The Artist’s Career Progression

There is a progression in a successful artist’s career. First, toiling (for several years, sometimes) in the trenches to reach base camp, then beginning the climb up the mountain of fame, then reaching a point on the gradient where a magic elevator suddenly appears and creates an inverse tipping point that starts to hurtle the artist to the pinnacle with no further effort required on his part. Finally, a period of success-building-upon-success, of walking on clouds, until disability or death intervenes to close that chapter. The last period is the posthumous one, when the artist’s work in enshrined and cleverly marketed to keep his spirit and estate alive.

Take our Joe, a budding writer, who writes some pretty decent stuff but who has to compete with every other Tom, Dick and Harry, along with Ann, Meg and Sally who are also writing pretty decent stuff. Joe meets Mike, an influential person in publishing, at a bar, where they both get drunk and wax lyrical over everything from Homer to Hitler, and realize that they have a lot in common. “I’m going to help you… hic,” says Mike, as they stagger homewards. Mike keeps his promise, and Joe gets a publishing contract from a decent publishing house. Unknown to Joe, he has arrived at base camp. Mike exercises some marketing muscle and introduces Joe to a movie director. Film rights, foreign rights and a literary prize follow. Joe is on his way, leaving his cohorts in the dust of self-publishing where he too once worked his heart out; he is now into cleaner air. He churns out a book per year, easy to do now that he does not have to worry about earning a living elsewhere. His publisher, and his agent (yes, he needs an agent now, and an agent sees value in Joe at this point) realize that to keep Joe’s books moving, he has to be in the news; therefore, more literary prizes, more film deals, foreign translations, and a couple of celebrity romances (and failures) should be part of the continuing life of Joe. When anyone is thinking of holding a literary conference or organizing a literary awards gala, they must invite Joe. Our Joe is on that magic elevator ascending the mountain. Now he does not have to think of ideas for his next book – his publicist (yes, he has one of those now too) and his script development team (fancy!) provide him with what he needs to write. His publisher will even fly him to the locale of his next book so that he can immerse himself in the scenes he is going to write about. Joe is now at the “walking on clouds” stage. Sounds familiar? I think you get it, so we can skip describing the “posthumous stage.” And this story is not quite fiction, for a chosen few in every generation have done it.

But that is not the main point of this article. The main point is that the pinnacle is the most important stage, and it must be defended at all costs and made to last as long as possible. When Joe has reached the top of the mountain, and when anyone thinks of literature, they must think only of Joe. His social calendar must be overflowing and he must decline a number of invitations so that his “decline factor” will create even more mystique and increase Joe’s appearance fee at future events. Meanwhile, Tom, Dick and Harry, and Ann Meg and Sally will be still waiting hungrily for their call to climb the mountain, churning out angst-ridden tomes, that if only someone had the time to read, would probably be far more authentic than Joe’s scripted deliveries. At this point, Joe’s management team will further determine that in order to extend the life of their “product” they need to create barriers to entry; therefore subtle attempts will be made to keep Tom & Team, and Ann and Associates or anyone creating “Joe’s look-alike literature,” or “better than Joe’s literature” out of the running until targeted returns on investment in Joe are met. Upstart attempts to dislodge Joe off his pedestal will be…ah…resisted. Creative destruction is healthy for society, but not for those who have their investment in the incumbent cash-cow.

That “the cream rises to the top” is true in this business as in any other. And once there, it stays at the top until death or disability renders the cream no longer edible, and investors have to either go into the posthumous stage of the artist or go looking for new talent development.

And then, the next Joe (or probably even Tom, Dick or Harry, or Ann, Meg or Sally, if they are not too old and beaten by then) will be waiting in a bar, scanning the crowds for Magnanimous Mike to start their climb up the mountain…

Our contributions to literature – a feed into the collective consciousness?

When I think about all the hours that I have put into writing, all the novels and stories published, and an equal amount unpublished and probably never to see the light of day, I wonder whether it has made one dint of difference to the oceans of literature that surround us and keep increasing exponentially every day.

