With the season of literary awards
almost behind us, and the Best Books of the Year emerging, the dust is clearing
over the latest crop of writers. Here are the happy few, getting up on stage,
beaming, their books destined to linger for more than 45 days on bookstore
Unlike those of
the less fortunate, who may see their work consigned to the Cemetery of
books must surely be good. Some of them have been chosen by jury after jury. I
know I look forward to reading them.
Just don’t ask
the opinion of those who have been spurned. That’s the big crowd sitting over
there, fuming. Among all the huzzahs for Esi Edugyan and Patrick deWitt, let us
spare a thought for the spurned.
For what is such
a writer to do? What lessons are there for those left on the sidelines?
The first thing
to do is take a deep breath. It isn’t personal, the fact that you didn’t win.
It isn’t even unusual. All writers are noticed less than they would like.
That’s just the name of the game. Some writers are noticed less than they
should be. We will never agree on who they are.
every corner of Canada have been spurned, even – yes – writers from Toronto. Working
class writers, aboriginal writers, Jewish writers, Arab writers, gay and
lesbian writers, genre writers, Black writers, Italian-Canadian writers,
writers from what was once the British Empire, not to mention writers from what
was never the British Empire and who don’t write in English. Being a writer,
like being an actor, is to invite rejection. There are no exceptions.
This is still a
tough time of year to be a writer. You put everything you had into that book,
and look how far it got you. A professional publisher, maybe, a book in print,
a couple of reviews. No awards. Not even a nomination. You were holding out
hope of showing them all when awards season came round. And now awards season
has come and gone, and you’re still on the sidelines.
You feel disappointment.
This may have been your last chance to make a splash with this book. You feel
hurt, too. Especially when you realize that a friend of yours was on the jury.
Well, not a friend, exactly, but another writer you have met. She lives not too
far from you. Did she not feel any loyalty to Manitoba? Crime fiction? You?
You have another
look at the list of nominees. It’s possible you’ve read one or two of the books
in contention, but it’s equally possible you haven’t read a single one. You do
not let that stop you dissing them. You may not have heard of the writers, most
of whom are from somewhere else. The truth is, you hadn’t even heard of some of
the publishers before.
You feel envy.
God, those nominees must be feeling good. You wanted so badly to be shortlisted.
That’s all you asked for. You didn’t expect to win, really. Just one measly
little nomination. The winner must have a friend on the jury, for sure. It’s a
fix. You don’t know how it’s been fixed, but you know it’s been fixed. That
makes you angry.
You are so angry,
you think of calling a literary friend, get his take. You think better of that.
He might expect you to express sympathy for him, for his book didn’t make it on
to any of the shortlists, either. As if.
And he never did
say much about your book, except to thank you for it. You could get angry about
that, too. On second thoughts, it might not be such a great idea to call him.
For all you know, he might be on another jury.
The trick is to
learn how to turn resentment into success. Which is a nice trick, and it’s one you
have to learn the hard way, from failure. The road to success begins, in fact,
when you stop taking it all personally. What you have to do is and start
looking at your work from everyone else’s point of view.
Everyone in the
book world has a job to do, and they all want to make a living and look good in
the process. Publishers are looking for books that will have a good critical
reception and sell a good number of copies. The bookseller wants to stock books
the public will buy. The festival director wants to invite writers who will
persuade the public to buy tickets to their events. It’s in their interest, and
in the interest of everyone else – the agent, the sales rep, the publicist, the
reviewer, the radio producer, the book buyer, the reader – to back a winner.
Your job, as a
writer, is to make sure you are the winner they will not be able to resist
backing. You have to become the writer publishers want to publish, festival
directors want to invite, and juries want to reward. Your mission, should you
choose to accept it, is to make yourself irresistible.
I hear a wail,
“But that’s what I tried to do! If only I had won the Giller I would be
No. That’s where
you’re wrong. You’ve got it backwards. You have to be irresistible in order to
win the Giller.
So how do you
make yourself irresistible?
No one said it
was easy. Being irresistible is much, much harder than sitting on the
sidelines, fuming, but it’s also a lot more productive.
You make a plan.
Start at the beginning, thinking about your next book. About its subject. Its
audience. Its appeal.
About how you
will write it, of course, for skill and talent matter. There are Canadian
critics who have laboured long and hard to prove that Michael Ondaatje writes
badly. It isn’t true. He writes beautifully, and that has a great deal to do
with his success.
shouldn’t overestimate talent, either. Hard work counts for a lot, too. You
have to stick with it. You have to be determined. You may have different ways
of defining success, but if success if what you want, you have to be dying for
success. You have to want success more than anything else. And you have to
figure out how to make your own luck, which is the easy part.
yourself up off the floor and get back to work.
© Linda Leith
[This post appeared on The Globe & Mail's "In Other Words" site on December 1, 2011.]