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Writers, Count Your Blessings February 28, 2021

I recently watched a video sensationally titled, "Singers born BROKE vs Singers born RICH" by one of the popular stars of YouTube, Joel Gustaf Berghult. It seems the world of YouTube today is like the small television studios of yore, with whole production teams who dedicate themselves to pushing out new eyeball-catching content daily. In this video, Joel's editor plays songs by singers born to wealthy families and singers born to poor families, and Joel marks which songs were "better."

As the video progresses, Joel seems increasingly chagrined that so many famous singers today were born into wealth. In fact, there are so few pop singers born into poverty, the editor had to stretch back in time and match up Ed Sheeran against Johnny Cash and Lana Del Rey against Dolly Parton. Joel ruminates that so many of today's idols are probably in the "born rich" category because their parents' wealth allowed them to focus solely on music.

As explored in depressing nonfiction books like Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, social and economic mobility in the U.S. is largely illusory. In the late 20th century, some people (the white and male ones) could pull themselves out of poverty with shrewd choices and hard work. These days, a person's net worth at thirty was pretty much set at birth.

Writers are similar to singers. We're overwhelmingly privileged, from families middle-class or higher, and we owe a lot of our "talent" and success to our lucky births.

And here is where, I'm sure, some readers will reflexively kick back against the word "privileged." They'll think, "You don't know anything about my life! I skipped meals in college to afford my books. I endured apartments full of cockroaches and inconsiderate roommates for years while publishers sent me rejection after rejection, but I didn't give up. So don't you dare tell me I'm 'privileged,' because I work hard."

And I'm sure those people do work hard, because everyone does. Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey work hard for their musical success, too. Every single person has to work hard to succeed in a career, regardless of background. When we say people are privileged, we don't mean those people didn't have to make any sacrifices and merely used their daddy's connections to sell terrible art for unearned fame. We mean that for those people, their path to success was unimpeded by systemic obstacles.

Writers frequently say in their bios that they wrote their first little book at the age of six. That they have fond memories of staying up to read chapter books under the covers with a flashlight. That they had an amazing English teacher who told them their essay was "the best paper she'd ever read" and encouraged them to pursue a career as a journalist/novelist/poet.

If you wrote your first book at six, it's a fair bet your parents spent a lot of time reading with you as a toddler, and then they sent you to a reputable preschool that taught you how to write. They bought or borrowed those chapter books for you to read by flashlight. They advocated for you to be put in classes with the best teachers. If you were the top writer in your class at fourteen, yes, it's in part because you were quicker to learn and more studious than your peers, but it's also likely because you were given a strong head start.

Imagine both of your parents worked two or three jobs each to pay the bills, and they didn't have the leisure to pick up books from the library or the energy to read to you. While your comfortable classmates devoured Nancy Drew mysteries until midnight, you had to make dinner for your kid siblings and figure out your homework without any help, then get up early to walk to the bus. You couldn't concentrate in school because you were always hungry and tired. That same great English teacher you heard telling another student they'd be a novelist someday shook her head at you and said, "You'll never amount to anything if you don't stop goofing around."

And this is the sanitized version of poverty. Add in an unstable parent with drug and mental health issues, a racist school system that labeled you a "problem child" because you lashed out once in Kindergarten, or undiagnosed learning disabilities educators chalked up to a low IQ and laziness, and the barriers to your academic and future success are so high they're nearly insurmountable.

When exceptional people do manage to overcome unfair obstacles, they're held up as examples that there's nothing wrong with the system. "See," comments on that YouTube video say, "this proves when it comes to music, money doesn't matter. The poor singers were just as good and went just as far as the rich ones."

So dedicated are we to the myth that commercial success in the arts is earned solely through talent and hard work that we go out of our way to stack the barriers higher. We say if a writer is serious about breaking into the industry, they'll pay $1,000 for registration, travel, and lodging to attend a conference and speak with an editor for five minutes. I've seen literary agents assert in Writer's Digest profiles that they strongly prefer to work with authors who have MFAs, because that shows they have a dedication to the craft. "Dedication," of course, means a person is willing to go $30K-50K in debt for a degree, and then deprive their family of $500 a month for the next ten years to pay it off.

