Commodity or Magnum Opus?

Some people blow through a book in a day or two, while others take a couple of weeks or more. Many people just inhale them like a sweet breeze, one after the other, without stopping in between. I’m worse than that — I just forget the endings of books I enjoy. (Truth is, I don’t even finish books I don’t love.) To most avid readers, books are not only an unquestionable right, but they are taken for granted as a vital component of life.

It’s like when the tourists cruise through the Sistine Chapel, look up and say, “Look honey, Michelangelo’s painting, now let’s go get some spaghetti.”

But to a writer who may spend a year or more writing the damned thing, think about how we feel when we see a pile of books stacked up 5 feet high against the wall of a summer cabin and the proud readers saying, “We read all of these books this summer!” It’s an intractable dilemma. It’s not easy to write a book, and for some it’s extraordinarily difficult and a compelling feat. So when a reader zooms through it and moves on casually to the next one, how are we to reconcile this disparity?

Think of the planning, outlining, and writing. And writing. And writing. Then the editing, proofing, and rewriting. And rewriting. And editing some more. And then the synopsis. And for some who choose to submit their work for mainstream publishing, the sterilizing and demoralizing query process. Then the rejections. More queries. More rejections. Finally the agent, then the selling to the publisher. The reworking of some parts. The publisher meetings. The marketing meetings. The marketing. For the DIY writers, the layout–the horrible horrible layout process, then the pre-marketing, the blogging, the begging for interviews and reviews, the vetting of e-book/free-book websites, the setting up your website and trying to figure out the e-commerce plugins and CSS and HTML, the tweeting and more tweeting, the artwork, the printer or POD joint, the price gouging, the amazon threads that will make you gouge your eyes out, the paltry and late checks from your method of distribution.

And some asshole reads the thing in a weekend?

There it is, that’s the truth. We are at odds with the very mode of entertainment we choose to pursue. We can’t possibly ask or expect the reader to study and appreciate every word and page as we did; we don’t want them to know how we made the sausages, after all.

This supports my argument that short fiction, novellas, and experimental-length and format fiction should not only have more of a platform, especially with e-books, but that more authors ought to put out more of this type of work. ESPECIALLY with more e-books, because readers will devour even more of our work with this enhanced format, right? RIGHT? So all the better to fill up our tanks not with the predictably dull 80,000 word novels, but with interesting work that we can package with other media to deliver in the increasingly sophisticated (but still clunky) devices for reading.


Filed under commentary, essay

5 responses to “Commodity or Magnum Opus?

  1. Yog-Sothoth

    Ugh. Look, I’m an insomniac. And I read fast. I mean, I blur through books. I’ll finish books, even though I don’t like them. It takes a lot to make me stop reading. When I read, I’m in the story completely. I live it. I am eating and breathing your words, they are real to me. I hunger for each page, to see where you are taking me. So honestly, who are you to tell me how fast I’m allowed to read your precious tome? You created this labor of love and sent it out into the world freely. I picked it up, and thought that meant you wanted me to enjoy it freely. If you’re so cranky that I ran through your elite work in two hours, next time put some reading instructions at the beginning so I know how to properly appreciate your magnum opus. Because apparently I’m too stupid to know how to read your book.

    • Ok, I need to clarify. Clearly I didn’t do a good enough job of explaining it in this couple of sentences:
      “We can’t possibly ask or expect the reader to study and appreciate every word and page as we did; we don’t want them to know how we made the sausages, after all.”

      Readers are naturally at liberty to do whatever the hell they want with a book. It’s theirs. That’s why being a reader is great.

      My point is that writers and readers are inherently at odds in only one respect: the time it takes to write and promote the work and then to read the words.

      I’d suggest you try reading the post again with that framework in mind, but I know I’ve already lost you, which is really too bad because I’m not that much of an asshole.

      • Yog-Sothoth

        Okay, I have re-read your post, taken a nap, and am in much less of a cranky mood. Just…if you want me on your side, please don’t compare me to someone that will cruise past the Sistine Chapel in 10 seconds. If I like your work, I’m not just going to read it. I’m going to re-read it over and over again. Shit, son, half the reason I have an e-reader now is because I was going through multiple copies of the print books. Be proud of your babies, and when someone races through them, be honored. It means you wrote a page turner. The only books I have ever read slowly were assigned books I hated, because I did not care what was on the page, or where the characters were going.
        And no you didn’t “lose” me. What are you, a quitter? I’m Moxie Mezcal’s wife, you have no idea the amount of bullshit that flies in this household daily. Just because I didn’t agree with your every statement in the beginning doesn’t mean you’ve lost me. It just means I’m open to persuasion. Calm down. It’s not the end of the world.

  2. I can feel your frustration. I must say I think I disagree. As non-commercial writers we need to tell the story in the way the story wants to be told, whatever that way is.

    I don’t think literature is different from many other things in that “long time producing, short-time consuming” sense, is it? And the reward for us, above and beyond the finished product itself, that our book was read. I think a writer who even lets thoughts like that flicker across their mind probably needs to spend some time thinking why they do it. I must say I’m gobsmacked at the thought anyone would spend any time at all with my work when there’s so much else they could be doing.


      “I must say I’m gobsmacked at the thought anyone would spend any time at all with my work when there’s so much else they could be doing.”

      Outstanding. Thank you.

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