Recently, a very famous and much-lauded writer whose Substack I follow wrote a post on writer etiquette, which included a bulleted list of questions, asked on book tours, that are ‘annoying’. Where do you get your ideas, etc. Then another list later: What should I not say to a writer?
The audience for this post was unclear. Was it written to non-writers, who may not understand what writing is like, or not-yet published writers? ‘Are you wanting to become a serious student of writing, and/or are you one already?’ this writer asks at one point, suggesting the latter, and thus revealing the post’s total ickiness. Throughout, the underlying message is ‘A lot of unsuccessful writers just don’t get how hard it is to be famous.’
That this ‘advice’ was framed as etiquette seems downright Trumpian.
This is a strain of social media complaint I’ve long hated. (Yes, I’m complaining here about others’ complaining.) I recall another writer years back posting on Twitter how they had to go to the grocery store (can you believe it?) to finally buy a pair of socks, because they’d been on a book tour for so long they ran out of socks and didn’t have time to do laundry.
You may have heard anecdotally that the percentage of authors who get to go on book tours is measly. I’ve published 2 books, and any touring I did I had to book and pay for myself. And even that, I recognized, was an enormous privilege—bookstores around the country said Okay to me coming there to read from my book, which they did the work of buying copies of.
Anybody on their book tour is not an aggrieved party. Does traveling suck at times? Yes, for every traveler ever. Do people ask annoying questions? Yes, at every party across the land.
Authors also like to complain about their Goodreads and Amazon reviews, seemingly without understanding the wonderful luck and privilege of getting reviewed. I would shave my mustache to have 50 1-star reviews of my book. What a luxury to be so widely read!—and if not read, at least talked about.
The misery none of these writers complaining about success seem able to imagine is the misery of utter silence. Imagine writing a book that nobody reviews. Imagine arriving at a bookstore where nobody shows up to hear you. Imagine sitting there on your phone, hoping someone arrives late so you can sell at least 1 copy before you need to drive 8 hours to the next stop on the tour, and scrolling to see someone complaining about how ANOTHER person asked them whether they write on a computer or by hand.
When you go on book tour, when you do a reading, nobody is there for you. You are there for them. Sometimes they’ve even paid for the privilege of getting to listen to you. Maybe they do have questions about how you balance your time as a writer and as a mother, and maybe this question is utterly sexist in how nobody asks dads how they do it, but that person in some form or another needs help, and they’ve come to you for it.
Here’s my favorite example of a writer handling an annoying question, not at a book tour, but in a televised live interview:
What Morrison does there takes courage, but also compassion. It seems also to call for a level of respect, Morrison seeing a clear ignorance in the mind of her interviewer and respecting her enough to correct it, to trust that this person is correctable.
Now: Morrison is not trying to sell a book and build a career; she’s got a Nobel at this point. It’s a far different position from the writer needing to be ‘likable’ to sell books and get invited back places. And so maybe this is one way we can understand complaining about success: even for writers whose work (or whose careers) you might envy, success doesn’t feel like success.
Is it inevitable? Is it human nature to take on all the trappings and tone and attitude of the managerial class as soon as we’re given access to it? I remember getting drinks with a friend shortly after I began my job as director of the MFA program I teach in. ‘You’re like Zadie Smith!’ he said, only a bit tongue-in-cheek. (Smith at the time was the director of the MFA program at NYU.)
I was not like Zadie Smith, in that my last book didn’t get reviewed, and twice, in two different tours, I’d shown up at a bookstore for a reading and nobody’d come to hear me. He meant more in terms of the position of power I had, or privilege? It reminded me of the number of people who’ve told me I have a ‘dream job’: tenured and teaching graduate students in San Francisco, getting a course release such that I teach just one class session a week. I’ve achieved a lot of success in a field adjacent to writing-publishing. Do I complain about it?
I complain about how this job forces me to think like an administrator: bottom-line myopia, 7-page syllabi that read like user agreements, etc. I complain about the energy it takes away from my writing. I complain about the time it takes away from my teaching, and getting to work with students in an educational context rather than an administrative one.
These complaints usually come from my feeling unfit, or my feeling this job is unfit for me. I’m just a guy who wants to write, is the story I tell myself. I just want to write and talk to students about writing.
That I have not had much success with my writing (again, success complaints: I’ve published 2 books and have a literary agent) fuels my complaining about my job. And, as you’ve likely long noticed by now, fuels my complaining about successful authors’ complaining.
I don’t have a way out of this post. I’m overdue this morning to start working on the memoir I’m so slowly writing. Maybe this is a way to end:
Last night, I saw Natalie Diaz in conversation with Hilton Als at City Arts & Lectures. Toward the end of the night, Als asked Diaz about her teaching, and Diaz said (I’m paraphrasing) she’s relatively new to teaching, and at this point she’s given up trying to change the institution, to decolonize the university. Because the institution is too resistant to change. It won’t change. So now, Diaz focuses on making the kind of space she wants to make in the classroom for her students, to direct her creative energies there. Will it change the institution? It may (but unlikely), but more importantly it makes a space where students are harbored from the ills and evils of the institution.
The downsides of a successful life of writing will likely not change, no matter how much we try to correct them by writing about etiquette. So regardless of what successes we enjoy, here’s a reminder to make your space what you need it to be, and flourish there.