Thought Readership #4: The Merits of Mediocrity: Warning You What Not To Do

by Liz Alexander on April 2, 2012

“Blogging isn’t writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation.” ~ Line from the movie Contagion.

You’ve seen them, haven’t you? Those pseudo-Successories posters that wags often buy to adorn their office walls?  One of my favorites depicts a capsized boat with the slogan: “It could be that the purpose of your life is to serve as a warning to others.” In the same spirit, we should be grateful to James Altucher for publishing I Was Blind But Now I See (CreateSpace, 2011).

His book plays an important role in warning aspiring authors of what can go wrong when you write a book in three days (one of the pieces of advice the author offers for improving your life!), upload it to CreateSpace, and think that there’s merit in sentences like:

“Over time these exercises compound and similar results as I describe will develop. What’s different below from my prior writing on this is the modifications.”

“Money is the most external manifestation of the spirituality that’s the 10th commandment above.”

Altucher’s book (which he calls “my best book ever”) is a bloody mess, if you’ll pardon my French. A hodgepodge that one Amazon reviewer succinctly sums up as having,  “no direction, no structure, is riddled with typos… The entire book is basically an angry rant.”

If only Mr. Altucher had been aware and taken note of freelance editor and literary agent Susan Rabiner’s sage advice from 2002 when she wrote, “A book that knows why it is being written, for whom, and most important what it wants to say is well on its way to successful publication.”

Of course, that was penned back in the days when “gatekeepers” largely determined what got to be published, successfully or otherwise. Now all we’re left with is our own judgment. Which is fine, but here’s a piece of advice:

Know what your book is about before you start writing.

One of the activities I commend to any author before they begin to write is to complete the following sentence: “The question I answer with this book is…” Then, as you gather your material, you can check to see what, if anything, that content contributes. No relevance? Then it’s extraneous to needs!

I have no idea the question that Mr. Altucher posed before cobbling together I Was Blind. He offers us The 10 Commandments of James-ism, essentially diatribes on religion, home ownership, a college education, the US Constitution, the FDA, and the Media, among others. There follows a string of reconstituted blog posts with titles like: Abolish The Presidency, It’s a Useless Job Anyway; 25 Dates Until I Met Claudia (his wife); and Why I Write Books.

I’m fond of that game where you take two or three disparate things and try to find a way to connect them. In the case of this book, I was stumped, although somewhere the author alludes to offering guidance on the meaning and pursuit of happiness.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so low after reading (well, skim-reading largely) a book, and not because of the subject matter. When I see unsubstantiated claims like, “For every dollar you give to charity about 2 cents a year, give or take, goes to the actual charitable cause you wanted to support,” I suspect the author isn’t one for balanced, thoughtful debate.

My experience while reading I Was Blind was acute embarrassment for the author as much as anything. Mr. Altucher is perfectly at liberty to publish whatever he likes. And, yes, it’s unkind of me to think that the 20 people who’ve written him 5-star reviews on Amazon (many admire his “honesty”) need their heads examining. Some books are like a Rorschach test – one person’s meaning is another person’s ink splodge. But to spew out a stream of consciousness like this and proudly call it a book? I wouldn’t want to. Although take a look and then let me know — would you?

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    There are some things that you “can” do, but the better question is “should” you…. there are other things where the doubt is if you “should” but the challenge is whether you “can”.  

    Writing a book is something that anyone with discipline “can” do, but with the demise of the traditional publishing gatekeepers the question of “should” now lies with the author ;-)

  • Liz Alexander

    So true, Conor. Unfortunately, human beings have this psychological “impediment” (for want of a better word) called the Above Average Effect…which I guess is why so many people put words on paper and think they are writing well when it’s excruciating for the reader. 

    The main problem was articulated elegantly by Eric Meisel in The Art of the Book Proposal when he wrote something along the lines of: Don’t imagine you are writing a book by putting words on paper; you are really thinking your book into existence. The problem, as so many luminaries have pointed out, is that most people don’t want to think. They don’t even (as Anne Lamott pointed out in Bird by Bird) want to write. But they DO so want to be published :-)

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