What's that make, 396%?
Emma Darwin touches on the topic of persistence (and the fact that it isn't enough) in a recent post. (Her post is a bit more profound than the old issue of talent versus persistence, however: its real focus is the need to confront the void.)
But that set me to pondering on the matter of who succeeds in this odd racket of ours.
The public at large seems divided into two major camps: those who think it's all about talent, and those who think that any fool can write a good novel. (Most of those in the latter group tell you that they plan on writing one themselves once they get a little spare time.)
Writers, teachers, editors, and agents are quick to point out that persistence usually trumps talent; everyone in the business has seen too many talented people who never lived up to their gifts, and everyone has also seen people of seemingly modest talents become important writers. Ralph Keyes quotes editor Edward Chase: "If they really stick at it, eventually--like salmon swimming upstream--they are going to make it."
I've lived in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, so I've had plenty of time to observe salmon runs. I have some unfortunate news: many salmon, maybe the majority of salmon, never make it to the spawning grounds. They get gobbled by seals at the mouths of rivers, get tangled in garbage-strewn creeks, get smacked out of the water by hungry bears, or simply tire and die before they complete their journeys. I can hardly think of a less-encouraging simile. (Not to mention that when they finally get to their destination and spawn, they promptly roll over, die, and float rotting downstream.)
Talent is necessary, but luckily talent is common. Often deeply buried, perhaps, but common.
Persistence is less common than talent, but persistence is also widespread. The main problem with persistence is that it is often directed to the wrong end. There are writers who persist, year after year, in trying to get the same bad novels published. There are writers who persist in bad writing habits no matter how often they are given feedback that tells them to fix their approach.
Persistence that allows a writer to improve is useful. Persistence in something wrongheaded isn't an asset at all.
One of the outgrowths of persistence can be a command of craft. It's hard to tell, looking at a well-written manuscript, whether one is seeing the result of 'native talent,' or whether the book is the product of persistent work that has made the writer a master of the craft. (What's more, readers don't really give a damn how the book was produced; they only care about the product itself.)
But even if a writer has the right combination of talent and persistence and craft, this doesn't guarantee success in the marketplace. There's also another amorphous, indescribable element, which we'll call 'other factors.' Other factors are what is variously labeled 'timing,' 'fate,' 'destiny,' or 'randomness.'
Melville's Billy Budd lay unpublished for decades, Lampedusa's The Leopard was pronounced unpublishable by publishers, Toole's Confederacy of Dunces wasn't published until a dozen years after his suicide. The fact that these books were eventually published long after the deaths of their authors could be used by true believers as evidence that all good books eventually find their audience, but I'm more confident in the existence of the Easter Bunny. To me, when we have widely acclaimed books that nearly never saw the light of day, it suggests there are probably at least as many great books that are now lost, and a huge substratum of merely good books we'll never know about.
Although plenty of people claim in retrospect that Harry Potter, or something like that series, was inevitable, I'm not convinced. I don't think it was at all obvious in the mid-90s that children around the globe were hungering for thick books about magic school. It wasn't clear to me or anyone else I spoke to at the time that children were hungering for books at all. And Rowling was rejected by a bunch of agents, and then a slew of publishers turned down the book, and when they bought it they did so for a rather small advance. The initial print run was 500 copies. If the book had been first published in America, or had been published two years earlier or two years later, or if JK Rowling had selected the wrong agent...
Some degree of talent is necessary for success, but I can point to certain writers who demonstrate that the minimum amount can carry you far. Craft is needed, too, but here once again we can find plenty of examples of successful writers whose craft is on the primitive side even after an editor has put their hand in.
But persistence is needed by the truckload. Banging out even the world's most inept novel is a time commitment most people can't face up to (hence the legions of people who plan to write a book 'some day'). In binary terms, many writers put the Persistence/Talent ratio for success at 80/20 or even 90/10.
Where does that leave other factors, though? Persistence/Talent/Other at 70/20/10? Or at 40/10/50? Maybe 10/1/89? (Looks like a birthdate, doesn't it?)
And what the heck do we mean by 'success,' anyway?
[Notice the clever use of the editorial 'we' there, implicating all of you in my question. Of course, on a blog, where readers can toss in their comments, using 'we' makes good sense.]