Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The worst doesn't happen - except when it does


Herein is a link to a pretty good piece in the New Yorker about the Trump phenomenon. I don't know if I have anything more to add. My husband, who is far more politically astute than me, said "he's the best thing that ever happened to the Democrats" and "he will leave the Republican party in ruins, so they will have to rebuild out of the rubble and become a viable party again." Let's hope he's right.

I get frightened at the things that are happening, but if I say much about it I'm a party pooper, fearful, a depressive, and blah blah blah. I am a human being in fear because of what I see all around me. And yet. I am mindful of the fact that when I wrote a starkly honest post about these fears, I lost four longtime followers within a few hours. I didn't even know my followers followed me, but apparently they do when the message is too dire, then decide to hang up the phone. Does this hurt? What do you think? I love my readers, even if I don't know them, and abandonment is always hard.

The worst doesn't usually happen, except when it does (Hiroshima, Nazi Germany, Hurricane Katrina, and all the school shootings that I can no longer keep track of - and this is by no means a comprehensive list, just what popped into my brain in the first few seconds). Am I tempted to despair? You bet  I am. On a personal level, I cope by cleaving very closely to my family and all its beloved aspects, my 40+-year marriage, and even - gulp - my writing, though I just received some news that makes me wonder if I should laugh or cry.

The Glass Character, the novel I have created a whole blog for, a whole Facebook page for, and to which I surrendered my hope and my heart, sold three copies in all of 2015. This is not just a failure, this is a literary catastrophe. To sell this number, you'd have to post vitriolic, insulting tirades every day telling everyone they're full of shit and should not go near my book. It is barely possible, but it says so right on my royalty statement, which is several hundred dollars in the red. I literally owe my publisher some pretty big bucks for failing on this level.

I'm trying to figure it out. I wasn't going to say anything. Everyone says, of course, that failure is no disgrace, that it is a badge of honour because "you tried" and learned something and should just try, try again. OK then: if it is indeed no disgrace, here goes, I'm going to write about it right now!

From observation and personal experience, however, I think the opposite is true.  I have observed that failure blights your personal vibe and renders you unwashed, a pariah, box office poison. It does. You have to play it down. One costly mistake can be the end of everything. I've written about this before, risking party-pooperhood again.

I'm going to excerpt something I sent my publisher, because this blog is my refuge now and the only thing I am going to be writing for any sort of public consumption from now on.

"I’ve been going over and over this issue in my head and wondering whether to address it will make things better or worse, but leaving it alone will be too painful for me, so I guess I had better make an attempt.

I received my royalty statement yesterday and saw that my novel sold three copies in all of 2015. This seemed like an impossibility to me, either a mistake or probably the worst sales record in publishing history. I did not expect my novel to break sales records, as my other two novels were modest sellers in spite of outstanding reviews. This novel, for whatever reason, did not get reviewed at all and did not get many of those all-important five-star blurbs on Amazon because I was not able or willing to enter the barter system (I’ll five-star yours if you’ll five-star mine) in order to procure them.

I am saying this not to be defensive or apologetic, and I know in the long run it won’t make any difference, but to say I can just brush off this magnitude of failure in my life’s work is unrealistic. I don’t know why, but perhaps because of sheer loneliness I just have to say something. One can’t reveal this kind of thing publicly because in this era of social media, one must always save face and put one’s best foot forward, and this face is just about the worst I’ve seen! You have to be a success to be a success.

Though due to health/family/financial constraints I was unable to put together a major book tour, which would have involved trying to get myself invited to events when no one had heard of my work, I did do what I could locally to promote the book and had a successful and very enjoyable launch. I set up a Facebook page specifically for the novel and have kept it up, and have been writing a blog called The Glass Character since 2010. I had gained a number of contacts, or I hoped I did, in the silent film world, and approached them with the book to see if there was interest. This included Gerry Orlando (who runs the San Francisco silent film festival), Jeffrey Vance (Lloyd biographer), Rich Correll, a Hollywood film producer/director who knew Harold Lloyd personally and who phoned me out of the blue from Los Angeles to tell me he loved the excerpts I sent him and wanted to see the whole book (never to hear from him again – he stopped answering my emails), Kevin Brownlow who is the world’s foremost expert on silent film and was generous enough to write a blurb (the one person who has been good to me and kept up a correspondence), the Lloyd family, including Suzanne Lloyd who is CEO of Harold Lloyd Entertainment, a few other HL biographers, and – well, is there much point to this? Obviously it was futile and led to no interest at all. And I am aware the whole thing was long-shot: I am not na├»ve about it.

I know the publishing world has changed a lot, and I must not be a publicity genius or this never would have happened, but three copies. Though there is a lot of lip service paid to “failure is good, it’s great, it’s how you learn”, it is socially stigmatized and shameful. It actually is, and the repercussions can be fatal to a writing career, especially if your books tank at the box office three times in a row. If you somehow manage to pick yourself up and go on to great success, it looks fine on your resume, you’re seen as the comeback kid and praised, but that’s not going to happen here because I can’t and won’t go through this again.

