, I tend to remain quiet and mostly listen. I suspect that some people, as a result, think I’m ‘arrogant,’ ‘standoffish,’ or even ‘unfriendly.’ I’m not—at least I hope not. Honest. I just tend to be shy and uncomfortable around crowds. That’s usually not a quality that brings you fame.
Another issue is that there’s more to being a ‘successful’ writer than just writing (how I wish that weren’t true!). The one thing I actually love about writing is…well, writing. I don’t enjoy marketing (and thus I’m mediocre at it); I don’t like doing publicity (and thus I’m mediocre at it); I don’t get a thrill from metaphorically jumping up and down shouting “Hey, look at me!” in self-promotion (and thus I’m mediocre at it). Being mediocre at marketing, publicity, and self-promotion doesn’t usually lead to being noticed.
And then there’s the intangibles. Managing to produce just the right work in the right place at the right time can bring fame and fortune, even for an introvert, but that doesn’t seem to be one of my skill sets. You need luck for that, and luck isn’t within my (or anyone’s) control.
Here’s what I’ve always told my creative writing students: If you can honestly say “this is the best work I can possibly produce at this point in my career,” then you’ve done all that you're required to do. That is the bottom line and should be your sole concern: make sure your work is the best work you can produce at that moment. Once you’ve done that and you honestly can’t revise it and polish it any better than it is, then put it out there and see what happens. See if there’s a professional market that wants to publish it. Or if you’re into indie publishing, go that route. (Just be aware that you need as much or more energy and talent for promotion/marketing as you have for writing or the indie route’s probably not a great choice of path for you; it certainly isn’t for me.) When you find an audience, however you find it, be happy with whatever you get back from them.
You can’t find fame. Fame has to find you. Most often, it fails to appear. If it comes in your lifetime, great! If it doesn’t… well, there are lots of examples out there of writers who died largely unknown but are now considered great writers: Herman Melville, Kate Chopin, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, John Keats, to name just a few of a multitude. You can console yourself with the hope that maybe you’ll be on that list after you shuffle off this mortal coil, even though you won’t be around to know it.
For that matter, there are just as many, if not more, writers who in their lifetime who were best-sellers and famous, but who are now largely forgotten—have you read Emma Southworth recently? Mary Elizabeth Braddon? Rafael Sabatini? Wilkie Collins? Frank Yerby? Do you recognize those names at all? Who knows how many of the authors who are now selling tens of thousands of copies of their book will be utterly forgotten in just a few fleeting decades?
So there you have my long-winded answer to that initial question: Why aren’t I better-known? Some of you who know me somewhat may hold other opinions than those I’ve given; if you do, that’s fine. But when I look in the mirror, the above is what I think I see. I suspect that little is likely to change at this point in my life. I’ll continue to write. I’ll (hopefully) continue to sell and publish my work. But I don’t expect fame or fortune to ‘discover’ me while doing so.
But I wouldn’t argue if it did!