Why I May Not Write Another Book

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

When I was a child, I had a grudging adoration of authors. On the one hand, there was no greater feat than to produce a book. On the other, I was taught a great desire to be very comfortable in life. There were two safe professions, doctor and lawyer. Select any other, and one risked being the shot that went amiss. I grew up with no particular desire to live in a garrett, and when finally I lived in one, it was by way of becoming an attorney. When my younger brother Joseph became a writer, he later said, he worked at his trade for five years or more before people stopped asking him when he was planning to get a job.

But I always wrote: stories of Dr. Dolittle, Sherlock Holmes, my own O'Henry stories with twist endings, tales of twelve year olds who caught spies. I taught myself to type with one finger on my father's Corona typewriter. In high school, I wrote two hallucinatory short science fiction novels (since torn up) and autobiographical stories about the first girlfriend and about dead birds. Writing was a guilty pleasure, something done in secret as a way of conducting a dialog with myself. These works were not for show; teachers who I gave them to couldn't follow them, and one, the editor of the high school literary annual, said that my stuff was well written but too far out there for publication.

When you write, the number of people around you who decline to read your stuff is remarkable. It is probably quite common for a naive aspiring writer to imagine a world in which friends and family members hover over him, grabbing new pages as soon as completed, avidly devouring and praising the work. In reality, at least in my experience, everyone finds your writing inconvenient. One young woman I was desperately in love with after law school returned a manuscript of mine unread, saying, "You are not an artist." "How can you know that," I asked, "if you haven't read it?" "If you were an artist," she replied, "I would know." The world may be divided into two types of people, those who don't read, and those intelligent enough to read and be jealous of writers. Whatever the reason is, one ends up writing mainly for oneself.

There is no room in most relationships for writing. Most of the people around you want you to remain exactly as you are; if you pass through the skylight they fear being left behind. It is always unsettling when a friend displays talent. Perhaps the only readers are those you contract a relationship with via your writing. Then at some point you are writing for them too, not just yourself.

In our society, putting your writing in front of other people required until recently the mediation of a third party. In high school, I had decided I wanted to be a science fiction writer. I wrote very strange stories, about dinosaurs being told they are extinct, and Mick Jagger types who discover they are five hundred years old but don't remember. I taped sixty rejection slips to the wall. When I broke up with my first girlfriend, she returned some stories of mine with a note: "Your manuscripts do not suit our present needs."

I never stopped writing, but I stopped sending things out. I sensed, obscurely, that success in writing is not driven solely by talent, any more than it is in any other career. It offended me that it so often requires the mentorship of an older author to get a younger one started. I believed that writing cannot be taught. Grammar can, and perhaps a little second-hand technique, but not art. I also had little respect in my arrogant twenties for the pool of possibly available mentors--the teachers of university fiction-writing classes. My father had said to me disdainfully, returning the manuscript about the twelve year old spycatchers, "Write what you know." Professor-writers, I believed, were largely limited to the novel of academic adultery-- tales of selfish people engaging in infantile behavior in a puerile environment, while feeling sorry for themselves. I did not want to suck up to such people to succeed.

I heard stories about the slushpile of unsolicited manuscripts-- the novel returned with page 86 still upside down, or the hair placed between pages 286 and 287 still undisturbed. I decided to wait until I could get a manuscript read in full equality. Sooner or later, as I live my life, I figured I would meet an editor or publisher whom I could honestly ask to read something, without having to suck up to anyone.

In a drawer, I have six novels written between 1976 and 1990 which have never been shown to anyone. I am quite proud of them, and one of these days will place them on my Web site. Five are a series called The Empire of Lights, following a group of friends from 1963 through about 1983. I wrote the first one in a wonderful apartment I rented in Central Square, Cambridge, during law school. Somehow I was able to keep up with my law studies, take a four o'clock nap every day, cook myself a steak, and read, while writing the novel. My next door neighbor, the pianist, practiced Chopin's Ballade in A Flat Major that whole winter. After graduation, back in New York and working at a miserable job, I came home at nine or ten every night and typed the second novel for at least an hour.

