Saturday, March 27, 2004

Got Those Midlist Author Blues

I live in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. I work in a local, independent book store, and I count a few novelists as friends of mine and a few more as neighborhood characters who I run into all the time. I also love to read. And this band, one of my favorites, is about to have an album out with lyrics written by contemporary novelists. So for all of the above, if not for many other reasons, I thought I’d weigh in on the Salon.comarticle by “Jane Austen Doe” on the difficulties of being a “midlist author”.

According to a novelist friend of mine, this column is all the rage amongst authors. Everyone’s talking about it, and everyone wants to know who Jane Austen Doe is. No one can figure it out, including myself, who lost at least forty-five minutes of productive Parabasis writing to try to crack it on C’mon! There are enough clues in that article, some enterprising detective should figure it out, right?

The article has been the aim of an enormous amount of vitriol, which you can read in the letters section (there’s a great letter from Neal Pollack in there). Some of this is well deserved, some of it is anti-artist overreacting on the parts of the readers. Some of it is the self-hating competition of victimhood that artists go through. You know, the mind set of: “You think you had it bad? I sold my eyeballs to pay for my novel! FUCK YOU!”

Anyway, back to the article… Jane Austen Doe is a midlist author—you know, the people who don’t move that many books, and haven’t really won any awards, but get good reviews and have a dedicated following. I will say, in the article’s favor, the jaded JAD is brutally honest about her own thinking, the actions of those around her, and even the amount she gets paid in advances (it ranges from $150,000 to $10,000). And I think it’s pretty clear she was expecting to be cheered for her candor, not jeered for her whining. This point is driven home by her tips to help midlist authors (encourage the NEA! Buy at a local bookstore!) all five of which are good points, but point pretty clearly to an article meant to inspire rededication to the arts in the masses, rather than loathing.

And the article is filled with juicy tidbits about the difficulty of navigating an increasingly consolidated publishing world. Including such tidbits as the publicist who promised a booking on Good Morning America who suddenly vanishes along with the booking, the editors who love her work but can’t help her at all, the agent who is totally useless and other little vignettes we begin to understand how difficult it can be when you have no clout and only yourself to sell.

It’s a little surprising, actually that the article has generated so much venom, but generate it it has and JAD deserves a good amount of it, but not for the reasons most of the letter writers are responding to. Some of the anger comes from her writing things like this: “Reading a book that's poorly written I pace the floor, beseeching the Muses, God and the editors of Publishers Weekly to explain why trash like this sells so much better than serious books like mine.” Arrogant? Sure, you bet, but I prefer the honestly of someone saying that they think they’re a good artist to the false modesty that pervades so much artist memoirage.

There are two main problems with the article: first, as my novelist friend points out, it’s not particularly well written. The chronology is incredibly confusing, her interludes are often longer than the regular passages, the “confessions” really should be called “fragmentary rants” and the prose when describing emotions often drifts towards the purple (See the above quote for an example). There is literally no sense of humor to this article, and that's a crying shame-- when you're going to write about heartbreak and failure, it helps to bring a little giggle gas along for the ride.

The second problem is that the main thrust of the article can be summed up like this: because my books didn’t sell well, I’ve had a difficult time making my living solely from writing the novels that I want to write. In the letters responding to the article, most people get offended at this. “So what! At least you get a chance to write!” they cry. “No one wanted your books, why do you want to get paid for them!” This criticism adds up to the age-old argument that an artist’s living should be dictated solely by the rules of the market place. This (as I’ve argued earlier) is an argument that is totally ignorant of history and places a surprising amount of faith in a capitalist system clearly gone amok over the past ten years.

My problem with JAD is that she doesn’t see freelance article writing, ghost writing a celebrity autobiography, teaching at a local college (or high school), or, indeed, writing the copy for a box of Wheeties as connected to the art of writing, and that’s a shame, because to me it’s all still making a living doing something that you love. Besides that, there are all sorts of fringe benefits. Teaching forces you to clarify your own ideas about art and have those ideas constantly tested by inquisitive young minds. It also helps you learn how to deal with the public, which is very important for anyone going on book tour. Ghost writing, freelancing, ad copy, liner notes, they’re all a form of writing, and disciplining your art to someone else’s forms would help any writer gain clarity and precision in their own work.

A really brilliant friend of mine once said “the most creative thing you will do as an artist is to create the environment that allows you to be creative”. Once you get past the circular phraseology, you might notice how profound this is, and the broad ramifications it has for any artist working hard at making a living. And this is what really disturbs me about JAD. She’s stuck in a tantrum wondering why the publishing world won’t take care of her like they said she would. Well, simply put, they won’t take care of you. They never have, they never will. Time to get creative.


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