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Your Career or Your Life?

Pub Date: Jun 1, 2003 | Columnist: Tom Grimes

A special column written by Tom Grimes, an award-winning author and director of the MFA Creative Writing program at Southwest Texas State University.

Your Career or Your Life?

by Tom Grimes

June 2003

You’ve written a novel, you know it’s good. Your writer friends-who have told you in the past when your work was terrible-say it’s good. Your agent calls it a “tour de force.” An editor tells you it’s the most original manuscript he’s seen in four to five years. But . . . it’s a tough sell in hardcover, and you don’t want it in hardcover. You know the market for it is . . . different. It’s not for the traditional middle-aged buyer of $26.00 hardcover chick-lit novels and $32.00 biographies of dead politicians. Your readers— 20 and 30 somethings, hip 40 year olds, eternal kids of 50-plus-either don’t have the budget for those books, or don’t read them. They’re looking for something new, something funny, something to change the way they think about the world. And you think your book might be what they’re looking for. But it’s not your typical literary fiction hardcover.

So, what do you do? You put it in the drawer and forget about it. Let the market dictate the way you write. Let the market dictate the making of literature.

Wrong.

You have two things as a writer: your career, and your life. They are not necessarily the same thing. Your career depends on the market, which is fickle. Your life depends on your faith in trying to create literature. No one knows what literature is, not while it’s being made. You have to work blindly in order to create it. “Genius is the will to stupidity,” as Nietzsche said. And if you’re a novelist or short story writer not working in a commercial genre, you write what you must because it’s the only way for you to fully be in the world. It’s an act of faith in the service of art, and of your life.

But, acts of faith are not rewarded by the marketplace. You pay to go to the movies; you make a donation at church. If you want to break commercial rules, don’t expect a conventional commercial reward for doing so.

I’d written my fourth novel, WILL@epicqwest.com , because I had to. I couldn’t help that I was no longer 21 and this wasn’t my first novel, which would have made the marketing of it much easier. But I knew it was a good book. I have plenty of bad ones in boxes in the garage to help me make such a distinction. I also had a contract from my French publisher, Gallimard, for the book. And I was determined that the book appear as a paperback original in order for it to be affordable. I wanted it to have a life, not be a blip on a screen. I’ve published with big houses and the marketing for their literary fiction amounts to this: zilch. You have your publicist’s attention for about one hour. This is not their fault. They’re nice people, they have a lot of books to handle, they burn out fast. They have the big spy thriller or Hillary Clinton’s memoir to hype. Why do you expect attention? Especially when book review pages have diminished by 50% since the recession began in March 2000. And you haven’t been an embedded journalist in Iraq. These are the books booksellers have to pay attention to, briefly, just as they briefly paid attention to books about the Taliban, which we’ve now all forgotten.

Publishing at the big corporate level is about making money. Literature is about making and preserving cultural memory. The two endeavors do, occasionally, and quite happily, meet. Occasionally. When they don’t, you’re back to the choice between your career or your life. Always choose your life. Someone out there is doing the same, and you have to find him or her.

For me, it was Jun Da of Ludlow Press, based in New York. He wanted to publish smart, vital, literary novels. Novels that didn’t fit the narrow commercial mold. And he wanted to do it right—great covers, top of the line paper, 2000 advance reader copies (which is four to five times the number sent by big houses for most literary novels), ads, a low cover price, and a year’s worth—not a day’s worth —of promotion. In other words, WILL@epicqwest.com , which has its own website, would have a life.

Now the book is out, it looks beautiful, it’s getting great reviews, people from Hollywood have called, and, most important of all, readers are loving it, which gives me the faith necessary to write my next book. Which, in the end, is my life.

About the Author

Tom Grimes is a two-time finalist for the PEN/Nelson Algren Award, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year author, and winner of a Barnes & Noble Discover Award and a James Michener Fellowship. His novels are A STONE OF THE HEART, SEASON'S END, CITY OF GOD and WILL@epicqwest.com. He directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Southwest Texas State University. Read more about Tom Grimes and his new book at http://www.tomgrimes.org/will_epicqwest_com_96358.htm.

© Tom Grimes, 2003. All rights reserved.