Here’s how I think the literary world works:
There’s this mansion—huge, old, and beautiful, at the top of a high hill. Inside this mansion are all the published authors in the world.
From time to time these authors come out onto the porch to share their work—this is my allegory’s equivalent of a book release—but otherwise they stay inside, chatting with one another, sharing their early drafts with one another, growing as artists with one another, throughout the days and nights.
When you first fall in love with books, those porch readings are enough—you just delight in hearing the work the authors are willing to share with the public. As you get older, though, and your love of reading broadens to include a love of writing, you start sneaking around to the windows of the mansion, trying to eavesdrop on what’s going on inside. How do these people do the writing they do? What conversations are they having with each other? How is one person’s work speaking to another person’s work in a back-and-forth? You get the sense that the mansion is full of people who, in their souls, are exactly like you, the very people you’ve been secretly been wanting to engage with all along.
But it turns out that the mansion is guarded by an ironclad security system and you can’t get in to start those conversations. Sometimes an author will talk to the public briefly, taking a few questions while on the porch, but otherwise you need a key. And the key is, of course, publication.
So you submit your work for consideration wherever it might fit, and you get some things published in magazines—maybe even in some good ones. And you put your key in the lock and step inside.
Unfortunately, what you learn is that the first room in the mansion is a kind of waiting room. The doors that take you further in are, naturally, locked. So you sit. There are an awful lot of people here, chewing their fingernails and drumming their fingers on their knees, and they’re probably very interesting people themselves—really you ought to strike up a conversation with one of them—though everybody’s so focused on getting deeper into the mansion that it’s hard to imagine getting to know anyone.
Well, so, you keep trying, and you publish a book, let’s say, with a small press. Or maybe not so small. And that’s when someone comes into the waiting room and calls your name, takes your coat, escorts you into the party. This is another room full of people, but these people are nibbling on little hors d’oeuvres, and there’s some real conversation here, clearly some interesting stuff happening. A little quiet music playing. At first you’re delighted. You grab your own napkin and finger sandwich. But then, as you survey the room, you realize that you don’t recognize anybody. They may be writers, but they’re not the ones you grew up reading, the writers you’re still reading. Where are those people you’ve been looking for?
That’s when you hear the other music, faintly, through the walls or perhaps the ceiling. Ah—there’s another party in this mansion, one where, if you could only get there, you could talk the way you want, with the people you’ve been wanting to talk to for just about forever. It’s not even that you’re attracted to their fame, that you want to be famous yourself. It’s just that the way they write really speaks to you, and you want to speak back. You want to be part of that conversation very badly.
And so you keep working at it, keep trying to get your work published. If and when it does, you may find yourself being invited to another room, deeper in, higher up—and then maybe another. You might start to recognize a few people; you might already know some people from one of the earlier rooms.
You’re moving. You’re getting somewhere. But what you realize at some point, if you have any sense at all, is the fundamental truth:
There is no top floor, no deepest room in this mansion. It goes on forever. If you’re biding your time, always looking to the door (beyond which the better party is raging, with even better guests), you will never, ever, ever be satisfied.
That, I think, is how the literary world works.
I myself am a person who’s spent too much time already worrying about mansion doors. Having done so for long enough, there are a couple of things I think I now know:
First of all, you have to enjoy the party you’re at. Every single room in this mansion is full of fascinating people, talented people who are as much in love with writing as you are. Get to know them, and not as placeholders for the people you’re really trying to reach. The conversations going on nearby may be the most exciting ones you’ll ever get a chance to join. In other words, the party right in front of you is probably a damn good one. Don’t miss it.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to know people whose work you admire, wanting to extend your dialogue in new directions. Talking with these great writers might indeed be amazing. (Though, for what it’s worth, it can also be disappointing.) These days there are a variety of ways to get to know other authors. Facebook and other social media sites, for example, have created interconnections that have never existed before in the writing world. You also might meet someone at a conference or artist colony, if you apply successfully to one of those. (Artist colonies are like the smaller summer homes of the mansion-dwellers.)
But here’s the thing: No matter how you approach an author you admire, you have to do it the way any proper party guest would. You arrive not with a list of requests, not with the goal of stuffing your pockets full of goodies and monopolizing the other guests with your questions, problems, and ideas. You arrive instead with gifts in hand—a genuine interest in the author’s work based on having actually read their stuff, for example; an ongoing habit of promoting writers other than yourself; an ability to talk about things other than your work; a recognition that it’s not thoughtful to walk up to a stranger (even if you admire that stranger) and just start asking for favors. Favors come after friendship, not before. In this mansion, you can easily be booted back to an earlier party, and being a selfish guest is a reliable way to make that happen.
One final thought, in the vein of promoting other writers: if and when you do make it to a deeper room, one where the people are more widely-read and so on, try to bring a friend or two or seventeen. What I mean to say is that, among your friends, surely there are some whose work you admire a great deal. If you ever find yourself in a position to help those writers along—connecting them to an agent or editor, introducing them to someone they’ve been wanting to meet, giving them feedback on their work, well, do it. The party will be more fun with them around, anyway.
In the meantime, settle into the party you’ve got, and get to know your peers. Make conversation. Above all, keep writing. And try the mini spring rolls. They’re excellent.