The internet is an incredible sharing tool for writers, but not without its drawbacks. On the one hand, it’s allowed absolutely anyone to be an author with an audience; unfortunately, it’s allowed absolutely anyone to be an author with an audience. The breadth of the online writing community is like the ocean, and it’s sometimes about as difficult to swallow. But I swim, too, because these days, you have to, right?
One frequent occurrence I’ve come to expect when engaging with other authors online is to be offered an unsolicited free copy of their novel. It’s usually part of a trilogy (my god, how people love to do their trilogies), and tends to be titled something like “The Fires of Penderothianangine” or “The Conundrum Dilemma (Book 1 of the Enigma Puzzle Series)”, and then there’s the egregious romance/erotica with the ripped dude on the cover being ever-so-tenderly caressed by the woman who doubtlessly tamed him. The taglines can be rough, too: “The secret cabal enslaved much of humanity . . . until they met Barnaby Camelrod” or “Fear has a zipcode . . . and ‘a dress’” (pale, scary woman on the cover). That’s a digression. Anyone who’s watched The Wire understands their marketing technique: the first one’s free, and then they’re hooked. Obviously this works for some writers, or it’d die out.
The problem is, the online community has been saturated with writing that’s more marketing gimmick than labour of love. This is even more concisely illustrated in the poetry on my timeline. There’s no craft, no ability to translate inspiration into something unique and uniquely meaningful to the reader. Even worse, it’s littered with clichés, common phrasing, and popular adages. This inevitably receives plaudits because its recognizable and doesn’t challenge. Something vaguely synonymous with trendy optimism, like “dance like no one’s watching, love like there’s no tomorrow, etc., etc.”, will be shared the world over because it’s just repackaging.
While I do give copies of my poetry collection away for free—it’s too short to really charge for—I only offer it to people who have expressed interest. My first two novels are not successful by any metric. But I emptied heart, mind, and soul into them, making them so distinctly me that they were more like sculptures upon which I sweat and bled. Sculptors don’t usually give the first one away for free, or mimic Rodin’s “The Thinker” or his “Gates of Hell”, and they don’t just want a cursory glance on a street corner: they want the viewer to stop, take it in, examine it, internalize it. Creation on this level is exhausting—so, seeing the lightest piffle glowing with dubious reviews, paid awards, and inexplicable sales can be vexing.
Money isn’t an issue. That’s not how success is truly measured here, of course. I’d take a million readers over a million dollars. If Stephen King went bankrupt, he’d still be one of the most successful authors ever. So, how does one differentiate themselves without pimping their books, or shamelessly self-aggrandizing themselves or their work? With a pretty cover? A stirring synopsis? Anyone can have those, regardless of the quality of the writing within.
I recently sat down to write my third book, but with a different mindset: it would be commercial, relatable, and pulpy. There’d be a good guy and bad guy, good vs. evil—hell, I might even give it a happy ending! I begin vomiting forth chapter after chapter. Is it any good? Who knows. I certainly don’t have an emotional connection to it, as I did my first two. It certainly isn’t written with the poetry and prose that inspires me when I write it, and moves me when I read it back, as with my first two. It’s just a story. But I was full steam ahead. Then I stopped drinking, and in the cold, stark grey morning, I wondered: is this any different than the material diluting the market, drowning my own cherished work? There went my motivation swirling down the toilet. Certainly, pulp novels can have value, redeeming qualities, and can break through. Finding out if mine is one of those would take a significant temporal and intellectual commitment.
Ultimately this is a rant. It’s venting. It’s discouragement. I appreciate that I do a lot of generalization, and it certainly doesn’t apply to each and every one of the fine folk with whom I’ve engaged online. There’s exceptional talent on the fringe—and I do envy and admire the people for whom marketing their work is like breathing.
Perhaps in the ocean of writers online, I have to decide if I want to be the water or the swimmer. The swimmer plots his own course, and may struggle honourably, but the ocean almost always wins.