On Literary ‘Success’

Coming up to the end of 2014 I came across a flurry of articles and postings about literary ‘success’, as in: how to pursue it/get it/be it/extend it/prolong it/exploit it.

It got me thinking about what ‘literary success’ actually means. I’m pretty sure it means different things to different writers, and that it changes over the course of a writing life. When I started to write seriously, my definition of success would have been to get into print. Getting paid would have come a close second. Next: to be accepted for publication by x or y, specific publications/publishers I admired. Then: for my novel to be published, for it to be good enough to reward a reader’s time, attention, money …

Well. You see where I’m going with this. Whatever stage you’re at in your writing life, whatever criterion you’re using, there are always going to be people who are further along and more secure than you. They win more awards, get more favourable reviews, make more money, have a bigger international profile. There’ll be others who are on their way who aren’t quite where you are yet, who might even envy you, their perception being that you’re more secure than you actually are (is there a writer alive who feels secure?).

Every time I start something new, I want it to work on its own terms, whatever those terms are; to achieve whatever aspirations I have for it.  The focus is on each piece of work, not on the trajectory of my (admittedly erratic) progress through this life of writing.

The reality is that every time you start a new piece of work, it’s all to play for, all over again. It’s always about the work you’re doing right now, this minute. Will this story work? Will I be satisfied with it, will an editor want it, will a reader connect with it?   By the time reviews come in, favourable or sour – and be warned, you will get both – you’re working on something else. Don’t get distracted by either praise or blame, they mean nothing to the task in hand.

Let’s forget about the number of followers you have or not, or even whether your advance is enough to live on until you get the next book finished. Give yourself a break and think of it this way: Every time a story or poem is accepted for publication you’ve essentially won a competition for that particular space in that particular edition of that particular journal or magazine. That’s one kind of success, if validation is what you need.

But the real success or failure will happen where you never get to know about it: that moment where an individual reader begins to read. Will the world of your story spark and come alive for this person, this time? Will your characters cross over from page to mind? Will they stay there?

Maybe. Maybe not. Readers – and their circumstances – vary. I suppose real success would be knowing that your stories never fail to lift from the page and assume their own life, but can that ever be true? And even if it miraculously becomes the case, would that lucky writer be aware of it?

The one sure thing is that when one story goes out, another one is waiting to begin, and it’s all to play for, all over again.

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