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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, January 30, 2011

I’ve got, once again, those agent hunting blues. For the past few of years, I’ve been on-again-off-again looking for an agent for one of two books: the novel that I wrote as my MFA thesis (and have revised to the point where it’s barely recognizable as the same story now), and a children’s book I’d been working on for several years. After I signed my first book contract—for a short story collection, which I would have never bothered trying to find an agent for—I thought my chances of being taken seriously by an agent might dramatically increase, so I worked through another thorough revision of my novel (my children’s book is, at the moment, floundering, unsubmitted, in a file on my computer) and sent out a new set of queries.

On two separate occasions since then, within days of my having sent the query, an agent requested to read the manuscript. I thought that was pretty encouraging. I’ve had a handful of manuscript requests since I’ve been trying to find an agent, and they usually do come within days of the agent having received the query (my theory is that if an agent is interested, they’ll usually let you know right away; if you don’t hear anything for several weeks, it’s pretty safe to assume that when you do, it will be a rejection, but there are always exceptions), but still, I chose to see this is as a sign that perhaps having a book already published was going to help me finally land an agent.

But in both cases, the result was exactly the same as it has been in the past: an encouraging, brief response, letting me know that I’m a good writer and this is a good book, but the agent in question just didn’t fall in love with it. I should keep sending it around, though, as another agent might feel differently. This is always what they say. I’d heard, once upon a time, that when an agent actually reads your manuscript, even if they reject it, you’ll still benefit, because they’ll tell you why they rejected it, and you can use that feedback to revise further. “You’re a good writer and this is a good book, I just didn’t fall in love with it,” though, doesn’t give me much to go on for another revision, unfortunately.

Because they all suggest I should keep trying with other agents, I would probably assume that there is nothing inherently wrong with the book if it wasn’t for the fact that several agents have requested the manuscript and come to the same conclusion. I have to think that I need to read a bit more closely into this abstract idea of “falling in love” with a book. They all agree that the book is well-crafted, but nothing about it is pushing them over the edge, into love.

I can’t help but wonder if, in all my attention to craft and technique, I’ve inadvertently revised out the visceral core of my book (I hate the word visceral—so pretentious—but I think it’s the only word that really fits in this context so I have to use it just this one time). Early drafts of my novel, which were, admittedly, terrible, had a sort of emotional foundation that I think the current draft lacks. Those early drafts were written early on in my MFA studies, and the way this book evolved links noticeably with my progress through my MFA program.

The thing is, MFA programs are inherently peopled with intellectuals. These programs are part of academia, and in order to get in you have to have earned a bachelor’s degree with a high GPA; you have to have strong letters of recommendation from previous instructors; etc. Yes, you also have to have a strong writing sample, and most programs say that the writing sample is far more important than anything else. But the other things do matter, and it is true that the people who end up in an MFA program are, whether they see themselves that way or not, intellectuals. 

I wrote the first, more emotionally driven draft of my novel my first summer as an MFA student. Then I spent the next few years revising it, focusing on craft over emotion. I don’t know that I consciously tried to make the story less, I guess I should say sentimental, since that’s the word the MFA community would use, but I definitely did try to rework the story going on certain assumptions, like that it isn’t inherently sad that the main character has been stifled by his parents' overbearing values. Nothing, from an intellectual standpoint, is inherently sad. In the MFA world, there is something of a consensus (and I think it’s a good one) that good writers don’t tug on their readers' heart strings. Good writers get their readers to care about what is going on in a story by the writing and the well-roundedness of the characters.

So I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote the novel, focusing on logic and the specific dynamics of this specific family and trying to make the characters as well-rounded and complex as possible. I think all the characters now are very believable, and the events that occur throughout the story feel right, but still, the emotional reaction I had when I first came up with the idea is gone. And based on the responses I’ve been getting from agents, I can tell that the story isn’t reaching other people on that gut level, either. I think if you read a book and think it is good, that means the book is well crafted, but in order for you to “fall in love” with a book, there has to be something more.

So I’m sort of at an impasse. I like the way this particular novel has turned out. I like that it’s intellectually rather than emotionally driven. And I’ve been working on it for about five years now and am ready to move on with my life, to be honest. It’s a good book, like all the agents who have read it have said. It’s just not the kind of book that anyone is going to fall in love with. I can accept that, even if it means it will never get published (although I’m not giving up yet—there are still small presses out there). But this issue of inciting an emotional reaction from the reader is something worth thinking about for the next book I write. Perhaps I’m pretty good at craft, but I still have something to learn about engaging my reader on a gut level, and I do know that it’s possible to do both. My favorite writers (Rick Moody, for example) very successfully engage readers on both an intellectual and emotional level. I’m definitely not there yet. But at least I know, now, what I should be working on.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Some friends and I started a (somewhat half-assed) book club several months ago, and we’ve ended up mostly reading books that can really only be categorized under the larger umbrella of popular fiction: Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown—the sort of books that are being published by the major New York presses and that are getting read by millions and millions of readers.

