I always love to read Brain Pickings.
In one of her recent posts, Maria Popova explores the work of Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, focusing on the meaning of success in literature. It got me thinking about why I write.
The difference between literary success today and when Borges was younger (he lived from 1899 to 1986) is striking. Apparently, talking about sales was bad form when he was younger. If you’re writing for money, he implies, you write poorly.
…[O]ne now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible.
Can you see the parallel between writing for money and writing for clicks, tweets, and shares?
Today, there are books written about how to make your book a bestseller! There are entire websites dedicated to maximizing your website’s or blog’s potential, from SEO to catchy headers.
The commercialization of literature, Borges says, has influenced writers so that they now write to sell.
The writing environment today is so different compared to when Borges wrote as a young man. Now, there is so much noise. It seems everyone wants to write and be published, and now they easily can via blogs or publishing their own e-book. And if you write for a living, you want other people to care about what you write, and to buy it. Writers want to get the reader’s attention. How many novelists don’t dream of making the New York Times Bestseller list? How many bloggers don’t count their page views?
Times have changed. Today, with all that noise out there, many writers feel they must keep an audience in mind. The amount of chatter around any given subject is so clamorous, you need to pull out all the SEO, headline, and bestseller tricks you can.
Obviously, literature is not journalism, which isn’t the same as writing a magazine article or blog; and success in literature is often measured years later, whereas an online article is immediately analyzed for popularity. And as Maria Popova notes,
The notion of the “bestseller” shares cultural genes with the “blockbuster” and the “hit” — notice how very violent our laudatory language tends to be — and yet the success of literature, Borges suggests and countless other writers have corroborated, is measured by an entirely different metric of inner light.
But Maria Popova’s post and Borges’ observations are valid for writers of all types. It makes you ask, Why do I write? When writing online, surrounded by interesting websites, articles, and cat videos, it’s especially easy to forget the integrity of your subject, of who you are, or how you present your ideas to the world. You leave behind the reason you’re writing, and just want the maximum number of viewers. But her post was a very good reminder to write because you love it – because you can’t not write. It was a reminder to focus on what you’re passionate about or what interests you, not results. And of course, if what you’re writing isn’t interesting to you, you can be sure it won’t be interesting to anyone else.
If you’re not writing because you really love it, it’s hard to imagine you’ll stick with it. Writing is a life-long skill and passion that many writers feel they have to do – there is a story, or many stories, within them that must be told.
Of course, we don’t want to tell these stories to ourselves. But as writers, we do want to remember why we’re writing in the first place.
Read Maria Popova’s post here: Borges on Public Opinion, Literature vs. the Other Arts, and the True Measure of Success