I don’t know what I was expecting here, but I will tell you I feel really badly that you took such a bath on this. You ended up seriously in the hole with me, and it feels awful. I will pay back what I owe, and I am not kidding, I will do that if it will help, bad as it feels. I know that’s not what is done, but I will do it because this is probably an unusual case and small publishers are struggling hard enough as it is. An author should not “earn” minus hundreds of dollars for her book – it is either funny or baffling or just heartbreaking. I do not ever intend to offer my fiction for publication again, I mean anywhere, as I am unable to detach myself from “how it did”, though I guess I am supposed to.

I don’t know how to play this game, obviously, if that’s what it is, though I know it shouldn’t be. Canadian literature is honoured worldwide as being of the highest quality. I cannot forget that my first novel received over 25 reviews, almost all of them very positive, and that my second  novel Mallory was favorably compared in the Globe and Mail to the work of Alice Munro, a Nobel prize-winner. OK, am I bragging here or just scrambling for points? I shouldn’t do that, obviously, and yet I shouldn’t NOT do it.  I didn’t do enough of it or I would have sold more than three books. There is something so awkward about being self-serving enough to push your book aggressively, because it is seen as just so un-Canadian and you can expect a lot of putdowns for it. Yet at one and the same time, if you don’t do it you’re missing the boat.

I have to tell you that writing this novel, which now must be its own reward, was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my writing experience (I guess I can’t say career). Having it accepted by Thistledown was nothing short of thrilling, and I had high hopes for it. I appreciate the faith you had in me to give me this chance.  It had been a long time since my last book came out, however, and in that time I had unwittingly morphed into a dinosaur, with my past work seen as almost a liability: I was that fatal thing, an “old school writer”. It seemed that suddenly everyone was an author, and some real crap was hitting the fan (Fifty Shades, etc.) and becoming bestseller material. Since I wasn’t sure how to navigate these waters, I did what I could and sold three books and now wonder how that even could have happened.

It’s a little late for a post-mortem, I guess, or what I could or should or couldn’t or shouldn’t have done. But it is too bad I had to agonize about whether I should even speak to this or just zip it up, keep it to myself and try to carry on. This is embarrassing, if not humiliating, and I do have my pride. There is no way to win this at this point, or contemplate what I might have done or should have done or shouldn’t have done, and it is really a very disappointing way to end my fiction-writing career, but here it must end. The other day I made a passing reference to “writing another novel” and my husband got a look on his face, not just pained but anguished, and said, “Margaret, please, please don’t do that.”  He was being truly supportive of me in saying this.

Thistledown gave me an opportunity here, perhaps a roll of the dice, but for that I am still grateful in spite of how it turned out. I hope this isn’t seen as a rant, which it is not meant to be, but a cri du coeur, just something I had to say because not saying it was killing me. I do appreciate your reading this, and I don’t ask for you to try to make it better, but I guess I just had to say it.

Again, I am grateful for the chance to work with you."

Why do I do this, publicize and broadcast such a jaw-dropping failure? Because I'm sick of hiding it. As Bob Dylan once said, "When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose." (He also said "he not busy being born is busy dying," and today I'm not sure which one I am.) It's true. I'm not trying to "gain" anything here either. Maybe it's a bit of a cautionary tale, however. I do think I'm a good writer and don't need to be bolstered. But I have long believed that a storyteller needs an audience. We don't expect a concert pianist who has trained for ten years to play in an empty hall, but when writers want readers, they're seen as egotists. If they DON'T get that readership, they're seen as failures.

I love the book world anyway, because I love books, damn it, damn it all, and now here I am near tears. Everyone keeps saying "but only the format is changing, books will always be books". Books will always be books if they are READ, but if they aren't read they're objects lying around the house, just things to be dusted, or - worse - pulped. My second book was recently pulped, meaning that no copies now exist of it, nor ever will. It has turned back into a tree, which is maybe some kind of backhanded magic.

I can't unwrite. I can't untell. I can't unwish. I can't undream. I can't unhope or go back to age eight and say to that eager little girl, "no, Margaret, you can't write books, not because you 'can't' but because no one will ever read them." 

But I can stop, and I have stopped already, I won't do this any more. I guess I will still feed this blog because, for the most part, I enjoy doing it. It's a form of play for me, of recreation, and (sometimes) a way to rejoice or lament or just write about something I really care about. Sometimes I get ten views, sometimes (well, once) 100,000, but I'd keep on even if I got three views a year. Or, probably, none.

So that's something, isn't it? Is the dream still alive? No, it's dead, and now I must bury it. I will never again be a published novelist. Is there a smaller number than three copies a year? Two? One? Zero? I don't think I can get anyone on-board with figures like that.

But since I need to write to survive psychologically, that part of it will go on. When I look back on my life right this minute, all I can remember is sadness, sorrow, slights, people being dismissive or contemptuous or saying mean things to me, tears and embarrassment. I can't remember any of the good stuff because I'm in a mini-depression over the three copies. No one has to read this, however! But it's out there, hanging in the wind like some strange, dream-shaped chime, a glass chime with glass characters that reflect my all-too-breakable glass heart.

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