While we have enjoyed some aspects of these books—usually aspects related to plot—we quickly learned that when a group of people with various levels of advanced English degrees (BA, MFA, and even a current PhD student) pick apart and analyze these sorts of popular books, the flaws in the writing seem to far outweigh any enjoyable aspects of the stories. The discussions are interesting, and we definitely disagree on what parts of the books we like and what parts we don’t, but the general consensus is usually the same: these are not well written pieces of literature. 

It’s been kind of bittersweet to read these popular fiction books and find myself constantly getting caught up in how poorly crafted they are. It isn’t that none of these books have the potential to be good literature, but they almost all seem noticeably under-revised. They read like first or second drafts, written by decent authors who are surely capable of turning these books into something much better but who have signed a however-many book contract and need to just call this book done so they can move on to the next one.

In a way, it’s sad to realize that there once was a version of myself who wouldn’t have noticed these things that I notice now, but that version of myself is gone. Studying craft and literature for many years in advanced courses seems to have killed my ability to just enjoy a crappy piece of escapist literature; I’m too busy focusing on how contrived the plot is, how one-dimensional the characters, how bland the narration.

But I guess that my ability to enjoy those sorts of books has been replaced with the ability to enjoy a different sort of book, which I really couldn’t have enjoyed before studying English as an undergrad and then grad student. A lot of the stuff that I love now would have just been too subtle for the me who might have been able to appreciate, say, Dan Brown. That me wouldn’t have had the patience or the know-how to read closely between the lines and pick up on the subtle nuances buried beneath each carefully chosen word. That me would have found the stuff I read today boring, pointless, with no discernable plot. “Yeah, it’s very realistic,” I would have said, “but real life is boring. Who wants to read about that?”

So I guess, while some part of me does mourn the loss of the ability to enjoy reading the Dan Brown style of fiction, I celebrate the ability to revel, instead, in the sort of fiction that does more than just pass the time. Yes, it takes more focus; I can’t just zone out to it. But I get something more out of it, and the experience is far more satisfying. But that’s certainly not to say there’s not value in the other kind of fiction, too. Now that I’ve had my first taste of Dan Brown, I can’t picture myself ever voluntarily reading another book by him, but I’m still able to enjoy some of that popular stuff. I still like, for example, Stephen King (even though I no longer am able to read a Stephen King book without forming a list of complaints in my head). Reading the less carefully crafted stuff can be its own kind of fun, and sometimes I think it would be nice to be able to do so without feeling the need to workshop every single novel in my head.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Years ago, someone told me (and I haven’t been able to verify the quote, so this is very word-of-mouth, my friends) that in an interview, Kurt Cobain was asked to explain the lyrics to “Smells like Teen Spirit.” Cobain refused, and said that he makes music that people like him will understand. My friend was offering this up to me in an “Isn’t that cool?” sort of way, but my reaction at the time was that it was a lame way of getting around the fact that the lyrics didn’t mean anything. I thought, Shouldn’t good art be comprehensible? If you create a work of art but nobody knows what it means, you failed as an artist. Right???

Thinking back on it now, after years of advanced education in literature and creative writing, it’s an interesting idea to revisit. Do I still feel that way? As a writer myself, what audience am I trying to reach? Can I picture myself telling somebody who doesn’t understand one of my stories that I write stories that people like me will understand?

For the past few years, I feel like I’ve been constantly going back and forth on the question of whether “good” art is art that is appreciated by a lot of people or whether it is art that people educated in that particular artistic genre will be able to appreciate. I think there are strong arguments for both sides. Since there can be no set-in-stone standard for what makes a work of art “good,” or what the word “good” even means, it makes sense to say that a work of art’s quality can only fairly be judged by how popular it is. If people like it, it’s “good.”

However, if I pick up a book by, say, Nicholas Sparks (who is my go-to example of a terrible writer who is nonetheless hugely popular), I’m going to be so utterly outraged by how awful the writing is, how contrived the plot is, how one-dimensional the characters are, that there’s no way that I would be able to enjoy it. If you give me a Nicholas Sparks book and ask me, “Is this good art,” I will assume the question is sarcastic because the answer, to me, is so obviously, “No.”

But. If you must have an advanced education in literature to access a particular writer’s work, does that actually mean that the writer is “better” than a popular writer, whose work is accessible to ordinary people? Some days I think that “good” writers should try to bridge the gap between the educated folks and the masses. Other days I think that “good” writers should just accept that ordinary, everyday people will never be able to appreciate “good” art, that we have to decide between writing something that is actually artistically worthwhile and writing something that the average Joe will be able to understand.

