Monday, November 30, 2015

In Praise of the Hobby Writer

The wrong attitude—go ahead, try it!

One response to the explosion of vanity self-publishing (as opposed to professional authors choosing to cut out the middle man) is for authors to emphasize the difference between 'professional' authors, and the 'amateur' or 'hobby' writer.

The emphasis on 'professional' is outdated. (Actually 'professional' was never a real thing: read my literature review article on professionalism.) As I argued last post, whether one can make a living as a writer has more to do with being in the right place at the right time than anything else. (This is particularly true for all those early adopters who have written books on how they made millions through social media—none of which tricks are still valid by the time you read about them....) And, as is obvious to anyone flipping through any best seller (e.g.,books by Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, etc) it's often not about the quality of the writing. The hobby writer is as likely—perhaps even more likely—to be a great writer, given that they may not be trying to cash in on the latest trend or reach the widest possible demographic, as do those aiming for the best-seller list. There is nothing wrong with writing and publishing for the art of it, and making a living some other way. Most of the writers I most admire have a day job or the support of an employed spouse.

One of my very favourite writers, and my favourite example of a hobby writer, is H.A. Hargreaves, whose 1976 SF collection was the first ever marketed as "Canadian science fiction". I used his stories to define Canadian SF almost as long as I have been lecturing on the topic (35 years) and he was recently (Oct, 2015) inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. His collection, reprinted and still available as North by 2000+, contains only 15 stories, but it has had a profound effect on Canadian SF, influencing an entire generation of authors that followed. But his biggest influence on me was the realization that hobby writing was okay. Hargreaves was a Professor of English at the University of Alberta, and his academic work kept him too busy to write—except for one week each year he took off to write one story. Not what you'd call a professional level of output. (Contrast that with 2015's other inductee into the Hall of Fame, Dave Duncan, whose recent release, The Eye of Strife, was his 50th published novel.) Nevertheless, over the course of nearly two decades, Hargreave's stories added up, not just to his North by 2000+ collection, but to a significant contribution to the genre.

Hargreaves was clearly not writing for the money, and he was not writing for the lowest common denominator to get on the best seller list; he was writing for himself. What he wrote were some of the finest short SF stories ever, and he pioneered the genre of Canadian science fiction. Each of his stories was originally submitted to John W. Campbell, the leading American SF editor of the time, who rejected each story in turn with a two page letter explaining how the story would have to be rewritten to fit into the pages of Analog. In each case, Hargreaves ignored the rejection, and the advice, and sent the story on to the British magazine New Worlds where it was published as is. Rather than change his story for the American market, Hargreaves stuck to his guns, and created something really new and worthwhile.

I aspire to someday get to the level of a Hargreaves. I am never going to be a full time writer because I could not possibly earn more writing than I did as a professor, and I insist on a better lifestyle than the gentile poverty that defines the life of most of my writer friends. I love writing and editing, and put some effort into getting better at both, but the amount of money available from these activities is not sufficient to take seriously as a career. As a hobby, I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing. As an avocation, writing is something I am passionate about and I hope that I have some talent for. I seem to be able to get whatever I write published, but thanks to other demands on my time, I only seem to average about one or two stories a year.

Quantity and quality are different dimensions, however, and vague ideological terms like 'professional' tend to confabulate these two very different criteria along with the (largely random) criteria of 'sales'. Just because Stephenie Meyer has made more sales and more money than I will ever see, does that necessarily qualify Stephenie Meyer as a better writer than some hobbyist? I don't think so. I'll grant her the status of more influential writer, because far more people have read her writing than those published in SF mags or small press anthologies. I'll happily grant her the status of major writer, because her books have taught a lot of kids (including my then 12 year old) how to read. In spite of my reservations about the Twilight series, realizing that my daughter's lifetime reading page count tripled in the week it took her to read through all the Twilight books, yeah, I owe Stephenie Meyer a lot. You go girl! But is she a better writer than the hundreds of hobby writers I know? Not so much.

I'm on the membership committee of various writers' organizations, and the issue of the hobby writer comes up a lot, especially now that some many people are self-publishing. On the one hand there are those that are trying to keep the organization an exclusive club, defining membership criteria in dollars and cents or copies sold or some other measure of professionalism to keep the vanity self-publishers out. I have some sympathy for this view. I do meet a lot of wannabes who don't qualify in my mind because they are uninterested in learning to write. These vanity self-publishers are motivated by get-rich-quick dreams where readers are supposed to flock to their badly written first drafts and turn over large quantities of cash in return for very little effort. These are the authors who put no effort into learning their craft, who are too incompetent to recognize the extensive flaws in their structures, who care little for grammar or spelling, and who are deaf to feedback that might help them improve. There is little passion for writing in such individuals, just gigantic egos and a craving for fame and fortune.

Such individuals are, however, the minority. A loud, obnoxious minority that gets more than its fair share of attention by virtue of how annoying they can be, but still not the norm.

Most of the hobby writers I meet are NOT vanity self-publishers.

(If you were wondering if I might be bashing you in the preceding tirade, allow me to assure you this is not the case. Anyone who reads obscure posts on writing is by definition not the sort of non-learner to whom I was referring. Further, if you feared even for a moment that I might be talking about you, then by definition you are not that sort of ego maniac.)

Most hobby authors are talented writers trying to hone their craft to produce quality work. I would very much like them to be able to join writers' groups/communities and become part of the conversation. They, like H.A.Hargreaves, have much to contribute to that conversation; to the discourse that is our culture. Excluding them by imposing some arbitrary quantity of sales seems to miss the point entirely. (I would much prefer some test of quality, but fully understand that the subjective nature of the assessment makes such evaluations untenable.) So I would prefer to loosen the criteria to allow more people to participate in the conversation, rather than form a too exclusive club.

Similarly, at writer's conventions (though notably not the case at either When Words Collide or CanCom) I often see a hierarchy imposed on the gathering based on sales....but this completely wrong-headed. The hobby writers are often as interesting and knowledgeable as the full-time, commercially successful writers. New writers tend to flock to the full-time/commercial professionals in hopes of discovering the secret of their success. Since the secret is they hit the trend at exactly the right moment; or they discovered an overlooked audience, or—and this does happen occasionally—they happen to write really well; asking for the secret handshake that gets one into the big publishers rather misses the point. Asking about how to pace a scene; or starting a discussion of whether prologues are ever acceptable; or talking about how to manage the writing process—those are the conversations that help one improve one's writing. And a long-time hobbyist is as likely to have useful comments to contribute to that discussion as the big seller.

So please, let us not confabulate "hobby writer" with either "rank beginner" or "vanity self-publisher". There is nothing wrong with writing part-time. Indeed, Chaucer had a day job (as Minister of Public Works, no less), as did Kafka, and Jorge Luis Borges and Lewis Carroll, and well, pretty much everybody before the pulp era. (And folks, the pulp era is over). Indeed, I would make the argument that the part-timer might be a purer form of the profession, because they are motivated by the need for self-actualization (the 'need' to write) and write according to their own vision, rather than trying to match some commercial formula dictated by the best seller genre. Or, to put it another way, the part-timer is less likely to prostitute their art for filthy lucre..... :-)

Related Posts: Why we published North by 2000+

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