I. The Slippery Slope.
You try to be strong, to be patient, to take the zen view that worrying it will do no good anyway.
You try to take the advice of your editor, your agent, your friends, fellow writers, your shrink, your analyst, your podiatrist, your psychopharmocologist, your mother [that's how bad it's gotten: you're soliciting advice from your mother], that the best thing you can do now is to block it out and just work:Work on your next book. Work on your garden. Take up a new hobby. [Blogging, anyone?] Take up smoking.
You try to hear--I mean, really hear--those same members of your League of Support Professionals as they say, with that patronizing earnestness that makes you want to slit their well-meaning throats, that it's the Inner You that matters: you've written a great book, you're an artist, you can't let external circumstances over which you have no control become a measure of how you feel about yourself--
--and then you say, ENOUGH! Quit with the laying on of hands! I'm not going to spend the rest of my life in a womb or a plastic bubble or a sensory deprivation chamber. I'm a grownup, and
- I'll smoke if I want to! And--
- yeah, I know about identity theft & all, but SOMETIMES, dammit, I just don't FEEL like shredding my bills after I've paid them! And--
- OK--they can legislate my obligation to wear seatbelts, but not since I was sitting in a fucking CAR-SEAT were they in a position to forcibly strap me in!!!
For a time, this declaration of independence feels freeing. Until...well, there's that clock, in the kitchen--boy does that sucker get loud, late at night when you're all alone. A little less deliberate, but no less maddening, is the slow plink-pulink-puuuuuh-LINK! of the faucet-from-hell as droplets land with unexpected percussive resonance in the basin of the sink. And then there's the irritating buzz of--whatzit, a skeeter?--and as you squash that skeeter and scratch at the one actual site of attack, suddenly it feels like you're covered with insect bites, or fleas, or some horrible skin disease, you're scratching madly at your arms and legs and belly, until at last you throw your head back and howl (again),
A junky needs her dope, a bulemic needs his Twinkies. Writers?
Well, what you'd prefer is real data, feedback, some sense that something is happening out there--anything?!?--with/for/in relation to the prospects for your forthcoming book... Absent that? Invariably, you'll look back on this as the moment where the wheels came off--that first time you typed that fateful URL into the Address bar of your computer and hit return. And so it begins.
The vigil....The stakeout....
The hourly Amazon.com sales-ranking check-in.
Gotta get that fix...It doesn't matter that the "data" Amazon provides tells you nothing, of course, or at least nothing you can make any sense of. In the weeks leading up to publication--a moment you've spent much of your life imagining--Amazon.com will be more often visited by the average writer than Nerve or Skank or PornPro or any of the other usual favorites.
And when Amazon fails to deliver the desired reassurance? Well, like those anti-drug lecturers always told us back in grade school: what starts innocently invariably leads to the harder stuff.... And so it goes: the little devil on the left side senses your weakness, taps you on the shoulder, and whispers those two syllables whose effects will prove ever more insidious, ever more seductive--
"Huh?" you ask.
That left-shoulder Beelzebub hisses encore:
GOOGLE!And this, my friends, is when the trouble really begins: because once you've taken that maiden voyage--once you've signed your name into the log-book of that turbo-charged search-vessel--you've conscripted yourself to a life of hard labor on the turbulent seas of narcissism... For if you live long enough, and manage to create enough trouble (however minor), you, too, can run a Google search and find that somebody, somewhere, has written about you--an alumni magazine, a catalog for a writer's workshop, a piece of hate-mail identifying you as part of an industry wide conspiracy to fill-in-the-blank ...
Trouble is, no number's big enough... Believe me: I know.
II. A Cautionary Tale.
Friends: Tonight, at long last--having hit rock-bottom; and being beyond salvation, beyond dignity, beyond redemption--I raise my tchukus off this plain pine bench, stand before you all, and say,
Hi. My name is Max
and I'm a Narcissist.
A Google-Junky who's lost his way.
