You may have heard the news. New York Times bestseller, Barry Eisler, has turned down a $500,000 publishing deal with St. Martin’s Press to self-publish his next book. The blogosphere is all abuzz with the news. And I suppose this marks the moment when we start to have this conversation for real.
And by “we,” I mean those of us writing poetry and literary fiction.
Eisler, Konrath, Hocking and the numerous other e-novelists making money hand-over-fist through Kindle sales are genre writers. They write thrillers and YA vampire novels and the like. Genre fiction, let’s face it, is much more likely to have a following than authors of more high-brow literary stuff. After all, we don’t have characters who live through three novels to conquer the aliens, defeat the terrorists, catch the bad guys and…you get the idea. I’m not knocking it – I enjoy a good, quick read as much as the next girl. I’m addicted to John Grisham novels. But there is a difference in readership. The question is: does that difference make self-publishing a good deal for us or not?
I can be a pretty tough critic. I know this about myself, and anyone who has read my reviews is likely to know it too. I make no apology. When we live in an era that sees each new batch of college freshman arrive to their composition courses without the ability to construct a complete sentence, I say: the time for high standards is now. I say, if you can’t do it well, keep trying. But don’t get all fired up because someone called you on it. And just to be clear: I hold myself to these same high standards as well. Doesn’t mean I don’t fail. I fail all the time. I fail most of the time. And when I fail in print? Someone will tell me about it. Probably also in print. That’s the way the game’s played, folks. But a friend recently questioned my decision to essentially slam a small press publisher for doing what I think is a bad job on the copyediting of a book I recently reviewed. And that conversation has me wondering, are publishers “off limits?”
Kathryn Stockett is being sued for her portrayal of a real-life person in her award-winning novel The Help. The suit, according the Times article, was encouraged by none other than Stockett’s brother and sister-in-law for whom Ablene Cooper, the maid portrayed in the novel, works. What is most distressing is the fact that Stockett’s family are the impetus for the legal action. The question is: why?
I was talking the other day with a friend about this case, and she told me a story about a woman she knows who wrote a book and was threatened with legal action if she published it. The threat was made by her father. And the truth is, these stories are more plentiful than we’d like to believe.
It seems that family members can be a writer’s worst enemy. This is not news. Anyone who has been seriously in the writing game for any length of time has heard these stories. Stories of families being torn apart, mothers refusing to speak to daughters, estranged children and siblings. All because someone felt compelled to write it down and publish it. More often than not, these rifts are created by the writing of memoir – the real-life story of an event as told through one person’s perspective, though it happens in fiction and even poetry as well. The question is: where’s the line?
Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers has a bit of an identity issue. On the one hand, it claims to be advice to writers which, in places, it actually is. On the other, it reads like an insider’s exposé of what editors and agents really think of we writer types. I couldn’t help but wonder if Lerner’s audience wasn’t actually intended to be other editors who would get the inside jokes and find the stereotypical caricatures of authors funny.
Lerner recently posted on her blog that: “My writing book is about publishing from an editor’s perspective, but the part that people seem more interested in is the inner life of writers. The wicked child and all that jazz.” Well. I can see why.
I’ve been teaching creative writing off and on for about ten years now. Inevitably, we get to the point where students need guidance on the revision process. What I have historically done when we reach this place is to bring in the 47 or so versions of a poem I’ve been working on for, oh, I don’t know…12 years? It’s not even a poem anymore. It’s more a standing joke in my household. “Hey, how’s ‘Memphis Blues’ coming along?” some snarky friend or family member might ask. To which I reply, “Version 168 coming up soon!” Still, I’ve found “Memphis Blues” to be a fantastic teaching tool. Nothing explains how we go about revising poems better than seeing the mind of the poet on the page – seeing the lines cut, the words changed, the form drastically revised. This poem has been a villanelle, a ghazal, a sonnet and a free verse poem. It’s been three pages long and three tercets long. It’s had a rough life. Poor thing.
Emily St. John Mandel has an interesting take on bad reviews in yesterday’s The Millions.
“But why,” my friend asked, “should the reviewers always have the last word?”
Because they’re entitled to their opinions, and they’re allowed to not like your book. Because if they’ve given you a nasty review, you diminish yourself by getting into a figurative fistfight with them. Because their reviews, except insofar as they impact sales, don’t really concern you: we switch jobs all the time—see above, section no. 4—but at the moment of the review, your job is to write books and their job is to write about them.
But most markedly because given the emotions involved, given all the years you spent writing your book or composing your music or perfecting your play before someone came along and spat on it, it’s extraordinarily difficult to respond to a bad review with grace.
Her post deals primarily with whether one should respond to a bad review. And though she is careful to point out that reviewers have the right to not like your book, I can’t help but return to the question that weighs on the minds of writers who also review: If we didn’t like the book, should we say so or just sit down and shut up?
Sorry for the delay in getting this final AWP post out. Here’s the wrap up:
My AWP experience was cut a bit short for reasons not the least bit interesting. Still, I was able to spend some quality time in the book room (see pics above) and attend a few good panels on Friday. Saturday, I’m sad to say, didn’t happen for me, but I look forward to reading other blog posts about it and catching up. Brevity is blogging about the conference as well.