Are there Non-Starving Writers?

Are there non-starving writers? Yes, there are. The old cliché of the “starving writer” needs to be dusted off. There are all kinds of writers these days, and only a few of them are starving. Who are these “other types” and what shapes and sizes do they come in? Okay, let me have a go. First, let’s eliminate the well-heeled ones, those who hit the jackpot with one book and caught the eyes of good promoters; they became brands, feeding themselves and their supporters handsomely, and they will make money even if their next book is a telephone directory. Let’s instead look at the rest of the field and try to categorize them (and this is by no means a comprehensive list):

1) Those who published a book to critical acclaim that subsequently earned them a job as a creative writing professor in an institution of tertiary learning, from which they will never depart lest they become the stereotype of the starving writer.
2) Those who had books published, none of which made any significant money, but who then leveraged the title of “published writer” and cobbled together several adjacent jobs to earn a living: i.e. publisher, editor, bookshop owner, ghost writer, commercial writer, advertizing copy writer etc.
3) The celebrity from another field of endeavour (musician, politician, businessperson, athlete) who decides to write her memoir and is suddenly a bestselling author (e.g. Hillary Clinton).
4) The expert consultant who decides to write a “how to book” to increase his profile and sells his book in conjunction with his consulting and speaking gigs.
5) The retired person, who having had a full career in a non-publishing field has decided to turn his or her experiences into fiction or non-fiction. This person is usually armed with a pension earned elsewhere and is writing for the joy of the experience, fettered only by years of political correctness that runs counter to the incisive words of the writer.
6) The wannabe (notice I don’t even call this person a starving writer) who is enamoured by the lives of famous writers, and believes that he (or she) can be the same. These types tend to exit this hobby after some time if they do not hit the jackpot, or they hang onto the prestigious title of “writer” but retire their sparse output. This wannabe probably goes on to be gainfully employed elsewhere, finally making money, enough to forget about that crazy detour he (or she) once took into writing for a brief and idealistic while.

None of the above are starving.

However, one thing is certain: quality of output is ever-more in demand today while quantity of output is inexhaustible, and finding good nuggets is becoming a harder job. Hence publishers have agents, and agents have sub-agents, and sub-agents have student interns, and the gate-keeping chain is lengthening with the risk that good work may get rejected too early in the pipeline by the inexperienced or the unenthusiastic. Amidst this avalanche of content the serious writer needs to dig deep, develop her networks and place her work calculatingly and judiciously. Often, as is the case, the lottery may still not be won, and the writer’s best work may wither on the vine, or shine only briefly because the constantly shifting celebrity lights would have moved onto a newer brand.

But hope is a good notion to cling to and is needed by all of the above categories of writer; it’s the fuel that keeps the writer’s engine chugging in the belief that one day he will “arrive,” in the land of the “well-heeled.” Yes, there may not be a lot of starving authors these days, but there are a lot of optimistic and hopeful ones.

Celebrity Conundrum

When the sad tale of the greatest golfer’s fall from grace, or more aptly, fall from the stereotype, broke recently, I was glad that I was not in his cleats.

Just the other day, I was lamenting the fact that my books weren’t best•sellers, yet (you see, I am ever hopeful, and vain). But with best•seller status comes celebrity and intrusion and conformance to publicly held standards that the public themselves have difficulty attaining. The celebrity becomes the de•facto symbol of all that we (Joe Blow Public) have been unable to accomplish in our lives – our dream, our mirage. And when that bubble pops, the fallen celebrity is attacked with venom that is unjustified. How dare he burst my bubble?

The public spotlight is a lonely one, especially when that spotlight is conferred by corporate sponsorship and brand imagery that the celebrity is supposed to enhance. One wonders if the emerging celebrity’s own brand is neutered to become a subset of the sponsor’s existing brand, and never really stands on its own.

And what about his competition: the ones who can now jump in and fill the void, and who have been waiting impatiently to grab at some of the spoils, albeit under visages of equally clean living gentlemen who have never transgressed?

And what about immediate family members? Do they circle the wagons and protect the fallen one, or do they also pounce and pick at what pieces are left, lining their own pockets and leaving the carcass to the next level of celebrity: the notorious tabloids that will make our former celebrity weekly faire for the next few months, linking him with scandals true and untrue, until they have milked him for every bit of news and turned him into the monster they have portrayed him to be?

So this poor celebrity is shouldering quite a few weights already: the need to keep winning in his chosen field of endeavour, the need to behave in a manner that supports and enhances corporate sponsors, the need to portray an image of success that his public following can never emulate, the need to suppress his own desires and aspirations should they ever digress from all of the above. And while doing all of that, he can never totally rely on family support as he desperately tries to stay out of the hands of the tabloids. By Jove, that’s a heavy load! No wonder the Risk•Reward diagram is like a see•saw and not a circle, as I had once though it to be. What goes around does not necessarily come around in equal measure for celebrities; it comes around accompanied by either a sack full of dough or a millstone.

So, as the New Year is upon us, I am secretly glad that I am not a celebrity – yet (I told you I was vain!) And I wonder, if that day ever comes, whether I would have the energy to withstand a PR faux pas, however innocuous it may be? Or whether I would long for these days when even if I had jumped off the CN Tower, I may not have warranted more than a footnote in the local rag— “Fruitcake Tries to Fly Off Tall Building.”