(3 minute read)
Moby Dick and the Whale Tale
Herman Melville wrote an American classic, Moby Dick, as we all know. Contrary to popular belief, Melville was successful early in his career with two early novels (they were bestsellers in England and America largely because they were quite sensational personal accounts of his capture by cannibals on Marquesas Islands after he and a fellow seaman had deserted their ship) but his popularity steadily declined thereafter. Melville only made $10,000 over his lifetime from his writing (about $250,000 today).
He floundered. In 1849 Redburn was published. His biographer Robertson-Lorant believed Redburn was written for popular appeal: "Melville modeled each episode almost systematically on every genre that was popular with some group of antebellum readers," mixing "the picaresque novel, the travelogue, the nautical adventure, the sentimental novel, the sensational French romance, the gothic thriller, temperance tracts, urban reform literature, and the English pastoral". What this tells me is that Melville was frustrated with his lack of success and was trying to write for commercial success. He wasn’t being true to himself.
In 1851, Melville published Moby Dick (The Whale) but over his entire life the book only sold 3000 copies. Melville had high expectations for Moby Dick but critics for the greater part ignored the allegorical novel.
When Melville died on September 28, 1891 all of his books had been out of print for fifteen years. He’d taken a position as a customs inspector (dock worker) to support his family where he worked for twenty years. Melville continued to write. He wrote novels, poetry and novellas but without producing the desired dream of literary fame. He was certainly considered a financial failure as a writer.
It wasn’t until the 1920’s that critics began elevating Moby Dick as great American Literature, now a staple in American high school reading repertoire.
I recently spoke with a writer friend and she was lamenting that her book she had poured her heart and soul into wasn’t selling. Should she have targeted the book to a particular audience or in short, made the book more marketable? I can’t answer that question but I do know the only thing each writer brings to the table is their own truth, their own voice and you must honor that voice.
Lord of the Flies by William Goldman was rejected twenty times, Carrie by Stephen King was rejected thirty times, William Saroyan collected seven thousand rejection slips before his first short story was published and the list can go on and on. You won’t have that problem today because writers will self-publish and meet with the lack of sales my writer friend mentioned above did. They don’t have a gatekeeper stopping them from publishing.
I’m going to assume you are monstrously talented like Stephen King. So what’s the difference between you and Stephen King? Stephen King was lucky, it’s true. Does this make Stephen King more important than you? Does this mean he’s a better writer than you are? Maybe. It means he’s richer but I’ll also bet Stephen King is still humble about his writing. To be a good writer, to be a great writer you must stay humble. Humility allows you to listen and it is in listening that you learn about people, their motivations and you can more easily slip inside a character’s skin.
If you are a humble writer, massively talented and are very lucky, you still might not have success as a writer. Very few people are successful. There are millions of people who want to help you achieve success as writer if you will just sign up for their $49.95 writing course that teaches you how to be a NY Times best selling author. Really?
So why are you writing? Why do you keep writing? You write because you write. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. If you are writing to impress your mother or prove your high school English teacher wrong, do yourself a favor and stop writing. You will not be happy as a writer even if you do manage to find modest success because it will never be enough. Let’s say you sold one thousand copies of your three-dollar book. You can do the math.
In 1991 I went to an award presentation speech that Eudora Welty accepted for her writing. I cannot remember the question the audience member asked, but I remember her answer. Eudora Welty, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction said, “I’ve never been able to afford to just write. I always had to earn my living.”
You aren’t writing for money or fame, you are writing because that is what you do. You write.
(C) Copyright 2021 - Monique Holden - All Rights Reserved.