The vast majority of writers probably have privileged lives, because we wouldn't have been able to become writers otherwise. Yet despite our enviable advantages, and the fact we're fortunate enough to have the tools and time to pursue our dreams, somehow we became the whiniest, most self-pitying group of professionals I've seen on the internet.

Writers' blogs post long-winded essays about how the life of a creative professional is so much more important and meaningful than the lives of those smug corporate drones who sell their souls for health insurance and 401(k)s. (Certainly you chose the creative life because you're courageous and wise, not because you have a spouse who endures dronehood for you.)

Or how non-writers could never understand what it's like to be so unique and quirky, you'll meet a friend for coffee but don't hear a word they say because you can't stop thinking about your book. (Certainly that means you're gifted, not rude and self-absorbed.)

Or how writing novels is a "Sisyphean effort" because we work so hard for so long, and then we have to start again from nothing and suffer the torturous process of writing yet another story, over and over and over. (Certainly that's a curse unique to writing. No other professional has to keep working day after day, finishing one project only to tragically start the next one.)

The authors of these essays are usually men, but not because female writers don't think the same way. Women just aren't rewarded for complaining about how important we are in long-winded essays. Instead, women complain about our importance through self-deprecating jokes, saccharine pep talks, and brave emotional confessions. A pastiche of tweets:

"If you're wondering how my writing is going today, the laundry is done and the kitchen is spotless!"

"I don't know who needs to hear this, but you can write that book. Even if you feel like it's trash and it will never be done and no one will care, please keep writing! Somewhere out there are people who desperately need your story! Your book could literally save a life!"

"I try to be upbeat and positive on this site, but sometimes I just wanna be honest and say writing is so hard, every day you feel like crying and giving up cuz it's not working, and no it doesn't ever get any easier."

Yes, writing a book is a difficult and draining task. Yes, the publishing industry is unfair. Yes, literature plays an undervalued function in society.

But if you think writing and publishing is so hard you wanna cry and give up every day, watch a few episodes of "How It's Made" on the Science channel. It's a show that sounds like it would be about the fascinating inventions used to make random things like badminton shuttlecocks, but it's really a show about emaciated people on the other side of the world tying duck feathers into bunches at breakneck speeds to earn two dollars a day, while a narrator smooths over the horrific conditions like, "A skilled technician sorts the feathers by length to prepare for the next stage of the process."

I know I sound like a Boomer mom wagging her finger and saying, "There are people suffering in sweatshops in Indonesia who would love to have your problems." But seriously, there are people suffering in sweatshops in Indonesia who would love to have our problems. In fact, there are people suffering in sweatshops right here in America (see "Meatpacking: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver"). Yet writers really think they're being deep and insightful by bemoaning the Sisyphean effort of typing 90,000 words of fiction while sipping tea in their pajamas.

It's normal to get discouraged and to feel like throwing yourself a pity party sometimes, but let's keep some perspective. Having the free time and solitude to write is a luxury. If you truly don't enjoy doing it, you can stop.

Thoughts on the Women's Fiction Label February 8, 2021

After the inauguration went through without a single murder, and desperate newspaper editors had to resort to headlines about Rolex watches to fill the controversy vacuum, my writing mojo came back like magic. I've now written more than half of the "new" Kagemusha, now tentatively titled Our Little White Lie.

Of course I did what every writer does when they're halfway finished with a work: consider it basically done already and immediately start filling out a spreadsheet of literary agencies and small presses to query. No matter how many times I declare I'm giving up on publishing because money poisons everything, I've never written "for myself." I write for readers who will find joy in my stories. After self-publishing for several years, I know it's not likely I'll reach those readers all on my own.

The first thing one must do when searching for literary agents and small press editors is filter by genre. So the first conclusion one reaches about publishing is that its genres make no sense.

