Sunday, January 11, 2009

The violinist and the gay writer: a cautionary tale

I'm on an intellectual ramble today. If you want to call it intellectual wanking, go right ahead, but this is where the drift of my thoughts has been going!

Here's a new theory for you: all things are relative. Call it the New Theory of Relativity, if you like. I've been reading online interviews with bestselling authors who bemoan the fact that they're only earning six figures instead of seven, and on the other hand, I'm constantly monitoring the strategies of other writers who're self-marketing, like myself, to see what works and what doesn't -- to see, in fact, if there are any tips and tricks that I haven't already worked out for myself.

All things, as I said, are relative. The guy earning the six figure pay check has engineered himself into a lifestyle where anything less than seven figures is baaaad news, because the land taxes and the SUV and the kids' private school fees will gobble down the lion's share of what he's making now ... and his family will soon be betting antsy at the lack of cash to go and do what they used to do -- you know, the skiing in the French Alps, the powerboating in Monaco, the shopping in London and Paris, the opera in Rome. Little things like that.

Before this hypothetical writer became a "name" in literature, he didn't do all these things. Even the greatest endure what Sir Alec Guinness called one's "jam sandwich days," which were the days -- more likely years! -- when your lunchbox was filled with jam sandwiches, and you cadged what you could off your better-off cast mates!

Even Brad Pitt started out in a chicken suit, his first paying job in Hollywood. Good gods.

I suppose the point I'm making in a round-about way (and taking a long time to get to it!) is that when you're self-marketing and you sell 10 books in a day, you go dancing around the room in sheer joy -- on your way out the door to join the commuter crowd on the way to work. It's been a triumph! When you sell 1,000 books a day ... ho hum. When you sell 5,000 books a day, you get dangerously complacent, start to live the lifestyle, think the thought patterns, talk the talk that makes you sound like an ass -- until someone remembers that you've committed yourself to a million dollar lifestyle, your family life is predicated upon this, and your whole world has just begun to unravel with the shrinkage in your pay check.

Being marginalized as a writer is an eye opener. (Writing gay novels, no matter how good they are, lands you in a small(ish) marketplace that used to be keen, hungry, under-supplied, and is currently blase, overfed and oversupplied, with used books for $1 on Amazon, and ebooks coming along for free. You're well and truly marginalized. Believe me.) You very quickly learn that you have your place, your corner where you can flourish like a hydrangea in a small pot; but if you step over your boundary line ...

A short while ago, the Washington Post staged an experiment. You might have heard of it --a short version of the story is circulating as "Violinist in the Metro." I'm assuming you don't have the time to read the whole story (which lives here:, so I'll paste over the short version, for your interest and amusement:

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousand of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work. The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on. In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition. No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?
One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

In the full story, Bell says, "It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ." The word doesn't come easily. ". . . ignoring me." Bell is laughing. It's at himself. "At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute. Before he began, Bell hadn't known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous. "It wasn't exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies," he says. "I was stressing a little." Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro? "When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence ..."

The classical musician is marginalized, where the rock musician is not. The Shakespearean character actor is marginalized, where the Hollywood A-list celebrity is not. The niche novel author ...?

And it's all relative. Joshua Bell can earn $1,000/minute and still be a doodle in someone's margin, while Britney Spears could wear a trench coat to take out the trash, and be mobbed by hoards of foam-fanged paparazzi. Put another way, Joshua Bell's boundary lines are chalked a whole lot closer to his feet than Britney's.

And Mel Keegan's? Well, they're an interesting set of boundary lines; they look more like the old Venn diagram -- do you remember those? (Didn't they drive you bonkers in grade school?)

In the green segment ... the GBLTI community and supporters. That would be the base of the economy, as far as writers are concerned: the broadest book-buying community. In the blue segment ... people who actually like to read -- that's society in this context: reading is the quality that brings people into a social group called Readers. Some of them are gay too (woah ... this is getting deep). In the pink segment, people who can afford to buy a book right now ... this being the financial environment -- and right now, we're going down into winter; they're calling it a global recession. Think financial ice age. (You could add a fourth control group as a subset of the pink people: folks who can afford to buy books and are actually interested in buying one right now.)

The whole lot overlaps, integrates, comes to a meeting of minds, in the little swatch in the middle, the purple bit: sustainability. In other words, if there are enough people in the purple zone to keep one's bills paid ... happy, happy, joy, joy. If not -- well, the commuter bus leaves in 15 minutes; better be on it!

In fact, these are the boundary markers are any writer, performer or artist other than the very top-line best sellers, the A-list actors, the rock superstars. Green: people with hearing. Blue: people who like jazz. Pink: folks who can afford to buy CDs. And so on ...if you're a jazz musician, these issues are critical.

Here's the bottom line, and it's interesting -- even comforting. For 99.5% of the whole community of writers, performers, artists, popularity, acclaim, fame, achievement, talent -- these things are contextual. Take any one of us out of his or her context, and we're, uh, well, hard pressed to make it clear what we do, why we do it, and why we're not going to stop doing it any time soon, even though a majority of people appear to think we're nuts!

Mind you, I wouldn't mind being able to play the violin like Joshua Bell.

Ciao for now,

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