One of the disconcerting things about writing for publication is that you're trying to clear your little parcel of land in a field where Taste is king — and, as we all know, there's no accounting for Taste.
I did a reading last night with Adam Levin, whose forthcoming novel The Instructions is a big baggy triumph. Adam and I spent a plane ride going over the books and writers we each like. I threw up a flare: the Updike of Bech, and Rabbit Is Rich. Adam said he prefers Barry Hannah. I mentioned Bellow; Adam's never been able to get through Herzog. He shrugged at my offering of Lorrie Moore. We agreed, finally, on David Foster Wallace. Or did we? I mentioned the story "Octet." "Octet" left him cold; he liked "Mr. Squishy," which is so dense I never could swim through it.
This is not a case of one educated reader versus one un-. This is not a case of one amateur writer versus one professional. This was two novelists, people who respect and like each other's work, unable to find — regarding the one passion they share — a simple answer to what's good.
I know that this is what makes horse races, but it's frightening. You can work really hard and well on something, and someone you respect might hate it; worse, they're not empirically wrong for doing so. This is scary, especially for people who haven't been published. The flip side, however, is not just obvious but nice: just as the hater might not be wrong, he also may not be right. The starkest rejection letter might be followed by a million-dollar advance. Don't let rejection start to look the same as failure.
I guess a corollary is not to write for anyone but yourself. Write what you think is good, is the whole of the law.
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Darin Strauss is the author of the international bestseller Chang and Eng, the New York Times Notable Book The Real McCoy, and the national bestseller More Than It Hurts You. The recipient of a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction writing, he teaches writing at New York University.
Books mentioned in this post
Darin Strauss is the author of Half a Life