On Validation, and why it’s okay for writers to want it

"I've wanted more than anything to have your respect....  And I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!" (from actress Sally Field's 1985 Academy Award acceptance speech)

“I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect…. And I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” (from actress Sally Field’s 1985 Academy Award acceptance speech).

 

This issue of validation keeps coming up within the traditional vs. self-publishing debate.

For some time now, I’ve been reading various blog posts and articles discussing the merits of one form of publishing compared to the other, particularly as related to the aspirations of unpublished writers.

This debate is nothing new – indeed, it’s been going for so long now as to be almost institutionalized, complete with its own special vocabulary: “gatekeepers”, “credibility”, “the gauntlet”, “vetting process”, “the old guard”, “the new order”, “the publishing revolution”, “the Big 6, 5, 4, etc.”

However, over the past two weeks, a new vocabulary word has appeared on the scene, predominantly in disparaging reference to writers seeking a deal with a traditional publisher:

Validation.

Or better put: the desire for acceptance by and praise from the agents and editors of traditional publishing as opposed to the potentially greater monetary rewards of self-publishing.

In this post by sci-fi/horror author Chuck Wendig (in response to this post by sci-fi author Hugh Howey), the following comment was posted:

… Of course, for some people who need validation more than money, tradpub is probably better. In that case selfpubbing and getting money for a shrink to deal with the self esteem issues is my suggestion . . . but whatever. 😉

Comments like these I consider both fallacious and normative.  Yes, many self-published authors have achieved anywhere from moderate to exceptional financial success.

But financial success is not every writer’s reason for wanting to be published.

Suffering for one’s art

Some writers write as an artistic practice, and really do seek the validation that comes from traditional publishing – that is to say, from an expert in the industry who truly understands the nature of the work that went into creating an object of said art.

Writing, after all, is utilitarian – hardly a true “art” at all in the eyes of some, particularly genre fiction.  Everybody “writes” in one form or another, and unlike with, say, painting or sculpting, most people believe they have a novel in them somewhere.

Some writers want reassurance that their novel is a good one, and they want to hear it from a knowledgeable source, regardless of the odds of actually getting it.

Unless writers themselves, most readers won’t possess a full understanding of what goes into writing a book.  This is no different than how, as a non-painter and non-actor, when I go to the art gallery or watch a play, my feedback is restricted to the level of how pretty the colours are, or how creepy the villain is.

This doesn’t mean that traditionally-published/traditionally-seeking writers don’t appreciate readers; it’s merely a recognition that just because many people enjoy something doesn’t mean, from an artistic standpoint, that it’s good.  A case in point: B-movies, tabloid magazines, and a certain popular erotic novel that’s outsold both Harry Potter and the Bible.

Writers (indeed, almost all artists) are indoctrinated from an early age with the idea that making big money from their work is unlikely.  As a result, most writers get started for more intrinsic reasons: a love of words; a story to tell; writing as therapy, etc.  Money, if it comes at all, is less a goal than a bonus, as it were.

Validation takes many forms

Everyone desires validation, be approval-based, or financial, or in some other form.  The fourth tier of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, following the most basic needs of physiological stability, personal and material safety, and love and belonging, is esteem: self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, and respect by others.

This explains the existence of everything from peer-review journals to sales commissions, from the Academy Awards, to employee-of-the-month programs, to signing bonuses.

And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.

When I have my annual performance review at work, every score of “meets” or “exceeds” I achieve feels good, because it means my boss is recognizing and acknowledging my various efforts, especially the hidden efforts.

Praise from our clients feels good as well, but as outsiders to the process, they’ll never understand all that I do.  In some cases, they’ll just be happy if I show up on time and make sure there’s food.

Meanwhile, the fact I could possibly make more money by ditching my boss and going freelance is beside the point.  If I’m not motivated by money, or the desire to go it on my own, the freelance life – along with the increased and/or differing work demands associated with such – likely wouldn’t be that satisfying for me.  It’s not a perfect analogy for someone wanting the validation of traditional publication, but you get the idea.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being motivated by money or by being in control (or that there’s anything wrong with self-publishing as a whole, because it’s awesome, and it is a publishing revolution); only that not everyone shares these motivations, nor do they have to.

Because no one has the right to dictate what validates another.

