Last night, Other Voices had a reading at the quaint, semi-divey Charleston Bar here in Chicago. It was the kind of night I DO Other Voices for: some of our favorite writers read, and some other faves showed up just to hang out and support the OV community. The reading line-up was Elizabeth Crane, Geoffrey Forsyth, Megan Martin and Emily Tedrowe. I think I can safely say that it wasn't just my subjective opinion (as their sometimes-editor) that they all rocked. It was, in fact, one of my favorite OV readings in recent memory, and that three other stellar OV writers, Billy Lombardo, Barry Pearce and Kate Milliken (Kate lives in LA but hails from Evanston, and was a finalist in the most recent OV Books selection process) were in attendance too just made the night better.
I initially intended to cut out as soon as the readings were over, but instead ended up sitting around a small table with Geoff and his wife (who, appropos of nothing, looks exactly like my cousin Lisa), Billy, and OV's Managing Editor Kathy Kosmeja, my usual drinking buddy and partner in crime on the occasions when David is home with our kids. I found myself drinking Jameson's and telling a story about having been kidnapped in Mykanos when I was twenty. Everyone was in a good mood. There was a lot of laughing. But at one point, as is often the case when one is chatting with Geoff Forsyth, the conversation turned serious.
Geoff resembles a shorter version of that Phoenix actor who played Johnny Cash and has a name no one can pronounce. As a matter of fact, he resembles Phoneix PLAYING Johnny Cash: he has the same kind of manic, nervous artistic energy that just radiates off him, giving him the mannerism of a dangerously precocious, somewhat hyper-active kid. He's smart and funny and talented as hell, but there's something deadly earnest and knock-down serious about him that can make a person edgy. Geoff is very concerned with the purpose and creation of literature--of Art--and he isn't afraid to show it. He's the opposite of ironic, which can be both refreshing and unnerving in an era of irony. Though he has two kids and is in his late 30's, he's unashamed of constantly looking for teachers--of both literature and life. Lois Hauselman, founding editor of OV, was one such teacher; so was Chicago's local heavyweight James McManus. And now, according to Geoff (to my great honor and occasional chagrin), the torch has been passed to me.
Except for last night.
Last night, I had an uninspirational dilemma--and still do--that to some extent flies in the face of my work with OV. Geoff (and everyone I was talking to at the Charleston) knows me as . . . well, basically the (perhaps masochistically) noble editor of a nonprofit lit mag and press--a woman who cares so much about writing, including THEIR writing, that I have worked for more than a decade reading and publishing it without pay, doing battle with The Man (i.e. corporate publishing--or in this case, perhaps it would be The Woman, since for some Judith Regan of HarperCollins has come to embody the entire evil empire of publishing) for the sake of True Literature. But last night, even as I was wearing that hat, introducing our writers and passing out free issues to turn others on to the magic that is OV, another, less noble cap was constantly hovering over my head, striving to knock the first one off. This phantom hat, rather than that of Editor, was the hat of Struggling Writer Trying To Break Into The Mainstream.
This is, as many writers know, a pain-in-the-ass hat to wear, and often a futile one. It's one I wore for more than three years following completing MY SISTER'S CONTINENT, while two separate agents struggled to place that novel at the big corporate NYC publishing houses, without success, essentially forbidding me to send the novel out on my own to any of the indies, and refusing to send it themselves, instead chasing the carrot of the Big Deal--the big advance, the big distribution, the big publicity budget. I was extremely happy to throw that hat carelessly off at long last in 2005 and send my novel out to Chiasmus, accept their offer to publish it, and finally see my novel in print. I did not get famous or rich, and--lo and behold!--discovered that I didn't give a damn; that I had never really expected or desired that to begin with, but had instead been chasing my agents' desires for me (and themselves) by aspiring to the kind of publication THEY believed "best" and "appropriate." Instead here I was with a first novel out, and--surprise!--it was doing pretty well! Who needs Judith Regan? It's easy for any writer publishing with the indies to pull out the careers of certain frontrunners of that industry--longterm successes like Cris Mazza, Michael Martone, Wanda Coleman, Ralph Berry--and remember that one can have a more-than-respectable career without ever darkening the doorstep of the Evil Publishing Empire. But then, of course, this should come as no big surprise to me: it's the advice I am constantly giving other writers. Writers like Kate Milliken and Geoff Forsyth, who have stellar not-yet-published collections. Do not sell out, I tell them. I didn't, and my book got published! There is a community out there for you. Don't jump through those marketing hoops; be true to your own vision. And so on.