"I'm a huge fan of RomComs like CRAZY RICH ASIANS and TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE. However, I don't represent romance."

"I focus on book club fiction with rich character-driven plots and fantastic writing. No literary novels, please."

"I'm actively seeking LGBTQ+ and BIPOC voices, but I'm not looking for anything political."

Obviously words like "romance," "literary," and "political" have much narrower definitions in publishing than they do in colloquial conversation. This is manageable. Okay, RomComs aren't romances. Cool. Got it. Makes total sense to me. (No, it doesn't.)

But then you get to the most ill-defined and nonsensical genre of all: Women's Fiction.

Google will tell you women's fiction is "a less infantilizing term for chick lit." Or it's "a story that centers on a woman's journey." Or, most helpfully from Wikipedia:

Women's fiction is an umbrella term for women centered books that focus on women's life experience that are marketed to female readers.

So...every book in existence with a female protagonist is Women's Fiction? Yes? But no, according to people on Twitter and Goodreads who "thought this book would be a fun romance, but it turned out to be Women's Fiction." And the agents who say they love upmarket novels with complex female characters like LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, or twisty thrillers that explore female rage like SHARP OBJECTS, but they don't represent Women's Fiction.

In my unscientific study of the term Women's Fiction in popular discourse, readers tend to decide certain books are "for women" because they...

  • Were written by a female author.
  • Have bright cover art depicting a woman in a dress and/or domestic items like flowers, scones, and shoes.
  • Are about boring stuff like interpersonal relationships, instead of cool stuff like sex and violent crimes.
  • Have the Oprah's Book Club logo on top.

The slightly more scientific 2013 article "Adult Reading Habits and Preferences in Relation to Gender Differences" from Reference & User Services Quarterly, a publication of the ALA, describes a study of 29 men and 29 women. While most female participants showed no preference in the gender of an author or fictional protagonist...

  • "Of the 60 authors chosen as favorites by male participants, 57 were male and 3 were female."
  • "Of the 29 male participants, 24 indicated that they preferred books with male protagonists, while 5 indicated that they had no preference."
  • "In the men's favorite books, male protagonists were featured in 64 books and female protagonists were featured in 8 books."

The article ends with this line:

While gender equality in life is crucial, when it comes to the realm of reading, particularly for leisure purposes, it might not be such a bad idea to embrace readers' preferences...and give the men and women what they want.

Though this study was published eight years ago, and the sample size was small, the continued existence of the Women's Fiction genre shows people in the book world still think that way. Men don't want novels by or about women, so women, go sit over there in your own genre and don't bother them. If your protagonist is a middle-aged woman dealing with family issues, please sit next to Liane Moriarty. If she's a single twenty-something dealing with workplace and dating issues, find Sophie Kinsella. She's the one waving the colorful shopping bags full of high heels. Perfect. Thank you, Sophie.

Many years ago when I first learned of the Women's Fiction genre, and I saw the authors in it complaining men weren't interested in their books, my reaction was, "Well, you can't be surprised men aren't interested if you literally label your book Women's Fiction, now can you?" But if you don't even need the label—if all it takes for a man to decide your book isn't relevant to him is a female main character—that does surprise and disappoint me. What the heck, fellas? I thought those dudes complaining they don't want SJW heroines in their video games were immature outliers.

A slight preference for reading about your own gender makes sense. Everyone wants to identify with the characters in the books they're reading, the movies they're watching, and the games they're playing. I can better relate to the books about young women navigating early-career workplace issues than I can to macho hard-boiled detectives with unusually intelligent cats. But I'll still happily read about the detectives if the story is intriguing. I won't pick up a book, notice the cat-loving detective in it has a male name, and say, "Never mind, this book is for men" with a sneer. That would be biased and unfair, wouldn't it? Hm?

