Thursday, July 8, 2010

What do you want, anyway?

I have a friend - OK, he's a psychiatrist and probably doesn't know anything - who keeps asking me questions about the writing biz.
"Margaret," he intones (he looks a bit like Pee Wee Herman, in a neat grey suit and with equally strange diction), "if you've been published before, twice, and had almost universally good reviews, why don't you just take your most recent novel and hand it to your publisher and say, here, publish it?"
Why? Because after a couple of years, publishers in general don't know me from Adam.
I don't know exactly how, but I realized today that it happens to the best of us. I know a writer who wrote a novel years ago that was not only good, but great. It bordered on classic, and everyone predicted a brilliant career for her. She was shortlisted for international awards, much feted and touted as a sure thing.
It didn't happen.
Why didn't it happen? Because the writing biz is the most frustrating game in town. There are no rules except "know the right people", and "don't ever say you need to know the right people because it's a LIE, dammit!" (and you shouldn't say such an uncomplimentary thing, even if it is true).
Success is flukey. Some novels do well, but I've been a reviewer for 25 years and have reviewed some 350 books, and I can tell you right now that many of them are weak, too similar to be really noteworthy. They fit the mold, for sure, but they don't turn me on.
Every once in a while, a flukey book makes it (though not necessarily the author). Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts blew me away, because it was impossible to describe, involving three-dimensional sharks made of text suspended
in mid-air in dusty old
Then there's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Chalk this up to impossible: it's a semi-documentary bio about the life of dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, complete with tiny fly-speck footnotes (footnotes?? Who can get away with footnotes except the hopelessly backward Victorian physician Oliver Sacks, who still uses a manual
Aligned with this, entwined with this, is a passionate love story about hot-blooded Latina women and the saga of Oscar Wao, a nerdy overweight teenager who carries a Planet of the Apes lunch box.
The rest of them, well. . . that's why I stopped reviewing. They seemed to be what the industry was after - or not? Will we ever hear from Junot Diaz again, or will his next book be rushed into print and fall as flat as
Forrest Gump II?
I realize I risk ostracism just by daring to say anything negative about publishing. It jabs me whenever someone says, "Well, Margaret - when's your next book coming out?"

Like a lot of writers, I believe I have lots of good material that needs to be published. I have just completed a novel about the life and hot-blooded loves of silent screen legend Harold Lloyd (the "man on the clock" hanging 20 stories above the Model Ts swarming below). This novel has legs, and I know it. It has the potential to go all the way.
But it won't, because dozens of people will brush it off before I go into a depression, a depression I shouldn't have because it looks untidy and
obviously demonstrates that I can't stand the heat.
People say to me, "It must be possible to succeed. Look at Stephen King. Look at J. K. Rowling." No one knows that most writers reside at the bottom of a vast pyramid with only one or two writers (see above) at the top.
"Why don't you just ask other writers for tips on getting published? You know, have them read your stuff and make helpful comments."
It's like a politician saying to the opposition, "Hey, listen, I have all sorts of tips on how to get elected. Here!". The idea of writers reading each other's manuscripts hangs around, ludicrous as it is: even if it made sense, which it doesn't, we don't have TIME to do that, because we are busy writing
our own.
The only thing worse is when, after a reading or other literary event, someone comes slinking up to you with a damp manuscript quivering in their hand. "Would you. . . you know. . . "
"Would I - "
"Would you mind, you know?"

They don't even have to say what they want.
I have to tell them, "Sorry, I have so many commitments right now that I just can't do it, but best of luck."

"But how will I get it published?"
Here comes the hidden agenda. They don't want you to read their manuscript - they want you to GET IT PUBLISHED FOR THEM, to hand it to your publisher and say something like, "This is the best thing I've ever read, a sure-fire best seller. Publish it instead of my book, I don't need the publicity any more."
Why can't this business be run like a business? Why must I still print out and snail-mail a 10-lb. manuscript to publishers, spending $15 or so, instead of e-mailing it and having them print it out (as if they don't have the money or time: hey, it's their business to scout out talent, isn't it?).
If anybody's reading this, which I doubt, be aware that I'm not taking pot-shots randomly or for fun. I have some real grievances, frustrations that nearly finished me. I also have some very good material which is entirely worthy of publishing. It weighs heavily on me, like a foetus that will soon
die and turn to stone.