Friday, October 1, 2010

Weird or. . . ?

No, this post isn't about William Shatner (much), or the Loch Ness Monster or All-Bran Cereal or any of the other fine products he's pushed over nearly 80 years. I can just see him lumbering around, looking not so much like a fat octanogerianerean (or however the bleep that's spelled - 80 years old, anyway) as a fat, lumbering seventyarian. In other words, he's pretty well-preserved.

What I really want to write about are the twists and turns, the contradictions that drive writers mad. I just finished reading an article in the Huffington Post (give it a try if you haven't seen it - I'm still trying to figure out their mandate), by some writer-or-other - hell, my memory is lousy these days, but I think her name was Muffy - who in essence is saying that writers should suck it up, quit their bellyaching and get down to the nitty-gritty of sending out their manuscripts (one by one, by post, with a stamped, self-addressed envelope: "You do want your manuscript returned, don't you?" reads the withering directions on one publisher's web site), rather than bitching away on Twitter and Tweeter and Woofer and all those other sociable networks about how publishers are rotten and unfair and don't understand genius when they see it.

At the same time, feeling in much the same state myself (after sending out one too many stamped self-addressed envelopes and having them seemingly disappear), I sent a distress-call to one of my favorite writers. One of the best in the country, as far as I am concerned, with an impeccable track record of beautifully-wrought, gripping novels. I've reviewed several of them, and every time I was assigned one I thought, "ahh, I'm in for a good ride." And I was never disappointed.

This selfsame writer answered my moaning email with, in essence, this statement: I'm going through exactly the same thing. Publishers have turned me down repeatedly, and agents just aren't interested. A good, even a great track record means essentially nothing. The industry has tightened up so much, there's so much anxiety about survival that they want a "sure thing", something that will rake in as much money as possible.

I don't want to dump on publishers. They're doing business, for heaven's sake, or trying to, in a culture that is reading less and less. In no other field would there be such nasty criticism of the need to make a profit in order to survive. It's almost as bad as the head-shaking writers provoke by insisting that they want to be published. Shouldn't art be its own reward? What kind of egotist actually wants to see his work in print, or needs people to read it?

There's another factor at work here. I can only imagine how many unsolicited manuscripts every publisher (micro to macro) is constantly deluged with. Most probably aren't readable, let alone publishable. Somehow they have to pick through all this and find books, real books that might work on the shelves. Books someone might want to buy.

But at the same time, I get a feeling of a deep disconnect between the lightning communication of 2010 and the horse-and-buggy approach of the SASE and the printed-out, mailed manuscript (each setting the writer back about $12). Something ain't adding up. And success is getting more dicey with each passing year.

The whole field is. . . weird. . . or what.

I think William Shatner should investigate this, give it one of his histrionic voiceovers, one of his "hey-I'm-just-in-this-for-the-money" things. He should have some scientist slide over a giant ice field with his breath puffing out in clouds. He should show rare fossils (Shatner? - or editors who've been around too long?). Lights should flash in the sky, probably some kid with a flashlight, but never mind, that's pretty weird in itself, isn't it?

Writers have to be: tough but sensitive; not care what anyone thinks (art!!), but constantly and feverishly working to get attention; solitary (sit alone at the keykboard for hours) but sociable (get out there and mingle and work the room!). They have to be so many opposite things that it's no wonder so many of them go crazy.

Getting published is the Holy Grail, and sooooo many writers seek it, the "cuppa Christ" Indiana Jones craved. They just assume that, once they get their hands on it, everything will go smoothly from then on. (Haven't I written about all this before? Sorry. This one is really about William Shatner.) The truth is much more complicated. I don't feel so alone now, knowing that one of the foremost writers in this country is having a lot of trouble getting his books in print. But I also feel somewhat gobsmacked.

I shall have to regroup.

Like some nut, I won't quit, because this is what I do. But I have to say, this field I'm in is the strangest I've ever heard of, full of impossible twists and turns. Publishers want something original, of course. Not the usual boring stuff. At the same time, they want a sure thing, "more of the same", so that their ready-made audience will keep buying books. Harry Potter sells better than Campbell's Soup.

I don't have Twitter or Tweeter or whatever that stuff is, marking me either as a dinosaur or as someone with a whole brain who doesn't communicate in idiotic, ungrammatical fragments. (Is that why people can't get published? Do they think a novel is just a series of glued-together tweets?) So I'm hopelessly behind, and no one will ever know who I am. It took me centuries to decide to write a blog, and I don't think I have a huge fan base. I keep doing it anyway, mostly because it's pretty enjoyable and a great way to dodge my real work (which is, right now, letting publishers know that I have the best novel in 30 years tucked under my arm and will let them see it if they ask real nice.)

Oops, I said this was about William Shatner. William Shatner has written novels. Well, sort of. Someone writes them for him, just as someone eats All-Bran for him. He just provides story ideas, probably retreads of the original Trek series (which I'm watching again, and enjoying hugely - it wasn't as tacky as people say it was, and broke a lot of new ground).

I kind of like the fact that this actor was working steadily in 1966 (and '67, and '77, and '87, and. . . ), and in essence has never stopped. Self-parody doesn't bother him, and somehow or other he has mastered the art of marketing the Shatner brand. And he will probably go on until he drops.

Smart. . . or what?

POSTSCRIPT. These things always come on a bad day, somehow. I just got a statement from my first publisher stating the amount of royalties earned and the number of copies sold in the past year. The royalties totalled almost -$100.00 (yes, MINUS a hundred), and the number of copies sold worldwide was two.

Reviewers called the novel "a contender for the Leacock medal", its style/charm/allthatstuff comparable to Ann Marie MacDonald (an Oprah pick) and Gail Anderson-Dargatz. "Fiction at its finest". Now, do I really owe them a hundred bucks???