If I Were King

“I was thinking, ‘So I’m Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I’ll be able to make people read my books now.”–Robert Graves

When he put those words in the mouth of the unlikely Roman Emperor, Claudius, Graves was giving voice to a sentiment that undoubtedly arises in all of us sooner or later. If only people would read my books, the thought goes, they’d like them. Really! The “people” change–friends you impose on, agents you importune, publishers you beg and, if you’re lucky, readers you entice–but the notion remains: My stuff’s really good. Why is it so hard to get people to read it?

None of my friends or relatives has ever refused to read a manuscript, but I’ve learned to stop asking. They may find a fault here and there, but they’re never going to honestly criticize. A writer is much better off finding a reputable “editor,” hopefully at a reasonable price, who will tell him the truth. As for agents and publishers, we are all familiar with the oft-lamented (by them) demands on their time and resources, and publishing–like law and medicine–has become a business where the bottom line is all that matters. The rejection letter–often enclosed in a thin envelope stamped and addressed by the writer himself years before–is the industry’s equivalent of a death notice.

What about readers? The writer finally has a book in print. Why won’t those dunderheads out there read it? The number of reasons, of course, matches the population, now more than 7,000,000,000 souls, but most of us refuse to accept that almost all of them are indifferent to our work. Why? Because we are certain that what we write is enlightening or instructive or at least entertaining. By definition, a writer is an egotist of the first rank. He thrusts his thoughts, on paper or screen, at an unsuspecting public and says, “Here, read this. You might learn something.” If an infinitesimal fraction take him up on his “offer,” he has a best-seller. But, as we know, best-sellers are beyond most writers, and many reject the requirements of best-sellerdom anyway.

So why risk all this rejection? Because writing is its own reward. The ego that may be ruffled in the business stages of the process is elevated during the creation, and there are few moments in a writer’s life (the birth of a child, maybe) that compare to holding a new book, his book, in his hands. Some writers say they’re in it for the money, and perhaps it eventually comes to that, but I’m convinced that the greatest joy is the work itself. Still, I wouldn’t mind being Emperor, or maybe just a king…

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