Other days, though, I think it’s just not as cut-and-dry as that. There are some brilliant writers who are very successful (the top of my list includes Rick Moody, Bret Easton Ellis, J. D. Salinger, Zadie Smith, and there are many more). Yet for every one popular writer who I would say is “good,” there are many more popular writers who, in my opinion, are writing stuff that my seven-year-old nephew could have written. Of course, “good” art is in the eye of the beholder. If a reader—many millions of readers, actually—likes Nicholas Sparks, then to that reader, Sparks is “good.”

The question, though, remains, what should I be aiming for as a writer? Do I want to reach as wide an audience as possible, or do I want to write stuff that people with MFA's and PhD's will like? Back before I had a book published, I admit I had an idealistic image of somehow bridging that gap between the two, of being one of those lucky few writers who has managed to write accessible stuff that actually becomes popular while also pleasing those of us who look for subtlety, craft techniques, unique plots, etc. I certainly like to believe that the stories in my book would be accessible to most readers while also being able to withstand the critical magnifying glasses of my peers, but I’ll probably never know, because my book will not reach a very wide audience no matter what. Ordinary people don’t read literary short story collections written by unknown writers and published by small presses, and so I guess I made my decision without even realizing it when I wrote the book and decided to try to publish it.

And the truth is, now that the book is out, I’m glad that I wrote something that I don’t feel ashamed to share with my friends, who are mostly English instructors and writers themselves. I’m not so deluded that I don’t know that some people will read the book and feel that it does not line up with their image of “good” writing, but I do believe that an educated, literary person could read and appreciate what I’ve written. And even though I would have made way more money and be considered, by more people, a “good” writer if I had written, say, a cheesy romance novel, I’m still glad that I wrote the book that I did. Even though I can’t seem to find an agent for the novel that was my thesis, I’m still glad that it’s the novel that it is. I’m fine with being published in small journals that nobody but other writers read and putting out books through small presses that don’t have the funds to market their catalogue to a wide audience.

Because really, even though the much younger, more naïve version of myself would have said this older me is just a bad artist justifying bad art, I’ve decided that I really don’t mind only writing stuff that people like me will understand.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

With Borders Bookstores drowning in debt—on the verge or not on the verge of bankruptcy, depending on who you ask—and Barnes and Noble putting itself up for sale, unable to compete with the online shopping habits of book-readers the world over, those of us who write and read, let’s face it, the sort of artsy, intellectual literary fodder that is never likely to sell well with the masses, are left with a frightening prospect: is it true, what many people are predicting for the not-too-distant-future? Are brick-and-mortar bookstores rapidly becoming a relic of the past? Will the children born from today forward never have the experience of wandering through the aisles of a physical bookstore, picking books off the shelf, examining their covers and reading the first few pages, discovering new authors that will not come up if you simply click “Browse” at an online store?

Damien and I fell in love at a Barnes and Noble. Well, maybe that’s oversimplifying things a bit, but one of our go-to dates back when we first started dating was to head over to Barnes and Noble, each get a coffee or tea, and then find some aisle or corner with no other customers and sift through the books there together. In fact, our very first date was having coffee together at the Barnes and Noble café.

It makes me feel like an old biddy, complaining about the basic fact that the world is changing. Of course the world is changing, Damien reminded me when I brought this up with him the other day. We don’t have Victrolas anymore, either. We don’t have to crank the phone to talk on it—in fact, most of us don’t even have landlines at all (Damien and I don’t).

True. But I’m someone who loves to stumble upon authors by rolling my sleeves up and sorting through the aisles, who is horrified at the thought of never stumbling across the sort of books that I’m most likely to read—the ones that publishers either can’t (in the case of small presses) or won’t put a lot of money into marketing. Those books will be harder to find without the physical shelves of a bookstore on which to find them. It will be like only hearing about new music from the radio, which naturally only plays the top, moneymaking hits. The major bookstores, of course, mostly sell the top, moneymaking books, but you can still find the less popular books hidden on the shelves, if you really take the time to look.

I know this is doomsday, extremist kind of worry. As brick-and-mortar bookstores slowly die off, we’ll find new ways of discovering good, “underground” sort of books. Small press authors will have to step up and change with the times—something that scares me, I must admit, as I feel somewhat overwhelmed by it all, not at all sure how to get my book into the hands of the people who will want to read it—and surely, surely this increasingly virtual world that we live in will bring with it new, innovative ways to market books. Facebook, Twitter, and author blogs (like this one) are useful once you’ve already got people interested in you, but what ways will come about, I wonder, that will help literary fiction authors reach audiences who have not already heard of them?