During the eighties and most of the nineties, I sometimes let several years pass at a time without writing any fiction. Fiction results in total immersion in the environment in a way nonfiction never does. As I write this, it has been two weeks since I completed the stories in Brooklyn of Dreams and I still spend part of every day with the characters. When I close my eyes at night, I review their lives before falling asleep. I am my own best audience: moments and descriptions which may fail to resonate for anyone else, thrill me when I think about them. After a certain interval, rereading something of mine can bring tears to my eyes.

In the story Hope, it was appropriate to call in three characters from the novel Shipwreck, written fifteen years ago: detective Eugene Sparrow and two teenagers, David Solomon and Coop. Though I haven't reread the manuscript of Shipwreck in some years, all three were immediately at hand, ready to perform their bit parts in Hope. Characters originally imbued with a sufficient life are timeless in memory, springing up complete like friends of childhood.

By contrast, I never wrote personal nonfiction until The Ethical Spectacle came along. Fiction is for oneself, but essays are for an audience. In the absence of any prospect for getting them read by anyone, essays on race and other topics fell lifeless, abandoned after a few paragraphs. All the ideas I have ever had since childhood, most never written down, I am mining today for the Spectacle.

I first pursued the opportunity to write a book for publication in 1983. I had left that first awful job and was trying to create a clientele for myself as a solo practitioner, hoping to specialize in computer law. I spent a few hours of every quiet week in the Brooklyn Public Library, where I found a series of little computer books, the Handy Guides from Alfred Publishing. I wrote proposing one on computer law, and was paid $4,000.00 to write it. A few years later, Rees Morrison and I self-published Syslaw: The Sysop's Legal Manual. We sold hundreds of copies, at a profit of $12 apiece. I would give a computer law lecture to organizations like the Independent Computer Consultants Association, then sell copies of Syslaw out of my backpack. Every day I got more orders via the mail. I had the pleasant feeling of being associated with something successful which for once was under my direct control.

In 1995, I finally had a version of the experience I had long been waiting for: a computer book publisher at Henry Holt called me out of the blue, and I proposed Sex, Laws and Cyberspace. Dealing with an editor for the first time was a very mixed experience. Even the software law book for Alfred had hardly been edited; I was not used to taking direction from anyone else. During a troubled production process, numerous typographical errors were induced in our manuscript; the hardcover book with the most misspellings and sentence fragments of any I had ever seen was my own. Nonetheless, the book was born with a rush of hope to a good review in The New York Times. I did a number of TV and radio appearances to discuss it. For a first somewhat mainstream book, it has been modestly successful, but nothing like the 100,000 copies a naive author hoped for.

The economics of the book publishing industry are very disturbing. There are about six billion people in the world, 270 million or so in the US alone. A typical first novel may sell four or five thousand copies; a sale of 20,000 for a first book of any kind is very successful. In a hugely populated world, the club of people who read is vanishingly small. Publishers--Henry Holt is an exception--are increasingly interested in publishing the idiot blockbuster, the tie-in, the book that isn't really a book. It is easy to feel that, after years of hard work, the book you delivered was little more than a small squeak unheard in the general cacaphony. Meanwhile, more books are being published than ever before, a symphony of small squeaks uttered in the hope one will hang in the air longer than the rest.

After Sex, Laws and Cyberspace, I assumed I would always be at work on another book, but I have let several years pass since delivering that manuscript without pursuing another. The reasons are complex, and I am not sure I understand them all. In part, I discovered a gulf between what one proposes to a publisher and what one really wants to write. The gravitational pull of the appalling economics warps the fragile archetype, the lacelike book of one's imagination. At one point, interested in writing about technology and morality, I suggested to my publisher that I do a book on the Unabomber and David Gelernter. The chances of breaking through the general noise with a hookless philosophical work are not great, though it has been done. What I really wanted to write about was hope, self-deception, the idea of freedom of speech, the Prisoner's Dilemma and the tragedy of the commons.

While succeeding as a novelist seemed to require one sort of prostitution, nonfiction required another. Since humans, even quite smart ones, do not trust themselves to evaluate an idea, a whole Idea Approving Industry has sprung up. Generally, one writes a serious nonfiction book (excluding anything on the mob, the lives of country singers, and the Roswell Incident) if one is a professor, a journalist, or has found a difficult third way to become an Approved Idea Purveyor. My road to being an AIP was through being an attorney. A sampling of the nonfiction books available at any time confirms that one can become an AIP without having anything to say. Conversely, many with something to say undoubtedly fail to become AIP's. This reminds me of a story of my brother Joe's. Birdwatching in Central Park one spring, he identified a rare warbler. But, since no-one knew him, no-one believed him until one of the Central Park regulars identified the bird; and then no-one remembered Joe had seen it first.

