Paul Graham is one of the founders of Y Combinator, a very successful incubators of tech startups. He has funded and instructed companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, and reddit, amongst others.
The other day, I started reading Graham’s many essays about business and technology, and I was struck by one point he made, in “Startup = Growth.” There, he argues that a startup is not like a normal business.
Let’s start with a distinction that should be obvious but is often overlooked: not every newly founded company is a startup. Millions of companies are started every year in the US. Only a tiny fraction are startups. Most are service businesses—restaurants, barbershops, plumbers, and so on. These are not startups, except in a few unusual cases. A barbershop isn’t designed to grow fast. Whereas a search engine, for example, is.
When I say startups are designed to grow fast, I mean it in two senses. Partly I mean designed in the sense of intended, because most startups fail. But I also mean startups are different by nature, in the same way a redwood seedling has a different destiny from a bean sprout.
I was struck by this point not because I have a great idea for a startup, but because I’m a writer and a novelist. Graham’s distinction captures something about novels that has been nagging at me lately.
A good novel, a successful novel — it’s not like other forms of good writing. If most writing is like running a barbershop, writing a novel is like creating Google.
I don’t know whether to feel good about this. Probably it would be nicer, it would be fairer, if writing a novel were more like running a small business, like being the manager of a restaurant or a well-paid plumber. Novelists, collectively, might be happier.
Perhaps this is why novelists are so fond of using the language of regular employment and discipline. You always hear novel-writing described as a “marathon,” you hear about “honing one’s craft,” you hear about the importance of “showing up for work each day.” And all of this is true. Paul Graham would never suggest that the founders of Google worked less hard than the founders of a barbershop.
But I think he would argue that the founders of a new, aspiring startup need to work differently to the founders of a regular business.
I was recently at a large conference for writers, the AWP Conference in Minneapolis. I was talking to a friend who, several years ago, published a novel that ended up being very successful. As we talked, I occasionally sensed that she was almost embarrassed about talking about that novel, as though there was something phony about continuing to discuss work she had done so long ago in the past, work that (I assume) had felt just as challenging, as difficult, and as exhausting as most writing always is.
I wanted to say then, but didn’t know how, that she had no reason to hold back. I wanted to say that a good novel like a full-grown redwood, and there aren’t that many redwoods out there. This thing called novel-writing certainly requires regular, hard drudgery, but it isn’t only about that.
If I were to visit a restaurant, and all the awards nailed to the wall were from five years ago, I might not feel that excited about my impending meal. Who cares what the daily soup tasted like five years ago? But not every human project is like this. If Paul Graham and Y Combinator were to never fund another good startup, they would still be paid to give speeches and seminars into the indefinite future, because Airbnb exists and they helped create it.
It’s a different kind of achievement.
Similarly, my friend had written a successful novel. That was all the justification she needed — the book exists on another plane of significance. It would presumably be worth the price of admission to AWP, or any other conference, to hear her explicate and detail the writing of such a work, to ask her question upon question, and then return the next year to ask more questions.
I’m currently reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I’m only halfway through, so I need to hold off before making a final judgement, but from the first 200 pages, I can say that The Magicians is really exceptional. There is a bravado to Grossman’s re-writing of Harry Potter and Narnia that is breathtaking, a scope and scale that eludes one’s full intellectual comprehension. And this quality becomes obvious very quickly. From the first couple of chapters, The Magicians feels different to most kinds of reading experiences. More complexity is being juggled, a greater intensity is looming, more reflections of real life and past literature are circling.
The first fifty pages of The Magicians feel like they have a redwood in them, not a bean sprout.
So. If this is all true, what does it mean for those of us who want to write novels?
I think it means we need to take more risks. Our preconceptions of what our novel should be are almost certainly too small. As we go about constructing and drafting our novels, we should keep an eye out for ideas that seem terrible or stupid, ideas that make us grimace, ideas that contradict everything we have in mind.
If you are stuck with your novel, and someone advises you to do something with it that makes you feel unwell — a plot twist that appalls you, a narrative stance that appears crude or unsustainable — this may well be a sign you should consider doing it.
Because the idea may actually be terrible and stupid. Or it might only seem that way because one’s ego is attempting to protect itself. The small, walled self is trying to keep the novel from growing too large.
“You’d expect big startup ideas to be attractive,” Paul Graham says, in his essay “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas.” In other words: one might expect a truly great business idea to fascinate every venture capitalist who heard it.
But this has not been Graham’s experience at all. The boldest plans, he explains, “tend to repel you.”
One of the more surprising things I’ve noticed while working on Y Combinator is how frightening the most ambitious startup ideas are. In this essay I’m going to demonstrate this phenomenon by describing some. Any one of them could make you a billionaire. That might sound like an attractive prospect, and yet when I describe these ideas you may notice you find yourself shrinking away from them.
Don’t worry, it’s not a sign of weakness. Arguably it’s a sign of sanity. The biggest startup ideas are terrifying. And not just because they’d be a lot of work. The biggest ideas seem to threaten your identity: you wonder if you’d have enough ambition to carry them through.
… It means these ideas are invisible to most people who try to think of startup ideas, because their subconscious filters them out. Even the most ambitious people are probably best off approaching them obliquely.
If a friend came to you and said they were going to write a novel that mashed together Narnia and Harry Potter with the sort of raw-edged, grown-up sensibility one finds in uber-literary novels about brilliant, unhappy New Yorkers by Jonathan Lethem, you would probably warn that friend off. The premise seems too enormous to make sense. It seems like two or three novels uncomfortably attempting to share a front cover.
You would, however, be wrong.
Perhaps one skill that a great novelist needs, therefore, is the ability to spot the correct crazy ideas, the seeds that contain redwoods. Or maybe no one has the power to consciously do that, but what a great novelist can do is to be more open to such ideas when they arrive.
As we aspiring writers build our novels, we should stay on the outlook for that unpleasant sensation of wrongness and excess, and we should feel excited by its presence. Something large is attempting to enter the story.
We should treat the feeling of being overwhelmed as a hint that here, at last, is a path worth following.
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