Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The ambitious imagination

Lately I've heard some authors associating literary ambition with ego, and lower expectations with modesty. Yet it is the big ideas, the brave ones, that have the power to inspire others and really do some literary good in the world. There's nothing particularly noble about thinking small rather than big when it comes to books, but this mild bias toward the little-idea-in-the-corner persists. "Oh," an author will say (with a hint of pride), "it's just a small thing I've been working on. I don't care at all about money or the bestseller lists."

Ah fine for you, oh independently employed one, but what about your editor? She or he has a job that relies on your book being successful, reaching as wide an audience as possible, and earning money. Did it ever occur to you while you disclaimed any interest in something as common as cash that your editor's book choices must be profitable in order for that person to keep his or her job? Publishers cut editors every year, and not just for losses. Editors can be shown the door even if their books earn modest profits! Why? Because modest profits cannot sustain a thriving publishing house with its many bills, salaries, and the enormous overhead incurred by other books that didn't make any money at all (we'll talk about the monetary realities of dissertation-based monographs later). Prestige is wonderful, but book sales keep things running.

Of course, keeping your editor afloat and working isn't the only reason to write an ambitious book. There's another, greater good in reach: writing a more ambitious book is quite a service to others. We authors serve readers. We serve booksellers. We serve editors and agents. We serve the literary world. I construct this job as a life of service, and I enjoy working with other authors who envision their contributions in a similar way. Far from a monument to ego, a good, ambitious, and well-crafted book is quite the opposite... it is the result of selflessness that seeks to feed its readers far more than to promote its author.

I'm not one for quoting (or mis-quoting) those pithy and occasionally annoying writing maxims, such as the Dr. Johnson tidbit about fools, writing and money (yes, I know the quote, but I'm loathe to repeat it again here), or many of the aphorisms attributed to Hemingway about the word and the almighty dollar, but there's one often attributed to Pushkin (it probably isn't his) that says "Write for love, but publish for money." Publishing is a very public act that gets so many other players involved, you positively owe it to them to aim for something that is (1) necessary or even essential now; (2) well thought out; and (3) beautifully crafted.

Not all books make the mark, and I by no means confuse commercial success with scholarly or literary value. But it can be quite generous for authors to think of their books as more than just the musings and scratchings of individual minds working alone. Published books are by their nature collaborative, involving editors, publicists, booksellers, readers, students and more. As the leader of this shaggy pack, the author is in a unique position to serve all of them by creating something that sustains itself in a crowded marketplace for many years to come.

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