But somehow, here I am a little over a year after the fateful decision to send MSC out to the indies and take the first offer I got--and it seems I am (albeit with a book in my corner now) exactly where I started. I have a new agent, and from what my friends--and their friends--say, she is the kind of agent I am lucky to have. She is a bit of a grande dame of the agenting world, with clients on her list that I would not doubt stutter and stammer to meet in person. She liked my second novel and believed she could sell it; that it was not just good but "marketable." And I, of course, was happy to get that news. Why shouldn't I be? (I mean this sincerely, not defensively.) I had written the best novel I could write, and someone who knows the industry had proclaimed that it would find a home, and I might even--gasp!--get PAID. I might not have to hire my own publicist this time; I might have a print run that couldn't be half depleted just by people who actually KNOW me buying the book. Don't all writers want these things? Above all, don't we all want to be read, by as many (viable, smart, interested) people as possible? Screw the advance, the publicists, the placement on key tables at Barnes & Noble--don't we all want our books just to be in stores at ALL? As anyone who follows this blog knows, that has not always been my experience with MY SISTER'S CONTINENT. And so, despite trepidation, despite my own gloomy proclamations about the woes of big publishing, here I am with another agent, chasing that carrot all over again. Except that this time, according to my Big Agent (who is indisputably not only smart as hell, but a lovely person), the plan might actually WORK.
Except, it didn't.
Well, at least not yet. My agent sent the novel out to the first round of 5 editors. Of these, not one of them did what editors tended to do when they read MY SISTER'S CONTINENT (in other words, freak out, claiming they had to leave the room to escape my book it disturbed them so much, and claiming they could not pitch it to a marketing rep without "breaking down.") No, rather the responses were civilized and positive. The editors praised the writing, the characters, the (Italian-American, inner city Chicago circa early 1980's) setting. But 4 out of 5 ended up rejecting the novel (despite one claiming she had "agonized" over this decision) for the same reason: it is too "episodic" for the current marketplace. It needs a "tighter story arc." It needs "more momentum." My agent--did I mention that she's not a fool?--saw the writing on the wall and deduced that if we continued to send the novel out to more and more editors, we would just hear more of the same. The editors were speaking almost as a united front (though of course they had not conferred with each other, since their job is to snatch things from each other's jaws.) When this many people agree on something . . . well, aren't they usually right? And so my agent has instructed me to Revise. Revise to give these editors their story arc, their tightness, their page-turning momentum. I want to sell the book, don't I? Well when you want to sell a product, you give the buyer what she wants.
Let me make one thing clear. I am not one of those writers who thinks everything I write is golden, and won't listen to anyone else's opinion. (I am also not, for the record, one of those writers who thinks everything I write is shit, and is constantly falling into pits of despair believing I have no talent and am an impostor. I would like to think I have a fairly realistic view of my own writing, though perhaps that's never fully possible.) It is entirely likely that my novel COULD benefit from a revision. Believe me, as an editor, it has been my experience that most stories could, and why should mine be any exception? So why has it been nagging at me, eating at me, worrying me, the thought of revising my novel for these editors (or, more aptly, for the next round of editors)? Why aren't I chomping at the bit to get to work, eager to do what I've been told and (hopefully) make my novel "better" so as to secure a sale? My husband David IS excited about the first round of editors' response--he points out all the factors I just cited: that it's been met with enthusiasm; that the response has been night and day from my first novel; that my agent still seems dedicated and is standing by me and willing to keep working, keep waiting, until it's "right." So what's the problem? If I am willing to concede (and I am) that four editors together may well know better whether my novel needs revising than I--the emotionally invested writer--do; if I am willing to admit (and I am) that there is nothing inherently shameful in: a) revising a novel or b) wanting to sell a book, then what the hell is holding me back?
Geoff Forsyth. Okay? Geoff Forsyth is holding me back.
Right about now, poor Geoff is probably ready to jump out a window. (Please, stay in your seat, Geoff--see, you've become a symbol here. It's not you--you didn't say or do anything to freak me out per se.) But see, it's just that as I was talking to Geoff last night, explaining my dilemma to him (and to Billy Lombardo, who kept his mouth shut and thus avoided confusing me further), Geoff effectively began to remind me of all my own rhetoric over the years--the words he feels have influenced him and helped shape him into the writer he is. He reminded me of things I already know but would very much like to forget. Like that revising to make a sale (or to MAYBE make a sale) is very different than revising because I genuinely believe I need to make a certain change to make the book better artistically. Like that publishing with a big house isn't necessarily the be-all, end-all. Like that my agent believed in the novel enough to send it out, but has now changed her mind because the editors don't agree with what she and I thought. Like that if I have no idea what to do to this novel, and dread doing it, maybe I SHOULDN'T be doing it.