However, the results of that study wouldn't be so stark if men's preference for male-centered books were simply an issue of individual bias. It's sytemic. Those numbers are a reflection of what the entertainment industry taught us all for decades: that books, movies, and video games about white men are the universal default everyone can enjoy, while stories that focus on women or minority groups are niche products. The marketing of books for women taught us they're all paperbacks about shirtless Scottish dukes, shoe shopping, domestic drama, and the hollow "life-affirming" brand of feminism that encourages women to Be Empowered without challenging the status quo. ("Look, the heroine was unattractive and mousy, but then she got a makeover, and now she has the strength to speak up for herself AND hook a rich man!")

Let's be honest about what people are thinking when they call a book Women's Fiction: it's bland fluff of inferior quality. They're titles that appear on listicles of Best Summer Books for the Beach and described with phrases like "quick read," "guilty pleasure," and "typical chick lit." Women's Fiction is the vanilla cupcake of literature—sugary and comforting, with no strong flavors or real substance. And marketing departments from the 1990s to the present cultivated this image on purpose, because they believed that's what sells books to the womenfolk, whose pretty little heads can't handle big words.

As Liz Kay put it in her 2016 Literary Hub article, "What Do We Mean When We Say Women's Fiction":

There's something about the way these books are marketed that tells us the pages inside are meant to be easily consumed, that they might be smartly written, but the reader herself will not be required to think. There's something vaguely misogynistic...no, scratch that, there's something overtly misogynistic about a whole category of books whose central promise is to not shake up the world as the reader already sees it.

Because this is the Internet in 2021, I'll spell out that there's nothing wrong with liking books about shirtless Scottish dukes. Sometimes—and by that I mean most of the time—I'm exhausted and crave cotton-candy wish fulfillment too. And the traditional concerns of women are no less important than what we call the concerns of men. Books about domestic drama aren't any more "frivolous" than books about lawyers ensnared in cat-and-mouse games with serial killers.

But are sexy dukes, fashion, and PTA power struggles really the primary concerns of women? I've never met a woman in the twenty-first century whose biggest problems were the age of her wardrobe and her mortifying lack of a husband. We read about dukes only to escape our real-life concerns about the rent or mortgage, career goals and setbacks, the toxic state of the U.S. government, problems in our relationships with parents or partners or kids, racism, taxes, the costs of higher education and healthcare, the sorry state of our lawns and what the neighbors must think, etc. Basically, the exact same concerns the menfolk with big brains complain about on Reddit.

I think the author of the 2013 study, and the publishing industry in general, have it backwards. They say, "Men like these things, and women like those things, so we need to give the consumers what they want." Instead, commercial entertainment shaped what men and women believe they like, then shrugged and said, "What can you do? That's what sells."

If I had a magic wand, I'd wave it and erase the existence of Women's Fiction as a genre label. A "book about a woman's journey" is so broad, it's useless as a category. Imagine it's 2022, the pandemic is over, and you go into a department store. You say to an employee, "Excuse me, I'm looking for running pants?" And the employee gestures broadly to the entire first floor and says, "There's the Women's Department." Then you find out the store carries only two brands: a line of the latest trends for young white career women called Sophie, and a line of matronly blouses and jeans for middle-aged white suburbanites called Liane. As far as that store is concerned, other types of women with different tastes don't exist.

Unlike clothing made specifically for female-shaped bodies, there's no such thing as a story written specifically for female-shaped brains. Marketing books by women and about women to women only, with the faceless models and country cottages and sparkles, is an active choice, not a necessity. We could choose to do things differently, if we wanted.

Finding Joy in Imperfection and Obscurity December 31, 2020

For Christmas this year, my husband gave me two Audio-Technica microphones with boom stands and a MOTU M2 interface for recording music. He spent a lot of time researching the equipment and a lot of money buying it, so I could record my flute and piano arrangements without sounding like I borrowed an omnidirectional conference call microphone from work and faked the "stereo" sound by messing with left and right balances.

Photo of piano recording setup with boom mics

I should have been ecstatic. I should have been playing with the equipment all day and gleefully reveling in the quality of the sound.

