Wednesday, March 2, 2016


The Writing Life & Its Discontents

            In The Camellia City Morgan Baines has a fantasy about a Literary Olympics in which Divine Judgment determines the winners and losers. Fit or decrepit, young or old, each author will be propelled through the air based solely on the content of their work. In the first round of the hundred meter dash the twelve runners at the starting line have copies of short stories in their hands. The person who wrote the best one (even if it has been universally rejected) will streak across the finish line first, while the author of a dismally bad work (even if it appeared in The New Yorker) will toil along at the tail end.
            Since Morgan is assuming that Divine Judgment will coincide with his own conception of worth, in his fantasy he acquits himself well. He’s not a gold medal winner, but he often makes it into the final rounds. He’s someone whose work deserves respect on the celestial field of dreams.
            I include all I need to say about the writing life in The Camellia City. In 1891 George Gissing wrote about the same subject in New Grub Street. Gissing expressed the cynicism, anger and frustration he felt in a tragedy. Though I chose to write a comic novel, it too can serve as an antidote to the inspirational platitudes too often doled out to aspiring writers. Both books may have special relevance for people involved in literary matters: writers, teachers and students of writing, reviewers, editors, agents, or serious readers who care about the state of fiction. But neither is limited to that audience. The depth of the character studies in NGS make it universal. And in CC I grant Morgan a gift: he discovers that there’s another life outside the writing life.
            All authors like to get responses. Since CC raises controversial issues, I’ve found that reactions range from aggressive disdain (“a crappy novel”) to exhilaration (“a wonderful, funny, sweet, smart book!”).
            As for that positive response . . .  I sent twenty copies of CC (which I wound up self-publishing) to notable writers/professors around the country; each was accompanied by a snappy, personalized letter. From nineteen I received the vast silence of indifference; they probably dumped the book without a glance inside. I was a Nobody to them, as I was to Kelly Cherry. Yet she had the openness and generosity of spirit to give CC a chance and then to write and tell me what she thought about it.
            She was unique. A certain literary luminary whose work sometimes appears on the back page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review reacted in the typically boring way. We had exchanged friendly e-mails about an essay she wrote, then I dropped the bomb: I have this novel I’d like you to read. Her verbatim reply: “How could I survive reading a publishing satire so bad it couldn’t get published? I shudder to think.” I see faulty reasoning from an intelligent woman. Is being published an infallible sign of quality? Wouldn’t those in the publishing industry object to being satirized? And I wonder about her choice of the word “shudder” — was it due to fear or to revulsion (or both)? Of course, we all know that if I were Philip Roth her response would be radically different.
            Actually, I can’t blame those in positions of importance for resisting pleas of this sort; they get their fill of people asking for favors. Morgan Baines, who had once been a success, feels fungus growing at the back of his neck when he hears such a request. But he also recognizes that favors of this sort constitute the pathway to success.
            I once maneuvered, I once strived. It’s probably because of my failure that I find that phase I went through demeaning. Though that word “failure” needs a bit of attention. As far as my writing goes, I believe that I succeeded in what I set out to do — which is to entertain the reader while giving him/her something to think about. My failure lies in not making the right career moves and being inept at promoting myself.
            Still, I’m going to again reach out to readers. You’ve surely been in grocery stores where a little table is set up with samples of a cheese spread on a cracker or a sausage on a toothpick. I’m going to set up a table.
            I’m making thirteen stories available at “Words Without Songs.” (Why that name? I avoid lyricism in my writing.) You can read them off the screen or print out copies. I hired someone to design the website; I asked her to leave out the bells and whistles; just the stories, in as reader-friendly format as possible. You’ll be able to comment, and all opinions are welcome.
            My hope is that you’ll be open and generous enough to give these stories a chance. If you find them satisfying, move on to my novel. Though there’s a difference between the two. None of the stories are about the writing life, and a majority of them are dark, some even grim, whereas The Camellia City has a lightness to it. I described it as a comic novel, and it includes a love story. Of my thirteen stories only one is concerned with love. The subject of many is hate. But hate is an interesting emotion.
            I believe that writers should be compensated. Would you not pay a plumber who replaces your rusted-out water heater? It would take him about an hour and a half; it took me two years to write The Camellia City, working three hours a day. But the time invested was much greater than that. Add another year given to thinking out matters involving character and plot, revising, etc. As for my stories, not one of them came easily; I’m not a glib writer. Let me propose what I think is a fair financial exchange: read the stories for free (or the ones that seem of interest to you; for each I give a synopsis and an excerpt). If you decide to give the novel a try, buy it.
            There’s an old saying that applies: “The proof is in the pudding.” What if Kelly Cherry’s assessment of The Camellia City is correct? What if it’s “wonderful, funny, sweet, smart”? What if my short stories are, in various ways, good (or very good)? There’s only one way for you, dear reader, to find out.
            And to do so, go to Words Without Songs.


Postscript
            Or call it a postmortem.
            It was nine months ago that this essay appeared. It was meant to be a kickoff for my novel.
            As of today I’ve sold a grand total of five copies of The Camellia City.
            The failure has nothing to do with the quality of the book; the book is a success.
            It’s all about my insignificance in the eyes of others. Because of that my work has not been given a chance to succeed.
            As for my core audience — writers and others in the literary world — they’re portrayed in the novel as indifferent, close-minded and callous.
            The accuracy of this portrayal has been validated.
            Small compensation.

1 comment:

Phillip Routh said...

You can read an excerpt from The Camellia City by going to "Dear Dr. Percy, You Must Help Me!"
And you can read more about George Gissing and New Grub Street at "Writer Beware."
Both posts are on this blog. Just look at the lineup on the left of the page.