Perception is everything.
There is a place I want to be as a writer. It’s not a dollar amount (give me millions and I’ll probably still work at the Sheriff’s Office because I dig the job), it’s not number of books sold (sell hundreds of thousands and maybe those numbers become cement shoes, weighing you down with an audience’s expectation), it’s not the number of times I’m asked to be a guest of honor at a mystery convention (though the free beer bought by younger writers wanting to crack open the secret code of success might be fun).
It is the ability to write what I want to write, almost regardless of content.
There is no purity there, just as there is no purity in the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech….” But of course you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater (or movie in a crowded fire house quoth Steve Martin).
But I want to get to a place where it matters less, where I can, for the most part, do what I want to do, write the kinds of stories I like. Those tend to be violent and fast, ruled by characterization more than plot; James Crumley, Jim Thompson, Victor Gischler, some of Dan Marlowe.
I met a writer recently, a man I’ve admired for some time, whose books have kept me great company over the last couple of years. He and I got into a conversation about success. We didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was.
To me, he is quite successful. He’s finishing up a three book deal with a major publishing house, his first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, he signs lots of books for lots of people at lots of bookstores and mystery conventions.
And yet, his sales have not been particularly great. First of all, that shocked me because I thought they were good. Not brilliant, but not bad. I figured quite a few people liked his books.
Not quite the case. He said there had been good critical review, just not much in the way of sales.
And yet I thought of him as knocking on the door of wildly successful. Big publisher, bringing out book after book, hard and soft; hey, that and a shot of tequila, a Corona back, and a plate of nachos and that’s a damned good day.
But the evidence said otherwise. I don’t find his books in that many chain bookstores and more than a few independents are without him on their shelves, too.
So why did I think he was burning the world down?
Because he’s higher on the publishing food chain than I am and from where I stand, that looks — at least superficially — more successful. But might it be, that since his books tend to be more violent and gritty, more edgy, than mainstream mysteries, that his success has to be defined differently? Does his content mean that he has to measure everything with a smaller yardstick…call it a half-yard stick?
It could be that his style of writing, which I so admire, will never have mainstream acceptance. Look at Jim Thompson. Even with the revival of recent years, lots of mystery fans have no clue who he is.
This writer defined his version of success for me in our conversations. I think it’s a new definition for him, too. He said if his publisher dropped him, it would be sad but not earth shattering. He’d gotten much further than he ever thought he would when he was writing the first book and he was pretty sure there would be smaller presses out there who’d keep his material on the market.
And he was cool with that.
Perception isn’t quite everything, but it’s close. My perception of him was as a fairly successful writer moving his way up. Now, it’s of a writer more attuned to the song in his head than the chant of mainstream readers.
He is in the place I want to be: writing what he wants to write, almost regardless of content.
Three cheers for him.