The Stupidest Question in Publishing

“Why would anyone want to read this?”

I’ve spent too much of my creative life answering what I now call the stupidest question in publishing. The plaint above seems innocent, practical and reasonable, and it is, in many ways, a feature of journalism and commercial publishing genres.

But it can stop a writer from writing, kill off innovative ideas and–worst–make a creative individual feel that he does not have the right to bring something new into the world unless he can sell it–before it is fully realized–to talentless, reductive trolls and gatekeepers who spend most of their time saying “no.”

Before I defend what some will dismiss as a rant, I want to give the only acceptable answer: that everyone likes a good story. We need stories in order to learn, remember (which is never the same as learning), understand ourselves (which is rarely the same as learning), and make sense out of the sorrowful messiness of life. Stories aren’t things we tell others, or narratives we indulge to fill an empty moment. They are necessities that connect us, place us, justify and redeem us.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, think of a joke that made you laugh and, thus, rendered a despairing situation a little less serious. Imagine a myth, parable or fairy tale that imparted a kernel of wisdom that you need to take you through a difficult task.

When I spent a summer doing archaeology, I saw how a tumbled-down mound of mud, stones and garbage could yielded astonishing stories of how human beings lived three thousand years ago. A friend who understood botany took me for a short walk in the woods, showing how trees weren’t just accidents sprung from seeds, but that a forest has a history, a character, a way of living that isn’t so different from my own.

Where these stories hiding in the stones and trees? Of course not. They are in us. They emerge from us. And they are new, each and every time.

Some of the best stories aren’t “true,” in that they can’t be verified with scientific certainty (not that science is so certain–in the last century, some of the most concrete scientists have discovered uncertainties, indeterminacies, limits and boundaries where what was thought to be forever true begins to fade into mystery). Why is it that sacred text maintain their interest, even if some of us profess not to “believe” in what the texts claim?

Good stories do all of the above, and more.

They can also hide the truth, make things worse and, in our brazen era of fake-news, inspire some of us to revive superstitious fear, xenophobia and bigotry, and call such things rational, logical, sensible. Every tale we tell has the potential to change our world in ways we cannot predict. Should such responsibility stop us from telling stories? It can’t and it won’t.

But what does stop us is that stupid question, which I have heard from editors, literary agents, critics, teachers, and, worst of all, fellow writers who mean well and believe they’re helping. They assume that by asking this question, a writer shifts the focus from the writing, to that mythical, eminently reasonable, low-attention-span, questionably educated, possibly semi-literate entity, The Reader.

The Reader is a brainless fish that must be baited with with some bright, flashy, sensational blurt at the beginning, and then hooked so that he has to gobble everything put before him. The Reader wants to keep turning the pages until the very end. The Reader wants an ending that ties up all loose ends. The Reader wants…

What about the person who has to knit the words together, without any certain knowledge of how the piece will come out?

When an editor or publishing gatekeeper asks the stupid question, his goal may be to categorize your writing, determine if it is commercially viable within the ethos of the publication, and, if it is, how it may enhance the editor’s reputation with his superiors.

The question becomes toxic to a writer who has the flicker of an idea that isn’t fully formed. The tastes of the Readers Who Would Want to Consume This (because answering the question ultimately turns art into a consumer item) are difficult to determine: we can only look at what has worked in the past and given that this piece is uniquely new, its relation to the past is unknown. Unless the troll asking the question has some enthusiasm for the project (rare these days, when the only creative outlet open to agents, editors and publishers is putting a fresh spin on how the industry is changing for the worst), the writer is made to feel that the idea’s worth (and, by implication, the writer’s art) has more to do with how easily it can be sold to those in the editorial pipeline. This process is inherently risky: those to whom agents and editors report rely on their underlings to reject everything but sure winners.

Again, this sounds reasonable–businesses need to sell things at a profit. But the reasoning dies if you look at stories as creative necessities.

We can never know fully the value of what we do, and we cannot predict, much less determine why anyone would want to read the stories we create.

But we can be sure of what we like in stories, and we can be certain that we may not be alone in having the interests, compulsions, torments or itches that become ideas that turn into scenes and characters that inhabit the stories we tell.

It may seem that we have too many stories in the world, until you notice that we never run out.





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