Thursday, April 17, 2008

In Praise of Difficult Authors
(or: Bitch really is the new black)

I was reading Entertainment Weekly's article on the difficulties surrounding the release of the new "Hulk" movie. Apparently notoriously difficult star Edward Norton had a pretty major, and pretty public, disagreement with the studio over the film's runtime and direction. Marvel wanted the movie leaner and meaner. Norton wanted the movie longer and with more character development. Having lost the dispute, Norton has supposedly refused to publicize the movie. For a star-driven summer action movie, this is essentially a death-knell (can you imagine if Harrison Ford refused to promote "Indiana Jones"?).

From most reports Norton is a terror behind the scenes--yet brilliant in front of it. He's arguably one of the best--and most versatile--actors working today.

This got me thinking about difficult personalities, specifically in the world of book publishing. I've heard a lot of horror stories about difficult authors. Authors who demand outrageous amounts of time, money and effort from their editors and publishers. Authors who do everything but march down to the company themselves to ream people out (and some have done this). But one thing most of these difficult authors have in common is that an unusually large amount of them are massively successful. So what is it about difficulty that allows writers--and people in other mediums--to be so successful while everyone cowers when they enter a room?

I think a large part of it is that whatever a person demands from their publisher (or studio, etc...) they are putting a similar, if not greater effort into the work themselves. They're not sitting in an easy chair barking out orders, they're putting the kind of time into their work that Michael Jordan did into his jump shot. They're authors who started small, and worked themselves to the top. They didn't sit back passively, they demanded those in charge put effort behind them. And in return they showed the effort would be matched, and then some.

Crime authors, at least those I've met, at among the nicest people in the world. They support each other. Mentor young writers. I--as well as many other new writers--have been the beneficiaries of almost unfathomable kindness from our peers. Sure there are egos--as in any profession--but for the most part crime authors are an absolute pleasure to be around. 

Yet it's well known within the industry that there is very little correlation between the respect a person gets from one's peers, and success in their field. Some of the most beloved authors, the ones who never pay for a drink at a convention, who win the most awards and whose panels are constantly full, don't sell all that well. And many authors who simply don't go to conferences (unless they're the Guest of Honor) and don't schmooze are huge bestsellers. There is often a massive gulf between personal reputation and professional success. Fair? Probably not. True? Unfortunately so.

Yet nobody wants to be difficult. I doubt if you asked authors with the worst reputations if they considered themselves difficult, the answer would be unequivocally "no." Difficult? No. Passionate? Hell yes. 

Perhaps that's a fine line, but the most difficult authors seem to be the ones who, first and foremost, expect the most from themselves. They work harder, and most importantly they see the forest from the trees. Yes, there are many examples of authors who are gracious and kind and have comparable success. They are examples what we aspire to be: people whose books are as beloved as their personalities. And there are also those authors who are simply assholes, who treat others like dirt without offering anything in return (chances are they won't be published for long, as publishers rightfully tend to tolerate difficulty only when it is worth the effort). 

So maybe nice guys don't always finish last, but while most nice guys are buying everyone a round there's a difficult--nay, passionate--author hunched over his desk, with his editor, agent and publicist on speed dial. 

Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. And just like in any business, it's often better to be feared than loved.

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Blogger Graham Powell said...

Reasonable people are not usually enormously successful because they accept realistic limits. Unreasonable people don't give a shit about what's realistic, they want it done right and don't care what that takes.

I myself am reasonable but am pushing myself to be more unreasonable. Also, richer.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Dana King said...

There could be a flip side to the "difficult people become successful" argument. Someone that difficult has to be extremely successful, or people won't put up with his bullshit. There may be just as many difficult, but unsuccessful writers, but they're not getting published any more.

5:43 PM  

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