literary perils


The thing about my visit to New York was that it brought me face-to-face with my raging writer’s insecurity. People were lovely to me; people made time for me; people said good things about my novel. But what you want most of all is for someone to pat you on the back and say with impossible truth: There, there. Don’t fret. Your novel will sell well, and so will your second, and so will your third, and you shall go forth into the world and have what is known as a Literary Career, and good advances and royalty checks and many other beautiful, beautiful things will fall your way, and the writing shall flow through you like water, and it will be Good, and you’ll never have to compose another freaking query letter ever ever EVER in your lifetime.

This does not happen.


I got off the plane and checked into my hotel and an hour or so later met my editor Liz Scheier. I was jet-lagged, but so was she; she had just flown in from some kind of conference in Vancouver. And because we didn’t think we were quite incoherent enough, we went straight for martinis. We talked about other authors — she mentioned Elizabeth Bear’s upcoming trilogy, which I thought sounded awesome, even though I can no longer remember what Liz said it’s about. I believe I expressed envy towards an online acquaintance who had just scored a deal in hardcover. Liz, who knew I was thinking about my mass-market paperback status, made an airy gesture with her hand. “Different kind of book,” she said. “Different kind of readership.” I’m not so sure about the latter. You know that age-old question, do you write for yourself, do you write for other people? I write for myself. The thing is, I’m a reader first, a writer second, and the ‘self’ that I write for is the reader who craves certain kinds of stories — basically: well-written thrillers with a bit of depth, interesting characters, and often but not always a paranormal dimension — and that reader also happens to love hardcovers, she craves hardcovers, she gravitates to their glossy and increasingly expensive selves on the front tables and shelves of your average big-chain bookstore (or plucky independent one).

Having said that, I’m happy that my first book will be cheap enough for someone to buy on impulse just because they like the cover, and small enough to stuff in a back pocket or purse or knapsack. I am aware that I am new and unknown. I have yet to be driven off the lot. At this point in my hoped-for ‘career’, I want to be as cheap as possible while still retaining a queenly dignity.

“Hardcovers can absolutely kill the wrong kind of book,” an agent was telling me the following day, “especially a debut novel by an unknown writer.” What matters, in the end, are the sales numbers. It all comes back to the numbers. I have heard and read this so many times I’m tempted to embroider it on a pillow (or more realistically, hire someone to embroider…) This agent went on to say that what matters more than the whole softcover vs. hardcover issue is the imprint that happens to be on the spine of that softcover or hardcover. “If you debut with a publisher who’s generally considered second-rate, your options are immediately limited. You can continue to publish novels with that publisher, but they can only take you so far, and the first-rate houses will basically turn down their noses at you. They’ll hear the name of your publisher and they won’t be interested in you or your work.”


I was reflecting on this during a recent lunch with the awesome Jim Ruland. Jim is about to come out with a book of collected short stories — BIG LONESOME, by Gorsky Press. (We had a rather nice moment together: “You know,” I said, “I listed you in my Acknowledgements page.” “Really?” His eyebrows lifted. “Well, I put you on my Acknowledgements as well.” My own eyebrows went up. “Really?” I said. “Really,” he said.) The common wisdom is that books of short stories don’t sell, and practical experience unfortunately bears this out. Jim mentioned one short-story writer in particular whose collection had garnered a big advance, massive hype, awesome reviews — and copies of which Jim had just found in a remainder bin. This is why I think small independent presses like Gorsky are so cool and interesting and vital to the industry, to the art in general. They fall outside of the kind of hierarchy the above agent was telling me about. They provide the much-needed arena for a project like BIG LONESOME by a writer like Jim — the kind of writer who wins twenty-thousand dollar NEA grants and gets published in magazines like The Believer. They can grant these writers at least the beginnings of the recognition and credibility they deserve, without murdering them with sales figures forever locked into the computers at Borders and Barnes and Noble, without branding them as ‘second-rate’. You can be uncommercial without sacrificing your future; you can begin to build an audience that might, over time, grow to commercial proportions. Just like in the old days. Sure, the money might not be there — but if you’re writing literary fiction, or even genre fiction, the money tends not to be anywhere.


So the moral of this blog entry is (I’ve just decided that it has one): pay attention to small presses. To Gorsky and Soft Skull and Soho and Milkweed and Subterranean, to name the first few that come to mind. If you’re the kind of person who likes to complain about the “drivel” that fills the shelves of your local Barnes and Noble, and yet you can’t remember the last book you bought that couldn’t be traced back through a network of imprints and subdivisions and divisions to one of the five major New York publishers (Random House, Penguin, Time Warner, Harpercollins, Simon & Schuster), then you’re not giving contemporary fiction a fair shake, are you?

I love the stuff in the mainstream. I love the stuff on the margins. As a writer, I’d like to experiment with both — possibly employing some kind of pseudonym, a completely ‘other’ writing identity.

Shake myself up a little.

That would be fun.


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