Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sales figures for the writers in our midst

The writer's major goal is to bring story and dramatic thrust to narrative, but close upon the heels of that goal is the need to bring power, where ever it exists, face to face with truth. You can start messing with that equation by doing to the definition of truth what we have so successfully done over the years to the tax code, leaving the appearance of confrontation without actually raising the hackles of concern and discomfort. Power should not be allowed unrestrained or unmonitored. For those who care and hold relevant beliefs, even God should be confronted with truth on a regular basis.

Notable among writers who have brought truth to bear (and in no particular chronology or other order) are Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, Miguel Cervantes, Edith Wharton, and John Steinbeck.

Of that group, Chaucer (1343) came about two hundred years before Cervantes, who in his turn was just about two hundred years before Jane Austen. Don Quixote, joined a few of Chaucer's iconic pilgrims, notably The Pardoner and The Knight, in confronting power, by which is meant social dominance. The results were opportunities for many of us, years after the fact, to laugh at what we were, what we have become, and what we still are as a race.

Throughout written and spoken literature, there are men and women who bring new meaning to such concepts as social awareness, individuality, and integrity. The lone character moves through the various zeitgeists separating eras, exemplary but lonely, happy but not as closely connected with a clan or family or organization as many of us. The reward or, if you will, satisfaction achieved by these characters is quite often not financial although in fairness to facts, Chaucer did pretty well in terms of an income, and later down the line, both Wharton and Steinbeck seem to have been undercut if not overtly betrayed by their wealth.

At a time when more books are published in one year than had been published in aggregate since Mr.Caxton invented the forerunner of the modern printing press, the median sale of a trade book is a scant five hundred copies. Back in the day, when you were running a small scholarly publishing company, you actually were able to base pricing decisions around projected sales of five hundred copies, but even then you knew you had some better-selling titles in the wings, waiting to pick up the profit picture. The point devolves to the things writers need to write about, the things they need to do to support their living costs, and their continued willingness to confront power with truth. The result of the clash might not necessarily be art, but it will serve to keep the civilization edging over toward full honesty, disclosure, and transparency.

In many ways, the writer is being shouted down by individuals with what are spoken of as good communications skills, trying to persuade us to tithe, contribute to fringe and rump causes, and shut down such targets as are presented to us under the guise of their being The Establishment. It is not the writer who is at fault, it is the self-aggrandizer who has a few yards of communications skills in his or her tool kit. The writer goes on, turning out those five-hundred-seller editions while the rest of the public sees the fringers picking up the big sales and royalties and thinking, I could do that, too, by which they mean I could drink the Kool-aid of the fringe and write my own Kool-aid, thinking lofty thoughts about how at last I was earning my due as a writer. It is necessary to confront that power with as many five-hundred-sale editions as possible.

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