Tuesday, January 18, 2005

sober dope. :-(

M.J. Rose's January 18th post at Buzz Balls & Hype presents what, for me, is a heartbreaking letter from an anonymous literary writer.

Heartbreaking because this writer's experience--of traveling horrible distances to do a book signing that isn't promoted, and which nobody attends--is replicated to one degree or another by virtually every writer I've ever known.

Heartbreaking because it happens dozens of times every single day, to writers of all stripes (not just literary), reflecting a culture that does not treasure its authors as once it did.

Heartbreaking because writing a book and getting it published, and being the editor who discovers and gets the opportunity to work with that writer, can be for both parties such a deliriously beautiful experience, full of love and optimism and the promise of great things--and then, too often, even when everything goes as planned, things don't go as hoped; and the result, too often, is--well, heartbreaking.

But the final and most powerful pang comes for this author's unexpected generosity toward--and respect for--the editor(s) with whom s/he has shared this particular heartbreak. Says, "Rely on your publisher for nothing, when your book comes out. If they do anything, you'll be pleasantly surprised"; but also says, "Your editor is not betraying you. Your editor may well be fighting hard for your book, but [is] unable to surmount the opposing forces..."

That such kind-heartedness exists even in the face of such disappointment: this moves me. It motivates me. This author understands that, for so many of us, it's not about product or units or bestsellers per se--it's about publishing books we believe in by authors we admire, publishing them with as much care and pride and vigor as we can.

I don't concede. I don't think it's true that editors are powerless, or that the marketing departments call all the shots. I'm not saying it's easy; I'm not saying an editor can move the mountain every single time; and I'm not saying that the stack of disappointment--for editors, I mean--isn't always quite a bit taller than its opposite. Passionate advocacy won't carry the day even 50% of the time. But without passion, all is lost. And it's still the case that, sometimes, an editor's passion--even for a "small" book bought for an unspectacular sum--can set in motion a chain-reaction that ends happily for all--but only if the work itself subsequently bears up again and again to the scrutiny of the many, many sets of readers along the yellow brick road to publication. And in such a case, the power an editor possesses comes, ultimately, from a single source.

The work itself.


M.J. said...

I think your authors must be unbelievably lucky to have you as an editor. That was a beautiful post.

Anonymous said...

I had a response to this post as well, Max, but when I hit the "comments" I saw MJ had already said it...
the not at all anonymous Joshilyn Jackson, who has no blogger account.

Brenda Coulter said...

What I admire about this author is that unlike so many of my author friends, she appears to have no expectation of being worshiped. The fiasco at the bookstore was not an intentional slight, but a terrible mistake. Sure, she had every reason to be disappointed and even annoyed. But bless her heart, she didn't rant about what was "owed" to her as an author.

Why do so many authors believe they deserve an elevated position in the world? Even Mad Max bemoans a culture that "does not treasure its authors as once it did."

Why should our culture treasure authors? As a profession, are authors somehow more worthy of respect than schoolteachers, ballet dancers, police officers, or (do I dare?) publishers?

Good riddance to those pedastals, I say.

Anonymous said...

"a culture that does not treasure its authors as once it did."

When books controlled a virtual monopoly in mass entertainment media, yes, we were in-demand and even treasured. But because of the history of classics which were published in the absence of competing media, we now fool ourselves into thinking that novels aren't 'entertainment,' that literary novels somehow deserve to be popular simply because they are excellent. No. They merely deserve to be excellent.

If James Patterson or Nora Roberts has a book signing, it will be well-attended: they are in the entertainment business, they know it, and people respond. They aim for popularity; they hit it squarely. If they aimed for literary success, the rewards would not be the same. How can we bemoan our lack of popularity when we're not even attempting to be popular?

I'm not sure there's a great deal of sense in a self-described 'literary writer' complaining about a lack of popularity. That's like a neurosurgeon complaining she doesn't have enough general practice clients. Yes, some 'literary' books achieve popularity: they are as notable as a lottery winner.

Beth Ciotta said...

Thank you for reminding us that true champions of the author and his/her work do exist within the publishing houses, Max. Posts such as this help me from turning into a cynic and encourage me to continue to focus on the art.

Anonymous said...

I need to vent just a little bit. This feud between literary and commercial writers is driving me batty.

I read both so-called "literary" books and commercial books. I enjoy them for different reasons. I write commerical fiction. I hope to be successful writing commercial fiction. Why? Because I want to make a living as a writer.

What is wrong with writing books that people want to read? Hasn't Stephen King's speech to the book foundation sunk in yet? I cut my teeth on King, read everything he wrote. As well as Judy Blume and Agatha Christie and Dean Koontz and a host of others. I have all 10 Janet Evanovich's Plum books -- in hardcover. Gasp -- she writes to please people! How could I buy her books? Because she makes me laugh out loud.

I'm fed up with the hits commercial writers take as if we're bottom-feeding scum. There is nothing wrong with writing stories that entertain people. Our world is difficult enough, why not give people a few hours to step into the shoes of character that scare them, make them laugh, make them feel good?

I don't diss literary writers, I really wish they'd stop diss my ilk. Then again, I'm probably the only person in the publishing industry (if you consider a published author part of the industry) who doesn't believe in government grants for the arts.

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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

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