A recent question emerged on my blog: Is there any word on when Allison Amend is going to get a book published? The question came from Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network--Dan would know as well as anyone how talented Amend is and how long many of us have waited for a book from her to find its way into print and into our hands.
The short answer is that Amend entered the OV Books contest in 2004, was a finalist, but didn't win. Her collection is beautiful, cerebral and clever. Two of the stories ("The Janus Gate" and "Carry the Water, Hustle the Hole") had already appeared in Other Voices. We love Allison. OV published her twice before I ever met her, and then on a trip to New York in 2004 she invited me for a drink and we had champagne in a totally deserted wine bar in the middle of the day. Turns out she hails from Chicago and we knew a bunch of people in common. Also turns out she is as funny and smart as her fiction. We've been friends ever since.
The long answer is this: One of the hardest parts of being an editor at a small indie press (um, other than not being paid) is that one can publish so few books. Allison is definitely on the short list of people-we-would-like-to-publish-if-money-were-not-an-issue. I'll add in here that she'd be a joy to work with. She truly gets the concept of promotion (unlike a lot of introverted writer types), and she's also footloose and fancy free (no kids, etc.) and has friends all over the country, so she could milk the hell out of a book tour, in the tradition of other indie press marketing gods like Joe Meno and Steve Almond. In short, while I am totally psyched about the book we ARE publishing, and about the other 2006 finalists, I am also psyched about Amend's work and wish I could be simultaneously announcing that her first book was about to come out into the world, and that I had something to do with that.
Why is such a talented writer, who studied at Iowa like the most ambitious writers are "supposed to," and with so many writer and editor friends, having such a hard time getting published? Well, that's a whole other issue. Somewhat theoretical, cerebral, language-focused work has always had a harder time breaking into print than does plot-driven fiction. This truth is probably especially pronounced in today's publishing climate, full of its feel-good, plucky heroines who triumph over adversity, finding true love and the perfect pair of Prada shoes. I could go on quite a rant on how, since 9/11, the moral puritism of publishing has become a threat to serious literature. Amend's fiction is definitely a casualty of this climate, and she's not alone. Most writers who are celebrated in literary magazines are not being handed fat advances by the big corporate houses. Allison Amend is not Dan Brown. Her ideal audience (at least for her short fiction) is not miniscule, but it is perhaps specialized: probably academics and other writers. These may be the people most likely to appreciate her prose, especially her frequent use of the editorial omniscient perspective, which makes work feel as concept-driven than character-driven. Of course you don't have to be a professor or a writing student to dig these things, or to like intellectual fiction . . . but perhaps being in academia helps you to learn about independent presses and these kinds of writers to begin with. They aren't, after all, usually on the front table of your local Borders or the book club pick for the Today Show.
So the question becomes: are cerebral writers truly inaccessible to "mainstream" readers (and do they therefore get what they "deserve" to some extent, when they don't find a wide readership?), or is the publishing industry keeping mainsteam America FROM these writers, out of a misguided belief that Americans are stupid, shallow, and incapable of understanding work that isn't rollicking with DaVinci-Code-like action? It's probably clear that I believe the problem is more the latter than the former. Writers like Milan Kundera and E.L. Doctorow might well have a difficult time being published today if they were brand new writers. I mean, I can almost taste all the rejection letters Kundera would probably get harping on the way he suddenly starts musing about musical compositions mid-stream and interrupts his plot. I can imagine the way Doctorow would be told that the characters in Ragtime are not "sympathetic" enough.
Allison Amend may disown me when she discovers that I've used her fiction as a platform to discuss this issue. But the truth is that I could take her name right out of this rant and substitute any one of dozens--writers we've met through OV whose talent we've raved over, but who have been unable to find a wide audience, a big-house-publisher, or even a book deal at all, because their work is not viewed as commercial, or "marketable" enough. The truth is, until my novel came out in January, I could have put my own name into this discussion, though then I would have merely been viewed as another disgruntled writer, bitter at her lack of success. Perhaps this is why I want to discuss Amend here as an example--because a writer CAN'T really discuss her/himself in this way, without seeming like s/he's spewing sour grapes and can't hack the rejection. Writing is a tough industry. Rejection is almost inevitable. And I'd dare venture that it's even more difficult to face constant rejection from corporate New York houses when so many lit mag editors have raved over your work and told you how talented you are, like Amend. Why don't the book editors see what the magazine editors have? Well, of course they see something different because they are LOOKING for something different.
So, Dan, that's my two-cents on the matter. Allison Amend is still writing away in New York, teaching writing (like most writers thesedays) and trying to make a living, trying to find time to write with her busy teaching schedule. She has an agent who believes in her and is trying to sell her (very good, by the way) historical novel, Stations West. Her collection doesn't get sent out much, though, except by Amend herself if she enters a contest. After all, everyone in publishing knows that "collections don't sell," don't they?
Come to think of it, that's why we launched OV Books to begin with. I'm sorry that Amend hasn't been one of the writers to benefit from our existence yet, and I'm hoping another editor will take a chance on her soon. Meanwhile, interested readers can find her work in Other Voices, in One Story, and a host of other lit mags. She and I will also be reading together at Housing Works in New York this June 12th.
Hey Dan, how about starting a book imprint and publishing her yourself? (Okay, I know you probably have a line even longer than the one knocking on OV's door, but it's always worth suggesting!)