"What does it take to win at this writing game?"
Les sat on a folding chair a few feet away from one of his idols, the Great Writer X. X nursed his fourth scotch and squinted at Les.
"Lemme tell ya what I think about that, son. It's a damn shame, is what it is. So many people wanting to write, to tell their great story or whatever the hell it might be, huge egos on the line. So much sadness. So much suffering. It's a shame, is what it is." X closed his eyes and looked as if he might weep. Then his face went neutral again and he brought the scotch to his lips.
"Okay," said Les. "But what does it take? To write a great book, to get it published, to get readers, to make it in the business?"
"Yeah, well it ain't gonna happen. Not anymore." X finished his drink and poured another. The bottle Les had brought was almost empty. "Lemme tell ya why."
"Need three things to happen, son. One, talent. Ya got to write, and write great. Ya got to have that magic something that takes your story over the top, that makes it dance along the invisible edge, the razor's edge. You, the writer, you have to be able to throw yourself over and over against a wall that will never give. You have to bleed, and you have to be able to give that blood to your readers."
"Shit," said Les.
"And you have to have ambition. Real ambition. You have to want more, you hear me? More than the average person would ever want. I don't mean stuff, son. I mean Truth with a capital T. You have to have it in you to write great, and more than that, to want to write great work, not just trivial fluff. To have to have to do it. And hell, maybe you have to want to suffer too. You listening to me?"
"Yeah," sighed Les, finishing his own drink now.
"One more thing that's got to happen. You got to be lucky. You got to write books that're gonna hit at the right time. It's all in the timing, son. Because those readers ain't always out there, see. They come and go. Sometimes they're there, like they were in the twenties, and again after the second war, and like they really were in the fifties. Hungry for more than what was in front of them. Dying to know secrets. It has to be a time when people believe they can be more, and the culture and the media are telling 'em to read, to think bigger, to actually work at growing their understanding of how life works. During those times, and they're rare, people queue up to devour anything that comes along that might lift them from their dumps and remind them that there's more. You have to publish in a time when people believe it's possible to become fully human."
The old man sighed and put his glass down hard on the table. He looked at Les. "Son, you came at the wrong time, that's all there is to it. I can't help you. Because right now, let me tell you. There's maybe one of those hungry readers left out of the thousands that used to crowd into the book stores. Maybe not even one. Son, the time's out of joint. Truth, especially the hard core subtle truths that used to make our hair stand on end, stuff like Dostoevsky and Waugh and Hesse and Hemingway and maybe even Salinger or Updike used to write. Christ son, that hunger is just gone now. Eat up by triviality and illiteracy and stupid computer games and sports bars and ...."
X poured the last of the scotch into his glass and raised it to his lips once more. This time the tears were real. "Everyone wants the illusion of mystery. Mystery as game or as entertainment. No one cares about the real mysteries anymore. Son, go home. Write your books. Then put 'em somewhere where they can be found in another age. Thirty years, or maybe fifty. Maybe then. Maybe. Or maybe there won't be books or anyone left to read them by then."