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The Amateur Writer - The Motive Center
September 11th, 2004
10:52 pm

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The Amateur Writer

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From:stevekelner
Date:November 18th, 2004 11:20 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Oho! So are you a VC of sorts? My daily (and sometimes nightly) life is being a global leader in the executive appraisal and development practice of Egon Zehnder International (www.zehnder.com). There are a few VC and Private Equity firms that have used us to evaluate the leadership of a potential acquisition, for example. Usually after, but more and more people are asking us as part of their due diligence. It's worth doing, for just the reasons you raise! If you want, we can discuss the business applications further off-list or on, for that matter. My next book in progress (very early stages yet) is about applying motivation more broadly to life, and this is one of the areas I'd like to discuss.

At any rate, you raise a very good point around the highly selective sample. I did deliberately go for "published writer," as I saw that as the target for many writers. However, I didn't get people at the far extreme of writing! I didn't get people like Stephen King, for example, the hyper-successful or even just hyper-productive writers. Mostly I have mid-list or even relatively newly published writers. It is also interesting to note that the pattern holds through every genre I studied (e.g., mystery, thriller, SF, nonfiction, romance, romantic thriller) even though the motives related to reading those genres vary.

Of course, again as noted, I don't assume this is the only possible motive pattern in the book, so there's room for all motives. One writer I interviewed was strongest in Achievement motive. Interestingly, she managed to publish two books--both collaborations. But she published!

I appreciate your applause; I've written as an avocation most of my life, and I feel this is an opportunity to help people who want to write but can't seem to get started. I helped my wife get started, and she's got eight books, 15 short stories, two awards, five nominations...that's pretty satisfying!
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 18th, 2004 01:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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As far as anything you care to discuss off list, always feel free to e-mail me at tipgardner@gmail.com.

I do a small amount of venture investing. I tend to focus more on traditional private equity - turn arounds, growth or buying a family out in traditional industries such as manufacturing, services and distribution. I have also done some LBO work, but I don't like auctions or the attention that public deals command. Bad for business, I always feel, even if they are good for marketing. Private equity, like all businesses that live on putting capital to work, rapidly becomes an asset management business, focused more on fee growth and preservation than returns.

I have not generally utlized executive search professionals in due diligence, though that trend has been growing, particularly among venture investors since 1998. It's very interesting and probably quite an intelligent utlization of the skill set.

I wonder if many of my mates on LJ are attacking you? (That's meant as a spot of humour! You seem to take a lot of my comments as argumentative.) At any rate, I don't think that your sample is so selective as much as the phenomenon you've chosen on which to initially base your studies drew you to a naturally self-selecting group. It is, however, interesting to me that you do not seem to have studied any non-genre writers. I would be curious to know how, if at all, a Joyce, Amis, Franzen, Rushdie, etc. differ in their motivations from genre authors, who by definition almost have to have less lofty ambitions one hand and more on another. Sort of like going in for experimental theatre or music instead of West End musicals or Pop. Non-genre writers on the one hand can expect more literary/legacy recognition. On the other, unlike my music analogy, sales seems to follow genre more than art. Thrillers, etc. can often expect higher sales by the look of the stands at book stores and the like than "great literary works."

Accordingly one might expect literary writers to have a higher interest in impact or recognition and perhaps be lower on certain other scales.

Intersting about your wife. Perhaps I should hire you to take over my life and make me give up business for writing! Otherwise, tell your wife that any plot idea of mine, with full background and character notes can be hers as long as I keep, say, 40% of the money! ;)
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 18th, 2004 07:18 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Happy to discuss how EZI, at least, has been working with folks on due diligence if you are interested. Given our ability to predict performance in a given role as well as measuring potential, I think it is a significantly under-used approach that could add huge business value for a small but growing company. There is definitely a "break point" between an entrepreneur and an executive in competency terms, and actually in motive terms as well (that's well established).

Apart from the one previous message, I didn't think I was responding to you as argumentative. I think you're raising important points, worthy of an answer! They're interesting enough that I should move some of this into the main thread!

And indeed you are raising another interesting question. I don't actually think there is a difference on this level between genre and non-genre writers, for several reasons. First, genre and non-genre is an artificial distinction anyway (Poe invented detective fiction and wrote science fiction after all!), though a convenient shorthand for certain styles of prose and plot. Second requires some understanding of how (these) motives work. Being very basic emotional drivers, they can be manifested or satisfied in many different ways. As far as the pure motives are concerned, there is no difference between being a bestseller or being reviewed in the Times Review of Books or being the subject of learned scholarship--it's all impact. Making those distinctions is at a different level of the brain. The third reason is that actually I did study non-genre (what some folks on LJ are calling "litfic") writers. Sarah Smith, a friend of mine, actually writes SF, mysteries, and literary fiction. Her last two books were NY Times Notable Books, which is definitely a sign of approval from the New York Literary Establishment! (Her latest, Chasing Shakespeares is a highly literary story about discovering proof that Shakespeare is the Earl of Oxford, and how that affects a young scholar. Sarah was putting her Ph.D in English Lit to work!)

