The Prostitution of the Word.
I grew up among writers. My father was a journalist for the London Times, and later went on to write 17 books. My mother was an editor at Faber and Faber. T.S. Eliot sat in the next office to her.
Back in the 1960s, publishing was known as “the gentleman’s profession.” Deals were made with handshakes, and the decision to publish was made entirely on the merit of the work—the quality of the word.
What else could there possibly be?
And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.
~ T.S. Eliot.
I’ll tell you what. Today, publishing and writing are a different game to play. If you have a book germinating in you, a publisher today will ask you about your “platform,” your marketing plan. How many Facebook followers do you have? How big is your mailing list? How many hits will a Google search produce on your name?
Oh yes, and by the way, the folks over there in editing will take a look at your manuscript, too.
Before social media and the Internet became so prominent in our lives, the primary means for a book to gain popularity was through reviews in newspapers and magazines, and word-of-mouth referral. It was virtually impossible to rig either one of these avenues. A book reviewer writing for a reputable literary publication probably had a university degree in literature. It would be considered corrupt for any reviewer to recommend the work of a personal friend or business associate, let alone to be paid off to make the book more popular.
New books were measured against the highest standards, and only works with real merit could survive the test.
Today, it is not only easy, but also quite commonplace to rig the system. Anyone with a fairly mediocre book but internet marketing savvy can organize for “joint venture partners” to send promotional e-mail blasts out to their lists all within the same week, offering “bonus gifts” to buy on a certain day. Presto! Even a book with relatively little merit can now be called “a bestseller.”
The last remnants of credibility left standing, until recently, were the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. Until a few years ago, they both seemed to be immune to these kind of schemes. But no more. Today, at least five separate organizations will organize to have 10,000 college students from around the country buy your book from independent bookstores—all within the same week. Lo and behold, your book will show up in the top 10 titles, or even as number one on the New York Times list, all for the modest price of about 250,000 dollars.
Listen, what was that rumbling sound? Ah yes, that was Ernest Hemingway turning in his grave.
If you talk to a publisher or a literary agent today, you’ll be advised on how to make your work more “mainstream.” What exactly does that mean? More or less, it means using language and appealing to values that not only apply to you and your close friends, but that might also apply to a milk farmer in Wisconsin, or a school teacher in Texas.
“Remember, you are not your target audience,” well-wishing mentors have reminded me so many times. Frequently, I have turned in a manuscript I thought was brimming with brilliant insights (just as our cat proudly delivers a dead squirrel to our kitchen as her contribution to the family shopping), only to be told that my book was “preaching to the choir.”
This kind of reminder can prove useful. It trains us to develop discipline and rigor, to weed out prejudice, to not make unproven assumptions, to seek out universal values, and to use language that is fresh and accessible.
But there is also a significant risk to this modern-day extreme sport of “mainstreaming.” Indeed, you put your creative life at the risk of a fatal accident each and every time you measure the worth of your work by dollars made, number of copies sold, Amazon rank, or New York Times position. Van Gogh, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, and many other brilliant minds died in obscurity. None of them paid even momentary heed to being “mainstream.” In fact, one might say that the majority of radically brilliant people go out of their way to question and challenge mainstream values.
Particularly today, corporate and government interests attempt to steer the mainstream conversation toward fear of calamity and the desire for more stuff. “Mainstreaming” your work will often require you to massage your message into agreement with the shared assumptions that we are weak, undefended, the prey of imminent and merciless attack, and that our lives would be oh-so-much-better if only we had an upgrade to the iPhone, the computer, the car, the house, your spouse, your body, your face, your personality—all of which can somehow be paid for. People can’t be controlled, or sold endless new stuff, when they are feeling powerful, empowered, awake, or happy-for-no-reason.
Although I started out writing and teaching as a “spiritual teacher,” these days my one-on-one coaching with clients and teaching with groups focus mostly on the cultivation of brilliance. I find it more interesting. In fact, I’m writing a book about it now. In a nutshell, this means I support others to discover and express the unique message, insights and gifts that could only flow through them and no one else. If we do not give our unique gift in this lifetime, it will never be given.
Quite often, people hire me as a coach to support them to birth, foster, and complete a book. From the beginning, I always encourage them to not try to write a New York Times bestseller. Instead, I encourage my clients to think of eight to 10 people they admire completely, and whose respect means everything. I encourage my clients to create their book with an aim to pleasing those specific people.
You may not be your own target audience, but hopefully, God forbid, neither are the viewers of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” or “The Shopping Channel.”
If you stay true to the tender impulses of original creative impulse pushing their way to the surface, the satisfaction derived from that integrity makes financial reward and fame a secondary benefit. You might sell millions of copies, as Eckhart Tolle did by following this principle. You might remain obscure, like Henry David Thoreau. Either way, you will remain happily married to your heart’s true song, rather than working the streets as a prostitute of the word.
Author: Arjuna Ardagh
Editor: Toby Israel