[This is the third of my posts on how to become a better writer, or really a writer at all.]
One of the most pernicious myths to the would-be writer is the story of the unappreciated artist, dying in a garret only to have his couldn’t-give-them-away paintings discovered immediately after his death and become overnight sensations that sell for millions of dollars.
I can’t quite recall the same thing for writers, but the myth is the same. You can labor away, unnoticed, for decades, with no one buying your stuff, only to have someone a hundred years from now discover it and be amazed at how good it is so that suddenly you’re hailed as one of the great writers in history.
Does it happen? It could happen, particularly now that the internet is forever (supposing it neither collapses nor is taken down by a future dictator.) Someone COULD find your stories in a century or two and be amazed at how great they are according to the tastes of the time.
You could be hailed as one of the great writers in history, even though right now you’re just Joe Blow.
Is it likely?
Dear Lord, no. The most likely is the other way around. There are Victorian novelists praised to the skies in their time which are, to our current taste, unreadable. There is a reason that Gutenberg gives away hundreds of books and yet doesn’t completely eclipse the current producers. Yes, yes, I know, part of it is their formatting. But not all.
Not so long ago I traced two Victorian novelists mentioned as being popular in the work of a mid-20th-century writer. And I couldn’t read them.
Look, I know something of the tastes of readers in the late nineteenth century because my early life was closer to theirs than to the life I now live. Sure, I grew up in the sixties and there were TVs (two, then three in the village where I could go. We don’t count the ones in coffee shops because that was neither suitable for a very young child nor for a young lady.)
And sure, we had radios. Mostly they were popular for soap operas. Yes, soaps on the radio. Portuguese school is either morning or afternoon, six/seven hours no study periods, etc. When I had morning school, I’d come home around one or two which is lunch hour in Portugal. Walking down the village street from the bus stop, I could hear the entire episode of the current soap, as people listened to it in their kitchens at such a volume it came through the front door of the admittedly tiny houses. But outside that hour or two (and never on weekends) of radio entertainment, you really didn’t have much story-based-amusement. You could read, or you could gossip. That was about it. I never cared much for gossip, so I read.
But because the backdrop of life was way more boring and there were fewer distractions — seriously, it was considered a viable form of amusement to sit at your front door and watch the rest of the village on their Sunday walks — you tolerated a lot more boredom in your readings. Taking a pause in the middle of a novel to tell a long only marginally related story was okay. Taking pages and pages to introduce each member of a very large family was okay.
We live in different times and we have different tastes. In fact just yesterday I stopped reading a novel because every chapter had a different character and I was 25% into the book without having the slightest notion who or what it was about. It was very well written if rambly, there just wasn’t a plot thread to hold me. This might have been perfectly fine in the nineteenth century, though. It was less boring than reality.
Which means …
Which means there is no “Great work of literature” as such. There is the work of literature that fits the tastes/lifestyle and interests (including agenda of a ruling class, if what you’re looking for is being taught in schools) of the time that hails it. It is not necessarily the same or has the same “quality” to another time, with different ways of life.
Sure. We read people who have been dead for centuries. Shakespeare and Jane Austen come to mind, though there are others. But mostly we read them as part of their own epoch and with a kind of historical interest. Agatha Christie is starting to slip into that, too. (Yeah, I read them all for fun long before they were required in schools. I’m weird, okay.)
In fact, the best way to be hailed as a “great author” in the future is still to sell a sh*tton of books/stories now.
Sure, it doesn’t guarantee anything. You might be like those Victorian novelists, great in their time and then forgotten after. But you do at least have a chance and purchased a ticket to that lottery.
We’ll forswear to ask why you want to be acclaimed after you’re dead. Writers are a little broken, and maybe you feel it is incumbent upon you to talk to future generations or something. I have people in my head who tell me stories. Who am I to judge your crazy?
Speaking of, when, like today, there is a split between what people read and “stupid stuff editors like” it is important to realize that the way to be remembered in the future is to appeal to a broad variety of people, not to the editors. Because I can honestly tell you that the predictable-message laden fiction the big houses tend to put out is already passé. Unless of course, the future is SJW, in which case your books might be pushed in every school. (Unlikely. We seem to have the upper limit of a collectivist regime before it devolves to cannibalism and death and it seems to be around 70 years give or take.) If that’s what you want, carry on.
The thing though is to realize there is no inherent greatness in you. There is no inherent greatness in anyone. Sure some people are born with a lot of talents and gifts. But that by themselves doesn’t earn them anything. Shakespeare could have stayed in Avon and followed his father’s trade, and written only drinking songs, or poems for the girls (more or less what my brother does.) And he could now be forgotten.
He could have written plays of a different kind, as popular in his day as they were, but now totally forgotten. Think Marlowe or Green.
It was the fact he wrote what he wrote, which not only made him immensely popular with people and the rulers, but also provided characters who still live for us today. And even then, think about it, what was very popular in his day (all those dreary history plays) is less so now, and heck, the things that are popular are popular for other reasons now.
Once you internalize this it’s very freeing. Even if your goal is to be the immortal writer of the twenty-first century, you can’t control it. All you can do is write the best you can now, and make the most of it you can now.
And that includes admitting you don’t know what “great” is. Don’t hold yourself to some imaginary “greatness” that guarantees you’ll never sell and probably never finish anything. Instead, write. Write a lot. Write the best you can. Strive to appeal to your contemporaries.
Your novel doesn’t need to be a thing of immortal greatness. It needs to be a thing that’s finished last Wednesday and on the editor’s submission cue, or up on Amazon, selling its tawdry self.
You’re a writer, go write. Leave to the future the decision whether you’re immortal or not. Your goal right now is to be readable.