What Is Literary Success?

…Success is in the eyes of the reader.

J. Michael Straczynski
Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

What Is The Message You Want Readers To Receive?

Success (contextual noun): 
a reader understanding the communicated message or story.

-personal definition

I work full time as a copywriter, copyeditor, and webmaster. No one will ever see my name on that work, but to me the work I do each day is vital. It serves a purpose to hundreds of thousands of people and my readers understand the messages I deliver. To me, that is success.

In regards to my personal work, I hold myself to the same standard. I’ve raised my standards to meet those of my professional work, including building a Content Management Plan and hiring a content manager for 5-10 hours per week. No one cares about the name that they see on the cover. No one cares about my author photo other than photographers or the curious few. Maybe the people who are in the acknowledgments will read the acknowledgments. It’s still my work and I’m still the author, but does anyone care that it’s “me”? No.

I am nobody.

Success is when my work stands on its own and delivers a message. But is that message consistent with what I’m trying to communicate?

Speaking Your Reader’s Language

There are several circumstances that can impact a reader’s ability to comprehend your work. Language and cultural barriers make up a blended cohesive layer that impact much of the literary world’s divides. This is often difficult for authors to anticipate and understand without extensive research and preparation. Additionally, multi-lingual authors who are first starting out often are unprepared for the issues they may encounter when writing in languages that have strong nationalistic identities associated with regional forms of their language. This can often lead to bigotry directed toward authors who are attempting to cross these barriers and share information on a global scale.

In circumstances like this, defining your reading audience and speaking your reader’s language is important. However, language is a complex and metaphorical thing which often lends itself toward ableism in this regard. Readers can come in every variety. If they see a message in your writing that makes their worldview feel threatened, even if it was not intentional, they may write a review. Often these reviews will be negative and based entirely on that emotional reaction instead of any careful thought or self examination as to why their worldview has been challenged.

Did you challenge that reader’s worldview on purpose though? Did you challenge their worldview in a way that was intentional and controlled? It is important as a writer to deliver our messages with intention and control. By being intentional with our writing, we are mindful of the consequences of the words we put into the world and how they may be perceived by others.

So often individuals forget to be intentional and fail to be mindful with their words. That is why sensitivity readers and developmental editors are such powerful assets for an author to access when preparing any piece of work. Ask yourself, if you’re afraid of offending people, who are you afraid of offending? Do you think, maybe, it’s okay that they’re offended? Or is this a group of people historically targeted and oppressed? Are you representing some aspect of them as a caricature instead of a character? 

As authors, once our mass produced publications have gone to print, our words are our actions in writing. These have consequences we must be prepared to face, including the feedback we receive from our readers.

How Are You Taking Feedback?

Incorporating feedback is vital to improving one’s craft and delivering a message successfully. Can your work be divorced from you and stand on its own? The reader is the one who decides this. A reader has no context for who you are once your work is out in the world. So, why would you assume anything other than positive intent from those who do know you and have shown you that they care in the past?

There is a tendency among authors to expect only positive reviews from those who know or interact with them. Criticism comes in many forms and not everyone is your friend. People are not nice, and many people have self serving intentions. There are those who seek to sabotage those who they see as a threat for whatever reason. There are those who seek to demolish honesty that “threatens their success.”

But as I’ve already addressed, what exactly is that success that is so threatened? Two definitions of success I recently saw shared mostly included: recognition for work and money.

Part of observing this definition involved some bizarre hypocrisy. Individuals who said they did not want fame were the same individuals who regularly post pictures of themselves, aim to raise follower counts, have private DM chat groups dedicated to sharing their social media posts, and use other such “fame” focused behaviors for marketing. Is this part of the “success game” of social media that has been created within this “Writing Community” we have created? If I told that person of this observed hypocrisy, would they ever speak to me again? Or would they be so offended that they would drop me. Would they treat me and the years of communication we’ve had as a personal attack or view it as feedback on how they could improve themselves through self examination? Is it potentially even no longer safe to give positive feedback in many instances due to risks of misinterpretation without extensive editing?

How Do You Respond To “Bad” Reviews?

As previously mentioned, challenging a reader’s worldview can result in a negative review. This is not a “bad” thing. In fact, challenging a reader’s worldview can be a measure of success. There are books with a high impact on changing our society for the better with negative reviews because they challenge the reader’s worldview. 

In fact, here are some examples from famous titles currently available on Amazon, including sadly commonly challenged worldviews ranging from feminism and adolescents’ rights to self discovery to a conspiracy theory still used to promote Holocaust denial:

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – Judy Blume

All American Boys – Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

The Awakening – Kate Chopin

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

Diary Of A Young Girl – Anne Frank

In many of the above instances the individuals giving the “bad review” needed to be offended. The negative review has everything to do with the content being challenging to the worldview of the reader. It’s not a bad thing to challenge a reader’s worldview.

Do You Care More About Being Understood Or Selling Books?

So, what is success? 

Selling books is great if people read them. Selling books is great if you have found an audience who really, truly loves them. But what if people are buying your books and not reading them?

