Monday, August 3, 2009

A fighter by his trade...

"In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him
til he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains
Simon and Garfunkel - the boxer

The different strands of the Anglophone world have slightly different takes on what they see in society’s mirror -- you know, the thing Adam Smith wrote about shaping our behaviour and society in THE THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS. No, he didn’t say ‘greed is good’ (pretty stupid), actually, more like ‘enlightened self-interest works’ (very wise) and that was in a different book. In this one was saying more or less that it is the desire to be perceived in a certain way by our society that shapes our morals - in other words the desire to look good in the mirror of your society. I half agree with him, because I like to imagine I am more concerned about looking good in the mirror of myself as seen by myself, which is a lot harder to fool than society... but he has a point particularly when it comes to writing. If your hero doesn’t look good in the relative mirror of your society -- the book won’t be popular. Fortunately, it’s a big broad mirror with lots of distortions. But A MANKIND WITCH is never going to be too popular, for example, in a society that holds dogs to be unclean. And I think it goes deeper than that. The US is a country that loves winners. Places them at the apogee of a society. Australians, and South Africans are pretty hot on winning too... But, least for some of us -- and, I think, unfashionable though it may be, some Americans too (particularly those who are closer to a frontier life), there is a slightly higher pinnacle.
The battler.

I think it’s a virtue which civilized parts or stratified societies don’t like much because it doesn’t put the heir to the family fortune or the golden boy to whom it came easy at the top (which is where the trust fund would like them to be, naturally). Maybe because SA and Australia are very cyclically drought prone (3-7 years here, so you couldn’t even second-guess it, just knew it would come), not to mention pests, raiders, fires and whatever else the world could toss your way randomly, and more of us are still very close to our pioneer-frontier farming roots, we’re a bit more geared to the fact that even the fellow who has ‘winner’ written all over him is going to see his butt every now and again. It’s not whether he can win that counts. It’s whether he can get up, with his life in tatters, and start all over again. And do it again. And again. And again and again, until you bury the dumb bastard... with great respect, because he was a battler. Maybe he’ll die a winner, or not, but he cannot avoid dying a battler. A battler who wins really is the happy ending... and we like that. But we’ll still enjoy the tale of someone who just wouldn’t let it stop him, even if he never did win in the end.

And so, how does this tie into writing? Well, Dick Francis made himself a best-seller with books that, even if you liked nothing else, always had a battler at their center. It makes for a better story than the golden-boy banker or soldier who simply could do no wrong and wins. But the way it really ties in is that wannabe authors need to take cognizance of one over-riding thing: unless you’re a lottery winner (if you are lucky you do get a free/cheap ride to success) you probably HAVE to be a battler in this game. There are going to be times, many of them, when the droughts, plagues, pestilences, raiders and straight bad luck of the world of publishing will knock the cr*p out of you, for no fault of your own. If you’re not one of the lucky few, you’ll have to either quit or get up again and try again... and again. If you keep doing it you may -- like yrs. monkily -- merely be proving that you’re bloody stupid and bloody obstinate. But for what it’s worth, you’ve proved your worth in mirror of a section of society. Stand tall.
And at the end of the day they may say of us that we couldn’t write, but not that we didn’t.

Now you can disagree violently.

Or not.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

So true, Dave. I used to think that once your writing reached a certain standard, it was just a matter of sending your story out.

Now I know the planets have to be in alignment, the editor has to be looking for just that sort of story, the marketing department has to like it and see how they can sell it, the art department has to know what they're doing and put the right cover on it.

And all of that has to happen, before a reader actually picks it up and recommends your book to a friend.

So, yes, only battlers need apply for the job of writer.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Being a battler is only a virtue if you can discern which battles are worth it. If a certain monkey kept fighting to make it as a chef, or a fishery owner, we would have lost a lot of good books.

Dave Freer said...

Yep, Rowena. It's a a different way of looking at it. Might mean you have to reassess Joe Hardlyeverheardofhim as - at least in terms of character a better individual than E... JK whatsisname :-). Would she have still been writing in cafes twenty years later if she hadn't won the publishing lotto the first time out? One can never tell. And as the great Sir Terry Pratchett showed (and he's a battler!) you might just have to keep going for 20 years.

Dave Freer said...

Ori, you know weirdly enough the being a top chef was one of the very few things I didn't actually have to fight for. I knew the right person, was in the right place, and the job and the opportunities that went with it were mine for the asking. Brett offered it to me, and I said no. And I had to choose between that and writing, at that time. I never had the real interest in being a career fish farmer or academic. The latter I made the choice of staying away from when I was offered a research job that would have had me at sea for moths on end (the only time in my life I have been head-hunted by someone who didn't know me).

It's true enough though, you can waste a lot of energy chasing things for which you have no chance of success. But at the end that is something you have to decide for yourself.

