How to tell if you are a literary snob
edited: Thursday, October 31, 2002
By David Leonhardt
Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2002
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Are you a writer or an author. What's the difference, anyway? Hmm. Let's take a closer look.
"I don't know if I should put 'writer' on my business card," I murmured.
"Then don't," my wife said in her infinite wisdom. "Put 'author' on it."
"But if I put 'author' on, none of those big companies with overflowing coffers will want to hire me as a writer," I said, wondering if George Bush needed a speechwriter or if General Motors wanted someone to write the owner's manual for next year's Oldsmobile.
"Fine. Put 'writer' on your card then, and all those fancy people you give it to will know you can write for them."
"But writer looks so small," I pointed out. "I also want Fortune 500 companies to hire me as a speaker, and nobody important hires a writer to speak. They hire authors."
"OK, why don't you put both?" she offered.
"Ho, right. That'll impress them. A writer who can't even write his own business card with duplicating his redundancies," I said. "I might as well shoot myself with my own sword."
In the end, I put "author", figuring I would get most writing jobs over the Internet, but when I speak live I would have to hand out cards to lots of people. An author's autograph would make those people giddy as strawberry Jell-O on the Amtrak Express. Those same people would search nervously for a graceful retreat from the company of a mere writer.
What is it about being an author.? You can author an article or a report or just about anything. And you can be the author of just about anything (including "your own misfortunes"). But you can't be "an author - period" unless you've published a book.
Big warning: writing a book does not count. I have a friend who wrote a book. That makes him a writer, not an author. When he publishes it, only THEN will he be a real author and only THEN will he be entitled to learn the authors' secret handshake. Don't try sneaking into the clubhouse on the scant pretext that your wrote a book. Anybody can write a book. Even a writer. You have to publish the book to get through these gates of glory.
But if my friend does publish, and he does become an author, and he does learn the secret hand shake, then he'll be ready to cross that threshold of pride when a reader he's never met before tells him, "I just couldn't put your book down."
Well, not quite. In fact, his book is about humorous anecdotes from many years in his particular profession. Hmm. That wouldn't qualify him as an author, even if he publishes. It would put him in that blurry purgatory between "writer" "and" "author" in the company of so many silver medal winners who almost made it and whose names we almost remember .
Why? Because he doesn't qualify for that crucial qualifying praise, "I just couldn't put your book down." That comment is reserved for novels, "serious" non-fiction like biographies and history, and how-to books on topics that require wads of glue. Other lowly books just don't count.
But what if a lowly book could attract an " I just couldn't put your book down?" Would that make the writer an author, or would the author remain just a writer?
My book is a self-help book. Climb your Stairway to Heaven: the 9 habits of maximum happiness. Self-help books are certainly not considered second-class books by the literary elite. They wouldn't even let self-help books into fourth class. In other words, mine is not a title any self-respecting New York Times book reviewer would allow to qualify for "I just couldn't put your book down."
At least, not in theory. But several people have said exactly that. (Too bad they said it to me and not to the New York Times.)
One lady even apologized for not calling me back one morning because she had stayed up into the wee hours of the morning reading my book. Now that's the kind of feedback that makes an author smile. What the heck, that kind of feedback would make even a writer smile.
Call me a writer. Call me an author. I couldn't care less. As long as you tell me "I just couldn't put your book down," I'm happy as a pig in ... uh ... Jell-O.