What you are describing are more what I would call values (technically, "self-attributed motives"), which I discuss elsewhere on the LJ. Certainly these are important--I can think of one author who wrote mysteries for years and then, as she put it, "left the trailer park" for literary fiction, in the process alienating all her old friends. Sadly, I think this happened because her own father, an academic, never took her other work seriously. So the influence motive is probably the same, but the values around what is appropriate writing work are different.

As for giving up business for writing, frankly, the money's much better in business!
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 19th, 2004 07:52 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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No, not argumentitive, it just occured to me that perhaps LJers have been trying to put you on the defensive. No worries, mate, I'm not watching out for your right hook just yet! ;)

Mmm...I think that you are absolutely correct that the big head hunters have an assessment competency that would be well employed by companies, entrepreneurs and sponsors. I think the immediate concern is that sometimes the average head hunter is not perceived to have your technical expertise and/or training. They need more yous and fewer thems.

I think you are absolutely right about the distinctions. I was creating a value-based hierarchy in spite of myself. In fact, one of my fav art shows of the last thirty years was the High Low show at MoMA in NYC, though many consider it a ridiculous thing to have done at one of, if not the, most important modernism museums. At any one time, I read emerging novelists, mid-career lit types, Harry Potter, random YA novels, detective stories, thrillers with the slick varnish of best sellerdom and whatever else catches my passing fancy. And, in general, I enjoy them all.

Now to return to your point, I agree with you overall, but being over analytical and enjoying a bit of free time, I'll pick some layers here, just to make conversation, if that's alright?

I think the nuance is the thing with wanting to make impact of the sort that comes with course study and high literary acceptance. For one thing, the drive does not seem the same. Lit writers often seem to let novels stew longer, they seem resigned/interested in reaching a much smaller audience. Look at Franzen (I have personal experience on this, as his best mate is a good friend and I know him quite well): He pushed back on fame as hard as any "goth" or alternative rock star except perhaps Curt Cobain. He must be the only author to ever reject the sort of throne that Oprah offered! ;) But I use the extreme to make a point. The goal of making perfect art, changing language and shaping thought, though it may stem from similar or even the same motives, is different then wanting to spin a good yarn or make a lot of money or imitate one's heros (if those heros are JKR or S. King types rather than Chabon, Franzen, Delillo, etc.)

I think this gets back to value and hierarchy. It might be something of a Paglia-ism, but if one admits the reality of societal norms and prejudices, then one is undoubtedly impacted by them. That is to say, that society perceives differences between what Koontz and Rowling are doing with what Amis and Murakami are doing.

I like to draw a distinction when having this type of discussion that is absolutely value judgment laden: Art/Language versus story telling. JK Rowling, is, for instance a great writer because she is a great, creative story teller. She gathers tons of familiar ideas and puts them together in an original way. However, I am not ready to say that she is a good or "smart " art. Chabon is probably one of the best examples of someone who can do both. Kavalier & Clay is a great, plot driven book, it is also a smart, literary piece of art. Actually, on second thought, maybe Rushdie and some of the other magical realists are the right example: Sprawling yet taught, changing the way we view the world, the written word and our sense of self. At the same time, Murakami's Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a driving sci fi and detective novel all rolled into one piece of post modern art genius. I wear my biases openly on this one, but I suspect that many, including many writers, would agree.

Meanwhilst, I hope you've had a good day and that Boston isn't too rimmed with frost yet.
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 19th, 2004 08:25 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Actually, I did get pushed pretty hard for suggesting that fanfic could be a precursor to publication instead of a goal in itself, but I'm pushing back--I'm studying the phenomenon!

I agree, incidentally, that most headhunters don't have this training--EZI is exceptional, in that (1) we train everyone on a rigorous technique developed at the University of Michigan anchored in the best methodologies, (2) everyone does both search and executive assessment (what we call "management appraisal") using it, and (3) a core group of thought leaders (including me) are, with the full support of our executive committee, working to raise the bar steadily. I don't believe you need to be a psychologist to do this, but it helps to have one who can explain why it is so good!

Back to art...sure, society makes a distinction now, but will it later? Most enduring artists are popular artists later recognized as fine artists. Shakespeare wrote for the masses. Dickens was paid by the word. Poe and Hemingway wrote for the newspapers. Heinlein commented once that any work that did not acknowledge the impact of technology and science on humanity is in fact out of the mainstream. That may be a little extreme, but it is worth examining the idea, given that the mainstream "novel of character" is approaching two hundred years old, and in many ways hasn't changed significantly since the invention of narrative.

