A week ago, I was at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Here in Chicago, everyone keeps asking me if I saw any “movie people.” But I wouldn’t know movie people if I saw them, so my experience of the FOB was that everyone there was a literary fiction writer. I suppose if I had analyzed it heavily enough, it might have seemed weird to me that there were so many literary fiction writers in Los Angeles at this one fest. I guess I might have wondered what Florence Henderson was doing in the Green Room, under that limited definition. Well, actually, I still don’t know what Florence Henderson was doing in the Green Room. I didn’t see her–people kept saying she was there and pointing in a direction, but I don’t wear my glasses except to drive so really she could have been anyone.
My grad school buddy, Alex Shakar, won the LA Times Book Prize. He shared this honor with Stephen King. That part seems weird to me, but okay. He won for his novel, Luminarium, which was published by Soho after a shitload of majors rejected it. Luminarium‘s rave reviews and recent win is a pretty cool success story–it’s the kind of thing that’s inspirational to other writers. Alex spent a decade working on this novel. He went from one agent to another agent and back to the first agent again. He revised like a motherfucker. He changed the entire novel from third person to first person. He added a twin brother. He was not afraid to shift some serious gears. He wasn’t in a hurry, even though his university was apparently making noise about whether or not he’d get tenure, and maybe that was because he hadn’t had a book out in so long. He didn’t pull the novel when houses like HarperCollins didn’t bite. His agent didn’t drop him. They took it to an indie; they focused on the book instead of the advance or the hype. Most stories like this don’t end like Alex’s, but the ones that do are nice. Alex has been lucky before–his debut novel, The Savage Girl, fetched a kind of obscene advance–and not all writers have that kind of luck. But sometimes “luck” is just a euphemism for dedication and a crazy amount of talent, and in this case, I think that’s probably true.
Stephen eloquently states that talent is a myth. He’s a better person than I; this is a nicer world view. And he always says things in a way that makes me believe them in the moment. But at the end of the day, I’m not sure I’m with him on this one.
Luminarium focuses on, among other things, the way spiritual experiences can be simulated and constructed–the way religious ecstacy is really just a brain state. The more we learn about spiritual states, the less I trust them, even though I’ve had some intense ones in my life. Recently, my husband sent me this article, about the way analytical thought reduces religious faith, which seems obvious to those of us without religious faith, but not at all obvious to the faithful, so people do . . . studies. In my experience, this article reflects an essential truth, but that truth is kind of a shame. I’d like a helmet like the one Fred wears in Luminarium; I’d like to be able to have ecstatic states and feel god whenever I wanted to. Or maybe I wouldn’t really. Love serves pretty much the same purpose, doesn’t it? Love here in our concrete world, I mean; we don’t need to go looking anywhere else. If you never feel ecstacy, it’s maybe a life issue, not a spiritual one.
I judged the ACM Nick Adams Short Story Contest, and this piece, by Clare Boerighter, was the clear winner.
Zoe Zolbrod, who wrote today’s Sunday essay on “The Last City I Loved,” also has a great piece over at The Nervous Breakdown, taking Katie Roiphe to task about her latest shock jock comments re: that S/M book phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Gray, which only one person I know has read, but all the magazines tell us is the most popular thing ever. Zoe’s made a cool niche over at TNB writing about gender issues in a way that embraces ambiguity and sexiness. She never stays on the surface of things. She doesn’t just say “this is why Katie Roiphe is an idiot” and leave it at talking about why someone else is wrong. Which is probably what distinguishes her from people like Roiphe, actually. She’s more concerned with having ideas than with tearing other people’s ideas down.
Zoe had a success story with her novel, Currency, too, which, like Luminarium, also spent more than a decade finding a home. She’s also talented and smart and tenacious. Her book ended up with my small boutique indie, Other Voices Books, and it made some fun online “best of” lists, and we had a blast on the book tour marveling at how you can still buy cigarettes at restaurants in Austin. Of course it didn’t make a bunch of money or win high profile prizes; most books don’t. You can’t compare one book to another, anyway, because each is its own universe. Still, even if you believe in talent, the outcomes won’t be linear or neat. I do think if you’re good and dogged, someone will publish you eventually (especially in today’s lit landscape), and that the people who actually read your book will connect to it and like it, or at least a lot of them will. How many people will read your book, however–and how much power those people have to make good things happen for you–well, maybe that’s more where the “luck” comes in.