A Cult Author in a 50 Shades World

In late October 2012, I agreed to guest edit The Afterword, the online book section of The National Post.

The following essay originally appeared in The National Post, Wednesday, October 24, 2012.

Someone (I cannot remember who, for once Google has let me down) once stated that a “cult author” was an author five book sales short of making a living. By that standard, I’m hardly a cult; I’m barely a parents’ basement full of pale-skinned weirdos.

If, however, you define a cult author as one who has a small following outside of the mainstream, I unquestionably qualify. I’ve had decent reviews from reputable media outlets (some irrationally great ones, too), I’ve broken through some ranks and gotten my name recognized, but at the end of the day, I still lie firmly on the bed of nails we cult authors sleep on (oftentimes because we come up with metaphors like that).

And I’m fine with this. I consider myself lucky just getting my blatantly weird ramblings published at all. All I’ve done is write stories that amuse me. Anything on top of that is pure Ontario maple syrup with extra Cool Whip.

Rather, I thought I was fine with it. A recent talk I attended by Canadian thriller writer extraordinaire Linwood Barclay (all-round great guy, BTW, and bloody-well talented) has given me room for pause. In his remarks, he referred to his work as a novelist as his business. While Barclay unquestionably enjoys his work, he exists at that rare literary nexus where art meets commerce.

This set me to pondering my microscopic placement in the CanLit cosmos. Is what I do an art, or a business? I work at my craft, I try my best, and I’d love it if people enjoy the result. Nonetheless, art is in the subjective pupillary dilation of the spectator, and such abstract achievement is difficult to quantify. $UCCE$$, now, that is an economic concept effortlessly demonstrated by the state of my bank account. To misquote that great thinker of our age B.J. Simpson, when it comes to the art of business, I both suck and blow.

I like money. I like what money gives me: food, clothing, shelter, games for my PS3. And I’d like more. Could I become that most atypical of beasts, an author who makes money? Not through the vagaries of chance (c’mon, Giller!), but through a substantial shift in my artistic mindset?

Instead of writing for me (so selfish), I could focus my energies on creating a user-friendlier product. I would study the bestseller lists, see what sells. I could start an ongoing crime series starring a wisecracking beaver, say, or I might write some Star Trek fan/slash fiction that could then be fashioned into an epically awful yet undeniably profitable romance series. I may perhaps fashion my political beliefs into a screaming match of a treatise against all who would challenge me with facts and figures, publish it under an inflammatory title, Jerkwads, Morons, and Canadian Politicians. Bingo bango bongo, instant ca-ching!

I’m not trying to disparage those who make such livings; indeed, I’m ravenously jealous of such accomplishments, substantially more so when the results are damnably fine (thanks again, Mr. Barclay, don’t ever stop). I’m just not sure I can make that leap, however much I might want it. We all, in the end, write what we want and hope for the best. What I wanted was to write a novel with a zombie as a main character, and so I did. I’m sure Stephen King could do it, and earn a mint from the movie rights. I may have to settle for a cult following.

Still…it did work for L. Ron Hubbard. Redekopologists? Can’t deny, that has a nice ring to it.