Voodoo Economics: How to Find Serenity in an Industry that Does Not Want You
In the antiseptic, sour-smelling halls of psychology, there is an entire wing devoted to Anxiety. Within that wing is a dingy corner containing a dry mop and a broken drinking fountain bearing a sign that reads “Please Love Me.” This section is wholly devoted to Writer’s Anxiety.
There is a hierarchy of Writer’s Anxiety, and since this is a magazine which splits its favors more or less equally among the tiers, it is this hierarchy which concerns me as I sit down, fresh from my latest rejection, to tell you all how I keep the temptation to rip up paperback copies of The Sword of Shannara and choke myself to death on their pulpy remains at bay.
The first tier of Writer Anxiety can aptly be described as “Oh, God, Let Me Get Published.” This pupal stage in the development of the author is fraught with misery and self-doubt, characterized by a willingness to do any number of unsavory things for the chance at a stapled, mimeographed contributor’s copy and a steadfast conviction that publication vindicates all.
The second tier falls under the fluttering banner of “Oh, God, Let Me Keep Publishing.” This intermediary stage is full of dread and attempts to scry the market using arcane methods of haruspicy and blog-reading in order to keep oneself relevant and employed. These tiers often snipe at one another in a morbid kind of Misery Olympics—is it more wretched to have no credits to your name and a burning, thwarted desire for them or to have to deal every day with a hostile market that could dump you onto the landfill at any arbitrary moment? Meet me at the con. We’ll compare ulcers.
It was not so long ago—about four years--that I was squarely in that first tier, just hoping against hope someone would see in my work what I saw, that someone would reach down from the gold-paneled heavens of New York City and say: yes, you are what we want. That didn’t happen.
How can I say that, when I, in fact, did get a two-book deal with Bantam Spectra, followed by a third, when I’ve gone from total unknown to multi-award-winning author on the cover of Locus in less than four years? Because the industry doesn’t want me. And they don’t want you, either. The word industry is applicable here only with squinted eyes and foil-wrapped antennae affixed firmly to the skull. Imagine, if you will, that instead of the effete, latte-sipping literati we surely are, that we all work together in a steel mill in, let’s say Ohio, oh, round about now.
The glory age of our employers is long past. Most of the field has either gone out of business or merged or found other, cheaper workers who will not insist on decent pay and benefits. The world is actively, eagerly looking for some way to completely replace what we make with something more energy-efficient, modern, and interesting. Every once in awhile our employers land a big contract, and that keeps the rest of us afloat for awhile, but it’s been on the downhill for a long time. Take a look at some of the steel towns in Ohio. It’s a metaphor, but it’s also a mirror. The difference is, if steel production ground to a halt today, it would be a problem.
There are more writers today, producing more text, than ever before in the history of the world. It can’t have escaped notice that this entire article is pregnant with the assumption that its audience is primarily other writers and aspiring writers. More books, more blogs, more everything. If everyone with literary aspirations were to, at this very instant, wake up, laugh, and get a banking job, the publishing industry could go for decades, even a century, on just those who are working now, reprints, and endless new editions of the ten most popular books of all time. No one would even notice.
We’re selling steel to the steel barons, kids.
So when I say it didn’t happen, what I mean is that the barons will never look down at me and say: yes, you are what we want. Let’s be honest, I don’t even sell machine-grade steel. I sell Damascus steel, folded and intricate, dug up from the earth, practically useless, desirable only to lovers of the arcane, the beautiful, the old. No one slammed a fist down onto their desk and shouted: what we need here is a woman writer with too much education to natter incomprehensibly about fairy tales! It doesn’t work like that. It’s a ghastly game, trying to predict how an author will perform, betting on her like a horse. And how she runs! As long as she can, she runs. But usually, it’s not that long.
I’ve been questioning myself a lot lately. Questioning my steel, if you will. I choose to write the aggressively strange, almost virulently outside the mainstream. Does this hurt me? Does it, slowly, kill me? I can’t tell. I just can’t. I try to recall Ted Chiang’s words as I was working on this article: “I once heard that, on average, published novelists earn only slightly more than migrant laborers. With prospects like that, why not just write what you want?”
It doesn’t always get me to sleep at night.
I contracted to write this article at the beginning of the summer, when I felt like I had something to share about finding serenity, finding the zen of choosing yourself over your industry, of pursuing your strange, unseemly niche until it carries you where you ought to go.
But a funny thing happened. I got rejected. A lot. A couple of projects I believed in made the rounds and went precisely nowhere. Now, I know we’re not supposed to talk about our failures—we manufacture a propaganda of success that promotes a narrative where every worthwhile book gets published, but Virginia, it just ain’t so. But it’s a funny thing to stare at the title to this article for a couple of hours when all your awards and buzz add up to the same rejection letters you got when you were waltzing with the mop in the Anxiety Museum. Kind of like the universe smirking in your direction. How does that serenity taste now, kid?
And it’s taken me a couple of days, it really has. But I’m here to tell you: it tastes fine.
