If you write an erotic story — or any story, for that matter — and never publish it, you will have done a very good thing. If it stays in a box for you to cherish, if it is passed between you and your lover, shared among friends, or circulated on a private e-mail list, you will have accomplished something quite wonderful.
By writing privately, you will have expressed yourself intimately, and communicated with exactly who you wanted to speak to in the first place. You will have the primal satisfaction of an artist: your imagination fulfilled. You’ll have confronted the challenge to be authentic, to dream aloud, to take yourself over the falls and climb back out, soaking wet and ready for the next round. Congratulations, you are a true writing hero!
By not publishing in the public world — with the mediation of publishers, distributors, and retailers — you will remain unsullied and unembittered by the publishing process, which is not unlike being dragged naked inside a barrel filled with nails.
No one will put a price on you, no series of twits will be the final arbiters of your value. Your writing will not be lost in the shuffle, or ignored, or insulted. It won’t find itself in the hands of the indifferent and indignant. You won’t be told you’re a superstar, but neither will you ever be called a has-been, a one-shot wonder, or a fraud. You will not be betrayed by strangers.
When I read stories by unpublished writers that deeply affect me, I am torn. My first impulse is, “They are so incredible, they must be read by the rest of the world. How can I get their work in print?” Yet the other side of me says, “They are so dignified in their publishing innocence, their uncompromised integrity. How can I seduce them to what I know is a miniature version of hell?”
My advice to unpublished writers is this: There is nothing like the thrill of reaching new readers with your work, the people who resonate with your creative ideas and want to share their own inspirations with you. There is nothing like hearing a total stranger say, “Your story changed my life.” Some of those strangers will become your dear new friends, future collaborators, lovers, and comrades.
However, in order to reach those new friends, lovers, and comrades, you are going to have to go to The Market. The Market is not “your friend”; The Market does not have your self-interest at heart. It can be an intoxicating place — the money changing hands, the competitions, the auctions, the promotions and premiums — but it isn’t a place that puts art first, or people first. It puts money first, and that requires a measure of illusion and exploitation that must be endured in order to reach your desired audience.
The fans of The Market will snarl at you, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” and it is best to take their words as helpful advice, rather than as an insult. There is no dishonor in being an artist who simply doesn’t want to get burned. If you do go The Market route, you will, without exception, get burned, and so you have to be the sort of person who tolerates scarring.
I have looked over my publishing career many times, trying to weigh its consequences. I’ve met thousands of wonderful readers and fellow writers. I’ve been influential; my I’m-going-to-change-the-world tendencies have been powerfully stoked. I’ve supported my family with my writing, and I’ve also indulged in luxuries, the most delicious of which has simply been the fortune to not work a nine-to-five job. It’s been an ego trip par excellence; it’s been a cash cow; it’s been a dream come true; it’s been a revolution in my life as an artist and, in my case, as a social activist.
Those are the benefits The Market allowed me, although it has never, ever given me the insight and pleasure I get from sitting down at my computer to write. That high is mine alone.
The Market has also been a beast to me, in the same way that it is to all writers, whether famous, rich, or practically anonymous. I’ve submitted to people I don’t respect. I’ve agreed to compromises that made me sick and kept me awake nights. My work has been placed in the hands of people who were incompetent, frightened, and even malicious. I’ve lived on a financial roller coaster, with my heart in my mouth, and caused my family no end of worry. Bad reviews and unsparing personal criticisms have been de rigeur, and so are stalkers and sycophants. And my case is hardly unique. I’m only traveling down a road as weathered as a Roman highway.
The more well-known and successful you become, the more you are a target of others’ envy and your own insecurity. Someday you will wake up understanding perfectly what they want, but not having a clue what you want anymore. Your own personal insights may feel bleached and dovetailed into the desires of those you aim to please.
Sometimes you will hate writing, and think you’d rather be boiled in oil than suffer another deadline, another contract, another publicity stunt. You will verge on complete misanthropy. Some of the indignities — the greatest ones — will be hidden from you and remain that way for years.
The professional writers’ philosophy, like the motto in academia, is “Publish or Perish.” Those of us who’ve survived years in publishing are masochistically proud, like war veterans, of our head wounds, our shaking hands, and our lack of a bath. For us, to have made contact with a new audience — to have made contact, period — was worth the struggle in The Market’s trenches. We like to tell the story about how we nearly died — a hundred times over.
But as much as I’d like to offer another toast about how I triumphed over The Market, how I made it dance my tune, I’d rather be candid for a moment: I admire writers who don’t publish, or who self-publish. It’s not their craft or their content I speak of, but rather their dignity, their discretion, their complete control of their work.
For those little piggies who don’t go to The Market, who stay home, who write what they want and swallow none of the garbage, I salute you, and I encourage you to stay the course. Your creative spirit is second to none; and as regards your erotic understanding and satisfaction, you will only benefit from the pleasures of never being deemed a commodity. Relish it!
From How to Write a Dirty Story: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Erotica. My personal favorite chapter!