Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Fra-gee-lay: Major Awards, Honesty, and the Validation Trap

Awards aren't fragile, but writer egos can be
Last time I was here, I wrote about how not winning or getting nominated for awards shouldn't change your writing.
Today I'm here to tell you that getting nominated or winning awards shouldn't change your writing.

"The things we have to watch out for are that kind of approval seeking that sneaks up on you. Every writer should be wary of the ways they seek approval from an audience." -Alexander Chee, interview with Fold Magazine
Alexander Chee is the author of two critically acclaimed novels and the new collection of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. His essays are stunning pieces of work, and if he hasn't won major awards for them, he will. But his advice above, specifically aimed at the validation we get from social media, also applies to awards and nominations, whether they are voted on by fans (like the Anthony or Hugos) or curated by peers, such as the Edgars or Shirley Jackson Awards.

This isn't to say they don't mean anything. It is wonderful to get recognized, but as Mr Chee says above, we should strive to improve our craft without writing for awards or audience validation. That is not how great stories get told. They get told when you dare, when you make it personal and stick a pen in your heart so the feelings flood on the page, like Mick Jagger says. Hey. it's only crime fiction, but I like it.

And that rarely coincides with trying to make people happy. If you live for the validation of others, you are going to be disappointed eventually. If you want to read the most honest self-appraisal in some time, check out thriller writer Owen Laukanen's post about self-honesty at his Project Nomad blog, where he talks about the emotional rollercoaster of a writing career. This is a guy I've been cheerleading for some time, I saw his books in airports, I thought he "had it made." He gives us the cold wet slap of reality with this post, and every writer ought to give it a read. There is no gravy train with biscuit wheels.

So, it's time for me to be honest.

I've been a critical jerk to writers I consider successful who have struggled, like Owen has. Because I ass-umed they were on the gravy train, and there's nothing worse than seeing someone grumbling about having it better than you.

But they don't have it better. They have it different. So I'd like to apologize to authors who have been honest about the tribulations of their writing careers, like Owen and John Hornor Jacobs, who I have called out. I liked to say I was looking out for them--that they were being hurtful to their audience and less-successful peers--but I'll be honest, I was angry that they found greater success than I have, and yet didn't seem "satisfied." That was my mistaken impression. They were being honest about their fears, struggles, and troubles in the writing business, and I was shaming them for it.

Shame on me.

We can't all approach the level of introspection--especially publicly--that Owen is brave enough to share with us, but introspection is an important part of not being an asshole, and we all have blind spots. I'm good at locating sources of my own fears and misogyny and attempting to root them out, as I have written about in the past, but I am not good about confronting how competitive I can be. I've always considered myself noncompetitive, easy-going, and my first taste of nasty ego-protecting competitive lashing out was when I started fight training. My high school friend Peter has fought amateur in Japan, and is now a personal trainer. He's a better fighter than me. Better technically, and more experienced. But I'm stronger, and outweigh him by several weight classes. And there's a reason there are weight classes. I have a distinct advantage, especially in grappling, and when we roll... people stand back and watch, because we tear shit up. He gets me with a rear naked choke or a triangle, but I always have to rely on my "cheat" of sweeping him to half guard, stretching out his rangy limbs and forearm choking him with my full weight on his jugular. It's legal, but I can't beat him otherwise. Oh, I can, and have, performed a abdominal crunch and gone to full standing when he's tried to pin his 185lbs on my chest, and smashed him into the cage, dragged his head down the chain links, just to show him I can do. I still lost, he choked me out. But I had to show him I was stronger.

Same with his triangle- his signature move- unless he gets it perfectly, I mash his knee to his nose. You know all that did? It perfected his triangle. I didn't improve, he did. I kept using the same old moves, and sometimes they worked. But he kept getting better, and when he won, I shrugged it off instead of forcing myself to struggle to improve moves that would work better. It was easier to use my advantages and make excuses when he defeated me.

It terrifies me that I would do that with my writing. I have taken challenges, self-imposed. I don't depend on brutality like I did when I started. I was known for "gut punches" and emotionally wrenching stories, and it was a crutch. I've gone after more nuanced subjects somewhat, with "The Big Snip" and "Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind," and even "Deadbeat," which explore the rage instead of simply depicting it for the visceral catharsis it provides. I wrote a novel, in edits, that I jokingly call a cozy, which really does satisfy the off-screen violence and sex requirements, because I didn't want to rely on my strengths, which are action scenes and the expression of the rage of the wronged. This story is about a heel who comes off as a hero, and how he wrestles with it. It's about the friends who want to make him better, who won't give up on him. In a noir story he would give up on himself and embrace the easy failure, because he's good at fucking up. This isn't a noir story. Which is scary for me, changing gears. Trying a new move I may not be good at (this is not to say I've "mastered" noir at all-- it's just how I know to please an audience; give them a violent, righteous protagonist).

I've digressed some here and gotten personal. I'm thrilled that Bad Boy Boogie nabbed an Anthony nomination for best paperback original. Congratulations to all the nominees. The next Jay Desmarteaux novel is a lot different, and the nomination won't make me go back and change that. I'm striving to improve. I may fail, readers may hate the next book. But I'll "fail better" as Mr Beckett says. I won't give up. And I won't disrespect my readers. I'm grateful for the nomination, but I know it's not a validation of everything I did in the book. It could've been better, and I'll do my best to make the next one better. Maybe it won't be better than She Rides Shotgun or Bluebird, Bluebird-- two damn good books that I wish I'd written, they are that good-- but I'll keep striving. And when I struggle, like those honest writers John and Owen, I will be honest about it.

1 comment:

Kristopher said...

Really good post, Thomas; no less introspective or enlightening than Owen's posts. It's important that we see the career of authors in unvarnished light - it is no easy road (but then, I have come to believe that no road is particularly easy, just "different," as you say much more eloquently than I.)

Congratulations on the nomination!