(Image source)

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7 thoughts on “On Validation, and why it’s okay for writers to want it

  1. Good Stuff, Janna. I get annoyed when people conflate validation and self-esteem. Yes, I want validation as a writer that comes from people in the industry saying, “You are worth our investment.” It means my hard work meant something. However, I don’t give a rat’s butt if anyone likes me a person, thinks I’m handsome, or talented, nor do I crave attention or praise. I’m not knocking self-published authors, because I will still end up being one most likely, but anybody can do it. It’s not much feeling of accomplishment if I pay someone to print up my books. If I’m employing the services of such a business, they have to print whatever garbage I tell them to print. It’s still an attempt at validation, but it’s hollow validation that requires use of my credit card.

    More emphatic disclaimer: Many of my friends have self-published, and I’ve read some really good SP material. It’s empowering to not be at the mercy of professional whim. In all likelihood, I am going to SP a short story collection this spring. Nevertheless, I am under no illusion that there is a demand for my writing. I’m doing it because i spent a lot of time writing these stories and might as well make it available in case someone wants to read them.

    From a practical standpoint, I want traditional publishing because I can spend my time writing and let someone else worry about finding cover artists, choosing fonts, dealing with formatting, promoting the title,etc etc etc.

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    • The conflation between validation and self-esteem is my biggest beef with the pro-SP camp. Not every self-published author does it, but those who do seem to overlook that they too are being validated, just in a different way.

      I think we all need to be respectful of people’s artistic decisions, and instead of judging each other, reflecting upon how lucky we are to live in a time with so many publishing options. 5-10 years from now (if not sooner), the publishing landscape will look totally different. We’ll be able to say we were there at the start of it all.

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  2. I truly believe that anyone who is trying to write a ‘bestseller’ is bound for disappointment, Janna. I know this may sound like I’m judging, but I’m trying not to! 😉

    I see this quite a lot from other writers who get depressed when they’re not getting book sales. They finish their book, plonk it in the kindle store and sit back waiting for the money to roll in – but it just doesn’t happen like that unless they already have a well known name. But sales shouldn’t be the underlying reason for writing. I believe we should write because we just love writing. When I was first picked up by a publisher I was over the moon and therein lies the ‘validation’, but I soon learned that it’s all smoke and mirrors and you tend to lose that part of your writing soul when you only write to please others.

    Great post – you’ve got me thinking (which is always a good thing!) 😀

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    • It doesn’t sound like judging at all to me, Dianne. I think that for people who are not already famous, trying to write a bestseller is similar to trying to have the perfect vacation: these things cannot be planned, and will either happen of their own accord or not. 🙂

      That said, I believe it’s essential in any pursuit to aim high. If you only set out to write a mediocre book, you’ll likely end up with a poor one, whereas shooting for an excellent book will likely result in a pretty good one (which, of course, is not to say that all bestselling books are excellent, as I mentioned in the main post).

      I agree that one should write for his/her own sake, but I do believe it’s a very rare and special person who can write only for his/her own sake, especially when just starting out. As I wrote above, we all crave validation of some sort. But the form this validation takes can certainly change with time and experience, as you discovered upon receiving your initial acknowledgement from traditional publishing. For a long time, trad publishing was all there was, so it may take some time yet for new writers’ dreams of successful publication to change shape. As well, self-published authors who initially dreamed of watching the money to roll in can come to define their success both through more modest and more intrinsic measures.

      My novel’s first draft isn’t even finished yet, so these are all hypothetical thoughts to keep me going through the long days that remain until I finally type THE END. Though all these changes to the publishing industry can all be both overwhelming and confusing, with so many different options out there now, it’s also a very exciting time to be a writer just coming up. 🙂

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  3. Great post Janna, you make a lot of sense. While I do primarily write genre fiction for fun, for money and more for reader recognition that industry recognition, I would never to presume that my way is the only way. And in fact when it comes to music I’m very much the opposite, I don’t care too much for the money but I do hope that my work is seen as valuable and artistic in it’s own way 🙂

    Very thought provoking post, and no one should ever put someone else down for what they see as important!

    All the best, thanks for sharing 🙂

    Rohan.

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    • Thanks, Rohan. 🙂 You’re totally right: people should just focus on doing what’s best for themselves rather than trying to tell others what they should be doing. There’s no one path that works for everyone.

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  4. Pingback: Validation | Writing = Passion

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