Then--Halleleujah!--the new wave of reality television hit. Knowing myself ill-suited for an actual personality overhaul, but consumed, now, with the Lotto-like jackpot potential I'd witnessed so frequently during the Sweeps-Week finales of so many of the shows (to say nothing of a deep-seated [or is it -seeded?] desire to appear on David Letterman), I knew that my time had come. A mid-life makeover was nigh on the horizon. All I needed now was the vehicle through which to create an alternate personae.
Then, in the fall of '04, Time Magazine named Mark Sarvas "Man of the Year" and declared ours The Age of the Blog. And Mad Max Perkins was born.
At first, of course, it was bliss. The controversy! The accolades! None other than Maud Newton (who we'd call "legendary" if she weren't way too fly to wear that style) characterized BookAngst as "an indispensable source of information about the inner machinery of publishing. " The afore-mentioned Mark Sarvas declared "We can't remember a blog becoming indispensible as quickly as Mad Max Perkins' BookAngst 101 has." As "Max" I received mentions in the Denver Post, New York Newsday, the Boston Globe, Crain's New York. Even NPR wanted to know: who's this Mad Max fellow, and how do we get him on our show?
A month or so after the launch of BookAngst--it was late, I was hungry--I ran an innocent search through Yahoo or MSN. In the "search" field I typed
"Late night delivery, chocolate cake"and hit return. The result failed to satisfy. So I turned then to another search engine.
I was so impressed with the results of THIS "chocolate cake" search that I tried Google another time: I typed in my own name. The result was predictably unsatisfying: it came back with a scant 17 matches, 12 of which rightly belonged to a San Diego-based attorney famous, briefly, for defending a serial killer.
Without giving it much thought, I typed in
"BookAngst"and fell quite out of my chair. The number of matches read 652,003.
Dr. Grumpy O. Bookman recently presented a fascinating post on the subject of narcissistic personality disorder, which includes a list of tell-tale personality traits.
- A grandiose sense of self-importance.
- A need for excessive admiration.
- A sense of entitlement...not justified by [his] attainments.
The list goes on. Every item fits me to a "t".
The particulars of my fall are too humiliating to repeat in detail--yet I cannot help myself... Suffice it to say that, as delighted as I was by my IGO [Initial Google Output], I was disappointed that my subsequent Googlings didn't reflect a similarly exponential growth pattern. As my number plateaued--flatlined, really--I spent more and more of my late-night hours trying to find new mentions of the good deeds of Mad Max Perkins. One hour a night became two, then three; this in addition to the time spent on new posts themselves, which became ever-more transparent in their desperation. I was begging for more links, for more mentions, for the bloggists' equivalent of column inches.
Cruel, fickle bastards all! They'd moved on! M.J. Rose's popularity grew and grew, while visitors to my site dwindled to a dozen or so a day. Maud, Mark, Sarah--they no longer paid any attention. The cruelist irony? In late 2004 I won Honorable Mention in the "Bloggist With A Bullet" category; in 2005, mine was named "Blahg of the Year." In barely eight months I'd gone from hot-stuff to has-been. I'd become completely irrelevant.
But the humilation doesn't stop there. So much Googling-till-the wee-hours left me with more than just pale skin and bags under my eyes. In March my supervisor called me into his office. After months of falling further and further behind in my work in the contracts department, he'd had enough. I was given two weeks' severance, plus a half-hour to pack up my things. I stole a stapler.
