books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, March 28, 2010

THE GROUCHO MARXIST MANIFESTO

I know this is a blog on writing, but I’m going to talk this week about Marxism: Groucho Marxism.

The Groucho Marxist manifesto is, to paraphrase the great Julius Henry Marx himself—

“I DO NOT CARE TO READ A BOOK WRITTEN BY A PERSON WHO WOULD ACCEPT ME AS A FRIEND.”

Groucho Marxists are your family members and so-called buddies who won’t read your work and assume it’s terrible, just because it was written by somebody they know.

I’m not talking about those helpful beta readers who comb through your unpublished manuscript looking for flaws to be fixed before you submit. These are the folks who refuse to read your work—and often feel compelled to ridicule it—even after it’s been vetted and edited by professional publishing persons.

Again to quote Mr. Marx: “FROM THE MOMENT I PICKED UP YOUR BOOK UNTIL I LAID IT DOWN, I WAS CONVULSED WITH LAUGHTER. SOME DAY I INTEND READING IT.”

They don’t, of course, intend reading it. You’ll hear amazing excuses, like “I’m dying to read your book, but I’m so busy, I can never get to a bookstore. Some of us have real jobs, you know.”

After three years, this one gets a little frail, especially from your former college roommate, who works at the Starbucks counter in her local Barnes and Noble.

And there’s the pal who says, “I tried to get through your story in Another Realm, but it just didn't interest me.” You wince and say—“But you love zombies. Didn’t you like it when the heroine walked into the schoolroom full of zombie first-graders?” Your friend gets huffy and says “I couldn’t get that far…”

The zombie 6-year-olds are in paragraph one.

And how many people do you know who endlessly email you silly poems, cartoons and videos—accompanied by dire threats to your karma if you don’t pass these treasures on to 150 of your closest friends? But when you tell them you’ve just posted a great joke on your blog they say—“I never read blogs. They’re such a waste of time.”

Or how about this one: “I never read fiction. I can’t waste my time reading frivolous stuff. I want to learn something when I read.” I had a boyfriend who loved to say this—until I caught him reading that great fiction publication, the National Enquirer. Novels are still with me. He isn’t.

And there’s my personal favorite: somebody who hasn’t read any of your work recommends something by another author in your genre—“so you can see how a pro does it.”

And these people are so surprised when you’re annoyed.

So where does this nastiness come from?

1) Stifled creativity. In her classic creativity manual, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about “crazymakers”—friends and family who actively thwart your creative process. She says the most common reason for this is their own fear: crazymakers are desperate to create something themselves, but they’re scared. So instead they make life miserable for those who do.

Try encouraging your stifled friend to take a pottery class, or try his hand at jewelry making.

2) Fear you think you’re better than they are. Even though you’re both still waiting tables at Applebees, you’re a WRITER now. She’s still a waitress.

Time to remind her how much you’re in awe of her bowling skills. And maybe educate her in the realities of the writing life. Let her know your advance is already gone, paying off the bills you racked up while you were learning to write.

3) Narcissism. Some people simply can’t share the spotlight. This type is probably in your life because you so often sit quietly in the corner not saying much. He thought this was because you were admiring his wonderfulness. Now he realizes you were taking notes for your novel.

It might be best to let these people drift out of your life. There will always be more, if you need novel-fodder.

4) They miss you. You’ve been working on that book for five years, plus doing the rewrites and pre-launch networking, then planning your big publicity campaign, and of course, starting your next opus.

It might be time to take your friend to dinner and reassure him that writing isn’t the only important thing in your life.


And we need to remember that some people really don’t like to read. Feel sad for them. Very sad.

13 comments:

  1. Just a quick note to say I have moved through the phase of the above mentioned irritating responses and risen all the way to the next tier of irritating responses. The ones that go something like, "I'm a big fan. That was such a great story. I saw the movie ten times." My conclusion is that often people really do not know that they are being hurtful, and particularly don't know that they are hurting you in a painfully familiar way. At least, this is the belief to which I cling.

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  2. Loved the post and saw an awfully lot I can relate to.
    My family are desperate to read my work though...they actually kill themselves laughing at it...the problem? I'm not writing humour at the mo - but reality based magical stuff for YA ..!..OOps, maybe I should go back to the drawing board..
    Super post!

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  3. In my experience, good old Dr. Phil's comment -- You'd be surprised to learn how little people pay attention to you or what you're doing -- applies. Most folks are focused on their own lives to the exclusion of all else. As for people not reading what you've written, I figure that's also par for the course and have to ask, "So, where is it written that they have to read what you've written? Or be interested in the least? Because they're 'friends?'"

    Naw, not in my experience. Sure you want to dump negative "friends," (but that applies to everyone, not just writers) but there's friends and then "quasi-professional writer-friends-who-read-your-work-and-support-your-efforts." Those two groups are often entirely different. And really should be, based on interest alone.

    In general, I've always thought that a writer writes like a person drops a pebble into a pool. The pebble dropper has no hope of retrieving the pebble and no idea what those ripples will do or where they will go (if anything or anywhere.) He/she writes and drops, writes and drops. I've never viewed it as a contract: If I write, you must read. It's more like casting bread on the waters (or pearls before swine? heh-heh?) Writers write because they want to or must, and if they can get paid to do so, lucky them. If they get readers, well, lucky lucky them. But if they confuse "friends" with "readers" they'll likely end up disappointed and ticked off.IMHO, at any rate.

