Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Insistence On Persistence

This is maybe an echo on the last post, which I put out hastily, but with no elaboration. This is the elaboration.

Reading the Wallace Shawn interview in the latest Paris Review, I thought, it’s hard to imagine this writer would not be doing what he is and have become good at it, if he was merely pompous. Which is apparently what Wallace Shawn is accused of being, pompous.

Barring a stable set of readers, I realize I’m not going to appear to a random reader to have anything new to say--and maybe I’m not. But if my work touches one person, it must be worth the effort. Then again, you have to overcome a lot of skepticism to deign to believe you can add to the conversation.

That’s one of the first steps in being a writer, and maybe it’s too falsely achieved--that quality of believing you have something to say. We’d sometimes like to accuse others in the struggle that they should consider if they really have anything of worth to contribute, but we could heed Wallace Shawn here:

“. . . without writers, humanity might be trapped in a swamp of idiotic, unchanging provincial cliches. Yes, there are writers who merely reinforce people’s complacency, but a writer like Rachel Carson inspired the activism of millions, and writers like Lady Murasaki, Milton, and Joyce have recorded people’s brains! And for any writers to exist at all, there must surely be a tradition of writing. Maybe in order for one valuable writer to exist, there must be a hundred others who aren’t valuable at all, but it isn’t possible at any given moment for anyone to be sure who the valuable one is.”

Who am I to say whose efforts aren’t worthwhile--including myself?

I like to think there is something to persistence, on the other hand there’s the notion that if you repeatedly keep trying to do something and repeatedly fail at it, that this is the definition of crazy. I’d also sometimes like to believe that I don’t have a set tolerance level, that I’ll keep trying to achieve an elusive (seeming) goal without ever calling the attempt into question. But I’m guessing tenacity pays off. Every story or piece of writing didn’t exist at one time, and after it did, it maybe will have taken dozens of attempts to get it noticed (i.e., published). Writing, in this way, becomes the penultimate illustration of this theory. I’d already more or less given up on many stories (not with cause) simply because I spent years sending them out to no avail, and by some fluke I sent one out two or three years after I’d given up on it long enough to come back to it, take it off life support, and send it flying into the void again--for no discernible logic--not that I ever stopped believed in in said story. Another self-serving notion I cop to is that “it just wasn’t time,” or, “maybe next time,” which are really ways of persisting at something even though, clearly, there is no apparent justification for the hope.

Unless the fact of the story eventually finding a home is one.

The kicker of this is that I still try. I still doubt I should, or say I’ll give up, but as time passes, I write more that gets me excited again, and while sifting through the new pile, I find something buried in the old pile. I’ll think, this hasn’t been sent out in two years, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it (hubris has no place in the determination to get published)--in fact, I could just change it here and here, and I’ll send it out. To date, that’s how most of my published fiction got picked up. So even if I had to spend a lot of time going through the slog of postage, contest entry fees, grosses of 20 pound 96 bright paper and countless unenlightening trips to the office supply store, I can’t really say it wasn’t worth the effort.

So, maybe I’m feeling particularly resilient these days, or am trying to coddle myself into thinking I am this way. I just don’t know if I would get anywhere if I wasn’t at least paying lip service to this theme of indomitable persistence.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Doing The Numbers

It’s been years since I’ve submitted up to 200 pieces in a year, and from my stats I can see this is the number it takes a year to get published. Though in some cases, I actually had two pieces published from this quantity, so maybe the actual number is 100 pieces submitted for each publication (I have a post on this which talks about stats, and it’s a slightly different equation which I’m not going to bother explaining here). I am confident a story I’ve been sending out this year will soon find a home, and am beginning to think I should self-publish a short story collection, of which most of the stories have already been published in various quality lit mags. (Antioch, SMR, Evergreen)

The difficult reckoning is knowing one has a quality body of work that only a handful of people might have read. So why not just keep submitting? I am, but with much less quantity, though no less lacking in focus than before. I use most often the ready, fire, aim method. Yes, it’s as scattered as it sounds.

In any case, I think I’m mostly done with pursuing agents. I never thought I’d say this, but I have had far more interesting response from publishers for my novels than agents. I will pursue publishers until I’m sick of that and before I give up in total despair and go the self-publishing route.

Yet, I don’t know what publishers are looking for. If anything, I think the strengths of my work that get them interested on a sample, is consistently there through the entirety of the work. It’s not like I wrote a great novel up to page fifty and said fuck it. How did I get all of this other work published? Here’s my litmus test: if James Frey was sitting on one of my novels, you can believe his agent would be over the moon to publish it. Or Dave Eggers for that matter.

I’m as ever, perpetually baffled by the publishing industry. (And maybe that’s the key word to note, it’s an industry).

I’m not an active social media guy. I still feel like I’m going to keep writing and pursuing these specious interests until long after the world has moved on to more remunerative pursuits. A perspicacious admirer tells me that I need to do more social networking; let’s just say this little personal note is my calling card. And I am on Twitter when I can cough up 140 character witticisms. Other than that, it’s called love--of what I do. I vow to keep at it. One thing I can say--frustrations be damned--I am having fun with it.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Novel Postmortem Absurdum

Among the reading public, it’s become fashionable to say "I no longer read fiction," as none other than Philip Roth did last year in the Financial Times. Yet since when has this become a rallying cry of disgruntled writers? Writers, mind you, not readers. Suddenly, writers are saying, "I don't read fiction, either." And the fiction police are waiting in the stacks (of fiction) with their billy-clubs to knock the offenders--or should that be, the offended?--in the kneecaps.

You usually expect this complaint from writers of non-fiction.

This attitude might spring from the epiphenomenon of anonymous comment logs on every piece about so-called dwindling returns of fiction. Maybe the backlash comes from the offended being offended by all those who are writing novels, because it seems everyone is, these days; everyone is also writing a memoir about their salad--or fast food--days, writing it of course after they've learned so much in trying to write their novels after pursuing their MFAs. So, if everyone hates fiction so much, why are they all working on a novel?

With  another announcement of the death of the novel, the success of e-readers and the proliferation of self-publishing, comes, remarkably, more novels to consider, sure, sometimes possibly of lesser quality, and thus more to complain about. But to me, the death of the novel seems closer to the brink when everyone is reading--and praising--the latest Krispy Kreme writers without a dissenting word among them. (Sweden, are you reading? Stieg Larsson? Begs the question of how a member of a certain academy had the gall to call out America’s literary output). But is this any different than any other time? If all of the dozens of novels published in the last year sucked, there'd be no hope, sure. But no doubt more great novels await being written by un-tested novelists who also happen to have memoirs stashed away they are thinking about dusting off.

I too, regularly burn my candle at the altar for fiction, until I find a novel that blind-sides and alters my outlook forever after. Because isn’t that the beauty of a novel, how it can change your life? To me, the novel never ceased being the main game.

I find it hard to believe that Roth would get nothing from A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Skippy Dies, or The Flame Alphabet. It seems that these days, readers of fiction are almost always just a step away from giving up on fiction. But for someone who writes it? To make a blanket pronouncement implying all fiction has become ceaselessly lame, has to make you wonder if such an attitude--from one who realizes he might have to relinquish his throne--might actually be indicative of a bounty.