While I do believe that authors and readers alike are going to have to find new ways to find and market books, it’s also true that we can at least try to keep the small, independently owned bookstores in business. Businesses like that are, as a rule, financially unstable, so if we can, we should shop at them. They are our best bet at keeping brick-and-mortar bookstores alive, and as long as there are physical bookstores, the lesser known authors will continue to get their books on the bookstore’s shelves and do readings/book signings at them.

Perhaps the truth is that I want physical bookstores to stick around for sentimental reasons, but I do want them to stick around. And if you do, too, well, we’re going to have to make even more of an effort, now, to make that happen. But I say, let's do what we can. I want there to be as many access lines as possible to the really good books that will, at the online stores, get buried beneath the noise of the bestseller lists.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

It’s time now for the inevitable year in review post. In 2010 I made a lot of what felt like great strides in my writing career: I was nominated for a Pushcart, I was named a finalist for a couple of writing contests, I was solicited by an agent as well as by a literary journal, and I won Autumn House Press’s Fiction Prize, which resulted in the publication of my first book. If ever there was a year to look back and be proud of my accomplishments, this year was it.

Yet I feel strangely dissatisfied with all of that, and dissatisfied with the work I put in as a writer this year. Most of these accomplishments, it’s important to note, are a result of work I did in previous years. In 2010, although I had some success, I didn’t write anywhere near as much as I have in past years. During much of the year, I was distracted with my career as a teacher or I was working under editorial deadlines for writing projects that didn’t really engage me the way I would have liked.

In some ways, I feel that all the hard work I’ve been putting in the past several years is really starting to pay off, and that’s a nice feeling. It’s nice to know that it wasn’t for naught. At the same time, though, I’m beginning to have some of my dreams come true (I know that’s a cliché, but it’s literally accurate), and the experience is exactly as anticlimactic as many published authors say it is. Signing my first book contract, although exciting at first, didn’t really change my life in any meaningful way. I went from being an author with several published stories that hardly anybody will ever read to an author with a short story collection that hardly anybody will ever read. All the book pub really gets me is a better chance at landing a full time job as an English instructor, and even then, a second book might be necessary.

Let me just say, I’m not taking publishing a book for granted. I’m very lucky that my book is getting published, and I’m lucky that it’s being published by such an excellent small press. I’m lucky that the physical book itself is so astonishingly beautiful and that somebody read what I had written and wanted to pay me money for it.

But even if this book wasn’t getting published, the experience of writing it would still have been worthwhile. I enjoyed writing these stories, and even if nobody were ever to read them but me, my workshop peers and instructors, and my friends and loved ones, it really wouldn’t matter. The experience of writing them gave my life meaning, and I think that’s the reason why the publication of the book itself feels anticlimactic. Because prior to getting the book published, I had already gained something major from having written it, something far more important than the physical book itself.

The whole experience raises the question: what it is that I’m really working towards? I’ve been putting a lot of effort into building my CV and furthering my career as a teacher, and writing has unfortunately become inextricably linked with that in my mind. I have to write, because I have to publish, because I have to try to find a better job. A job that gives me health insurance and a reasonable salary and that I can rely on from one quarter to the next.

I don’t like the idea of writing being part of my work life. I don’t like the publish-or-die mentality of academia, where the question isn’t even what have you published, but what have you published lately; what will you publish next?  I don’t want my writing life to be based on publication; I don’t want to boil it down to notches on my CV. I want to write because it makes life fun, because it’s exciting, getting sucked into another world for a while. I want to write for myself. Publishing what I’ve written is nice, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t want to have to. I want publishing to be a secondary goal, only once I’ve gotten my own  pleasure from the experience of writing. And I don’t want to let my career interests get in the way of the writing itself.

Which brings me to my goals for 2011. The truth is, this year I just want to be happy. I want to spend as few hours as possible this year being stressed or doing things I don’t want to do. How do I intend to accomplish that? Well, I want to work on my new novel, because I like these characters and want to spend more time in their world, and I’m tired of pushing it off to the side because there are other, more immediately publishable things I “should” be working on. I’d love it if I end up getting sucked into some new stories, too, but you know what I absolutely am not including in my goals? Publication.

Ever since I started getting published, I’ve had at least two things come out a year. The beauty of 2011 is that I already have two things scheduled to come out: my book, and a creative nonfiction essay I was solicited to write. If I go the entire year without publishing anything else, it still won’t feel like a step backwards, so I’m just not going to worry about publishing at all this year. I'll probably still submit things, but only if/when I want to, and I won't write for the purpose of submitting. All I really want right now is to write, not to have written, not to be a Writer, not to have an increasingly more impressive CV. I just want to write because I enjoy writing. None of the rest of it matters, really, at all.