Let’s face it, we all circle around universal plots, which Wikipedia describes in the following article: The Seven Basic Plots
And we keep re-hashing the same plot, albeit from our experience, in our voice, hoping that it has enough novelty to stick out from the rest. We believe that we are extending the outer regions of the universal plot we have chosen. We add newer technology into the mix, exotic settings, complex characters, and when reality is too dull or frightening, we go off into fantasy where we can order the world according to our morality and pain threshold. Or we flip around and invent diabolical acts that we would never desire in our own lives – the more diabolic the better. And all the while we are plagued by nagging thoughts: “Has this been done before? What is the limit of tolerance before a reader tunes off? Or are there no limits? Are we limited only by our imagination? ”

I have come across books and stories that have eerie resemblances to my own work, that were published around the same time as mine. I had not read or copied from these works and I am sure their authors are in the same boat; it was as if there was a collective consciousness operating at the time that we were all plugged into from different vantage points to create these works, each in their own voice, but each moving towards a common centre. Or were we caught up in a trend of copycatting the first book that came out and stretched our imagination in a certain direction? I can think of the detective novel that hasn’t stopped being “adapted” since Edgar Allan Poe started writing his “disturbing” stories; I think of the vampire genre that hit a renaissance with the release of the Stephanie Meyer books; and the Jane Austen revival, thanks to film and TV adaptations of her novels. But these newer iterations, copycat or not, have stretched our concept and expectation of those plot types. I’ve seen the detective novel change with the advent of fingerprinting, and later with cell phones, then DNA mapping, and now that ubiquitous snoop that takes the fun away from sleuthing: the CCTV camera. I would be bereft if a modern detective novel did not have all these newer props; I would say that it was not “realistic.”

And yet, despite all this evolution, it is only a handful of authors who are universally read in their respective genres today—even if they do not do much to extend their branch of literature— thanks to effective marketing engines powered by astute investors, while the rest are relegated to an amorphous bubbling sludge from which some periodically pop and gasp “read me, read me,” before slumping back into the collective consciousness (we hope) that houses the evolving Seven Basic Plots.

So what is the way forward? Delude ourselves that we are furthering the cause of literature and continue to churn out tame derivatives of the Seven (should we rename them The Seven Deadly Sins?) or troll around for a clever marketer who could find an angle to “position” us above the sludge, or hold our pens and cast out for that truly genre-bending idea that will start another movement like Poe, Austen and Meyer? That, my dear scribes, is the 64,000-word question!

In the company of great minds

I love to sit in my libraries (one at home, and one in my office) during my spare hours, and when not reading or working, I try to visualize the tears, fears, joys and adventures that led to the writing of the tales within the pages of those many books on the shelves. Sometimes, when stuck on a plot point in my own stories, I thumb through these books for a prompt that will get me going again. And I stop to silently thank the writer concerned for the nudge to my stalled creativity.

I glance through the spines of murder mysteries, histories, Canadian literature, American literature, Asian, European and Jewish literature, children’s stories, “how•to” books on writing, and on business consulting, books on wine making, golfing, encyclopaedias that I never refer to now thanks to Wikipedia, dictionaries that I rarely refer to because of dictionary.com., books on nutrition, or on how to make money and retire early (I never read this latter category now because the formulas did not work for me), fantasy novels, magazine and finally even copies of the novels I have written, and the magazines and anthologies my short stories have been published in, and I feel in good company.

I try to visualize the angst these writers suffered to experience, create and bring to fruition their works, works that have outlived the lives of some of their creators and continue to give us pleasure and wisdom today. Many of the dead writers would have passed on with no clue as to the merit their hard work would garner beyond their life spans.

And I feel a sense of loss, because all these books will soon be condensed into a small electronic tablet that I will cart around with me henceforth and read whenever I need an injection of intellectual stimulation in the printed form. I will have to imagine all these great minds and their wisdom squeezed into a mini computer chip. I wonder what I will do when I have to add new books to my present libraries; will there even be tangible books in the future? Or will my present collection remain stagnant, with every addition arriving in electronic form?

I do know that my new e•reader will be many times more efficient, reducing space in my luggage, giving me instant access to books that pique my fancy, letting me sample chapters before I decide to buy, giving me dictionary and encyclopaedia access to words or passages I come across, even read back to me when I am too tired to exert my eyes. But will it give me companionship with the masters, where by sitting quietly in my library and touching those old tomes, I would connect with the spirits of the great writers who contributed so much to the literary canon, and who inspired me to follow my life path? I wonder?