I’m back on book tour and I have many things on my mind. The unfortunate thing might be that you publish a book and you learn certain things and then years later you publish another book, and by then everything has changed.
I’ll say this. Last night I was part of a group reading. There were maybe a hundred people in the room, and as comedians say, I killed it. Why do they say they “killed” their audience? Why so adversarial? There was a line of people to talk to after the reading; everybody wanted me on their radio show and open mic. I’m not bragging, I’m making a point. I think I sold five books.
I went to a book release party once south of San Francisco. The woman throwing the party was well off. Her friends were well off. They bought her anthology two or three at a time, making presents of the book for their cousins and nephews. I remember asking myself what it was about. But it was obvious what it was about. It was about money.
Of course, that’s a brutal and dangerous oversimplification. 90% of all books are bought on the recommendation of somebody else. Or are they? How do you explain The Nanny Diaries? And why would you want to? When my novel Happy Baby was released it had no marketing at all. It was reviewed maybe three or four times, but the few reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and the novel “over-performed” (I’m making that word up, though I’m sure it’s already in common use).
I’ve seen many books come out to gigantic starts. It’s the next Eat Pray Love, the next Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the next Corrections. But those books seem to disappear because they aren’t the books they’re supposed to be the next of.
Or maybe not. And what about all the great books that also disappear? And what about the great books that keep reappearing and then disappearing again. Books like Stoner and The Car Thief. You get endless shots at being brought back into of print, returned to the surface where you can stand on the edge of the board and contemplate diving into the shallow pool.
I’m on my way to Columbus, Ohio to read at the University. I’m fond of meeting new people, talking about The Adderall Diaries, selling books one at a time. Maybe that’s all the meaning I need. Maybe it’s enough just to know that tonight I have plans.
But there’s more. I’m not even going to begin to talk about the fear. It’s going to require some real research to come to some truths about cowardice. I want to find the science of it, interview the world’s foremost expert on threat. I will say that cowardice is not well represented in art. We write about the beauty of teburculosis, Jane’s flushed cheeks and weak cough, but we never write about the beauty of cowardice. Everybody despises a coward. Tell someone you’re a coward and they’ll insist, “That’s not true. You’re one of the bravest people I know.” As if admitting to cowardice disproves it. I remember when I was in the group homes all the other kids insisted they had never lost a fight. I wondered who was losing all the fights, other than me.
And what if, instead of using cowardice when writing about vilians, or to show the flaws in our protagonist, we wrote about the boy on the corner, feet planted firmly on the cold cement, unable to do what he knew he should do, which is walk quickly across the street, or scream for help, or even wave at a police car that drove quickly past. His thoughts slowed so if you could see inside his head you would notice the electrical currents, soggy and pink, idling along his nerve endings. The currents were big thoughts, too big. He couldn’t make sense of any of them, and the result was that he was helpless when he came face to face with what would happen next.
I’m not ready to go there. I’m reading about Justin Hall, the first blogger to “overshare.” And I came across this line in Scott Rosnberg’s Say Everything: “Writers who tell stories about themselves, their families, and friends always walk a tightrope: you fall off one side if you stop telling the truth; you fall off the other if you hurt people you care about, or use them as fodder for your career. Dishonesty to the left, selfishness to the right.”
I’m thinking about blogging and creating stories from experience. I’m thinking of the difference between a blog and an online magazine. I was sitting next to a man reading a trashy novel by C.W. Morton and I was reading this thoughtful post by Mark Athitakis on my new iPhone. And I wondered which one of us was pissing on culture and making the world a dumber place. I decided he was, but I’m biased. This is not a survey.
So yes, it’s all changed. If you’re just starting your novel or memoir it will be changed quite a bit more when your book comes out. With that in mind it’s important you don’t read anything about publishing while you work on your book because Publisher’s Weekly knows nothing about the landscape you’ll toss your heart into. There’ll be a new species of lion in a different jungle. But one thing will remain the same: creating art will not make you loveable. You can create art instead of learning how to love, but it’s like putting a band-aid on a river.