Literature Ain't Burger King

Want to "have it your way"? Write it yourself.

Wed, 22 Sep 2021

Because I often frequent online writing forums I often see others ask about motivation: "Why do you write?" I suffer no lack of facile answers.

These are silly answers for a silly question. They establish my persona: a gruff, working-class writer with a chip on his shoulder and a penchant for melodrama. Or, to paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club: I am Walter Mitty's bad attitude.

I could explain my motive in Satanic terms if I wanted to play up my heavy metal influences or come across as edgy or aggressive. I could, for example, call my work a labor of hatred or a sacrament of defiance. I could frame my writing as a rebellion against workism, careerism, or totalitarian capitalism. I could hold forth about the need to find meaning or purpose outside the work does for a living, because a job is just a job and will never be more than that regardless of the title on your business card or how much Kool-Aid you drink.

All of that is true but irrelevant. The real reason I write is that literature ain't Burger King. You don't get to "have it your way" if all you ever do is read other people's fiction. In literature, the customer is never right. Publishers won't admit this. Neither will authors. Nobody ever sold books by rubbing readers' noses in their own irrelevance.

Consider your favorite traditionally published author. Even those who claim to write with a specific reader in mind aren't thinking about you. Their target is a composite who only exists in their imaginations, a chimera that Stephen King addresses as "Constant Reader". You might share certain characteristics with this idealized representation of the author's intended readership, but you aren't the reader your favorite author thinks about when writing unless the novel is explicitly dedicated to you.

Let's also consider indie authors. For whom do they write? Again, you are not their target. They claim otherwise if they're active on social media because otherwise they'd be subject to public excoriation, but readers don't matter as much as they think they do.

Traditionally published authors write for agents and publishers. They're the ones who actually buy or license an author's work. Publishers create their own version of an author's work by editing it — usually with the author's cooperation — and then sell that edition. The version of your favorite novel that you read is not the version the author persuaded an agent to represent. Nor is it the version the publisher's acquisition editor read on an agent's recommendation.

Indie authors write for algorithms. They write for Amazon, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and all their imitators. They offer their work to automated gatekeepers instead of the human variety, but you are still the last person to decide what you will read. You will read what Corporate America chooses for you, and you will like it. You will like, follow, and obey the artists chosen for you or be exiled from mainstream culture.

Suppose that you do your reading on sites like Wattpad, RoyalRoad, Tapas, Inkitt, etc. Perhaps you use Goodreads to find new books? If you don't know exactly what you want you're stuck with what's popular — or what can be made popular by influencers and tastemakers. If you use awards as your guide, you're still dealing with popularity contests. Depending on traditional publishers won't help. They decide who to publish by identifying trends and extrapolating upon them.

As long as your tastes are trendy, you won't lack for something to read. There's nothing wrong with that, either, but if you're into something obscure you're going to end up re-reading the same books until you're sick of them. Suppose, for example, that you wanted a fantasy bildungsroman about a naive young man who sets off on a journey with world-shaking consequences or a many-sided account of a dynastic war of succession in another world? You'll be spoiled for choices. Now imagine that you want a fantasy novel about a middle-aged sorceress who works as a research librarian who figures out how to develop new spells that wizards who specialize in the creation of new magicks never thought to create, like a spell that automatically silences anybody in range if they start explaining to the caster something they already know? You might have to wait a while.

There's no percentage in hating the players or the game. The traditional and indie publishing industries are machines of such byzantine complexity that they have no business working at all, let alone giving eighty percent of readers eighty percent of what they want eighty percent of the time. Nevertheless, there's a reasonable chance that you'll find yourself dealing with the literary equivalent of cable TV or Netflix: millions of books and nothing to read.

It isn't your fault. It isn't anybody's fault. It probably happens to everybody, and it happened to me.

This is the real reason I write. The story I wanted to read wasn't getting written. If somebody had written it, it had not been published. If it had been published, nobody thought to tell me about it. Who would I have asked, anyway? An underpaid and overworked bookstore clerk or librarian with more pressing concerns than my dissatisfaction with the selection?

In situations like these there are only three solutions:

  1. Make do with what's available
  2. Do without
  3. Do it yourself

Most readers choose one of the first two options. We call people who take the third option writers. However, there are only two kinds of writers, and if you're a techie then you know where this joke is going. There are writers who write for themselves and writers who write for publication. For most writers this is an exclusive or (XOR); being able to write for yourself and successfully write for publication takes luck or the possession of fuck you money.

The possession of the right kind of day job can provide fuck you money, money that allows you to write as you please and release your work on the off chance that it might scratch another reader's itch. For example, I work in tech and make more in a year than most writers make in five. I can write for myself, do it my way, and not worry about whether it will sell because my day job pays the bills.

I get to have it my way because I do the work. It isn't easy, but it's worth it to me. I know who to blame if the story I wrote wasn't what I wanted. We have a staredown every time I shave.

If you're not happy with the fiction available, don't bother complaining. Nobody cares, because this isn't Burger King. If you want the story written your way, write it yourself, then publish it yourself — or be content with having written it. Nobody else can tell your story but you. Nobody else can represent you. Don't ask them to try because if they've got any integrity they're doing for themselves what you would have them do for you.

Stop consuming.
Start creating.
Write the change you want to see in the world.

I had to. So can you. It won't be easy, but it will be work you're doing entirely for yourself what might be the first time in your life. That's reason enough: your story written your way.