Some years ago, I was in a discussion with the mighty, mighty Tim Pratt about why we write. At this point, I cannot recall if it was private conversation, email, a Con panel, bar chatter, a joint interview or what. What I do recall quite strongly was me making some fairly high flying statement about literary ambition and being read even after my time as a writer had passed. Tim claimed that he wrote to pay the rent.
To this day, I’m not certain how serious he was. I absolutely deserved to have my leg pulled at that point. I’m pretty sure I was overfilled with my own sense of self-importance in the moment. Pegs needed to be taken down, and whatnot. But even so, there’s a valid discussion here.
For one, I don’t write to pay the rent. I have a Day Jobbe for that. It pays reasonably well, is moderately entertaining, minimally stressful, and I like what I do while working with good people and for a good employer. Chances are pretty strong that if we ever talked about it, I’d bore you to tears, but I like my work. That’s what counts.
But the writing? I write because I want to write. I write because I’m in love with the language. I write because the buzz I get from doing a really nifty thing on the page is tangible. I write because I like to be read. I write because I like having readers. And, yes, in I write for posterity. (Which statement could be argued to mean that I write to make an ass of myself, but that’s the English language for you: riddled with half-baked puns and deceptive etymologies.) Money is mostly a way of keeping score, and far from the only method of doing so.
Literary posterity is a funny thing. The author of The Epic of Gilgamesh is anonymous. Most people with much of an education can name Homer as the poet who wrote the Odyssey. Some people know about the Illiad, or that he was supposedly blind. I don’t think anybody but Classicists knows much else about him, even in terms of what tradition says. By the time you get to Sophocles and his lot, there’s at least a little biography attached to the texts. William Shakespeare has entire fields of study around him, complete with academic controversy, revisionism and all the other fun of postmodernist thought.
Who writing today will be subject to that kind of literary posterity? Not me, certainly. But it’s hard to tell. Edward Bulwer-Lytton was the great hope of nineteenth century English letters. Today, his work is literally a joke. His contemporary Charles Dickens was widely reviled by the academic and critical establishment of the day as a hack. Who is the more widely read now?
My guess is of twentieth century authors in popular American letters, we’re most likely to see Stephen King and Nora Roberts on college reading lists a century from now. Not the only ones, of course, but I cannot pretend to know which critical darlings and academically significant authors will also be read.
What I can and do know is that I will not be among them.
I’m okay with that. My vanity is a little disappointed, of course, but my common sense knows better.
What I do hope for is to stay on the shelf a while after I pass. It comforts me that some people love Mainspring or Green or some of my short fiction. It please me that I’m in translation across at least a dozen languages. It pleases me that my work will always be at least footnoted in the history of various awards. It pleases me that people have read me, and for a while at least, will continue to read me.
In a way, that’s always been why I write. To raise my voice a little higher, and have it heard a little longer. The end is coming, and I won’t write all that much more in my life, but I’m happy with what I’ve been able to do. I only wish I could have done more.