Monday, February 08, 2010

Crappy Novels and the Years in the Cold

In honor of the big snow storm on the east coast, I thought I'd pass along this essay by Dani Shapiro that I saw reprinted in a friend's "room" at the Zoetrope writing workshop. This essay really touched on a lot of topics I've been pondering recently. It's long, but worth reading. Dani Shapiro is a "literary" writer, but her work has appeared in Best American Erotica as well.

This article is from The Los Angeles Times. And you know, I'm thinking I might need to read Shapiro's new memoir....


In the late 1980s, when I was a graduate student working on short stories and flirting with the idea of a novel, I came across an essay that was being passed around my circle of friends. It was titled "Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years," and the author was the legendary editor and founder of New American Review, Ted Solotaroff.

Ten years! In the cold! Solotaroff wondered where all the talented young writers he had known or published when he was first editing New American Review had gone. Only a few had flourished. Some, he speculated, had ended up teaching, publishing occasionally in small journals. But most had just . . . given up. "It doesn't appear to be a matter of talent itself," he wrote. "Some of the most natural writers, the ones who seemed to shake their prose or poetry out of their sleeves, are among the disappeared. As far as I can tell, the decisive factor is what I call endurability: that is, the ability to deal effectively with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without."

The writer's apprenticeship -- or perhaps, the writer's lot -- is this miserable trifecta: uncertainty, rejection, disappointment. In the 20 years that I've been publishing books, I have fared better than most. I sold my first novel while still in graduate school and published six more books, pretty much one every three years, like clockwork. I have made my living as a writer, living off my advances while supplementing my income by teaching and writing for newspapers and magazines.

As smooth as this trajectory might seem, however, my internal life as a writer has been a constant battle with the small, whispering voice (well, sometimes it shouts) that tells me I can't do it. This time, the voice taunts me, you will fall flat on your face. Every single piece of writing I have ever completed -- whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story or review -- has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else, some other quality that all writers, if they are to keep going, must possess.

Call it stubbornness, stamina, a take-no-prisoners determination, but a writer at work reminds me of nothing so much as a terrier with a bone: gnawing, biting, chewing, until finally there is nothing left to do but fall away.

I have taught in MFA programs for many years now, and I begin my first class of each semester by looking around the workshop table at my students' eager faces and then telling them they are pursuing a degree that will entitle them to nothing. I don't do this to be sadistic or because I want to be an unpopular professor; I tell them this because it's the truth. They are embarking on a life in which apprenticeship doesn't mean a cushy summer internship in an air-conditioned office but rather a solitary, poverty-inducing, soul-scorching voyage whose destination is unknown and unknowable.

If they were enrolled in medical school, in all likelihood they would wind up doctors. If in law school, better than even odds, they'd become lawyers. But writing school guarantees them little other than debt.

The instant score

Rereading Solotaroff's essay, as I did recently, I found that he was writing of a time that now seems quaint, almost innocent. By the 1980s, he bemoaned, the expectations young writers had of their future lives had "been formed by the mass marketing and subsidization of culture and by the creative writing industry. Their career models are not, say, Henry Miller or William Faulkner, but John Irving or Ann Beattie."

With the exception of Irving, most of the writers referenced by Solotaroff (Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Joan Chase, Douglas Unger, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Alan Hewat) would draw blank looks from my students, and the creative writing industry of the mid-1980s now seems like a few mom-and-pop shops scattered on a highway lined with strip malls and mega-stores. Today's young writers don't peruse the dusty shelves of previous generations. Instead, they are besotted with the latest success stories: The 18-year-old who receives a million dollars for his first novel; the blogger who stumbles into a book deal; the graduate student who sets out to write a bestselling thriller -- and did.

The 5,000 students graduating each year from creative writing programs (not to mention the thousands more who attend literary festivals and conferences) do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn't reward persistence, that doesn't see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn't trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: "So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?"

The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry -- always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media -- has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.

I recently had the honor of acting as guest editor for the anthology "Best New American Voices 2010," the latest volume in a long-running annual series that contains some of the finest writing culled from students in graduate programs and conferences. Joshua Ferris, Nam Le, Julie Orringer and Maile Meloy are just a few of the writers published in previous editions, but now the series is coming to an end. Presumably, it wasn't selling, and its publisher could no longer justify bringing it out. Important and serious and just plain good books, the kind that require years spent in the trough of false starts and discarded pages -- these books need to be written far away from this culture of mega-hits, and yet that culture is so pervasive that one wonders how a young writer is meant to be strong enough to face it down.

The new bottom line

At the risk of sounding like I'm writing from my rocking chair, things were different when I started. My first three books sold, in combination, fewer than 15,000 copies in hardcover. My editor at the time told me there were 4,000 serious readers in America, and if I reached them, I was doing a good job. As naïve as this may sound, it never occurred to me that my modest sales record might one day spell the end of my career. I felt cared for, respected. I continued to be published, and eventually, my sales improved. I wrote a bestselling memoir, appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and published a subsequent novel that found a pretty wide readership. My timing has been good thus far -- and lucky.

