~ By Marilyn Brant
Note: This post originally appeared here.
At the end of last year, I’d spent a lot of time pondering Criticism and Writers. This week, having reread those reflections, I realized I didn’t have much to add to them after another year amidst the thrill, the chaos and the frequent insanity of being a part of the publishing industry. What was true for me 12 months ago is still true for me now. Although I have to admit, my determination to pull away from the gossiping maelstrom wasn’t without consequences…
Two friendships I’d valued came to an end in 2010, both due in part to our having different approaches to dealing with life stressors and criticism. Letting go is rarely easy and that was certainly true in these cases. However, there are times when the path on which we’re traveling splits and we have to make a choice if we hope to move forward and live a healthier life. This year was, for me, a reevaluation year, and while there were a couple of losses, there were quite a few more gains. I met some awe-inspiring people and had the pleasure of getting to know better or reconnect with some wonderful friends — online and off. This year made me even more appreciative of the insightful, compassionate, secure and genuine travel companions who are sharing the journey with me…and I thank you all for that.
Now, as 2011 approaches, my thoughts have turned to a different but marginally related theme:Competition. I had an interesting, somewhat unexpected experience with it in recent months. I was taking part in a multi-author booksigning event and a reader came up to all of us to ask about our novels. Since the reader questioned me specifically about one of my books, I was in the midst of explaining the story’s premise to her when the writer to my left jumped in and launched into a description of her own novel. It was a noticable interruption, but I liked the writer and attributed her behavior to a combination of over-eagerness and the simple desire to make a sale.
The reader, however, raised her eyebrows, took a step back and laughed uneasily. “What? Are you guys in competition or something?” she asked. I started to shake my head, but the writer jumped in again and immediately said, “Yes!” Before I could respond, another writer near us said emphatically, “Oh, no! Reading one of our books makes readers want to find others that are similar. It’s not a competition.” I nodded mutely in gratitude, but found I couldn’t put into words all that I was feeling at the time. The issue is complex. It has logical and emotional components, real-world battles pitted against internal, intensely personal ones — and rarely are all of these addressed. As a result, I haven’t been able to get the incident out of my head.
Looking back, I probably should have been offended by the first writer trying to horn in on a potential sale, but I wasn’t. I just thought it was ineffective, if it was a strategy (in the end, the reader chose to buy my book anyway), and merely strange, if it wasn’t. I’m aware it’s a mindset some people can get trapped by — that whole zero-sum game where all the world is classified into winners and losers. In the realm of the arts, it tends to perplex me more often than not because, IMO, it may be an unavoidable business reality on one level, but it’s a fallacy on a dozen others. Yes, there are Amazon rankings and, if someone else’s book earns the #1 spot, that means mine will inevitably be lower. If someone else sells the most copies that means mine will sell fewer. If someone else’s novel wins the fill-in-the-blank award that means mine won’t.
Okay. That’s true — literally. But that’s not the only game that happens to be in progress. And in the game that’s most often in the forefront of my mind, the win-lose construction is almost…laughable.
Because I already won. I won years ago.
And so did many of you.
I won when I decided to pursue a passion rather than do something I hated. I won when I chose to write stories as honestly as I could whether or not anyone else on the entire planet liked them, understood them or cared about them. I won when the side of me that is grounded in self-belief chose to stand up to the side of me that isn’t…or, rather, I’ve triumphed in a handful of battles against Lack of Confidence but the war is far from over. This much I can tell you about it, though: The end result won’t be determined by a royalty statement. Or by the number of GoodReads raves or bashes. Those are irrelevant in the heat of such combat. Tell me, how many “wildly successful” (in the eyes of the society) actors, musicians, writers, athletes, etc., do you know who’ve crashed and burned when forced to face themselves? That have lost their fortunes, their families, their sobriety or their sanity? Yeah. A lot. So, a focus on comparing sales figures as a measure of success — while not a wholly worthless endeavor — is limited in scope when placed alongside all of the truly significant conflicts fought within.
I physically cringe when I see someone setting him- or herself up as some kind of opponent against me. I want to tell them to chill out (“Here, have a cookie!”) and to please use their energy more productively. Out of fairness, they should know there’s no external competitor in the universe more powerful than somebody’s internal demons. The notion of a mere human rival being strong enough to turn my attention away from Fear…well, that’s absurd. I wishthe real battles were so simplistic.
Alternately, how can anybody put a price tag on having done what one set out to do? On reaching one’s intended audience — no matter the size? What author could possibly “lose” by overhearing a reader tell another author that his/her novel touched them? That a character the other author created was one the reader closely identified with? That the author expressed something for that particular reader that this person couldn’t express for him- or herself? How do you quantifymeaning and slap a win-or-lose label onto it?
No one will convince me that what’s meaningful to 5 people is worth less than what’s meaningful to 50. I don’t believe that the thoughts and emotions of those 5 can be dismissed just becausemore people happen to agree on something else. I think of all the times I saw a film or read a book and LOVED it and, yet, my positive opinion was in the extreme minority. Is the fact that it changed my life of less significance than the fact that another film or book changed someone else’s? I know more than one book and more than one film have influenced me, but I fail to see where the competition is between them. They were each a gift to my mind and my soul. Each brought me something I needed. Each shared with me a message of value — even if it only illuminated a tiny corner of some concept. There is no ranking that can be stamped on illumination. Am I the only person that finds such attempts futile?!
Sigh. (Yeah, I’ll get off my soapbox now… 😉
Of course, on the materialistic, tangible plane of existence, competition abounds and it’s often hard to ignore. Writers can’t afford to go on writing if our books don’t sell enough copies. Publishers won’t take a chance on a debut author without a P&L statement that’s in the writer’s favor, and they won’t pick up our option books if the financial pros don’t outweigh the cons. But just because I can’t completely close my eyes to the reality of competition in the literary world, it doesn’t mean I have wrap my heart around it. I know what I’ll remember in old age about being a writer in 2010 will have far less to do with my novels’ placement on one list or another than the thrill of knowing I fought off Fear or Lack of Confidence long enough to write something a few people told me they loved…
Wishing you all a 2011 filled with important battles won, meaningful memories created and peace throughout the process. And joy. May the New Year bring you much of that, too!
Marilyn Brant is a New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of contemporary women’s fiction, romantic comedy & mystery. She was named the Author of the Year (2013) by the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. She loves all things Jane Austen, has a passion for Sherlock Holmes, is a travel addict and a music junkie, and lives on chocolate and gelato.