An artist is one who does not live on the timeline that connects the events that take place around us.
That’s Brian O’Leary. Know him?
Rather, the artist sees the actors, events, and collisions all at once, from a vantage point that few others share.
O’Leary is one of the most committed thinkers we have working in publishing today. A consultant to industry players and organizations, he’s a former Time production director; an adjunct professor in NYU’s publishing MS program; a Harvard man.
Living on the observation deck makes for tough sledding.
He knows what he’s talking about. O’Leary likes to capture this article or that, frequently as a physical clipping, muse on it for days or weeks or months, then finally sift it out of the pile and wrap a few observations around it in a blog post at his consultancy site, Magellan Media.
The artist can see and question what everyone else takes as given.
The lines I’m quoting here are from one of those pieces: his essay Admirable and Unnoticed: Today can last another million years. It’s the latest in his long-running series of takes on everything from unpaid internships and other forms of piracy to crowd-funding, journalism, branding, and reader-focused strategies. Those topics are just from this month’s O’Leary posts.
But how do you find ways to talk about the unseen?
Well, we know the answer to that one, don’t we? You become a writer. So you can talk about the unseen. Report on those things you perceive and question, those things “everyone else takes as given.”
That’s what O’Leary is on about here. In this case, his “clipping” is a tweet from March. A colleague tweeted during one of O’Leary’s conference presentations, I never know where the authorial voice & its unique value fits in @brianoleary’s utilitarian/network model of publishing. The question was, in short, how does O’Leary see the author’s place and role in publishing?
What O’Leary ends up asking about that authorial voice is this:
How do you buy legitimacy among people who have no idea what you’re writing, describing, or illustrating?
In short, we have a friend in O’Leary. For all his career’s focus on those “utilitarian” aspects of publishing in its digital disarray, he, too, listens for the writer:
In great art, we look to the artist—to (that) “authorial voice”—to lead us somewhere else, somewhere felt, likely not seen. That’s simultaneously important, and uncomfortable. There are no easy answers.
There’s a surprise embedded in what O’Leary is doing here, a surprise for us who are writers, who @amwriting. I am writing, you am writing, we am writing.
Have you noticed what we don’t talk about, especially in our online lives?—what we’re writing. The things we see that others may not, as O’Leary has it.
We talk about being writers. We talk about working as writers. When in doubt (and when are we not in doubt?) we talk about how hard it is being writers. Nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen, damn it.
But something is changing in how we handle creative work together. I’m not sure the heyday of Montmartre could occur today, at least our general concept of it—artists gathering, a cafe society of robust debate about the merit (or otherwise) of this passage or that, in their own works, their friends’ works.
It’s rare for a writer to ask nowadays, “Have you read my book?”
Maybe I’ve picked up on this more easily than some because my first serious artistic home was in the theater. Actors, you know, we do ask. “Have you seen the show? Then when are you coming? Want me to put up a ticket for you at the box office? How about tonight? Will you come back afterward and tell me what you thought?”
By comparison, writers don’t ask. And as we traipse around this beleaguered business together, it can seem almost as funny as the scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen produces Marshall McLuhan to tell off a pedant: You know nothing of my work.
Needless to say, there are plenty of times when this unofficial writerly don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy of ours is a godsend. We all know the people we pray won’t put us on the spot. I mean what if we answered honestly? Actually, dear, I just threw your latest piece of crap across the room last night. Utter and unmitigated rubbish. What in God’s name were you thinking?
Maybe that’s why no one asks. Sometimes, I’m sure it is. One might rather not know.
But what about when it’s something else?
What if the accelerating speed with which many entrepreneurial authors are trying to turn out new work—and the relative salability of quick-turn, serial books—has begun to render the kind of “authorial voice” O’Leary is talking about…mute? At least muted. And yes, sometimes moot.
What if the work is being commoditized to such a degree that it’s not thought worth discussing?
I remember once interviewing a gifted and successful film soundtrack composer. You would know his work instantly if I mentioned one of the films he has scored. For many years and in many cinemas, his gorgeous music has led you to feel a spectacular array of emotions. As we talked, I asked him about one of his passages I love in particular, a profound re-casting of a theme that opens the film, it turns the final scene into an electrifying heartbreaker. He looked at me and said, “Oh, Christ, Porter, that was fourteen films ago. I can’t even remember what I was doing in that one.”
Here at Writer Unboxed—where never is heard an ill-chosen word—we do hear from our colleagues, of course, when they have a new book coming out. I’m talking about those five-question interviews, from Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton.
And, hey, that might be enough, thank you very much. I’m not saying to send me your new book, thanks. I’m full up on reading material for about the next 600 years, grazie, send Campari instead.
What I am saying is, isn’t it interesting that we don’t talk more about it? About our stories, about our intentions with them, about our narrative purpose(s).
O’Leary’s article shouldn’t get away without us thinking about this, even if just briefly.
Because he perceives and appreciates a distinction, not just in the authorial voice but also in the authorial eye.
The struggle to understand context, derive meaning, fulfill purpose and write it all down before the light gets too dim…it’s a re-imagination of what we are and who we might be.
Wouldn’t hurt to have him call up and say this every morning, would it?—a handy reminder to get cracking with the re-imagining?
We’re always going on about plot structure and character tricks and the rejection! the rejection! But maybe it’s about how we see the world. What we see that others don’t. Or, yes, what we hallucinate while imagining ourselves to be socially secure.
This came to me earlier this week when one of our author-colleagues asked me about a need to re-platform one of her books, which I have read and like. And I found myself saying, in essence, “Well, let’s start by asking ourselves, what is your book about?”
O’Leary is really standing so close to us here:
It’s something we should all give one another, even if we first look to artists to lead the way.
Looking to artists, to writers, “to lead the way.” Wait a minute. That’s us. And what if those artists, those writers—the anything but royal we—have forgotten that some of the best provocations in publishing are our own?
What if everybody is so heads-down trying to outsmart the algorithms—an effort that would have entertained McLuhan—that we know nothing of our work?
And that’s where I’ll hand it to the mighty Writer Unboxed commenters. Is it possible that the transitions in the book business are so consuming that digital has disrupted even authors’ own most essential mission, the primacy of that “authorial voice”? Will Montmartre stay empty?