The distinction I often see between "literary" and "popular" fiction makes a couple of assumptions. One is that fine art is inherently less accessible, which by implication means that only educated people really appreciate art. I don't believe this for a minute. There is no question that education can enhance your appreciation of art, but if art requires an audience, then someone who wins a large audience obviously has something going for him/her! This aligns, I think, with your comment about JK Rowling, which I agree with--though I think she's getting progressively smarter every book, and her insight into adolescents astounds me every time I reread her books, not to mention the artistic courage with which she makes her own lead character appropriately unlikeable in OotP.

The other assumption is that literary works are better written. However, this often becomes a circular argument--popular writers are writing down to their audience, which means (falsely) that they are worse. Genre writers are often relying on a large body of known assumptions, practices, conventions, etc., just as a painter must know three-point perspective (whether Picasso chose to use it or not).

Having said that, I am unabashedly elitist in one aspect: I think writing is a skill that must be learned. The great thing about a Chabon, as you say, is that he is a skilled writer in multiple genres. He wrote a terrific little comic book story about the Golden Age Mr. Terrific which was literary in the classic sense but also a good comic story, which has specific artistic constraints (it was in a special issue of the Justice Society of America). James Blish was one of the first SF critics to hold SF writers to "literary" standards, and he was a noted Joyce scholar as well as an SF writer. I'm with him on this--it's not the genre that matters, it's the writer. It is interesting to me that SF and mystery tropes are entering the mainstream, and there are reasons. SF establishes rigorous worlds in which a story can be portrayed to best advantage; mysteries establish rigorous plots in which a story can be portrayed to best advantage, and (to finish the set) romances establish rigorous characters in which a story, etc. The postmodern SF is fascinating to me, be it Chabon or Neal Stephenson. Haven't read Murakami yet, but he's on my list. Sounds as if Effinger's When Gravity Fails may have been in the territory first--and let's not forget Alfie Bester, who was writing modern fiction in SF in the 1950s...

I think we are agreeing violently here, but I'm enjoying the process. I've had a difficult week (brother-in-law burst a blood vessel in his brain, we think; sister-in-law going through family trouble; friend died during a convention he helped organize and we were at last weekend)--things are picking up. Not too much frost yet!
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 19th, 2004 10:10 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Yes, we are, in reality, pretty much in agreement (never something I thought I would say to a Yank!) on all of these topics.

Of coure, the more copies of an artist's work around, the more likely they are to be considered an important artist later. Look at Marlowe and Shakespeare. In fact your example of Shakespeare is even more broadly correct than your version. Marlowe seems to have been generally accepted as the more artistically successful of the two in their own day, yet he was as widely revived and is not considered to be as imapctful today by many excepting academic circles.

BTW, for your Sci Fi list, perhaps you might start with Huxley or Tolstoy's nephew.
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 20th, 2004 07:10 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Well, I like to think of myself as an American who plays well with others...

Your point is well taken, but Shakespeare's posthumous career went up and down a good deal, and ultimately I think the fact that he survived the ages is indicative. Of course, he also got lucky in having people promoting him. Bach might have been just one more obscure musician had he not been "discovered" by a collector--his children might have been more famous than him! It's also interesting reading contemporaries of Shakespeare, like John Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore, which blew my mind back in college, as well as Marlowe--to my mind, you can tell why Will passes the cut!

And on the SF front--I've read stories by Aldous and T. H. Huxley (who wrote an SF short story), but Tolstoy's nephew?
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 20th, 2004 07:34 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Yes, patronism, a separate subject well worthy of study (both the motivations therein and the phenomenon). Plus, there are any number of people with money that should be providing greater support to artists and art institutions, but as I say, another topic.

Hm...I wouldn't say that Marlowe or Ford have stood the test of time any less that Shakespeare, they just aren't read as much in high school and such and so are known to fewer Americans. But again, I take your point.

Mmmm...yes, I can't remember his name, but I believe he wrote one of the earliest, "modern" SF novels. I apologise, I don't have a great depth of knowledge of various genres' histories or writers. I tend to read genre fic when I get cast offs or see a catchy cover in an airport.
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 19th, 2004 10:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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I wanted to leave the personal stuff for its own response because it sounds as though you've been subjected to a terrible month or so. I'm very sorry to hear that. My brother died this summer and a very close friend's brother-in-law had a psychotic episode and threatened her sister and his children with a gun, so I, quite literally, know where you are at. Again, I'm very sorry.
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From:stevekelner
Date:November 20th, 2004 07:14 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Thank you for your kind words. This all happened in the last week, believe it or not. The good news is that my brother-in-law may be okay, and ultimately my sister-in-law will be better for the events--eventually.

I am truly sorry to hear of your troubles as well. Please accept my sympathies for difficult times.
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From:tipgardner
Date:November 20th, 2004 07:35 am (UTC)

Re: Escapism and Community

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Sadly, we are agreeing to well on this topic as well. Best wishes and much sympathy to you and your family as well.
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