When you work in a steel town, you either cling to the mill and drink for all you’re worth or you embrace the new world: new technologies, new economies, niche markets and products no one has thought to want before. The only other option is death. And proximity to death brings clarity: they don’t want me. They don’t want you. There are no job openings and there are lay-offs by the thousand, every day, that you never hear about and no pundit weeps over. We are the ones full of want, full of desire. We transmit our want to them like to fickle gods and like gods they accept us or turn away for reasons we cannot scry.
I would like the equation to be simple. Want made manifest in glorious books = success. Straight-to-RPG Tolkien knock offs = failure. But we all know otherwise. There is no equation, unless it’s spin around three times, sacrifice a chicken, shut your eyes real tight, throw your book into the air and hope it was the right chicken. In the face of that kind of chance, that kind of future, where every book is an act of voodoo and faith with no hope but a fool’s hope?
You spin around three times. You sacrifice a chicken. You close your eyes and write your book. There’s nothing else. Nothing else possible. And there is a zen to be found in embracing that, even if what you were put on this earth to write isn’t a bestseller that engulfs you in praise every day. Life is a lot like a publishing contract: a thing full of promise, a cauldron into which we throw all our best ideas and acts, and out of which comes utterly unpredictable results. Children with eight arms, Chinese gymnastic teams, even recursive books about folklore and griffins. Yes, and bestsellers, too, but you can never be sure if it was the onion or the eye of newt that did the trick.
Every book is an act of voodoo, gorgeous voodoo, sympathetic magic, of stupid, blind faith. Our job is to maintain that faith just long enough to produce about a hundred thousand words. And that’s as it should be. Faith is not always answered. That is also as it should be. We are wicked fairies, all of us. We must pay our tithes to hell, and some of those tithes come in the form of failed books, rejected manuscripts, bad reviews.
When I got my first acceptance—not a short story, not a poem, but a full-blown (and largely forgotten) novel called The Labyrinth back in 2004, I sat very delicately on my couch and closed my laptop. I realized something in that moment that I am trying very hard to remember right now, when I fear for my ability to keep working in the steel town I have chosen: publication was never the point. The point was the work, the book, the voodoo, the faith. The point was the sheer joy of creating something out of nothing, crystal out of gross matter. They will never really want what I have to give. My job, insofar as I have one, is to make what I have to give glow so brightly that they cannot turn away from it.
And that’s your job, too.
That’s it, right there. That’s the serenity that this life will offer, and not too much more. There is never a time when you are not scared for your next contract, never a time when you do not fear for your future, when you stop praying to the motley gods of union-workers and Ohio steel towns to let you keep working, please, just a few more years. Even J.K. Rowling, she of the blessings and grace you hope for, worries about what she’ll do next. It’s a serenity that is hard to hold on to, it requires steadfastness and a world-champion grip.
I talked to a few of my friends about all of this, trying to wrestle my conscience with regards to writing what I believed in as opposed to what I believed would sell. And they talked to me about not caring about anything but what you love—Hal Duncan used the word “fuck” a lot. It’s a golden thread, maybe even a cliché, but back when I was unpublished, I still thought a byline would fix everything. Nobody told me that every couple of months someone would ask you to sell your soul and you’d have to seriously check the bank account before saying no.
Hal told me: “If it sells, it sells; if it doesn’t, fuck it. It’s worth trying, at least. I like Joyce, Borges, Pinter, Davenport. I’ve bought their books. Lots of people have bought their books. Fuck, look at Heller’s CATCH-22 and you find this totally non-linear absurdist narrative that’s probably garnered as much cash as it has kudos. So why the fuck not just go for it and hope for the best?”
“As a writer, there’s so much that I don’t have control over!” said Theodora Goss. “How my work is packaged, marketed, distributed. There’s really only one thing I do have control over: the quality of my writing. I can’t always make it great, but I can always do my absolute best. I can hold myself to what I consider a high standard. The things that we can’t control can bother us so much. It sounds like a cliché, but sometimes it is genuinely comforting to say, when things spin out of control, that what I could do, I did . . . remember Dickinson and Van Gogh. I think in the end all you can do is write to the standard that you’ve set for yourself, write the way you think you should, and hope that the work will be meaningful. The rest is up to whatever fate controls writers.”
And fate, all three of them, are stone cold bitches. They laugh at awards and ash their cigarettes on them, they gobble up all your fervent hopes and ask for more, always more, without giving a damn thing back. It’s their nature. And it is ours to be fodder for them. The only other option is death.
And you know what? Even if you don’t feel it, even if you’ve had your baby chucked out of the big city this very week, especially if you have, you say these things anyway. When someone asks you silly questions for an online article. When your spouse is tired of your lack of income. At night, when you’re sure you’ll never sell another book. You say it anyway. Everything true bears reminding. It’s a mantra, it is specifically designed to heal the broken soul. And it becomes true again in less time than you think.
Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over two dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan's Tales series, Deathless, Radiance, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making (and the four books that followed it). She is the winner of the Andre Norton, Tiptree, Sturgeon, Prix Imaginales, Eugie Foster Memorial, Mythopoeic, Rhysling, Lambda, Locus, Romantic Times' Critics Choice and Hugo awards. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with a small but growing menagerie of beasts, some of which are human.