Writing is not a zero-sum game – far from making my success LESS likely, your success makes it MORE likely, so cooperation between writers is a good thing.
This column is probably as low on content and high on rhetoric as I intend to get in this series. I want to address an issue that’s vexed me ever since I started participating in online writers’ groups at the very start of 2008, after reading a little snippet in the Writers and Artists Yearbook about youwriteon.com.
I’d like to preface this piece with a comment, contra the vast array of critics each of those sites attracts. I have never had any really bad experiences of online writers’ groups. I’ve never been trolled or flamed or anything else jargonese. I’ve just met loads of great writers. People complain because they want sites to give them more – but that’s not the point. Without sites like youwriteon and authonomy, we wouldn’t have better sites, we’d have nothing! Over 400 people read at least some of Songs from the Other Side of the Wall before I completed the final draft. If even 1% of the comments I received (and it was, in fact, way over half) had been useful, that would have been 4 more than I would have received otherwise.
OK. To begin. Morrissey said it. Gore Vidal said it. We all mutter it to ourselves through bitten lips. We hate it when our friends become successful. It’s an ugly trait at any time and in any dose. But amongst anyone in the arts (I won’t single out writers – just look at those faces on Oscar night) it’s more pandemic than episodic. We resent successes we believe should have been ours – why did THEY get it? They must be connected. They must have lucked out?
That’s not really what this post is about. Envy is ugly. Envy is bad. I’m not going to bother discussing it even – it’s not a habit I’ll wean the envy addicts off. What I can do is make a business case against its worst manifestations.
I think there’s a feeling amongst new writers that writing must be a zero sum game. That is to say, we feel – largely because we hear about publishers’ lists, and how many or few new writers an agent will take on each year – there is a finite amount of space on the world’s collective shelf (I am talking for the purpose of this post about the traditionally-published shelf. There is, of course, no limit on the space available to self-published authors, although we can talk in a similar vein of a finite number of readers, a finite amount of newspaper column inches for reviews to occupy).
If we believe this, then writing is like those TV shows – How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria and its ilk. There are 20 places in Maria school. Every time someone else has their name called out, the odds seem to decrease for the remaining members of the 50-string pool form whom they’re drawn (this is itself not true, of course – if you’re one of the 20 best – certainly if you’re one of the 10 best, your chances haven’t decreased at all, it just feels from your perspective as though they have. And if you’re the worst, your chances remain the zero they always were. Which is an important lesson to carry over into writing – if you really do have “it” then as long as you plug away you’ll get there. And if you can’t string a sentence together you never will – UNLESS [and this is where awareness of your limitations can be an advantage] you play to your weaknesses and make your sheer blimmin awfulness what you do). It’s a zero sum game. Every one place given to someone is one place fewer available to the rest. Extra places will not appear out of think air (unless the show’s been orchestrated of course).
Writing’s not like that. It’s like love and friendship and various other things that sound rather hippyish, like money if you believe Adam Smith, and several more scary and/or esoteric things like mutually assured destruction. The fact is, assuming you can all write, all have a reasonable dose of “it” without being “all that,” the more of your friends who succeed without your own success, the more likely your own success becomes. It reminds me of reading a very basic criticism of the principle induction, which stated that in many instances, the more times one discovered something other than the thing one was looking for, the more likely the existence of that (as yet undiscovered) thing became, although induction tells us its existence becomes less likely each time.
Put in a way that’s not based on lesson plans from my old days as a philosophy teacher, it goes like this. If your writing colleagues get published, it means people are reading – and they’re reading new authors. If lots of them get published, it means there are lots of people reading. And the more people who read, the more demand there is for books. And the more likely it is that your book will find its publisher.
So the next time one of your fellow writers leaves the unpublished ranks for that hallowed hall of those who’ve “made it,” send them that smiley emoticon, those yippees and woo-hoos, that bottle of wine and box of chocolates with a glad heart, because they’ve just done their little bit in helping your career on its way.
And once you’ve sent your flowers, you might consider asking yourself whether next time you hear of a colleague’s success, there might not be a better reason than that to congratulate them.