Okay, here is another truth. Geoff didn't really say all that. Mostly he kind of stammered and asked questions. Mostly he seemed to be trying to understand what exactly my goal was, and how it impacted writers and their goals in general, literature in general. He asked, "What about books that don't HAVE a tight story arc, because every story is different?," bringing up the essential marketing problem with short story collections, and the essential reason corporate publishing has all but abandoned them, creating the necessity of upstarts like OV Books. Facing his tentative, student-of-life questions, I began to feel a bit as though I had just announced to a room full of eager Women's Studies students that I, their professor, planned to get my tits done.
Let me take a detour. There's a woman I know who is now what would be considered a "successful" writer by most people. Rumor has it her first book sold for 100 grand, and was "the" book her (big, mainstream) publisher pushed that season. I knew this woman when she was a graduate student, a proudly experimental writer who routinely trashed any plot-driven or "sentimental" narrative as bullshit, intimidating the hell out of her fellow students if we dared try to--well, tell a story instead of writing some language-based piece about taping cotton balls on a cat because he was somehow a symbol of Jesus. I remember her in a plaid shirt, belching loudly in class, glaring at people. She was not the most likeable person I had ever met, and one might say she was a bit of a poseur in a way that works for people in grad school, and not many other places. Now this same woman has written a cutesy, plucky little book full of quirky Southern aunts and full of plot "surprises." There is not a trace of anything that could be called "experimental" around. Rumor has it that this was the third book this particular writer completed: that her first and second did not sell, and her agent--a smart, kind, savvy man dedicated to her career--kept advising her about what "kind" of novel to write until she finally wrote it--and BANG!, sold it for big bucks. Success! Okay, let me say up front that these rumors could be a load of crap. I heard them third or fourth hand, and sometimes other people are jealous, and they talk. But having heard these rumors, my other grad school friends and I (and even some of our professors) have often speculated to ourselves about the nature of "selling out"--about what is gained and what is lost. Maybe we don't fully buy that this writer's story is quite as cut-and-dry as we've heard, but it stands stark in our imaginations as a cautionary tale of What Not To Do and What Publishing Is Not Worth. If this is what it takes to get in bed with Judith Regan, so to speak, then go to the convent with haste.
I don't want to be That Chick. I don't want to be that writer who sold out.
I also don't want to be The Stupid Ass Writer Who Arrogantly Thought Everything She Wrote Was Perfect, And Therefore Refused To Revise Her Novel Even Though A Whole Bunch Of People Agreed She Should, And Therefore Never Sold The Book.
How do we draw the line?
I'm about to spend nearly 2 weeks in Beaver Island, at the house where I worked on the early stages of this novel two years ago, with my former agent, a wonderfully brilliant and funny guy who used to call on Monday mornings to discuss each new chapter, while I looked out on the huge meadow out back and listened to the windchimes clinking. It's an inspirational place, one I associate with one of the primary creative collaborations of my life (um, until that fabulous agent tanked his business less than a year later and I found myself out on the street.) Still, Beaver Island will be the perfect place to revisit this novel again, to search my soul and its pages to figure out whether it is still in-progress and the right direction will call to me, or whether instead this story is "done" and simply has not found the right editor yet, the right home, regardless of what my new agent believes is right for it--or me.
Like it or not, I have a feeling that Geoff Forsyth is coming on this trip with me. Last night when he was talking about teachers and inspiration, I kind of wanted to blush and stick a rag in his mouth to shut him up--flattery is lovely, but embarrassing, too. But if there's one thing we all learn in the end, it's this: that the parent ends up parented; that the teacher ends up taught. Maybe I will not be so quick to advise newer writers in the future as though the world is too black and white--as though the publishing industry is made up of those who are Good and Smart and True vs. those who are Greedy and Simple and Small. Maybe in the end we all want the same things--to be read and understood--and even a silly poseur graduate student must eventually conclude that her more-intellectual-than-thou, inaccessible novels do no one any good hidden in a box. Maybe it's often impossible to distinguish "selling out" from letting go of one's own ego and admitting something needs more work. And certainly it is also all right, more than all right, NOT to keep chasing a carrot, to be happier in a smaller-but-more-interesting pond, to leave the Judith Regans of the world to their own, and to choose another path.
I'm not sure what I'll discover yet in the pages of my novel, but for the first time I'm looking forward to finding out.