As an artist, you’re usually rewarded for putting fresh wrapping paper onto the same old thing


The problem with the genre world’s interminable carping over how we’re being ignored by the literary world is that it distracts us from a much more important, fruitful, and interesting conversation about what kind of stuff we ought to be writing.

We never talk about how ambitious we ought to be. Instead, the rhetoric is all about following your heart and writing whatever you need to write. The assumption is that if something is important enough to you that you’re willing to work through the agony of creation, then it’s also presumably going to matter to someone who’s not you (assuming you create it with enough skill).

But that doesn’t ring true to me. Because, oftentimes, the problem with aspiring writers is not that they don’t have the skill to achieve their vision–some Platonic ideal of their story that exists in their head–but that their vision is, itself, impoverished. Aspiring writers will talk to you breathlessly about how they have their entire soul invested in some tale of a farmboy who gets called to glory by a wizard and has to save the world.

I don’t think people are motivated to write by the stories that already exist inside them. I think they’re motivated to write by a desire to replicate the feeling they got from reading the stories that they loved. However, when they’re still starting out, they’re too unsophisticated to understand exactly where that feeling came from or what it was. So they write cliche, banal crap.

But if our instincts are not a good guide, then what is?

I’ve always struggled to understand what kind of stories were worth writing: for an entire year, all I could write were stories that hinged on some aspect of the science of happiness (my story “We Planted The Sad Child…” was one of these.) And I knew the stories were dry and boring, but I didn’t see the point of writing anything else. If stories are about the major conflicts in life, then what could be more important or more necessary than stories about how to be happy?

Eventually, though, I just worked past that. And, really, it was because I started to look outside myself for my stories: the nature of happiness (and how to achieve it) is still a strange and troubling topic for me, but there are a lot of people in the world, and they want a lot of things. And just seeing the rest of the world has proven immensely refreshing to me.

But there’s comfort in having a big theme. Whether you succeed or fail, you know that your story is doing something important. If you’re just writing about a Britney Spears-type who hears the voice of God, then what makes your story worth writing?

Life would be easier for me if I believed that it was all about the writing. That anything is worth writing about as long as it’s written well. But I don’t believe that. It’s not all about the writing. It’s not even mostly about the writing.* Most of the elements that give meaning and emotional resonance to a narrative are things that work at a higher level than that of the sentence.

But if it’s not the writing, then what is it? Why is one story more worthwhile than another?

This is obviously not a question that has a single answer. I think the truth is that the most successful novels define their own terms: they invent new ways of being good. And when you read them, you experience something you hadn’t known you could experience.

But that, for me, is a difficult belief. Because how do you go about doing that? How do I know when I’m merely being good in the expected ways, and when I’m on the trail of something new?

I think there’s a constant tension, for an artist, between elaborating your approach and finding a new one. I alternate between the sense that if I can only go further down this path then I’ll find something new and the sense that I maybe need to branch off in a less-expected direction. It’s very tempting, and very easy, to say that a person should always just continue with the path that they’re on and trust that they will find something new and original eventually. But the truth is that most people never reach that place.

There is a prevailing feeling that when you finally find your thing–your voice, your themes, your subject matter–then the market will reward you for it. You’ll get published and sell books and receive good reviews. But we know that the opposite is true. People tend to be rewarded for dressing up the familiar and finding a slightly new way to deliver it. As an artist, you’re constantly pulled towards the familiar, and there is, literally, nothing (except your own sense of aesthetics) that pulls you towards the new.


*My classic example here is Anna Karenina. It’s the best novel I’ve ever read. But I read it in translation. I’ve never read a single word that Tolstoy actually wrote. Obviously, then, most of the genius of Anna Karenina exists in a way that is not tied to the specific words that Tolstoy used. Rather, the genius of the novel existed in the images and symbols and concepts that he conjured up in my mind.

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