Blog Archives

On Competition

Pictured: me playing Scrabble

Pictured: me playing Scrabble

Fair warning: if you play a game against me – a game I like and enjoy – I will come for your blood. I don’t mean it personally, but I like to compete and I particularly enjoy winning. I can get unreasonably interested in even very trivial competition. A ‘casual’ game of Trivial Pursuit is nothing of the kind to me. I will crush you. No offense.

Granted, age has taught me how to ratchet back my competitive response in certain situations. I’ve learned to do this habitually now, but I always have that moment where I need to pull back on the throttle, lower my blood pressure, and tell myself ‘it’s only a game – calm down.’ So, essentially if you play a game with me, you get two versions of myself: one who doesn’t seem that invested in the outcome, and one who is very, very invested in the outcome. No middle ground.

There is something to be said for competitiveness as a positive trait, though. It keeps me coming back for more even in the face of defeat (pretty crucial for a writer). It means I work well under pressure and that I thrive in competitive situations (which, let’s face it, are common). It means I tend to keep myself as my best self whenever I can. These are all good things. I wholly believe that competition and competitiveness is, on balance, good for everybody. It’s good for society, the economy, personal fulfillment, and so on. There’s no need to be a jerk about it (sore losers and sore winners are real louts), but testing your worth is an important part of life.

This brings me to this article by Lynn Shepherd on the Huffington Post, in which she appeals to J.K. Rowling, asking her to stop writing. Shepherd insists that Rowling “sucks the oxygen out of the room” in the publishing industry, making it hard for new novelists to get started. She adds:

By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that – but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn.

So, basically, ‘go away, Ms. Rowling, as your success is enough and you should be done now.’ To which let me now add my response:

The fuck is this?

Okay, let’s breeze past the part where she belittles an entire genre of literature because it’s for young adults and, therefore, somehow worthless: I’ve discussed this before, and I think the sentiments contained therein are as applicable here as there. What I really want to discuss is the supposition that, just because somebody is successful, they should stop doing what makes them successful so other people can have a chance. What a load of bullshit.

Look, I understand the frustration of being passed over or ignored in favor of more established authors or voices. I completely understand reading books and thinking to yourself “hey, I write way better than this! Why aren’t my books getting published and sucking up so much attention?” Believe me, I’ve been there. That, however, is no reason to demand (or even politely suggest) that an author should stop publishing just so you can get a chance.

First off, this seems to be a misunderstanding of how the publishing market works. Do you think quality has anything to do with which books sell? Like, if Rowling weren’t there, people would somehow magically gravitate to your book because they’ve heard how great it is rather than, oh, not reading anything at all! Seriously, do you know why people read The Casual Vacancy? Because JK Rowling wrote it, that’s why. It has nothing whatsoever to do with their inability to see other authors behind Rowling’s aura of popularity. It’s because the aura of popularity is the only damned thing they’re interested in. People didn’t read A Casual Vacancy because they thought it was a good book – hell no! – they read it so they could say that they read it. They wanted to be seen at the beach with it poking out of their bag. They wanted to have their nose stuck in it on the train so that other people could look at them and say to themselves “my, there goes a lady who’s got her finger on the pulse of publishing today! My, my, what a peach!” The millions of people who buy Rowling’s books are not waiting in the wings to buy other people’s books. They are waiting to buy what is cool, not what is good.

Yeah, sure, there are people who are just plain Rowling fans and read the book to support her, but a book doesn’t just sell that many copies based solely on literary merit. Perhaps it ought to be that way, but it obviously isn’t. Look at Dan Brown. Stephanie Meyer.

Dave Barry. ‘Nuff said, right?

My second point is this, and pardon me if I wax a little Klingon here: Are you a coward? What kind of meek, squeamish writer are you that you balk in the face of challenging the best sellers of the day? Do I need to dig Vrokthar out to give you a talking to? I don’t want the mega-selling authors of the day to quit their jobs just to make room for me – no fucking way. I want to beat them. I want to get my own hordes of howling fans by the merit of my own prose, not because of the absence of somebody else’s. Will I fail? Yeah, probably, but I’m going to take a swing at it anyway. I don’t want my success handed to me; I want to earn it. I want to claw it, tooth and nail, from the cold, hard clutches of the publishing industry. I want to hold it up in my blood-soaked hands and display it to the crowd – my victory, my trophy. I don’t want Rowling to go anywhere. I, rather, want to write books so unspeakably awesome that someday, when I’m at a conference somewhere on some panel or other, JK Rowling herself comes up, shakes my hand, and says “Mr. Habershaw, I’m a huge fan of your books.”

