How Should An Author Be?

Writers have contorted relationships with publishers, probably because they excel at projection. Particularly this is true now in an age where publishers sue writers for undelivered manuscripts. Something about this has the ring of the disinheriting vengeful father, if you’re paying half-attention, until you snap to alertness and realize that it’s just a business that wants its money back.

There are writers who dream of selling books, the kind who when they were little children for some reason fantasized about having bound books with their names upon them. No one dreams, yet, of having an .epub file with his name in the metadata. (Or does someone? Who knows yet what the monstrous children of the millennials desire!) Why people want things is so strange anyway. Then there are writers who would be regarded as more mercenary, those who architect their careers and manage household finances with the repeated selling of books.

A publishing house has sometimes-conflicting goals inside itself. Editors get credit for acquiring both “good” books and “successful” books and, reasonably, get extra credit for a twofer. For their part, publishers do love writers. But that is like loving a wayward child, or an alcoholic. Writers are, in the aggregate, charming, manipulative, secretive, sometimes violent. Mostly they are awful. They are not so different from your average real estate broker or dentist in this way.

If you’re the sort who is interested in the question “how to be a good person,” then it stands to reason you have considered the related question, “how to be a good author.” You can serve either of the impulses of the publishing house. You can certainly write The Four-Hour Sadomasochistic Sex Life or its next iteration (Trampires, Inc.). Or you can write something more ethereal, marked distinctly to be something that gets equal and quiet portions of praise and scorn in “the literary journals.” (Which I guess now are The Millions, the LA Review of Books and the comments section of HTML Giant.)

The obvious thing we are told and that is also true is that most books are not often read.

Most books reach an audience of a few thousand in their first year. And then there’s no telling what happens to a book over a period of 100 or 150 years. From Herman Melville—who could barely turn a dime, no matter how much he wrote—to Walt Whitman—self-publishing self-promoter extraordinaire—to Henry James—frantic and frustrated magazine hack, who sometimes had serial novels running simultaneously in competing journals—publishing history both recent and ancient shows that what remains standing and in print would likely come as a shock to those writers’ contemporary book-buyers. While these men were extremely commercial-minded, it’s still true that if someone from back then got in a time machine and went, for whatever stupid reason, to a bookstore to see what still existed now, mostly they’d be like, “Oh, her???

After I sold a book a few years ago, which I did in equal parts because I was broke and because it was something I hadn’t tried before and therefore seemed like a good idea, I was left with that question, of how to be a “good” author. (N.B. The word “author” is kind of gross to me but here we are. When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them “I work as a writer,” or sometimes I mumble something about “the Internet,” and all that’s only because I don’t want to be all, *flips ascot back, removes monocle* about it. Answering this question opens one up to being a huge asshole! ANYWAY. Glad we had this talk.) Obviously I wanted to be polite and helpful and good-natured, as much as I could be. But how did I want to interact with the business of publishing? I could, likely, write something on the shocking side of commercial, the kind of book considered palatable but just enough outrageous to get some attention. (It could have some sort of “trick”!!!) Or I could write something quiet and little and pretty, something determined to be proudly not “playing a game.”

These perhaps are questions that many book people do not consider, it should be said. My shortsightedness in general is that I am over-obsessed with the commercial systems of our time, not that I’m very good with engaging with them except as an observer. It seems clear to me that money is a game. In New York, especially, money gets passed around for little coherent reason. I am always seeing those paths—paths I have watched people (writers and painters and lawyers and everyone else) take over and over again—that are forged with some canny choices and some elbow grease that results in, at least, a short-term windfall. And then I like ignoring the obvious lessons.

I talked to a number of writers early, while I was working on and thinking about this book problem. (Through no fault of my own; mostly that is because they all have things to say about this and so offered their opinions.) They all did have helpful things to say and really each had a working theory about How To Be. One person in particular, though, was a writer who had the most astonishing and hostile feelings toward the publishing system. I couldn’t understand why he was engaged with it at all, and I suspected that he was a misery to work with. But I admired it. He had something: as a writer, he was like some embattled Central American dictator, burning with conviction. He’d had a novel due for years to a major house, which he has since turned in. The only control in this system that the author has, he told me, is in writing the book that he feels he must write. (He also believed that this control was best exercised by how late in the process the author turned in his manuscript. Terrible! But hilarious. Possibly also true!) But also: the author was not to consider commerce, or the wishes of publishing houses or agents, or current vogues, or the polluting ideas of the outside world. He was only to write the book that occurred to him in those moments—for me, in the shower or too early in the morning mostly—when he was alone and most free.

In the end, I didn’t really get any better advice. The upside of this route is that you later have no one to blame but yourself. You can’t blame capitalism or astrology or what have you. You can’t blame your lovely editor or your agent—fine, upstanding book-loving people!—or your parents or their stand-ins. This most suits me in any event because I was raised in California and am therefore incapable of blaming myself for anything at all. This way, the entire enterprise will be blameless. Even if the product is terrible! Everyone will have done his and her honest best.

There is something about the publication of a book that feels to me like the going to the airport and being manhandled by security and then heading down the long cold lonely ramp until, at last, the book is poured into InDesign or whatever they use now, which is when they slam the pressurized doors shut and then there’s nothing you can do but sit there with yourself. Those terrible headphones are five dollars now! That’s not a metaphor, that’s for real. They used to give that shit away on planes you know. Anyway. Here in the long pre-publication period—this thing comes out in August, 2013—it’s a bit chilly and lonesome. It would be easy to be riddled with doubt, and then to act out, and I completely understand why people become needy or aggrieved or childish or awful. It doesn’t seem worth it. Ask me again in six months, though, as I hear that the whole process only gets exponentially more harrowing.