Cover Story - How is literary success defined?

Artists begin life as outsiders. Then they learn the rules.

Everyone begins an outsider. At birth, there is no inherent set of rules of what can be. Children’s art is perpetually impressive in its ability to seem moving, because we, too, have all seen people as masses of scrawl, felt sun like a strong gold eye with countless tiny arms. There’s something of a madness in the interpretative ability of someone like a child, working outside the frames of expectation or the desire to be recognized by anyone beyond the act of creating in itself.

I think this childlike aesthetic hope carried on in me into adulthood, if now tempered with the unavoidably collapsing lanes of logic that, for most, come with daily adult life. Part of this is that I was raised in a household where open expression was unwaveringly nourished. My mother was a grade school art teacher before she became pregnant, and so her encouragement and wide open understanding installed in me early a sense of feeling that I created my own world. She’s also undoubtedly what turned me into a steadfast reader. I remember very early on being presented with a bag full of brand new books, which I was allowed to reach into without looking, take one, and consume it. When I’d read that, I could have the next. This sense of mystery, coupled with the unexpected range of what the bag held — often children’s books, but also Dickens, Twain, Cervantes — is still a texture I felt grown in my approach to general life: a feeling of total possibility, beyond judgment, where guidelines were meant as guides alone and never strictures. The longer I could go on believing any object could do anything seemed to leave the ground before me always seeming indefinable, never a reflection of myself or the world even, but new ground to open: a world made limitless by art.

I found this feeling also in computers, both in playing RPG games where one became another person, and in coding programs of my own. After high school, I ended up going to Georgia Tech to study computer science, believing that I could learn to program games that developed logic of their own. Fantasy never seemed separate from reality, but more a world concurrent, accessible through ideas. Quickly, though, I found programming an act less like exploration, and instead one more like solving problems that already were defined. It was during this time I began writing; building worlds out of language that required no commitment to the real world. I certainly had little idea of how to get an agent, what an agent wanted, and that, for the most part, what is considered publishable often depends on what had already been successful in the past. Never mind that the literary canon is for the most part built on people who did something that had never come before: what most often matters to those with the power to make things happen is how it can be understood; where it falls in “the conversation,” rather than how it breaks new ground.

I always thought to be a writer you had to be a reader first; and not any sort of reader, but a voracious one. I felt that at the heart of innovation was a desire not to mimic what had come before, but to synthesize the known and the unknown, to build something as-yet-unseen out of one’s one private mixture of knowing and not knowing. I think I believed (even in my lack of awareness of how the publishing industry worked) that great work rises, that history would demand of its horizon vibrant growth, to be wowed and invoked rather than to expect some sort of self-reflection, a gentle permutation of what had already been before. I figured that the presence of icons like Pynchon and Stein and Burroughs came linked with some innate public desire to be challenged, and thereby to challenge anyone who stepped up to be the next to blow minds, too. In a market where social skills coupled with a willingness to waver near to what has already been established as canonically valuable is the norm, the ones that interrupt that system, divert its course, would be the ones that over time accrued a presence that time alone cannot subvert.

Many days now I wake up wondering why I ever wanted to be a writer at all. I’m not sure how my Facebook feed filled up with hundreds of people I’ve mostly never met, updating their status with daily gripes about the publication process, the feeling of rejection, the want for someone, anyone it seems, to listen. I wonder if I’d chosen to be a dentist I’d feel some small private loathing for the dentistry industry, wondering why I can’t find a perfect set of teeth. I think about Jean Genet, and how he wrote in prison, and when the guards destroyed the manuscript that would become his greatest book, he started writing it again, because he couldn’t help to not, and why that intense immediacy seems so far off and ancient in relation to the tone of what surrounds what comes out now. And yet I still find myself here at the desk again working. I continue reading. In some way, I feel faith, even if the strongest moments I can remember since those young years reaching into my mom’s bag of books all seem like time I wasn’t me, like only when I get so lost in what I’m doing or intaking I’m no longer able to remember there was a social context. The drive is in my blood. I don’t think it will ever not be, and I know I’m not the only one, because for every several dozen spineless dicks the world presents, there is maybe at least one that hasn’t given up.

Your goals in some way, define what you become. Once you can begin to learn to define the values of a given system, you can then choose to abide them, or attack them, or otherwise try to go on as if that system does not exist. If you go on valuing recognition and praise of others, you’re asking to be ruined. The only value in expression is its inherent value. The object is the object, and will continue well after you’re dead. Even when the world burns up and even the object no longer appears, you were who you were, you made what you made, you valued what you valued, and nothing else.

Blake Butler’s next book, 300,000,000, a novel, will be released by Harper Perennial in 2014.