In 2015, Jellybooks revealed that 40-50% of ebooks purchased through their network are never read.

Readers connect with plots. Readers connect with book covers and hearing other readers talk about your stories. Readers connect with public libraries, newspapers, and radios talking about your books and writing. Readers connect through comments on WattPad, AO3, personal blogs, or whichever platform you use. 

Readers connect with engaging stories that they understand in a consistent way that they can share with those around them until someone says, “can you just send me a link to it?” or  “who did you say the author was again?” while writing down its information.

 Knowing that someone understands your work is so vital to having that person authentically share your work, and that is the first step.

Choosing to ignore finding that audience or once they’ve been found, slighting them, and or hurting them with mindless actions are the worst things any author can do. At best, these actions are self sabotage. At their worst, we can look to the example of Joanne Rowling who has destroyed her entire body of literature’s fan base. Some claim that she never existed and the books materialized out of the ether. Others, myself included, view them with a new interpretation – that everything contained within is in some way a reflection of who she actually is. Every deceit of herself, every lie to her reader, every ploy as she struggled to keep up with social change is now buried within those lines of text.

Your definition of success originates from within. Remember that committing to your definition through consistency in action matters. I hope this reader focused definition of success offers those still searching for their own definition an option.

Warmly,

Lo

Bates Model Sign

Thoughts On Alfred Hitchcock And Auteur Theory

“In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”

Pauline Kael
Photo by Mehdi Sepehri on Unsplash

Alfred Hitchcock: The Auteur

I would not be the first to remark on Alfred Hitchcock as “the Auteur.” I doubt I will be the last.

If you have seen a Hitchcock film, you know some of his signature motifs. You could even compare these with the signature motifs noted as those of “the auteur” as described by Andrew Serris in 1962. In early German cinema Walter Julius Bloem insisted that the director of a film, by nature, is the artist that conveys the message of a film to the audience. All of this is fascinating because Hitchcock produced films in Germany and was highly influenced by the impressionist styles of early Twentieth century German cinema.

Historically, Auteurs were white men. In 2013, Maria Giese pointed out this disparity. Upon further examination, it has been upheld, with only approximately 7% of directors in English speaking cinema being women. With Alfred Hitchcock Day taking place in National Women’s Month in the United States, there’s a joke to be found somewhere.

What Makes An Auteur

Being a man does not make one an Auteur though. Nor does being a male director. So what does? Film critic Pauline Kael ruthlessly pointed out that Hitchcock used repeating themes throughout his movies.

In fact, these signature elements are part of the definition of the Auteur. We can see the artist in their work. With Alfred Hitchcock we can see him in his repetition of avian metaphors throughout his films, even if we exclude The Birds. Examining this particular element of this work makes The Birds, the timing of its creation during his career, and how it’s a joke with himself on the accumulation of birds in his films.

From his experiences in German cinema, Hitchcock brought a recurring element of Chiaro Scuro. This use of light and dark preceding or following characters as a way of conveying information is a European cinematic trope that Hitchcock helped to popularize in Hollywood.

His other signature elements include his regular appearances in his own movies. This is one of the specific features of the Auteur. In some way, as the artist creating a film in some way the film ends up being about the Auteur to some extent. By appearing in his own films, Hitchcock chooses to make the films self insertion.

As part of this narcissistic self insertion, he also chooses to use limited perspective as a repeated thematic element of his films. This tight information control manipulates his audiences. While I would normally not call the use of limited perspective and information control narcissistic on the part of the creator, this is the same man who called the people acting for him cattle.

The other feature of an Auteur and this self insertion is the manifestation of their own underlying sexual fantasies, confusions, tensions, prejudices and disturbances. Hitchcock was particularly cruel in this regard to men. Multiple of his horror and suspense films included messaging against homosexual and gender nonconforming audiences. He also objectified female characters, often stripping literary characters of any attempt at depth arduously crafted for them by the books’ authors only to present them on screen as a flat cinematic device, such as in his horror and espionage films.

Trash

Pauline Kael called Hitchcock “Trash.”

I’d argue that he’s cinematic junk food. Hitchcock movies are cinematic candy created for mid century mass consumption made by a man who rose to a place of power in Hollywood. Repetition as a means of brainwashing a national mid century audience obsessed with their own discomfort isn’t original, but it is a powerful tool.

Pauline Kael’s primary ruthless criticism pointed out that Hitchcock’s use of repeated themes, even if he created them, made him unoriginal.

This poses the question: does self plagiarism or the repetition of old tropes make one unoriginal? What about “stealing” ideas from other artists? 

Yes. Unequivocally.

As artists we should always strive to be better people and better versions of ourselves. As we create, we should not accept our old works at face value. There are benefits to being our own worst critics and to criticizing the people once held up as heroes of artistic fields.

We can admire Hitchcock. We can study his works and we can learn from him if we also accept criticism of him and grow. 

And you, reader, can be so much more. You can be better than Hitchcock in this new century. I and others can’t wait to see what you can do.


