Fiction writing is a game for kids who don’t play well with others. Instead of talking with other people they write dialog; instead of having adventures with their friends they imagine friends, imagine adventures. As they write, they imagine readers – people who, like themselves, can immerse themselves in imaginary worlds, characters, events. And once the writing is finished, the imaginary having been made manifest in words, there the text sits, unread, because writers don’t know any real readers like the ones they imagine. That’s why writers need sociable outgoing people like agents and publishers and publicists and retailers: to get their books out there into the real world, where actual readers live.
That’s the first paragraph of “Writing Precariously,” a Ficticities pamphlet available as a page on this website and as a .pdf (5,064 words). Like other businesses, the commercial publishing industry is an organized corporate enterprise, a host of workers possessed of complementary skills coordinating their efforts in order to produce, distribute and sell its commodities, making money for employee wages and for investor profits. A publisher typically outsources critical tasks — finding and prescreening talent, printing, warehousing, distributing, selling — with nearly all of these contractors likewise being organized corporate enterprises.
The only contractors that publishers hire who aren’t organized are the authors, who almost always operate as solo practitioners. Why is that?
One possible explanation is temperament. Writing is a solitary endeavor, a matter of secluding oneself from social distractions in order to pull a coherent text into the formless void of the blank page or screen. Hermits aren’t much good at organizing themselves into monasteries. The ones who do join the collectives are better suited to making copies of existing texts than to writing the originals.
Is that true? Are writers temperamentally ill-suited to organizing themselves together into collaborative enterprises? Do writers write because they can’t function well in organized group endeavors? Does organization invariably generate the sort of groupthink that’s anathema to the creative writer? Do writers need to buffer themselves from the pragmatic goal orientation of the corporate world in order to weave their spells?
Twice I’ve tried to join a writers’ group. The first was avowedly commercial in orientation: I was disenvited when I asserted that I didn’t want to edit my writing in order to please an audience. The second group consisted of several literary scholars who worked together and who wrote on the side. I quit after two sessions when my writings generated either silent indifference or digressions onto interpretive subtleties of Middlemarch and the temporal overlap of Manet’s artistic career with the Paris Commune. Maybe it’s just me.
I don’t have an MFA, but my understanding is that the programs’ educational processes rely heavily on collaboration among students and faculty. Some programs even publish their own literary journals. So collaboration among writers is possible, even productive. Maybe it just can’t last. Or maybe the graduates get so sick of collaborating that they’re relieved to go back out on their solitary ways.
So, how much can writers’ isolation from one another be ascribed to a shared psychological predisposition to solitude and to the exigencies of creative endeavor?