This is the fifth and final of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.
About twenty years ago, I was listening to an NPR piece about the spillover effects of the Hollywood writer’s strike. Shows and films weren’t in production, which meant that lumberyards weren’t selling building materials and hotels weren’t booking rooms and airlines weren’t booking flights. The upscale restaurant industry was hit particularly hard, because nobody was making production deals or pitching new projects. One of the restaurant owners they interviewed, fantastically successful for fourteen years to that point, talked about how tenuous the success of a restaurant can be, how every night is its own event with its own possibilities for pleasure, or for falling short.
And he let us in on his ritual. Every night when he was the last person out of the building, he would lock up, then turn back and pat the door. “Let’s hope that people come to see us tomorrow,” he’d say.
The Australian economist Colin Clark developed a theory of economic development that divided economic activities into four sectors:
- Primary—pulling raw materials from the earth. Farming, mining, timbering, fishing, and such.
- Secondary—manufacturing objects from those materials.
- Tertiary—”the service economy,” providing goods and experiences and services to others.
- Quaternary—finance and governance, organizing investment and policy for millions of people at a stroke.
So where would one place the writer in this structure of labor?
Certainly we’ve been engaged our entire lives in primary work. We conduct ethnosynthesis, the conversion of observation into story. We’ve spent decades watching people, listening to conversations, wondering about relationships or social movements around us. We go into the archives, looking at old newspapers and new websites to gather more evidence. Every day of our lives has been a mining expedition, the raw materials of the world collected and storehoused within us.
Lots of writers imagine themselves to be in the secondary or manufacturing trade. They select materials from the warehouse and assemble them into new forms. This is the world that focuses on craft, on the cycle of learning—from apprentice to journeyman to master—that allows us to make solid and capable work. Artists’ education of all forms lives here, from MFA programs to culinary schools, training us to make reliable pastry dough.
The publishing world writ large occupies the uppermost or quaternary economy. These are the tastemakers and investors, the agents and editors and publishers and grants agencies who make decisions on hundreds of thousands of stories a year, and through the collective weight of their decisions, steer the ship of literary culture a few degrees to port or starboard.
But it’s that third level, the work of hospitality and service, where I think that my work as a writer is best situated. Certainly I’ve done the primary work of being an eavesdropper—in the high school where I did my dissertation, the kids included my photo in the school yearbook, with the job title “spy.” And I work daily at the craft, at the level of manufacturing sentences from words and at the level of manufacturing relationships from sentences. But I think that the real goal of the work, as it is for any pastry chef, is the provision of pleasure and satisfaction for those who choose my table. And one of the fundamental practices of hospitality is to give people what they expect, but better than they expect. To offer moments of grace within the setting of generosity.
And paradoxically, I can’t do that by imagining who my readers are, just as restaurants don’t really imagine who their customers are. (Some restaurants do, of course. Olive Garden, Jack in the Box, Denny’s. The work of market research is a quaternary enterprise, beyond the interests of the craftsperson or host.) The philosopher Rush Rhees claims that “the artist does not work to satisfy an existing audience, but to create an audience through his work.” And that’s what restaurants and galleries and musicians and writers all do—we make the things that we believe in, and then we make them available to those who would choose them. The universally appealing restaurant does not, and cannot, exist. A good restaurant is a series of unpredictable relationships between the menu’s offerings and some community’s desires, and our widely varied subcultures result in a widely varied culinary landscape.
Any good restaurant, regardless of where it lies on the upscale or down-home continuum, regardless of who chooses it, is a full expression of the personalities and the obsessions of its owners. From food choices and decor and location and service patterns, a unitary experience arises. All of that is what writers call voice, the things that the writer cannot help but do, from themes to punctuation. The things that make us “us.”
And our friends are the people who find those choices engaging. Those are the people who return to our table, who recommend us to their friends and who make new friends with those around them.
Let’s hope that people come to see us tomorrow.