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  4. Good comments here.

    Churadogs, your comments are useful, especially since, as a newspaper columnist, I know you've dealt with a lot of this. And it's a lot easier to pick up a newspaper and read a column than it is to acquire a whole book. Still, I think if "friends" have hissy fits if you don't go see them in a walk-on in a local theater production, or admire their classic vehicle at the local car show, or endlessly praise their pictures of their grandkids, then they should have the grace to read some of your stuff.

    Anne-Marie, maybe you've got some G. Marxists in your family--or maybe you're a budding Groucho yourself...? NOT a bad thing.

    Catherine, I laughed out loud at the "I'm a big fan...I've seen the movie 10 times" line. For anybody out there who's seen the film of Pay it Forward, but hasn't read the book: YOU DON'T KNOW THE STORY!!

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  5. Great post, as usual. Just yesterday I handed my latest completed manuscript to a friend to read(upon request). He leafed through the pages with apparent delight and said he would have it read by the end of the week and would gladly highlight any typos and...left it on my couch. Ah well.

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  6. I both cringed and giggled at this post, Anne. My all-time favorite is having people find out you’re a writer and then proceed to ask what it is you REALLY do for work. Um…yeah, I write. Casual dismissal is a funny/prickly/awkward thing.

    As far as friends and family go? I’ve come to the conclusion that either they become the most rabid fans, or else the most humbling reminders of our "little fish" status in this world.

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  7. I loved this post, but here's an alternative view:

    It could be that loved ones are wary of reading dreck. God knows, when I eagerly handed over the first novel that I’d ever written – you know the one where I thought I’d solve all my financial dreams and retire shortly after receiving my 7-figure advance—you know, that one? – when I handed that to a few friends to read thinking I’d sit back and let them experience the incredible genius that was my glorious, original, startling well written novel, the response was…..silence.

    And then, wariness.

    Some had some tactful feedback. In fact, I love those that did that. But some were like “Mmmm…..right…yeah, it was good!”

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  8. I've had this happen to me before, and I'm not published. But when I try to share my short stories, my manuscript, the only person who will read is my mom, and moms read+love anything. I find you can't entrust your book to people who aren't readers or who aren't into the craft of writing. They don't get it. And, I think, especially if you haven't published anything, they assume you're bad an unaccredited from the get-go and therefore a waste of time.

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  9. Sierra and Susana: I agree 100% that showing your unpublished stuff to family and friends is usually a bad idea. You want to have the stuff vetted by other writers or writing teachers first.

    What I'm talking about is published work--something a bunch of professional people have been willing to spend money on to acquire and publish in a magazine, website or book: your big triumph. Especially if the "friend" reads extensively in your genre. Then it strains a friendship. At least it has ended some of mine.

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  10. This post and the comments certainly are interesting. I'm still having a problem with what I think seems to be "assumptions" on the part of writers, and that's the assumption that somehow people SHOULD be interested in your writing (or anything else you're doing.) That assumption, more often than not, turns out not to be true, which then results in disappointment and anger and hurt feelings and lost friendships. There also seems to be some sort of implied contract/compact: I pretend to be interested in pictures of your grandchildren and you pretend to read my novel. And when that contract/compact is broken, disappointment, anger, hurt feelings, lost friendships.

    I'd suggest a little experiment. Suppose you took that assumption and that non-existent contract/compact OUT of the equation. Poof! It doesn't exist. You don't assume that anyone is interested in the least about your work. At all. In any way shape or form.

    Now, what, inside yourself, changes?

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  11. Churadogs, I have a different view of friendship. I do see friendship as a kind of contract, where people agree to give a damn about each other. If I'm supposed to be interested in the minutiae of somebody else's work life, and they're not interested in mine--whether it's writing or serving burgers--we're not friends. I'm being used. Time to move on.

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  12. I suppose then, the question would be, Can you be friends with someone, wish them well, cheer them on for their successes, comfort them when they're hurting, but not be particularly interested in the "minutiae" of their work life? Like, if your friend worked for an insurance company, would you regularly read his quarterly reports and critique them? Or spend hours discussing various trends in life insurance? Or would his work life simply be part of who he is and wouldn't particularly be someting he/she expected you to participate in, knowing that while you wish him/her the very best, you're just not that interested in his work, except as to how his/her work affected him/her, i.e. going well or going badly, etc. Just like he/she is your friend, and cares about and supports you but is not particularly interested in your working life.

    Plus, who said you're supposed to be interested in somebody else's work minutiae? And is it possible to give a damn about someone without being particularly interested in their work minutiae? Heck, I know married couples who adore one another but when either starts yakking about work, both stick fingers into their ears and go, LaLaLaLa.

    Which reminds me, did James Joyce's wife ever really understand what in hell he was nackering on about?

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  13. I read this as unpublished feedback -- speed reading gets you nowhere - but I re-read the post and comments in the light for which it was intended. What I'm wondering is, where does anyone get off criticizing you after being vetted by publishers and editors who know what they're doing? Why isn't the answer "Well, I guess my publisher and editor, who are trained in literature, know what they're doing?" to anyone's wayward comments?

    More importantly, what kind of friend or family member is so discouraging to your success? I know you listed the reasons why -- and they're all good ones. But I think it takes a low person to belittle such amazing success.

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