Instead, my reaction to this very nice and expensive gift was anxiety. I was afraid to touch it. I didn't want to hear what my piano or flute playing sounded like on a studio-quality track.

Why? For the same reason I rarely use the Wacom drawing tablet I begged my husband for two years ago, used the nice set of Prismacolor pencils he gave me for a previous Christmas only once, and never opened the calligraphy brushes I ordered specifically for myself. And the same reason I seize up in terror just thinking about writing fiction these days, and this entire calendar year I wrote exactly one chapter of my novel in progress.

Because the things I create will never be "good enough."

Throughout my childhood, my parents paid music teachers thousands of dollars to point out everything I did wrong. I practiced both flute and piano for hours every day to get better, but always a teacher or judge noticed something I was still doing wrong. I should have taken a breath here, not there. I stumbled on that arpeggio and cracked on that third-octave E. I need to spend more time on the exercises, pay more attention to the tuner and the metronome, try harder and have more discipline.

Most of these teachers were just doing their jobs to turn me into a decent musician. But some thought tearing children down was clever and fun. One man who fancied himself heaven's musical gift to Southern California impatiently waited for me to finish playing a flute piece so he could crow with satisfaction, "Mozart would hate the way you played that!" One unhappy woman who judged the city's youth piano competition every year wrote her evaluations in the cruelest language she could muster. A child didn't simply play a piece more slowly than she thought it should be played—they played it sooo slowly it was legally torture, and she couldn't wait for the pain to end.

Once when I didn't win first place in a regional flute competition, my teacher said, "It's good for you to lose sometimes." I was very confused, because in my head I lost every day. By high school nobody had to tell me everything I did wrong, because I could see and hear every imperfection most acutely. Every practice session, lesson, and public performance was a battle against my lack of skill, and I always lost.

Wise people say talent has little to do with whether a person succeeds in an artistic career. The writers who publish bestsellers, and the performers who "make it," are just the ones who didn't give up. This is an accurate statement, but it's framed in a way sounds like the ones who gave up lacked tenacity. They couldn't handle rejection, they didn't believe in themselves, and they didn't have the passion to keep trying.

But most have plenty of passion, or they wouldn't have tried to become artists in the first place. They gave up because the process of becoming "good enough" in the eyes of others sucks the joy out of any craft.

In my early twenties, I loved nothing more than writing. I resented every hour I had to spend doing something else. After ten years of receiving rejection letters detailing all the reasons my novels aren't good enough to publish, writing is now like playing music. I can't draft a page without seeing everything literary agents would call a fatal flaw. I want to finish my manuscript, but every time I even think about sitting down to work on it, my body rebels and runs to the television to play Animal Crossing instead.

The people who stop doing something that doesn't make them happy anymore are probably smarter and healthier than the ones who pressure themselves to keep going. In movies and biographies, we build this romantic myth of the artist starving and self-destructing through years of dedication until their hard work pays off. We go so far as to claim that self-inflicted misery proves an artist has talent and drive. How messed up is that?

Two weeks ago, pop violinist Lindsey Stirling posted a video of herself playing a piece while "hair hanging," which is as horrific an act as it sounds. Suspended by nothing but a harness attached to her hair, she swung around the stage in obvious pain while playing an electric violin and doing elegant dance moves. In a promotional vlog leading up to the publication, Lindsey faces the camera and sobs that hair hanging hurts so bad. She's so sore and miserable, she can't get out of bed in the morning. She says being lifted into the air feels like her scalp is going to rip off, and she has to convince herself every single time that she's strong enough to do it. And this footage of her suffering in tears is spliced together with an uplifting soundtrack as if it's a motivational training montage.

Screenshot from Lindsey Stirling's hair hanging vlog, captioned 'Is it worth the pain?'
The answer is no, Lindsey. It's not.

