Earlier this year, while scanning news headlines (as I do frequently each day), I came across the following:
“Legends of the Fall author Jim Harrison dies aged 78”
Even though I’ve seen the movie of Legends of the Fall, starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, I didn’t know it was based on Jim Harrison’s book. In fact, I didn’t know who Jim Harrison was.
Now I know (because I did a little research before writing this blog post) that Jim Harrison started writing while he was recovering after falling off a cliff, that he was rather prolific, that Legends of the Fall is actually a novella, that he specialised in novellas and that I’ve never heard of any of his other works. Which explains why the writer of the headline felt it necessary to include the name of his most famous work.
There are plenty of writers who, when it comes time for their obituaries to be published, won’t need to have their most famous book or character included in the headline. Stephen King, Jeffrey Archer, James Patterson.
There are plenty of authors who have already passed on who don’t even need their entire names published in order for us to recognise them. Hemingway, Dickens, Austen.
There are plenty of authors who are famous but whose books and characters are even more famous than them so tend to get mentioned anyway. Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. James Bond author Ian Fleming.
But it is really the mid-list author, the one famous credit author, the someone-once-made-a-movie-of-their-book author who will have their book or character acknowledged in their obituary headline. They are really the authors that readers need a little context for. Like Jim Harrison. Like Roderick Thorp, who wrote the book that Die Hard was based on. Like Winston Groom, who wrote the book of Forrest Gump.
As is typical of me, getting ahead of myself, I started wondering if I had already written the book or the character that will headline my obituary. Then I started wondering if I would have an obituary written about me. I’m not famous. I’m not even a mid-list author yet. Yes, I’ve got plenty of time (I hope) before I really need to start worrying about such things. And when I write, I don’t generally think about the writing legacy I will be leaving behind.
But neither do most authors upon writing the book or character that is obituary worthy. When JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book, she received thirteen rejections before finally being signed by Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury wasn’t so sure either because the first print run of the book was only 500 copies and 300 of those were donated to public libraries. Her agent told her the story wasn’t commercial enough to be super successful. Even after Scholastica paid $105,000 for the US rights to Harry Potter, JK Rowling herself wasn’t convinced that her success would be ongoing rather than a one-off, so she worked full-time as a French teacher while writing the second Harry Potter book.
The one thing that all writers who make it big seem to have in common is the determination to write the stories that fill their hearts, that are bursting to get out of them, that fill them with excitement even when they can’t adequately explain to others why they feel that way about their stories. There is no thought given to their writing legacies, to what publishers might want, even to what readers might want.
Friedrich Nietzsche dismissed his readers outright: “Whoever knows the reader will henceforth do nothing for the reader.” And it’s a view echoed by a writer I greatly respect, Joss Whedon, who said, “I think it’s a mandate: Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.”
Too much awareness of the potential audience can make it awfully hard to follow this advice but not enough awareness of it can severely limit a writer’s capacity to find an audience in the first place, to write that book or character that will headline an obituary. So what is the solution? To simply keep on writing.
As much as we would like to, we can’t pre-empt the response to or the success of anything we write. I’ve written and published nearly two dozen articles on LinkedIn. One received nearly 10,000 views and 650 likes while all the others have languished in relative reading obscurity, gathering between 10 and 500 views. And when I’m asked how that one article gained traction, how I got so many readers, I have to admit that I just don’t know.
It would seem that the key to writing success, whether small or large, boils down to this rough recipe: a concentrated cup of skill and a large sprinkling of luck mixed together at exactly the right time.
And as for the book or character that will headline your obituary? Don’t worry about it. You’ll already be dead. Like almost everything else in a writing career, it cannot be controlled. It will be left for someone else to decide upon. Maybe it’s a good thing. One less piece of writing over which to agonise. One less piece of writing to have to draft, review, edit, polish and finalise. One less piece of writing that may ultimately never be published. So that we writers, when our time comes, can rest in peace.