We are all used to the idea that books have editors because it has always been so since the introduction of the printing press. However, in evolutionary terms, editors may be spandrels rather than adaptations. "Spandrel" is my vocabulary word for the month; I found it in Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. It means a feature which is a byproduct of an evolutionary adaptation. In the case of editors, the printing press itself is the adaptation; an editor is just someone whom the owner of the press hired to protect his investment. Press owners certainly have a property right that permits them to edit or even mutilate anything they have purchased in order to print. This does not mean that we are all worse off without editors. On the whole, the quantity of interesting, artistic and controversial speech that is widely distributed as a result of the Net making every computer a printing press, far outweighs any benefit of editing.

We are used to thinking of certain forms of art, such as plays and movies, as a collaborative effort, while others, such as paintings, we think of as completely individual expressions. It is often an error to place an edited book in the latter category; much of the time it is really a collaborative work co-authored by the editor.

Before the printing press, the author wrote a manuscript; if it was well received by friends and acquaintances, copies were made and it was passed on to a more general readership. In those days, an author had a more direct dialog with his readers; he didn't have to persuade a gatekeeper that his work had value. Writing was also not a business, so there was less of an incentive to tell the story in the safest way, the one the audience most wanted to hear.

Around my fortieth birthday in mid-1994, I sat in an airport and made a list of the things I wanted to accomplish in the decade to follow; at the top of that list was publication of The Ethical Spectacle. In January 1995, I placed the first issue online. It contained several essays I had written, including a review of Schindler's List and a call for a new political party.

I had no idea if I would find any readers, but the first email from a stranger arrived just days later. As I write this, I have just published the thirty-seventh monthly issue, and the Spectacle is being read by more than 20,000 people a month. Thus, more people read my writing every month than have read Sex, Laws and Cyberspace in the two years since its publication.

I get email every day commenting on articles I have written, and people submit work of their own. Editors have asked permission to reprint stuff of mine in print journals and in anthologies, which I always grant. The Spectacle has been cited in news reports, scholarly articles and even court decisions.

Thye impact on other people, and on my own life, has been far greater than I anticipated in 1994. And I am my own gatekeeper. I don't have to persuade anyone else that the time is right for an essay about our attitude towards the future or on social control of technology. Certainly, I write sentences which might have benefited from someone else's eye, but its not worth trading my complete freedom of thought for that help. No-one can kill an article, chop out a section, or insert material which does not belong there (all adventures I have had in the print world.) No-one is the hidden co-author of my work.

I am lucky in that I do not need to write to live. Intending no disrespect to those who do, I believe that money distorts art more than it fosters it. Writers for pay write too much or write what they do not mean. Reading Shakespeare's or Balzac's potboilers is a sad experience. A writer who does not write for pay is more likely to say what he means and then shut up.

There is another reason why a writer does well to make his living elsewhere. The writer sits atop a ladder that must come to earth somewhere (the image is stolen from Yeats.) My ladder meets earth in the computer industry, recruiting, law. I draw on these for insights and material. A professional writer's life meets earth in writing. Sooner or later, especially if highly successful, he runs the risk of being insulated from other forms of life. He is then writing about life at one remove, or writing about a writer's life, both of which are equally unsatisfactory. His ladder is set upon a ladder--its ladders all the way down.

Of course, hypertext itself is the greatest advantage of writing on the Web. An interested reader can trace the evolution of my thought by following links. The Spectacle is a continuum; I get email from people who spent an afternoon or a night following the links. This same experience is not available to those who read a writer's short piece in the latest New Yorker. The best writing on the Web is that which would lose a dimension if collapsed between the pages of a book.

Because hypertext is so new; because there is no commercial market for it; because so much vanity is involved in seeing your name on the spine of a printed book; many writers are still affected by the bias that a book is the only publication which counts. For me, publishing on the Web has led to more freedom, more satisfying feedback, and the ability to experiment with effects not possible in print. For all these reasons, I am not highly motivated to write another book. Looked at another way, the ten megabytes of The Spectacle are my book, which I improve and expand every day.