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
Youve written a novel, you know its good. Your writer friends-who have told you in the past when your work was terrible-say its good. Your agent calls it a tour de force. An editor tells you its the most original manuscript hes seen in four to five years. But . . . its a tough sell in hardcover, and you dont want it in hardcover. You know the market for it is . . . different. Its 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 dont have the budget for those books, or dont read them. Theyre looking for something new, something funny, something to change the way they think about the world. And you think your book might be what theyre looking for. But its 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.
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 its being made. You have to work blindly in order to create it. Genius is the will to stupidity, as Nietzsche said. And if youre a novelist or short story writer not working in a commercial genre, you write what you must because its the only way for you to fully be in the world. Its 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, dont expect a conventional commercial reward for doing so.
Id written my fourth novel, WILL@epicqwest.com , because I had to. I couldnt help that I was no longer 21 and this wasnt 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. Ive published with big houses and the marketing for their literary fiction amounts to this: zilch. You have your publicists attention for about one hour. This is not their fault. Theyre nice people, they have a lot of books to handle, they burn out fast. They have the big spy thriller or Hillary Clintons 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 havent 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 weve 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 dont, youre 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 didnt fit the narrow commercial mold. And he wanted to do it rightgreat 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 years worthnot a days 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, its 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.