This is the fifth in a five-part series. The fourth is here.
"Writers who are charming in person and happy to promote themselves and interact with fans will prosper," Laura Miller predicts of the brave new publishing landscape, "while antisocial geniuses may fail." While the antisocial geniuses may find it harder than ever to succeed in our socially mediafied era — and I don't want to come off as anything more than cautiously quasi-optimistic about the stuff myself — I suspect their success rate was already trivial. As examples of the unsociable novelists the likes of which we stand to lose, Miller cites David Foster Wallace, J.D. Salinger, V.S. Naipaul and Thomas Pynchon. Fair enough. But could any set of names scream "outlier" louder?
And even they, in presumably that least collaborative of all art forms, collaborated. They collaborated with their publishers, their editors, their research sources, their friends and associates who read drafts. Most importantly, they collaborated with their audiences. That sounds like nonsense, and maybe it is, but if it's not nonsense, I'll bet it's beyond relevant. What's a work, after all, without an audience? I hate to go all zen on you again, but if an audience isn't an important partner in a work, how different is that work from one hand clapping, a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it, etc.?
"I never had the ‘will I get published’ stigma. There are a lot of echoes and baggage I just don’t have," said Douglas Coupland in that same Robert Birnbaum interview from Part II. "I came through magazines originally, very briefly, just enough to make me really entirely comfortable with you are not just doing this to jack off, you are doing this to connect with other human beings and they are in on it too. This is a two-way experience. Otherwise it’s just boring." If you're making something — anything — sure, you might be making it for your own use. You might be whittling a spoon to stir your chili and yours alone. But you're probably not. You're almost certainly making something for other people, and that's easy to forget.
This isn't obvious when, say, plumbing your deepest psychological depths for some sort of confessional novel. But it even goes unacknowledged in forms where your audience-collaborators look you in the eye. Take conversation: it's excruciatingly obvious when you're with someone who doesn't treat conversation as a collaboration, isn't it? They're the ones who ceaselessly trot out the same patchy, increasingly arthritic mules from their stable of anecdotes. They don't even resemble conversationalists; they're anecdote launchers. I see equivalents in other areas all the time, people who lean hard on a set of techniques which no longer engage humanity outside themselves but which (may) briefly placate whatever human happens to be right there, right then. Think of the visual artist or the talk show host who keeps reaching into the same old bag of tricks that sort of worked for him twenty years ago.
The reason this doesn't look like success, I think, is that success involves modifications of your relationships to other people, not just setting off blips of amusement across them. Is success anything but changing your connection to others, and others' connection to you? Even the most lazy, cynical definitions of success involve it: "I want people to see my name on a marquee." "I want people to read my books and experience the story I've created." "I want more people to hear and love my music." "I want everyone to see me on TV and like me before they even meet me." Isn't this what fame is about, getting a +1 by your name in as many other brains as possible? Even -∞ is good; at least it's not a zero!
The deep trouble begins when you start seeing your potential audience, collaborators or audience-collaborators as the Other. This is the mindset of so many hapless teenage dudes on the hunt for a girlfriend: they forget that they're making a connection and not, say, playing solitaire. Adam Cadre made an astute point about this in regard to the generation of guys raised on computer games: "Want the treasure behind the door? Find the key. Want to get past the troll? Give him the fish. Want the monkey to follow you around? Give him some bananas. Want the girl to love you? Give her the right object, and just like the door, surely she will open up and yield her treasure." (Further reading: he's paraphrasing this GameSetWatch article.)
It's the same with those who would see the rest of humanity as nothing more than potential Twitter followers, votes come election day, reflectors of their own impressiveness, punching bags for their awesome ideological arguments, friends literally to be "won," people literally to be "influenced." All of us have stumbled into this hole at one time or another; some of us have been in the hole so long that we've forgotten there is a hole. Getting over it necessitates getting over ourselves, in a sense, viciously beating back our instinctive "I couldn't possibly have anything to learn from/gain from/enjoy about this person" reaction. This would be a hell of a lot easier if you just jettisoned your critical faculties and just went misty-eyed at your own seam-bursting love for the glitteringly unique snowflakes that surround you. But don't jettison those; you need 'em to even think of doing interesting things in the first place.
As it is, avoiding the doomed condition of the social maladroit seems to require a massive retooling of your assumptions about how the world works and, more dearly, your own identity. I don't know how possible it is. Maybe it's totally doable; maybe it's not doable at all. All I can clearly see is that, as it turns out, no (or few) reasonably successful men (or women) are islands: by definition, nothing (or vanishingly little) successful happens in a vacuum that contains only the person doing it. I don't mean this in the supercilious, "it takes a village" kind of bow-before-your-own-dependency-to-the-group sense. I just mean it as a reminder of something I (and perhaps you) too often neglect: no matter what it is, it's ultimately about interaction.
The principle that "you are what you do" has served me reasonably well, but that's not the only way to think about it. If what you do is a result of what you decide, I might just as well say that you are what you decide. To call back to my Merlin Mann interview quoted in Part I, he said that "you have a happy life based on good decisions and good relationships." Put differently, it appears to be not just about what you decide but equally — and maybe, I'm now ready to believe, more importantly — also how you connect. Deep down, I think we all know this. It's just that, surrounded by the last 600 years' isolation-enabling (and thus ego-protecting) technologies, the craftier among us can now eek by, pretending it isn't true, blanketing the world in the static of our autistic pronouncements. But is that life?