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Every Writer Needs a Totebag

Two writer stories circulating out there on the web caught my attention yesterday: the first is the New York Observer story about the “17-year old firebrand novelist” from Alabama who “recently threw a punch at the New York literary world in an intense, widely read letter to The New York Times Book Review.” Apparently, Alec Niedenthal was in New York this week to see if he could turn the buzz surrounding his “vaguely threatening manifesto” in the NYTBR into meetings with literary agents and editors:

In his letter, Alec warned that “the next Great American Novel will come not from Pynchon, [Foster] Wallace, DeLillo (he’s already had his turn anyway) or any other of your literary heroes” but rather “from the iMac-fettered keyboards of the young, challenging, Facebook-and-MySpace-addled minds that you have so hastily jettisoned as literary jetsam. “”

Could he be talking about himself? Some publishing people, perhaps hungry for the next big (young) thing, thought he was. And so, on Monday afternoon around 5 p.m., Alec went to the HarperCollins building and met with Kevin Callahan, a young editor there who’d seen the letter and written to Alec on Facebook. The two of them exchanged some e-mails; Alec told Mr. Callahan about the books he was reading, and the novel he was writing himself. He’d told a few other people about the novel already. Susan Golomb–Jonathan Franzen’s literary agent–was one. Jofie Ferrari-Adler, an editor at Grove/Atlantic, was another. Both of them wrote to Alec after reading his letter and wanted to know if he had written anything they could see.

So, to the young man who asked me how to catch the attention of publishers at the opening session of KR’s Young Writers Workshop Monday night, there’s the answer I couldn’t give you from any personal experience: write a “vaguely-threatening manifesto” in which you imply that you embody a new generation’s alienation, and you can become, at least for a New York minute, “the next big (young) thing.”

Apparently, Niedenthal came out of his meeting at HarperCollins with a totebag.

The other story comes from Dear Abby, via Gawker and the Chicago Tribune. “Frustrated Novelist” writes in that she’s not actually a frustrated novelist in the traditional sense. She’s recently published her first novel, so her frustration is more personal, as her unpublished writer-boyfriend, “Scott,” is responding badly to her success:

While initially congratulatory, Scott’s behavior was different as the publication date neared. He declined to help my friend throw me a party. When I spotted my book on the shelf of a bookstore for the first time, he chided me to keep my voice down. My novel has now been out for months, but he still hasn’t read it. (I gave him one of my free copies.)

When I told Scott how much this hurt me, he agreed to read it and said he was proud of me. But after reading only one chapter, the book was left on the nightstand and he hasn’t touched it since.

Abby, thinking deeply, diagnoses jealousy, and she goes on to note that “not every man is man enough to appreciate his woman’s success. Some are emasculated by it.”

Perhaps a nice totebag would help?

Since I’ve also been watching the Tour de France over the last few days, taking pleasure in its abundance of metaphors for writers ??? suffering, endurance, high carb diets ??? let me say that ambition and jealousy are the handbag in the handlebars of any writing career. (Watch closely. Lance stole that poor woman’s purse! But, as several bike racers have pointed out to me, if you watch until the “problem with his pedals” at the end, the metaphor of emasculation that Dear Abby offers her reader becomes painfully real. “Ohh!” the commentators say, wincing at the slow-motion replay. But still he pedals on! What better metaphor for a writer these days?) Yet, for writers, ambition and jealousy are just symptoms of a more serious condition: every writer is haunted by a sense of the unreality of his or her work without the recognition one gets from publishers, readers, and reviewers. Why is it that nothing in American can seem real unless it’s confirmed by commerce? Personally, I find it sad that nobody can feel like a writer until all those carefully-chosen words have been made into a product for sale in Barnes & Noble. That doubt can be crippling to a writer, bringing with it a fear of fraudulence, delusion, or simply failure. We’re nothing until the market makes us real.

But writing is more than a business: as I’ve argued before, it’s also an art and a spiritual discipline. We console ourselves with the idea of ourselves as artists when publishers fail to embrace our work, and while that can seem hollow after a while, it’s true that publishers, critics, and readers rarely recognize the most important work done in any period. Publishers are in the business of selling books, so they have their eyes firmly fixed on the rear-view mirror, using what sold last year to guide their decisions about what to publish next year. The result is that they inevitably fail to see what’s coming until it’s behind them, and while they chase after “the next big (young) thing,” they’re really seeking reiterations of all the other “next big (young) things” they’ve manufactured over the years. Novelty is repetition, and in the end, all that we’re left with is marketing: no books you’d really want to read, but a nice totebag with the publisher’s logo on it. Why not give up the increasingly unprofitable business of publishing books, I can’t help wonder, and simply sell totebags? It’s the perfect product: all image, no content.

It’s easy to feel that jealousy corrupts our spirit, but my point is that our spirit is already corrupted by the belief that only success can affirm us as writers. Kathy Chetkovich is a really talented writer (or see here), but when I mention her to other writers, all they want to talk about is her essay “Envy,” which chronicles her response to the sudden literary success of her boyfriend, Jonathan Franzen. Writers are fascinated by success, and we particularly savor stories of its poisonous effects. We long to believe that our work has value, but the arbitrary nature of publishing strips all value from it: buzz, you quickly learn, is just the sound of flies circling around shit or honey.

We need new ways to publish, and we talk a lot about that here at KR lately, but why not accept that the work has value in itself? When I suggest that writing is a spiritual discipline, I mean that it’s something that’s worth doing even if it never makes you rich or famous. Writing is our attempt to make sense of our lives, whisper against our own vanishing, and perhaps arrive at some understanding of and empathy for each other. In that sense, it could be described as the most spiritual ??? or at least most human — of acts. Books may vanish from our culture, or become nostalgia items like candles, but I can’t help feeling that the impulse to write will remain, a faint light that even commerce can’t extinguish. And if that’s true, then we should celebrate the act more than the product. Writing is what we carry within us, not what we produce for sale.

And you don’t even need a totebag.

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