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Don't Throw Away Those Notes
09/30/2002

I'll admit that a little bit of a chip might make me unduly cynical, but whenever I read an essay like Joseph Epstein's article in the New York Times advising people not to write books, the message I draw from between the lines is, "Get out of my market!" (link via the Corner)

Why should so many people think they can write a book, especially at a time when so many people who actually do write books turn out not really to have a book in them — or at least not one that many other people can be made to care about? Something on the order of 80,000 books get published in America every year, most of them not needed, not wanted, not in any way remotely necessary.

I have two questions: Who decides what books "other people can be made to care about"? And if somebody wants to write a book, why does it matter whether it sells? Personally, I think writing a book is a fantastic experience of itself, if kept in perspective. Furthermore, although I've done no research, I imagine that people who write tend to read more. That's a good thing.

I wonder if the reason so many people think they can write a book is that so many third-rate books are published nowadays that, at least viewed from the middle distance, it makes writing a book look fairly easy. After all, how many times has one thought, after finishing a bad novel, "I can do at least as well as that"? And the sad truth is that it may well be that one can. But why add to the schlock pile?

Again: why should one person's "schlock" be published while another person's festers inside them? I'd suggest that the more schlock that gets published, the more folks who wish to make money from it will need to improve their quality — so as to differentiate from the books by authors to whom consumers are related. Even this doesn't capture the whole truth, in my opinion. As one of those unknown authors, I certainly believe that the publishing industry's financial incentive to publish replaceable, churnable garbage leaves some room for the possibility that among those thousands of wannabes are some who will take literature in a new direction. More important, however, is that the best material can only rise to the top in a full, fluid environment. If the only books written are those that are ensured publication by the "industry," those that are made to float versus those that are never given the opportunity will remain arbitrary.

Epstein goes on to justify his conclusion by presuming that most people write books out of a desire for fame, fortune, distinction, or immortality or based on the democratic idea that "everybody is as good as everybody else." Of course, expectations must be realistic, and none of the first four reasons are very good ones for writing... even among professionals. As for the democratic idea, I agree that it is false (although I would make a distinction between "as good as" and "as valuable as," the former implying some specific area of judgment). Perhaps everybody's writing books will help to teach Americans this painful lesson.

But these are not reasons to not write. Rather, they are merely advisable boundaries of motivation and expectation. Epstein closes with this:

Misjudging one's ability to knock out a book can only be a serious and time-consuming mistake. Save the typing, save the trees, save the high tax on your own vanity. Don't write that book, my advice is, don't even think about it. Keep it inside you, where it belongs.

The thing about writing a book is that, once the idea surfaces, the author is "in the process." My advice is to take it as far as you can. Perhaps you won't finish the writing, but at least that won't be a decision made from the position of never having tried. Writing, of itself, can yield a finer appreciation of life. As for the specific book: get it on out of you, such as it is. Judge it. And learn about yourself.

Perhaps, having a book of your own production will give you a finer appreciation of the work that authors such as Mr. Epstein do. Or, perhaps, you'll find — as I often do — that the advice that is inherent in the relationship between a reader and a writer is being offered under false pretensions by the pros.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 10:31 AM EST