Boom. Victory.

And you know, if I fail, if I never pull it off, if JK Rowling never hears my name and no fans of any number ever congregate anywhere to discuss my work, it will still be worth it. I won’t cry about not winning; no, not me. Win or lose, though, I won’t stop trying until they nail my coffin shut. I will leave you, now, with one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite people of all time, the inimitable Bruce Lee:

Do not fear failure – not failure, but low aim is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.

Get out there. Fail gloriously.

And don’t you dare complain.

Money and Make-Believe

Call this 'a lot' and we're satisfied. Nobody's breaking out the old abacus, are they?

Call this ‘a lot’ and we’re satisfied. Nobody’s breaking out the old abacus, are they?

I’m currently reading Wise Man’s Fear, second book in Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and the ups and downs of Kvothe’s meager finances has gotten me thinking about the presence (or absence) of financial concerns in scifi/fantasy stories. More often than not, it is left out – characters are poor, but we don’t spend a lot of time counting the contents of their purses, or they’re rich, but we don’t spend a lot of time considering the state of their investments or where, precisely, they keep all that money, anyway. Readers of scifi/fantasy aren’t really in it for the in-depth analysis of microeconomics in some made up non-realm, anyway – they want adventure. So, sure, there might be a treasure at the end of the quest and there might be some social or societal pressures making this or that object more valuable, but how much time do we really want to spend counting coins and handling living expenses?

Maybe, though, we’re missing something.

Now, Rothfuss goes into exhaustive detail involving how much money Kvothe has and what he spends it on. His work serves as a pretty good example of what is both good and bad about involving money in a fantasy story on an intimate level. On the one hand, money (or the lack thereof) is a fantastic motivator for characters to do things – often desperate things – and the prospect of Kvothe being kicked out of the University for failure to pay tuition creates some real tension in the story. This makes for good storytelling. Furthermore, the details of expenses makes the world more immersive, more real – also a bonus for our fantasy world.

But then there are the drawbacks: it gets old, all this money grubbing. As I am now in the second book of Kvothe having no money and facing the same tuition problems, I’m getting less interested in them. From a meta-plot standpoint, Kvothe has weaseled his way out of poverty enough times now for me to be less invested in his continued struggles. I figure he’ll find a way or, if he doesn’t, I’m growing less invested in the constant updates on the contents of Kvothe’s purse. So he gets an extra talent here and an extra bob there – so? I’m not really keeping a logbook, so I gather it would suffice for Rothfuss to simply have Kvothe say “I didn’t have enough money for x and still be able to eat, so I didn’t buy it” or “I earned a little cash from playing corners that night, but was still far short of tuition.” The numbers are getting stripped of their meaning; they’re boring. Additionally, the ‘does Kvothe have enough money’ conflict has faded from a primary concern to a secondary one. He’s poor – we get it.

One of the best examples of taking bean-counting too far in literature is Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, in which Flanders gives us an exhaustively detailed account of exactly how much money she has and when, what she spends it on, how much it costs, and the profits she expects from the exchanges. It’s as dry as reading expense reports, except with a madam involved. Of course, Defoe was trying to pass off his novel as non-fiction, ostensibly, and the details served as a sort of con-job for the reader – why would somebody making up a story spend so much time quibbling over shillings?

I think, on the whole, I prefer how JK Rowling handled it best. Despite the wildly improbable economic model of the wizarding world (another post for another time), the fact that Ron was poor and Harry wasn’t played as important character traits without us having to spend time worrying about where, exactly, the money was coming from and/or going. Then again, Rothfuss and Defoe are telling different kinds of stories, I guess – stories that hold realism up as a guidepost, and play it accordingly. One has to ask, though, are we reading fantasy for utter realism? Shouldn’t there be a middle ground?

Now, I’m not here to bash Rothfuss, precisely (I’m enjoying the books very much so far), but I’m worried we’re about to take a turn from ‘high adventure and melodrama’ into ‘Upton Sinclair would be proud of this book’, which I really don’t want to happen. I’ve read The Jungle and Sister Carrie and Moll Flanders already; I don’t need to do it again, particularly not in a fanciful world.