A snippet of the equally horrific comments from fans:

Your determination and strength is beyond belief. I cried with you watching this vlog of your pain and anxiety, your such an inspiration and talent.
Absolutely beautiful. The detication to being an amazing artist and achieving something so incredible. Don't tell her to stop...watch the incredible video she created. Artists like her deserve the highest of respect and love
All the people in the comments asking why she'd put herself through needless pain have failed to understand that it's the needlessness that makes it important. Anyone can endure torture and pain if they have to. Only a few have the existential courage to act against all genetic programming...and become human.

Anyone who wants to watch artists literally torture themselves needs to read Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" and reflect on their definition of beauty (and humanity, apparently). Lindsey could have achieved the same aesthetic in her music video by wearing a safe and supportive harness designed for aerial dance, so beauty wasn't the point. The point was to suffer. Hair hanging is a circus stunt in the same category as Houdini-style escape acts and tightrope-walking without a safety net—spectacles that appeal to audiences who are enthralled when performers put their health and safety at risk.

Becoming a popular artist today is all about the spectacle. Gotta get those YouTube views, Instagram follows, and Twitter retweets. Gotta ratchet up those metrics and get people talking. Gotta make daily content, bigger content, more shocking and sexy and bingeable content. Please like and subscribe, please buy my merch, please please please don't click away to something else.

To state the obvious, this kind of thinking about the arts is caused by money. Modern society tells us there's no point in doing anything unless you can make money, and in the arts you can make money only if you "stand out." Millions of people are good musicians, but only a handful in every city can do it professionally. Thousands of writers pen good novels, but only a handful in the whole country can support a household with royalties alone. You've "made it" in the publishing industry when an editor offers you $5,000 before taxes and commissions, paid out in little checks over four years.

People on Twitter often proclaim in righteous anger, "Stop saying artists should create for personal fulfillment instead of money. It normalizes not paying artists for their work." In fact, not paying artists for their work has been the norm since the invention of currency. Throughout history, in cultures worldwide, the arts of music and theater, poetry, acrobatics, and comedy were the work of roaming beggars, prostitutes, and court servants. Art isn't a commodity necessary for survival or convenience, so only the wealthy were able and willing to pay for it, and there were very few wealthy people.

In the twentieth century, we collectively grew wealthier and managed to build an entertainment industry that does make money for a few lucky stars, but still little or none for the other 99.999% of artists. In the twenty-first century, that industry will not suddenly become magnanimous and pay living wages to novelists who aren't James Patterson and singers who aren't Taylor Swift.

The arts enrich our lives, but they've never enriched our wallets, and they never will. So yes, we must indeed write for personal fulfillment instead of money, or the foolish pursuit of commercial success will poison our art and our sanity.

In my head, and probably the heads of many others, two kinds of "not good enough" get tangled together. The healthy "not good enough" means, "This story/song/drawing isn't yet producing the effect I want to create." Seeing where you have room for growth and learning how to improve is a good thing.

The poisonous "not good enough" means, "This story/song/drawing isn't marketable. The industry will say it's too amateurish, too boring, too common. Nobody will buy it. People on the Internet will say I suck." Fretting over money and popularity is not a good thing at all. That's how talented musicians end up swinging around a stage by their hair for the shock factor. Or flashing their breasts in YouTube thumbnails for the clicks and follows.

Cosplaying Pianist YouTuber Gains 1.5 Million Followers
There's sex positivity, and then there's debasing yourself to pander to the type of men who own anime-girl mouse pads with silicone gel boobs for wrist support. (Source)

Untangling the two types of "not good enough" is tricky, because we create for an audience. You might say, "Just forget about what anyone else thinks and write for yourself," but the point of all art is to create an experience for others that communicates your vision and ideas. How can I tell if a piece truly needs work because the audience isn't feeling what I want them to feel, or if the piece is acceptable and I need to ignore the imaginary voices telling me I suck? How can I flush out the poison of this analytics-driven world and recapture the joy of creation?

I'd like to end this blog post with an answer, but I don't have one yet. At least I managed to fire up my new toys and record a song. It's highly imperfect, and doubtless some unhappy music teacher somewhere would tear it to shreds. But I have a temporary antidote: I turned off the comments and display of likes/dislikes.