Gotta get my shit together
Cuz I can't live like this forever
I've come too far & I don't want to fail
I've got a new computer and a
Bright future in sales--Fountains of Wayne "Bright Future in Sales"
You know that old saw about how you learn who your real friends are when the chips are down? For a long time I'd been out of touch with my #1 touchstone, Dexter (aka Deadly Dee)--I figured he'd corralled a mid-six-figs contract for a whip-wicked comic memoir about life in the land of bookmaking (part THE INFORMATION, part Dave Eggers) and was now waiting in Paris with his new gang of celebrity pals to greet Lance Armstrong as he crossed the finish line of the Tour de France. So I was quite touched--humiliated, too, of course, but those who love you best tell the truest truths, even when it hurts--that, as I stumbled about in these, the last days of Max, Deadly Dexter appeared again:
you might get "sadly missed" on your tombstone, max, but by revealing yourself like some old flasher in the park you'll actually become what you really are, an anonymous cog in the satanic mills of book production, whose mid-life idealism crisis petered out into embarassing showmanship and the kind of ambiguity that makes me, for one, really fear for the future of publishing, if this is all that an insider's effort to change things leads to.... and now, at the end, you rely on hired wizardry and sleight-of-hand, like it was all a staged act to infiltrate your opposition. or maybe you're just the bloke who comes to do the magic tricks at the bloggers annual tea-party. you're quitting a sinking ship if you abandon this blog. shut the fuck up about who you are and keep fighting your corner like the real max perkins would've done. otherwise you'll just mirror your own executive career and let eventual world domination by one publisher takes its course. stay and help the writers, put a beret on instead, join the resistance to establish three things: split the multi-nationals back into indies, put a low ceiling on advances and get rid of the agent system. if you're not up to it then get off my screen for good and stop over-writing your final bow.
About this, Dexter is, of course, right: it is time for me to go, and I am overwriting my final bow, or at least taking too damn long to get it over with. And my posts have shifted--away from those of an insider asking potentially useful questions [about an industry moving further and further away from serving anyone well (including itself)]; tending instead toward easier, more clownish pieces that draw attention to Le Max rather than to Le BookAngst per se.
Narcissistic, that is, rather than something more broadly utilitarian.
On this front, I offer no apologies: it's hard work, this, even when the feedback has both been so energizing and made it so clear how great a hunger there is for some sort of industry perspective, for some sense that people on the inside aren't wholly disconnected from those on the outside.
I agree with Dexter regarding at least one of what he sees as our industry's three deadly ills (as articulated above)--the seemingly endless consumption of one publisher by another--when our only REAL hope is greater diversity & independence, not less. But there's finally nothing much that can be done about this by those of us among the rank-and-file, unless one has a Don Quixote complex and happens to be sitting on huge vats of capital, two variables that don't often co-exist.
If I had a particular goal when I started, it was to better understand how the machinery works, and to learn some new tricks of the trade--and I'm not sure how much we accomplished on that front, to be honest. The business is so f***ing hard now, and there's so much pressure on those working inside it, that either they don't have the time for (shall we say) pro bono discourse about (say) how to do some of the little things better; or they feel that giving away what few secrets they possess will put them at the sort of competitive disadvantage that might, soon, cost them their jobs.
Nonetheless, a whole lot of people--editors and publishers and agents and writers and others with industry experience in marketing & publishing (often under cloak of anonymity, which frankly served everyone well, me included)--DID share their expertise, on a whole lot of topics (midlist, anyone?), for which I'm enormously grateful.
From the end-line, I see that what I really hoped to do was to expand--for my own sake, if nothing else--my sense of what constitutes Our Community. And in this regard--speaking for myself, if for no-one else--I'm enormously pleased by the outcome. As Max I've made friends I'd never have made as not-Max, and feel, now, part of a universe that's much larger and much more generous than I'd understood it to be previously. The rise of blogs generally made it inevitable that a more intimate and honest discourse would emerge, one way or another; but I'll always be thrilled to have been an active part of that conversation, and to have had the excuse to get a close-in view of the passion and intelligence of so many lit-bloggers (there are way too many to mention individually), who if nothing else have demonstrated that books--and readers--are alive and well. And, deserved or otherwise, I take a modicum of pride at having perhaps spurred the emergence of other industry-bloggers such as Agent 007, Sepulculture and Miss Snark.
As for me? I'm off to work the program, the 12 steps of Narcissists Anonymous. And to apply myself, whole-cloth, to the business of being an editor. I'm not quitting a sinking ship; I'm just stepping down from the quarter deck (I was never officer material in the first place), and resuming my duties as deck-swabber first class. I return--refreshed and rejuvenated--to "fighting my corner" in the way that suits me best: one book, one author, at a time.
P.S. If there's a use for it, BookAngst 101 may, in some limited capacity, continue to exist--as a forum for other industry-folk, say. News on that score to come at a later date.
"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."
PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]
"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."
PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]
"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."
- ▼ July (6)