Murakami on writing, business, and the one-in-ten rule

There was a great Haruki Murakami essay in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, but it’s not online, so it’s taken me until now to find the time to type up the passage I liked the best.

Basically Murakami writes about how for a while he owned a jazz club, then at about age 29 decided out of the blue to write a novel. When he transitioned to the writing life full-time, it meant he had to lose some friends because of the way his lifestyle changed.

But at that point, I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person but with an unspecified number of readers. My readers would welcome whatever life style I chose, as long as I made sure that each new work was an improvement over the last. And shouldn’t that be my duty — and my top priority — as a novelist?

I liked that a lot. And I have a feeling you could just substitute the word “customers” or “clients” for “readers” and this passage work for all kinds of people.

But I thought this, which followed soon after, was even better:

Even when I ran the club, I understood [that you can’t please everybody]. A lot of customers came to the club. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and decided to come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it another way, it didn’t matter if nine out of ten people didn’t like the club.

Realizing this lifted a weight of my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to do that, I had make my philosophy absolutely clear, and patiently maintain that philosophy no matter what. This is what I learned from running a business.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The tricky party is the “really liked it” part.

Writing, of course, is a business. (At least for someone like me; maybe it’s differnt for a novelist.) It’s more of a business than it was when I started, actually. And it will get more that way in the future.

Like everybody else, I’m thinking about how I’ll ultimately survive in my business, which happens to be writing.

Am I doing what Murakami suggests needs to be done? I’m not always sure I am.

It’s a question that probably applies in every business.

It’s something to think about.

Re: George Saunders

This Q&A with George Saunders, by Jim Hanas for Stay Free, is worth reading. Coincidentally I just started reading his collection, In Persuasion Nation. I always read his stuff in The New Yorker, and read one of his earlier books, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline. Saunders is an astonishing writer, both in terms of his use of language, in the perceptive intelligence that guides it — that is, he both has something to say, and knows how to say it.

So a quick excerpt from the Q&A:

STAY FREE!: When you look at American culture today—commercialism, reality TV, the war, all the things that are in your stories—what do you see? What is your diagnosis?

SAUNDERS: I’ll give you a couple answers. One, there’s a cultural divide between the people at the top and the people underneath. So, in commercials: who’s making them? A handful of people. Why are they making them? To persuade us to buy things. There’s a group of people who have the power to broadcast and to put this huge machine at their disposal—this very beautiful machine that can make incredible images and sounds—and then there’s the rest of the population, which is “done to.” I would say that the gap between the doers and the done to is wider than it’s ever been. The politicians—the people running the country—are isolated from us. I’m 47 and I’ve had one contact with a congressperson—[New York congresswoman] Louise Slaughter called me back one time when I wrote her a letter—but that’s it. I’ve called a number of them, and you know that somebody checks off a box and then that’s it. That’s a huge thing, and I think it’s a new thing. I don’t think that people have ever felt as powerless or unimportant.

To read his second answer, and the rest of the Q&A, go here.