Will Arrogance Get You Published?

by James Scott Bell

Let’s talk about arrogance. Because I say so.

We’ve all noticed an uptick in the arrogance factor in society. New York Times opinion writer David Brooks made it the subject of a recent column, stating in part:

When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then. But that humility came under attack in the ensuing decades. Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call “expressive individualism.”

Now, in one sense, “expressive individualism” is what we do as writers. We are boldly sharing part of ourselves, and should do so confidently. But here’s the thing: this confidence should be evident in our pages alone. When it’s off the page and in people’s faces, “expressive individualism” can too easily become slap-deserving arrogance.

There are so many examples of arrogance in culture today. Perhaps the most notable in the last few weeks was Kanye West deciding he could interrupt Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV VMA awards. Taking Swift’s microphone, and moment, West extolled the merits of another nominee in front of a national television audience. Why? Because of “expressive individualism” gone awry.

So the idea that it’s all about me and I will make you admit it is part of the zeitgeist, just another move you make to get what you want.

And it’s filtering down like an acid drip into the world of aspiring writers. When I speak at writers conferences I am gratified that most people seem eager to learn and determined to grow. But there has been an increase in those who think that having a chip on their shoulders is an essential part of their campaign to get published.

It’s isn’t.

True, there are some people who are arrogant and who do get published. But they get published in spite of arrogance, not because of it. They get published because they can actually write.

But for the large majority of the new arroganti, such behavior is not going to get them closer to a contract. It will, in fact, hinder their chances.

Confidence, on the other hand, is good. And necessary. But there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. That line is something called professionalism.

A professional doesn’t waste another person’s time by overstaying his welcome.

A professional knows what someone – i.e., an agent or editor – is looking for, and delivers it in a precise manner.

A professional doesn’t follow up frustrations with nasty notes, diatribes, or slanderous blog posts. Nor tear down other writers who get published.

In other words, a true professional knows when to put a cork in it and get back to the business of learning to write better.

A professional will, over time, gain respect. That leaves doors open for future submissions.

The arrogant burn bridges and find doors slamming.

Arrogance talks smack. Confidence does its talking on the page.

So be bold, be confident, be “expressively individualistic,” but use that energy for the writing itself. Because even if you succeed while being arrogant, even if you land on the bestseller list, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. As writer Michael Bishop puts it, “One may achieve remarkable writerly success while flunking all the major criteria for success as a human being. Try not to do that.”

12 thoughts on “Will Arrogance Get You Published?

  1. Great post! I think often arrogance is just another name for selfishness and seems to morph into rudeness most of the time. Totally different than confidence.

  2. Great post Jim and I have to say at some conferences there’s a sense of entitlement from some would-be published writers which is very offputting – the sense that they are just so amazing and it’s the publishers who are idiots (well…some of that could be true…but their ‘demand’ that they deserve publication simply by breathing is astounding!) When I tell them that to be a writer takes a lot of work (and a very thick skin) they dismiss the concept of taking constructive feedback or undertaking (God forbid) major revisions. I think much in our culture exults the ‘low road’ to celebrity and fame and many people aren’t willing to put aside arrogance and get down to the real work that needs to be done to be successful.

  3. You nailed it, Clare. Early on I sought advice from a writer I admired and he said, “Be prepared for an apprenticeship of years.” I took him at his word. It hasn’t changed.

  4. Good thoughts for aspiring, struggling writers, Jim. Here are Webster’s synonyms (symptoms) for arrogance: cavalier, disdainful, haughty, high-and-mighty, hoity-toity, insolent, lofty, lordly, overbearing, overweening, presumptions, proud, supercilious, and superior. Those of us struggling along the bumpy road to publication might well keep these synonyms in mind: warning signs for the infectious disease called arrogance

  5. I thought Kanye West should have been hauled away by security–or at least prevented from approaching the girl on the stage. I thought he was beyond arrogant–more like bullying. If she had physically tried to keep him from grabbing the microphone, what would he have done, shoved her? Scary.

  6. All good points. And yet there are those on the other side of the pendulum who demonstrate grace and strength of character, like Beyonnce showed when later, giving up her own time in the spotlight, she asked Taylor Swift back to the stage so she could have her moment and give her acceptance speech. IMO she showed tremendous class in the face of Kanye West’s bad behavior.

  7. As to published authors still learning…I was impressed at the recent ACFW conference to see a room full of published authors taking notes in Donald Maass’s session.

    They were all a good example to me.

  8. i don’t know about arrogance in the literary world, but having been in the medical field for 40 years….have seen some there [i know, hard to believe a neurosurgeon could be arrogant!] but i think that arrogance starts pretty early nowdays….the measuring stick for merit has morphed from actually earning it to buying it. beemers in high school parking lots, juicy couture, coach, trips to cancun over spring break all seem to count when adding up merit points. unfortunately, it’s not a good formula for the real world. the ‘i want what i want when i want it’ just doesn’t fly. the sad part is when someone can’t figure that out. because arroganace in an adult is not an endearing trait.

  9. Particularly liked your comment that arrogant writers get published despite their arrogance, not because of it. There are some good writers who are arrogant, but I don’t know of any arrogant great writers. True greatness in any area is usually accompanied by humility, and one can be both humble and confident.

  10. I’m not clear on how Kanye West’s flavor of “arrogance” in front of a national television audience jibes with the literary kind. Can you provide the names of those writers who have been published “in spite of” their arrogance?

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