As someone with a keen interest in fairy tales and their psychological richness, I cannot help but be aware of their continued applicability, even in today’s publishing world. We make sense of the world through stories, so I thought it may be of use to run through some common narratives to glean some helpful insights into the ups and downs of a writer’s life.
From rags to riches – the Cinderella writer
One name immediately comes to mind: J.K. Rowling. But Stephen King and Charles Dickens (and a whole host of others) are also ‘rags to riches’ writers, having struggled with a lack of money when growing up and making their way in the world. The traditional media certainly relish the narrative, maybe because it’s so black and white, but also, because it sells papers. After all, it’s a story that many of us want to hear; we can easily put ourselves in the role of the protagonist. And who wouldn’t want to be a Cinderella writer, having magical, bestselling status conferred upon us with a wave of a wand, turning us into literary royalty overnight? Ah, yes, a potent dream that one! However, as important as it is to dream, and dream big, we mustn’t let the dream become the be-all-and-end-all. Publishers’ whims and the public’s tastes (along with the zeitgeist which does make an impact on a book’s success) are not within our control. And Cinderella writers are incredibly rare. What we can, though, usefully take away from this narrative is that continued hard graft, coupled with a burning desire to better one’s writing, no matter how difficult one’s financial and personal circumstances, is key to the narrative.
Fancy new invisible clothes – the naked Emperor writer
This is perhaps a narrative that many of us distance ourselves from – associating it as we do with an excess of vanity and more than a hint of stupidity on the part of the Emperor who is so keen to show himself off as intelligent and wise that he ends up parading clothes-less in front of his subjects until a little boy points out that he’s butt naked. However, that said, it can be argued that writing (and, in particular, the publication of one’s work) is an act of vanity. Yet, as Julian Baggini concludes in his thoughtful article:
“By recognising our vanity, we can try to keep it as much at bay as possible and so keep pride in check. If we cannot see the vanity in what we’re doing or deny there is any, we are more likely to fall under its spell. The ultimate vanity is to believe you have none.”
We might bristle at the idea of ‘publishing as act of vanity’ but if we acknowledge that a supposedly vain act can also simultaneously be a generous act (and that they’re not mutually exclusive) then we may find the publishing landscape easier to navigate. In the workshops I run I frequently mention this dichotomy – the writer as supremely important and yet, also, supremely inconsequential. After all, the whole, huge, publishing industry only exists because of the creative output of writers and illustrators, and yet there are hundreds of thousands of writers out there, each wanting to make themselves heard. Understanding one’s place in the industry can be a humbling and helpful exercise. The key thing is to not allow vanity – or pride – to become excessive.
I’m sure that many of us can name a high-profile author (or two) who doesn’t keep their pride in check; indeed, the literary establishment may worsen the situation by feeding their ego through increased exposure or by proclaiming their novels to be terribly important or envelope-pushing or daringly experimental or ground-breaking. For many of us who read books for the sheer pleasure of good storytelling these “terribly important” books may be more invisible spin than substance.
Yet, no matter how experienced you are as a writer, or what level of success you’ve achieved, this narrative does offer the evergreen reminder to keep your ego in check and to keep acting in a respectful and professional manner with everyone you engage with, no matter whether you’re published by one of the Big Five and have books in the front shelves of Waterstones, or are a fledgling poet with one publication credit to your name. Interestingly, some of the most accomplished writers I know also happen to be incredibly generous and unassuming in nature.
Destined to remain in rags – the Little Match Girl writer
Ah, now this is a particularly pernicious narrative; its emphasis on the dreadfulness of the protagonist’s situation, the cruelty of her father and the society she’s been born into. There is no ‘happy ever after’ for the little girl who sells matches to scrape a living; she is destined to freeze to death after burning away all her matches in an attempt to keep warm, while eking out a little joy from watching the flames as she sees images of a better future within their light.
Articles abound on the harshness of the traditional publishing industry, the injustice of the gatekeepers and the snobbery and cliqueyness of agents, editors, publishers and those in the position to dispense grants, awards and fellowships etc. etc. Reading these articles it can be hard to see the industry as anything but a vast, looming, imperious and archaic behemoth – uncaring and unfeeling to the individual writer who is only trying their very best to scrape a living from their poetry or prose.
Of course, rejection never feels good. And continued rejections from those in the publishing world who have the power to make a real, tangible difference to one’s financial or professional or personal situation can be a real downer. It can make a writer feel victimized. But here’s the thing, it’s not actual victimization. And it’s not fair to the writers who truly are (or have been) ill-treated to make out that it is. In general, rejections are not about the person. They’re about the writing – its quality, its commerciality, its fit for the publishing house/magazine/campaign/funding body etc. – AND the statistics. When there are only a handful of publishing slots or grants or bursaries to be awarded but a few thousand writers applying for them, then no one person’s chances are good.
Within the context of the publishing world, true victims are the writers who are swindled out of thousands of pounds by vanity publishers, or the writers whose books are pulped because their publisher has failed to stay solvent, or the poets who, without warning, find themselves suddenly devoid of a publisher, or learn via social media that their publisher is going to shut up shop.
But whether perceived victim or actual victim, there is one thing you can do: not allow the rejections and/or unprofessional treatment define you. Keep hold of your precious matches – that is, the things you are in control of – your craft, your professionalism and your following, and don’t waste them going after unrealistic dreams. Make them count. Make your hard work count. Plan your way to success and focus all your energy, time and effort on achieving whatever it is you want to achieve writing-wise.
And who knows, overnight (albeit a night that may last a few years!) you may just lose the rags, come full circle, and be transformed into literary royalty.
With thanks to Lawrence Schimel, author of the excellent Fairy Tales for Writers, whose poetry on this very subject continues to delight and inspire me.