Sunday, January 16, 2011

New Rules for Writers

Thanks to Twitter, I came across this thought-provoking article by Anis Shivani called
"New Rules For Writers: Ignore Publicity, Shun Crowds, Refuse Recognition And More". This is what he has the fabulous temerity to suggest: on the Huffington Post,
These "rules" totally go against every prescription for writing success you'll hear as a young writer from all quarters: the conformity-driven MFA system, the publishing industry's hype-machine, successful writers who act either like prima donnas or untouchable mystics, the marketing experts who seek to impose advertising rules on the writing product. Overpaid editors, illiterate agents, arrogant gatekeepers, and stupid reviewers want you to bargain away your soul for a pittance -- the bids in the market escalate downward, a reverse auction where you compete with the lowest of the low to be acknowledged as an entity that counts.
Why take part in the game at all? Who has ever come out of it alive, able to set up tent and build followers on the other side? Why not accept the reality that writers aren't forged in social harmony and peer input and obedient fellowship, but in a region where madmen and insomniacs find no comfort? To get you started on a regimen designed to pull you away from the mother-teat of the writing industry, here are the ten commandments:
His 10 Commandments include such words of wisdom (and I really mean that) as: "Disobey the System. The system--from the MFA program to that fat-ass editor sitting in glorious judgment over your manuscript--will never reward originality. So fuck it!...Once you're on everyone's shit list, then your mind will open up--visions you never thought possible, leaps of imagination, idle curiosity revving up into high gear--knowing that no one will ever be pleased by anything you write" and "Seek Unemployment.... Find ways to be unemployed, doing nothing, finding enough time on your hands, after you've met your basic needs, to wander into unknown realms of thought and imagination."

These really are excellent "rules", I'm tempted to print them out and stick 'em above my desk. I do take issue with his one rule about only reading dead writers ("Treat every contemporary with dire suspicion, until they stand they test of time--and most of them won't, you'll see. Read no one living with attention and gratitude, unless they've proven themselves in relation to your eternal touchstones.") That seems a little much. And we'll turn a blind eye to Mr Shivani's website, which is an excellent example of the evil publicity he is cautioning writers against indulging in!

But there's a lot of common sense in here. I will leave you with: 
Don't Pursue a Niche. You're told, in every dimension of life, find a niche, find your own little corner, and become really good at it. Find that unique voice of yours, stemming from your involuntary pain and pleasure, find it and hold on to it and dispense it with greater and greater intensity until the end of your writing life. Don't do it. Be all over the place. The only way to expand the boundaries of your art is if you recognize no specialties. Try your hand at things you're sure you'll fail at. Find the most ludicrous, nonsensical, absurd ventures to spend/waste your time at, and you'll discover unforeseeable payoffs. 
Yes. I like that. Read the whole article here.


Sophie Playle said...

Fantastic stuff. Thanks for sharing :)

(I particularly like the part about being unemployed...!)

Neil said...

I'm trying to avoid and ignore any "rules for writers" at the moment. It's just noise, really. If he's so intent on ignoring the system, why is he writing for the Huff Post? Struck me as a pretentious hypocrite.

Brian Clegg said...

I'm afraid my Neil has echoed my feelings entirely. It sounds like a student's attempt at 'how to be bolshie', most of which is came across as tosh. Sorry! (To give him his due, I like the 'Seek unemployment' one, but even that could have been worded much less pretentiously.)

Alex said...

Thanks for sharing this. While it was quite amusing to some extent, his article does feel like very thinly veiled self promotion.

The niche thing is a good point however. I like experimenting, it keeps you open to things you may not have thought about before. Though I think everybody already knew that and it seems to be the mentality of most people in this internet age; modern polymaths like a web based enlightenment, or something.

Tania Hershman said...

Sophie, glad you liked it!

Neil, Brian and Alex - yes, clearly it is not to be taken too seriously, and I hope you didn't think I was saying that these really are rules and should be obeyed! If he was really following his own commandments, we'd never know about it, because he wouldn't have blown his own trumpet, would he? Tongue-in-cheek, yes, but I also like some of the sentiments. "Seek unemploymment" speaks to me a lot in terms of giving myself time to be bored, not filling ever spare damn minute... So, take from it what you will, or nothing if it doesn't speak to you. There are no rules!

Alex said...


Oh no I didn't think that at all. I'm glad you shared it. I guess I'm just in the mood to be wound up and he said all the right things. Curse indiscernable sarcasm in the written word. : )

Rachel Fenton said...

It's a bit of fun - made me chuckle. The literary world is full of rules and advice, and paradoxical assertions (such as Barthes' Death of the Author), which it strikes me this is a light hearted fun poke at.

Lauri said...

Speaking as the reigning Non-Niche Queen I, of course, love that. I'm also a big fan of being unemployed, or just employed enough to keep me in chocolate and pet food.

As for reading all the dead guys and no living authors- I'm with you Tania. That would just about clear out my bookshelf.

But I do wish we could just be the hermits we all really want to be. It would make life much easier.

Neil said...

Well, does he mean to be satirical? I'm not so sure.

But anyway, I think it's rather like the idea that you should "live every day as though it's your last". An inspiring thought to pin above your desk, but not something you'd seriously try to implement. Personally, I'd be in prison within 48 hours.

astrid said...

'Be all over the place' My favourite line! I have gone from short stories to ladylit back to short stories, all while being technically unemployed and a true user of time (raising four kids, running a profitless art gallery, being an barely paid translater) At my first writers' conference I was told to reapply my ex-hub's name because it was more exotic! Nah!! No niche writing for me. Great site!

Graeme K Talboys said...

I think it is done with tongue firmly in cheek, but it nonetheless makes some valid points about how publishing has become skewed by the pursuit of money and acclaim.