I have to admit that my heart is with the keep trying or the comeback kid - whether it is starting with a new pseudonym writing, or trying to get a new career going in a new country, or losing his business and stating again... than with the guy who went to the top of the game and stayed there (or started at the top). He or she might be a good guy, but I know the other has courage.

Anonymous said...

Figure Dave, the difficult path usually turns out to be the most rewarding -- maybe not always financially, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. And I think that's because, deep in your heart and in the eyes that look in the mirror, you know you've earned it.

With the person that had the easy path, there's always that doubt, that feeling that "Am I really as good as they say I am, or did I just get lucky?" Plus, the person who gets things easily can lose them just as easily as well. Some upstart can always snatch that success away, and losing it can be very traumatic.

For the Battler, on the other hand, it's a different story. The Struggle is his own, and it is something he can never lose, nor can anyone take it from him, so there are none of those doubts. Sure, an upstart can steal the glory, but it does not trouble the Battler, for he knows that glory, like anything in life, is fleeting -- merely the calm moments in between storms. As for being traumatized by that loss, if anything the scar is a badge of honor, a fond memory of a particularly arduous adversity, and something to be cherished along with his other scars.

Dave Freer said...

(grin) trust me Bob, you get tired of getting up, again. But it's in some people, and I agree there must be a lingering doubt in the minds of the sliver-spoon in the mouth types.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

I've always felt that folks love a good underdog story. Yes, we love winners, but generally we don't have a lot of respect for those who didn't earn it. The harder the success story, the more we love it. I suspect that most people of any country feel the same way because it's tied to a sense of the human condition.

I try to keep that in mind when I write. Most writers eventually have international readers, and the underdog stories are always very popular. It's really about the journey. The success at the end is the cherry on top.

Linda Davis

Anonymous said...

Having been knocked down a few times in my life (sometimes figuratively, sometimes... not so figuratively), I know what you're talking about. But, I figure as long as I don't fall too far behind in the "getting up" column, I'm doing okay ;-)

Also, there have been a few times where I've exercised (*ahem*) the, shall we say, "better part of valor," and as I've grown older, I've gotten a little bit better at picking my battles. A little. Not too much. And nobody told me that thrice-damned windmill knew kung-fu.

Plus, there were those occasions I spent long periods beating my head against a wall only to look up and realize there's a door a couple feet away -- the less said about those, the better :-D

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I was reading an article that said people who come to fame/success while young, feel a sense of entitlement. They were thinking of 17 year old pop stars and movie stars.

While people who come to fame/success later in life, feel that they have earned it.

Kate said...

I think that there has to be a certain element of too damn stubborn to give up when you're beaten to succeed, especially in the writing field. That's the battler: keeps on fighting when the battle's lost, gracious in defeat (at least publicly) and comes back and keeps trying. If you close the metaphorical door on a battler, you'll find him around the side prying a window open, or next door starting his own place. What you won't find is a battler lying on the ground moaning "Alas! Why me? All is lost!"

I know Aussies admire that kind of persistence and really want the battler to win. I suspect a lot of other people do too - because for most of us, that's more or less what our life looks like. You struggle a lot at whatever it is, there are some good things and some bad, but you never really get to be what's generally considered successful (I happen to disagree about what "success" is, but that's a different argument).

In books featuring a battler hero, we can "succeed" vicariously. And we as authors can usually guarantee that we know what it's like to be a battler. Dear God, do we ever know what it's like.

Chris McMahon said...

I love the triumph of the underdog - its why I love heroic fiction so much. That theme lays under just about everything I write.

Dave Freer said...

grin. Bob that windmill! It tricked me too. And erm, we won't even mention the assult on castle Arrrrgh (A climbing expedition which involved a two hour battle through thorn and jungle so thick that in places I - with a pack on my back - would fling myself backwards onto/into it. And the rest of the party crawled over my body, and then we did it again.) Only to find a cut firebreak less than twenty yards away for the decent. less than 10 minutes down.

But perhaps you meant this figuratively ;-)

Dave Freer said...

Linda - what of the underdog who DOESN'T win. Just keeps trying?

Dave Freer said...

Rowena - also maybe realise how valuable and fragile it is?

Dave Freer said...

Chris, I do think it works because so many of us can identify with it.

Dave Freer said...

Kate, I think it's something most humans admire - except those who've been taught not to. And I'm not kidding about that either. Australia merely put a word to it. That's maybe a bigger thing than most realise. A concept needs a descriptive term if it is going to become a meme, And that's a meme we need.

What worries me here is that the signs of winning - the display of wealth - have become more important than the virtue of battling. The dispaly of some bling means nothin, really. But in a large society it's easy for people to conflate the two, as they know nothing of how the bling came to be.

Kate said...


I think a society that starts valuing the sparklies over how they were achieved is a society in decline.

Tanstaafl applies - if you don't pay for it before you get it, in work, in hard-earned money, however, you will pay afterwards, and the cost will be steeper. You might not recognize it as such, but it will happen.