On The Uncomfortable Hierarchy That Writers Have

When I was at Clarion, a Very Big-Name Writer came to speak to us.  He believed he was inspiring.

Among the many things he said in an attempt to exhort us was, “As writers, maybe ten of you are worth one of me! And ten of me are worth one of Neil Gaiman, here! And ten of Neil are worth one Stephen King!  But you can move up that ladder!”

And later on, we asked Neil about that, and Neil made that soft little sigh he makes when he’s disappointed in someone. “The thing about {$Big-name-writer},” he ventured, “Is that he sees hierarchies everywhere. And so he finds them. And he’s usually on the bottom of them, which I think makes him deeply unhappy.”

Neil is right.

The thing is, back when I was a quote-unquote “nobody,” I still had conversations with John Scalzi and Tobias Buckell and other quote-unquote “big” writers punching above my weight. When she went to WorldCon, my friend Emily wound up having a great conversation with George Martin, even though she didn’t know who the hell he was. My wife had a brilliant discussion with Alan Dean Foster, and I still envy her for that (I was out of the room).

I think that in general, if you talk to a writer and have something interesting to say, they will chat with you. And that’s glorious. There are exceptions, of course, as there are in any field – I can think of a handful of folks who sniffed my nametag and found me wanting, then conspicuously ignored me – but mostly, I go to cons because what the fuck, here I am talking with all kinds of people, some of whom are pretty big deals…. and they don’t care.

Now, Big-Name Writers are often not as available to the general public as you’d like, because when I go to a con I prioritize my friends.  And often my friends are fellow writers, and so I wind up being a little exclusive because, shit, how long’s it been since I’ve seen Keffy? And people who’ve been around forever probably have some flavor of that, where there’s only so many people they have time to meet, and they wanna seek out the familiar Greatest Hits collection instead of seeking out the just-as-good-but-more obscure B-side that is currently you.

And there’s also writers who are fans of each other. It’s interesting, because I look at some groups of writers, and sometimes I feel they’re very clubby, promoting each other’s fictions. But I realize that’s because they’re each fans of that style of writing, as in they’re all aspiring to be very similar stylistically, and so they chat more – and I recognize that I tend to seek out people who write like me who I’m a fan of. So that’s another factor.

And, of course, there are douches who don’t have time for “lesser” people.  These douches exist in every profession, sad to say.

But in general, I agree with Neil. I think that Twitter and cons are a surprisingly hierarchy-free environment – you can find elements of tiering if you look for it, of course, but having moved in other fields where hierarchies are much more ingrained, generally I’m shocked at how amazingly friendly and approachable writers are.

The thing is, I see hierarchies all the time, because I have a crippling case of impostor syndrome.  And, much like Big-Name Writer, the problem with having impostor syndrome is that it hunts for reasons why authors must be superior to me… and then puts me on the bottom of that totem pole.  And there’s a very sad part of me that keeps track of who’s responded to my oh-so-witty Twitter replies, and who got the invite to that anthology when I didn’t when I am totally in her league, and knows that he has an agent and that’s all due to the way they shook hands at the convention, that’s proof of how ridiculously old-boys’-group this whole shebang is.

I’m generally a better writer when I ignore that noise.

I can concentrate more on the work.

The thing is, you can see hierarchies wherever the hell you want.  In many cases, you can take a group of your friends and map them into strict (and maybe even accurate) hierarchies from the Alpha Dog all the way down to that shivering Gamma Rabbit, and the only thing you’ll have accomplished is to make yourself feel miserable that you’re not at the top.  And I find that if you abandon the idea of “Who is superior to whom?” and instead kick back to go see a movie with them and throw popcorn at each other, your life will be a lot more satisfying.

Spend less time worrying about the hierarchy and more time making friends.  It’s actually good advice everywhere, but especially so in writing where you’re going to take enough hard knocks from rejections and bad reviews and stories you don’t yet know how to write.

So yeah, I get fits of hierarchy, which I treat like fits of depression – an unhelpful illusion that I should do my best to ignore.  And when I shrug that shit off, I find it easier to write another 500 words for the day.

Those 500 words need to be better.  Can I write better than I did the day before?  That’s all that matters.

1 Comment

  1. Mishell Baker
    Feb 18, 2014

    And the thing is, the higher you climb up the supposed hierarchy, the larger and larger the group of people who considers you over-hyped garbage. So there’s really no way to “win” this game except to be satisfied with your own work.

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