But in the last several years, I've watched friends and colleagues suddenly find themselves without publishers after having brought out many books. Writers now use words like "track" and "mid-list" and "brand" and "platform." They tweet and blog and make Facebook friends in the time they used to spend writing. Authors who stumble can find themselves quickly in dire straits. How, under these conditions, can a writer take the risks required to create something original and resonant and true?

Perhaps there is a clue to be found near the end of Solotaroff's essay: "Writing itself, if not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer's main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer's main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger."

The writer who has experienced this even for a moment becomes hooked on it and is willing to withstand the rest. Insecurity, rejection and disappointment are a price to pay, but those of us who have served our time in the frozen tundra will tell you that we'd do it all over again if we had to. And we do. Each time we sit down to create something, we are risking our whole selves. But when the result is the transformation of anger, disappointment, sorrow, self-pity, guilt, perverseness and wounded innocence into something deep and concrete and abiding -- that is a personal and artistic triumph well worth the long and solitary trip.

Shapiro's new book, "Devotion: A Memoir," is just out. She will read at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena on Feb. 24 and Diesel Books in Brentwood on Feb. 26.


Emerald said...

This really resonated with me too. Thanks for sharing it. This especially stood out to me:

"Important and serious and just plain good books, the kind that require years spent in the trough of false starts and discarded pages -- these books need to be written far away from this culture of mega-hits, and yet that culture is so pervasive that one wonders how a young writer is meant to be strong enough to face it down."

I wonder — and wondered as I read this — how the electronic publishing emergence is related to and will/does affect this. It seems like there is a connection that I don't yet see, that doesn't seem appearing on the surface the leaves of lilypads looking separate on the surface of the water, the stem actually connecting them beneath and unseen (and its existence therefore sometimes forgotten or not even realized).

It also reminded me of the Slow Blog Manifesto.

Anyway, very interesting. Thank you again.

Donna said...

I'm glad this resonated, Emerald! In a way it was sad, but it also gave me courage to do what I need to do. I'm no expert on the literary scene, but Dani Shapiro did have success in traditional print publishing and to some degree those who make it there don't even think about e-publishing. But I agree that e-publishing and self-publishing does allow interesting voices to be heard (as well as sloppy books to "go to press"). I'm not much for aristocracies myself and traditional print is an exclusive aristocracy of sorts. It will be interesting to see what transpires. But our path is pretty clear--just keep writing the best we can. I do still feel some pressure to write to the market, though, so this was a tonic!

Emerald said...

"traditional print is an exclusive aristocracy of sorts"

Yeah, it seems that way to me too. I also see your point about self-publishing seeming to remove some level of discernment about what gets published. And yes, I can see at this time how someone successful in print publishing wouldn't feel concerned with e-publishing at this point.

"I do still feel some pressure to write to the market"

I hear you there too. I like and appreciate your reminder that it's really what comes from inside us (and from where/what level of consciousness it comes). Thank you. :)


Craig Sorensen said...

A fascinating, illuminating read.

To me, everything she says supports the notion that we should believe in ourselves, write for ourselves and work on finding those who enjoy our work.

With the whole electronic pub thing, ultimately more doors are opening for us to get our work out there than are closing. The trick is finding the door that fits us best. Certainly, print is a narrowing passage.

Anyway, thanks for sharing this. Much for me to ponder.

My verification word: caling

Have we found our caling?

Donna said...

Craig and Emerald, how I wish we were sitting by the fire watching that snow fall over cocoa and chatting. But this dialogue is pretty good, too! I thank YOU both for your thought-provoking responses.

I really do believe the writer's mission is to express her/his sensibility as skillfully as s/he can. Sometimes that sensibility results in a bestseller, but we NEED other visions, as the essay points out. How impoverished and indeed untenable publishing would be if we only allowed the least common denominator to be rewarded over and over. We'd become Hollywood, lol! But I think readers also crave something new and different and not just in terms of plot, because you can't really get anything new there. It's the sensibility.

I do love the democracy of e-publishing and blogging, but I suppose there is a part of me that still craves validation from editors and publishers. But as Craig points out, we don't have to be passive, we can use the system as best fits our needs--or at least have some power if not much.

But again, to some degree we have to take a clear view of what "success" means in our writing. Is it being rich and famous? Critically acclaimed? Or is it an internal accomplishment? The latter is always more satifying in every part of our lives, no?

Craig Sorensen said...

I love the idea of sitting around the fire with that cocoa talking writing. Weather is perfect for it right now!

To keep the discussion going, I feel it all has to start with a strong inner vision. We certainly want to make it accessible to readers, but that should be a consideration of how we present it, not the foundation of the story. Even when we write for a call where certain elements must be present (oral sex, bondage, etc) the characters and the situation should resonate, or they won't come across as genuine.

Of course, my perspective is influenced by the fact that I write as a "second job," not as my main means of support.

Donna said...

Hey, I'll pass around some cookies, too!

I am also fortunate that I write for love and not a living. Although if you're doing it for money, tech writing or health articles are more lucrative than fiction, I think. I suspect that the successful romance, thriller and vampire writers really do write from a place of love, a deep excitement for their stories. I really can't write a story without some kind of spark.

