“Getting Good”: Is Self-Publishing a Bad Thing?

It’s summer and watermelon seems to be on a lot of people’s minds. I saw a man the other day at the grocery store carrying two watermelons about the size of adult raccoons. Either he must love watermelon a lot or there was a family reunion penciled in on his calendar. Funnily enough, that very afternoon, I found the latest issue of The Sewanee Review, which I’d thrown into a pile best labeled “Someday I WILL Read These.” And, guess what, its summery pinkish cover reminded me of a watermelon slice that’d posed for Frida Kahlo. A pale slice, but a slice nevertheless.

The Sewanee Review, while it’s not The Paris Review, attracts a certain, shall I say, elevated cadre of writers.

Envy loomed up my insides like lava as I read the bios of the lucky writers listed among the contributors.

When I start to read something, mostly essays, I almost always stick my left index finger at the first page, and then skip to the last page. I did the same with Richard Russo’s rambling essay, “Getting Good,” which spills ink for 57 pages. That’s nearly 22,800 words, give or take!

Pulitzer-prize winner that he is, Russo is not a household name, at least not among the general populace, I fear. He’s a writer’s writer. He’s also a writing teacher. For that reason, his opening words shocked me.

This colossal essay begins with a 350-word paean to Russo’s early adolescent yearning to become a rock star. I almost gave up, yawning as I ploughed through prose so flat and lifeless, about events that meant nothing to me, being quite musically  illiterate, until I read the words “get good” after nearly 300 words.

From that unpromising start, Russo meanders first through a description of his maternal grandfather’s artistry as a leather glove cutter, now an extinct trade. Then comes a digression into the workings of Renaissance trade guilds. The crux of Russo’s essay is, of course, the “tension between art and commerce” and the need for writers to put in their mythical ten thousand hours of apprenticeship while “getting good” at their craft, their art. But he cautions the reader that “getting good is no guarantee of success.” The bottom line for Russo is not the bottom line. To that end, he quotes Dr. Johnson, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

Russo warns the impatient writer that self-publishing renders writing into a business, and only a business. Self-publishing seduces writers onto a path, he says, where they sacrifice getting good for the immediate reward of mammon. He cites the experience of his friend, Jess Walter, as an example. Without rejection, without “Nos” from gatekeepers, it’s not easy to get truly good. Believe it or not, “[you] come to understand that rejection, at least for a period of time, is indeed your friend.”

At first, I said to myself, “What? No way! Rejection hurts. It even cripples sometimes, causing a writer to shut down, to cease and desist, to lie down on the path and never get up again.”

But after that, I sank into Russo’s essay like I do into my featherbed at night. The longer I stayed there, falling deeper and deeper into his words – for it’s as if midnight finally came and I’d at last found the sweet spot, the one where pinfeathers weren’t jabbing my backside – the more I recognized what Russo wanted the reader to take away from the essay.

“Yes, I’d like for all aspiring writers to be able to achieve a career, but I care more about those who hope to become craftsmen and artists rather than entrepreneurs and businessmen. The whole point of social media, which I assiduously avoid, is to say, ‘Look at me. Look how many likes I have, how many followers. I’m important!’ The craftsman and artist says the opposite. ‘Don’t look at me. I’m not important. Look at my work. It’s so much better than I am.’ “

In spite of the rough beginning, and the occasional long-windedness of “Getting Good,” waiting for the big reveal at the end, the time I spent with Richard Russo proved to be worthwhile.

I’ve been thinking seriously of self-publishing some of my material, but perhaps I’ll hold off on that.

Getting good might take a bit longer. Maybe I should not feel Envy toward the contributors to the watermelon issue of The Sewanee Review. No. Admiration and respect seem more in keeping with what Richard Russo tried to convey in his essay.

Sticking to it, staying the course, taking criticism square on the chin without tears or anger.

Gratitude, for time, for quiet, for solitude.

Getting good.

5 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your process of reading through the essay, and how it was ultimately rewarding. Perhaps Russo is still in the process of “getting good,” or perhaps it is a continuous process.

  2. I failed to understand why self-publishing should be solely qualified as a business, and for that, as a bad thing. An artist’s work is a product for a publisher (a business). I’m not familiar with publishing either way, but with business in general, and just found that this statement was too dogmatic, as a writer is running her business anyways. Self-publishing is apparently just cutting off the middleman.

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