For those interested into delving into some of the themes mentioned

Reading:

Kubric & Hitchcock: A Semiotic Puzzle

Watching:

Thoughts On Mary Wollstonecraft’s Statue

circa 1797  english feminist writer mary wollstonecraft godwin 1759   1797, author of 'a vindication of the rights of woman' and mother of mary wollstonecraft shelley  a drawing by a s merritt after the painting by opie  photo by hulton archivegetty images

Born in 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft was an early feminist and I learned of her first as the mother of Mary Shelley, the mother of Science Fiction. While she was born to what many would call an abusive family by modern standards, what she experienced as childhood was common for women at the time. By a combination of being lucky, her own craftiness, and wielding her unhappiness through rationality, she gained an audience upon publishing her works.

Make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives; – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.

Mary Wollstonecraft

That was her reality. She had the benefit, by all accounts, of being pretty enough and educated enough. She worked as a translator when she realized that being a housewife would drive her, and those around her, insane. And this lended her the opportunity to write her book, “A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women.”

I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.

Mary Wollstonecraft (arguing something that women are still arguing hundreds of years later)

Her arguments can be summarized here:

  • Men and women should be provided equal education in a coeducational environment as they are expected to marry each other and should thus be educated equally as well.
  • Men/those with power in society should be the primary leaders of a feminist liberation movement.
  • Women must choose rationality over sensibility (sensibility being defined as whims and emotions). This has been used to argue that her opinion was that sex and romance were distractions for women. This has also been subject to numerous criticisms.
  • Further addressed in “A Vindication Of The Rights Of Men” she argues in favor of constitutional monarchy and republicanism based on its distribution of power and the negative impacts that charity has. This plays into views on the church.
  • Utilitarianism makes constant appearances in her views. This may explain part of the union between herself and her husband/fellow philosopher William Godwin.

As with all historic persons, we must consider her works in the context of her time period and life experiences. While she was considered radical for her time period, she was radical for arguing that women were capable of being creatures driven by rationality and sharing responsibilities with men as equals with independent interests in self direction. Sadly, she died 10 days after giving birth to her second child, Mary Godwin (Later, Shelley), in 1797. When I heard a memorial statue to her was going to be done by an artist I really like and everyone I know hates, things got exciting.

Don’t worry, I’m okay with people hating the art I like.

Maggi Hambling had no small feat ahead of her as she designed a statue to honor Mary Wollstonecraft. Her past works include A Conversation with Oscar Wilde , Scallop (for Benjamin Britten), and so many more. She has constructed art dedicated to some of the most eccentric and extreme of individuals made famous for how their existence and identities coincidentally fell into history. I have a few favorite pieces by her including War Coffin and her paintings of the North Sea. She’s a talented artist with a very unique style.

In my opinion as a fan of her work, Hambling designs her memorial pieces with the full context of an individual’s life in mind. She works hard to include the ugliness with the beauty and as I mentioned before, Mary Wollstonecraft was gifted with a rather lovely physical form. This meant that to communicate her concept of the woman emerging into a future society as a rational being from one ruled by the senses might be a difficult design challenge when there are other creatures with penises in the room. Additionally, Hambling’s statues are interactive. Each of her sculptures is designed with considerations to their orientation in their surroundings and how each person is going to sit, touch, lay on, and feel each sculpture to interact with the memory of the person she is representing.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of her statue. It reminded me of the 35th Anniversary Edition cover of Atlas Shrugged. [I’ve been encouraged to add that this deeply bothered me because I did not at any point think I would associate feminism and anything relating to Ayn Rand at the same time. But here we are.] Admittedly, this was the first picture I saw:

Image

Then I saw more of the sculpture…

Image

But here’s the full statue….

Mary Wollstonecraft

The “naked lady” portion is maybe 1/8 of the total height and is in no way provocative. Why was I reminded of the cover of Atlas Shrugged? Probably the borderline brutalist take on the architecture of the human form that strips it of sexuality and focuses instead on its utilitarianism; this feels post-modernist. Yet we’re talking about an 18th century rationalist woman asking for the right to individual agency and purpose derived from the self in a way that is equal to men of equivalent status. Hmm… This actually looks spot on for the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and I can’t argue with it.

As for the amorphous blob she is standing upon? Now, that’s evocative. Stare at it long enough and you start to see human shapes emerging in sensual, borderline lewd positions. It is glorious and, depending on how creative you are, rude. The rational woman is standing atop an amorphous Akira style faceless nightmare of irrational sensuality, like a freaking epiphany waiting to be seen.

As with all of Hambling’s memorials the sculpture was constructed “for” the person based on their life and life’s works. I’m not saying I love it, but I have no qualms with the sculpture. It gets the job done and creates a thoughtful conversation piece that brings Mary Wollstonecraft’s work into the twenty-first century.


Do you love it? Do you hate it? Do you find it downright offensive? All of these are okay! Feel free to leave a comment below about what you think – that space is for you and I will work to get your comment approved as quickly as possible if you have not previously commented on the website.