I'm coming to understand that writing itself has enabled me to disengage from the "success machine," although it is still a struggle to give up that comforting structure. But if you think about it, our fans (all six or seven of them) want to read what matters to us, right? They want to see what Craig Sorensen's cooked up next, what his distinctive sensibility is serving up for our delectation. Not what he wrote so he could get paid the most money or whatever.

Hmm, is this making sense? Did someone spike the cocoa ;-)?

Emerald said...

"Sometimes that sensibility results in a bestseller, but we NEED other visions"

This reminds me of something I remember saying/feeling years ago (I still do): I would rather write something that 200 people read and felt truly moved by than something 2 million people read that, even if they enjoyed reading it, they found generally un-affecting/unchanged by.

Of course, relatedly, Craig's point is well-taken that I have not at this point ever depended financially on writing/writing income.

I resonate with what you both said about writing genuinely from ourselves and from that feeling/being the reward — and yes, Donna, it does seem to me like virtually everything in life that way. It seems comparable to fundamentally trying to alter oneself or be the way we think someone else wants us to be in order to be "liked." Does that not seem to truly not work, in all sorts of ways? Creating, it seems to me, is just an extension of that. It is authenticity to which life responds — authenticity responds/is enhanced by authenticity.

So it seems to me. :)

Emerald said...

Hi Donna! I cross-posted with you. :) Apparently I took a while to get that lengthy answer down, lol. ;)

Craig Sorensen said...

All this cross posting is getting me worked up. :-)

I did enjoy Donna's comment, But if you think about it, our fans (all six or seven of them) want to read what matters to us, right?


BTW, I just finished a handful of cookies that my son baked (he's a helluva cookie baker in his own right.) So the spirit of this conversation has touched the physical plane!

Em, I have a similar saying that I have gone by since I started aspiring to get a novel published: "I'd rather have a thousand dog-eared, well worn, copies of my book in print than a million with the spine barely bent sitting in a landfill.

Of course, getting a thousand out there is plenty ambitious unto itself (see Donna's comment above.)

Pass another cookie!

Donna said...

Emerald, I am so with you on far preferring to genuinely reach and move a few hundred people over writing crap that "appeals" to millions. I really discovered that with the promotion of Amorous Woman. And I was also reminded of a story Murakami Haruki told (a best-selling Japanese author). He started out with a modest fan base, enough to fit into a baseball stadium--certainly larger than I'll ever know--but then with his huge hit Norwegian Wood he suddenly had millions of fans. He said it was disorienting and sort of sad. The intimacy was gone. So success may not be all good, eh?

Now Craig, I must insist you tell us more about these cookies. Pornographically vivid details welcome!

Craig Sorensen said...

It's just good old fashioned chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven!

Emerald said...

I feel we have basically each said this in some way here, but I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes I have ever seen on writing:

"Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self."
-Cyril Connolly

Emerald said...

HA!! LOL @ Craig's and my cross-posting!

Craig Sorensen said...

More cross posting!

That Donna does know how to throw a writer's party, doesn't she?

Donna said...

There's a reason chocolate chip cookies are the perennial favorite, and fresh from the oven--wow, that's the way it was meant to be!

I had some pretty nice spumoni ice cream last night, but I'm sure you guys are looking to warm up.

Emerald, obviously we need to state and restate these sentiments over and over, perhaps as a way to fight back against huge pressures that try to define and limit us. Connolly's epigram sums it all up quite eloquently and I know from personal experience how different it feels to write for yourself versus write for the market. My problem is, what I write for the market is too "good" to throw away, at least by my own inflated sense of self-importance, lol. So there's the double drawback of writing insincerely and then regretting whatever good stuff found its way in.

Definitely best to write for yourself, although with an eye to courtesy to the reader.

Anonymous said...

Hey nice post Donna and nice discussion as well. Tempting me to crack open the box of chocolate chip cookies I just bought. If I could add a contrarian note, I wonder how Shapiro ended up on Oprah's show, if, as she suggests, she seems to agree with Solotaroff that young writers' models used to be writers' writers, difficult writers like Faulkner. Shapiro makes excellent points about the all or nothing mentality in publishing (corporate mergers anyone?). Still I'm always a little uncomfortable when an author reminds writers to write for the love of it while they're themselves squinting in the klieg lights. But of course we have to write for the love of it. So let's spread the love! I also think e publishing has been great for writers :) [by the way, Donna, I like what you've started with the F-Stop blog.]

Donna said...

Hey, Thom, thanks for stopping by with those cookies! I have to agree with you that it's easy to downplay the importance of being published and profitable when you've achieved both. Plus, Shapiro's memoir is getting the A+ publicity campaign from the publisher. This reminds me of the first time I read Susie Bright's How to Write a Dirty Story and she includes a devil's advocates argument for not publishing your erotica. Back in 2001 when I was first getting published, I thought "easy for you to say as a national icon of erotica" but I reread it recently and saw some of her points. However, I'm not intending to stop submitting my stories, so there you go, lol. Then again all of us scribblers lower on the totem pole love to read about the writing life and Shapiro is getting the word out about her new book in the bargain.

Jeez, I'm rambling on. Another cookie, please!