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State of the Art: Writing and Publishing in the 21st Century

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Woman on the Edge of TimeOne of my favorite books in the groundswell of feminist writing that emerged from the 1970’s Women’s Movement was Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. Residents in the Utopia of the story spent a good deal of their time and lives making art via paint, pottery, poetry, etc. I carried that vision with me into the future, and created my own literary art in between raising children and making a living with my typing fingers. I used to think it would be lovely if everyone was able to make a movie if they so desired; I myself wanted to turn one of Doris Lessing’s space fiction novels into a film. I didn’t want a career in The Industry, didn’t even want to make more than one movie; I just wanted to create this one little project for my own amusement. I raged against the injustice of a culture in which only an elite group of people had access to the means of art production.

Well, I have lived to see the day that this one aspect of Utopia has actually come true. If I took the time to learn the iMovie program on my Macintosh, I could go ahead now and make my movie. I could even share it with others, via YouTube. More significant to my life and well-being, however, is that this democratic accessibility also exists for the creation of literature, or more specifically, book publishing.

I may have wanted to create one little movie, but I had far grander goals for my life’s work. I’ve always known what I wanted to do: to publish a novel that would be respected and well-critiqued by the literati, yet mainstream and popular, so the money earned would launch me into a writer’s life. I would live quietly somewhere—at various times I imagined myself in a Manhattan apartment, at other times in a modest oceanfront house—and I’d spend every day of my life in front of my IBM Selectric, on which my handwritten first draft would be typed and retyped through dozens of revisions—that’s how I used to do rewrites back in the Good Old Days.Selectric

I believed with all my heart what writers and teachers and books about writing told me: that if I kept at it, if I did it enough so I got better and better,  one day IT would happen. I was coming from a literary tradition filled with anecdotes of rejection: writers like Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller were said to keep a pile of dusty unpublished novels in their desk drawer. Marge Piercy’s first book, Small Change, was her sixth.

I plugged on.

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career-pathI wrote in between babies and one child’s brain surgeries, through divorce and household moves, a munchkin holding each hand. I wrote in between secretarial jobs, poverty, and food stamps; past used-car breakdowns, furnace failures and snowstorms; I kept on writing in between one crisis after another. I was forced to stop occasionally, for two months, six, four. I lost a job, got another; at times I cleaned houses; I nursed my post-surgical son, sent him back to school, and pounded out another bunch of words. Altogether I wrote six novels. I sent each one out to agents and editors. The only one that’s been published is the last: an ebook on Smashwords that to date has sold eight copies. Hell, I don’t buy ebooks, so how can I expect anyone to buy mine? Still, I did kind of expect my friends to buy it. One of them did.

When I found out about Smashwords I was elated. The revolution is here! Hello, hooray, I’m ready, I crowed. Finally! Writers had seized the means of production! No more were the gatekeepers of literature young girls fresh out of college holding titles like Assistant Editor for glorified sectetarial jobs. No longer would a few behemoth corporations dictate what the public read. By now, as everyone knows, Smashwords isn’t the only game in town; these days, if you want to publish a book, the options are numerous. Free at last,  free at last, great godamighty, we’re free at last!!!

Uh huh. Be careful what you wish for.

I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong, but I’m disheartened and depressed by the state of the art. I have gradually lost my once-burning desire to publish. The electronic format isn’t entirely to blame: I’ve learned to love my Kindle. And yet, being published electronically doesn’t feel quite real to me. It isn’t self-publication that bothers me: besides publishing a novel on Smashwords, I had an ebook collection of short stories published by Renaissance Books. I’ve never been good at self-promotion, and I find I’m even more reluctant to promote a series of bytes on a screen. There’s just something about it that doesn’t feel quite right. Future generations, should they read this, will be baffled. I’m fairly certain, though, that I am not the only member of my generation who’s less than enamored with the state of the art.

This sense of unreality, however, is nothing compared to the core issue: the glut of available ebooks.

glut [gluht] verb, glut·ted, glut·ting, noun
verb (used with object)

1. to feed or fill to satiety; sate: to glut the appetite.
2. to feed or fill to excess; cloy.
3. to flood (the market) with a particular item or service so that the supply greatly exceeds the demand.

A glut of books is (are?) being published. A glut of books are being promoted along with mine. A glut of books all clamor for attention.

Writer4Once upon a time when I told people I was a writer they sighed longingly and mentioned The Book buried in their hearts that they didn’t have time to write. These days, knowing their book will be read by someone, they’re somehow finding the time, not only to write but to post news of their book on zillions of websites. In the novel The Best Seller by Olivia Goldsmith (of First Wives Club fame), a character based on Jacqueline Susanne throws a tantrum every time another professional—doctor, lawyer, carpenter—hits the best-seller list with a book. She doesn’t suddenly decide to perform brain surgery; why must every professional horn in on her territory? Those people who used to sigh longingly have stopped sighing. They’ve gone to work, content—or dare I say arrogant?—in the certainty that their book will reach the reading public.

Inevitably with such a huge backlist, a lot of trash finds its way into the mix. Bad grammar, incorrect punctuation, and misspellings abound. Completing and publishing a novel used to be perceived as a major personal accomplishment. Imagine, after a multitude of rejections, what Marge Piercy must have felt like when Small Change appeared in bookstore windows. Yes, we had bookstores back then—in fact, it was in Borders that I got the first hint of the coming onslaught. When big box chain stores began popping up in every strip mall and big city, stores that actually placed chairs  near the shelves for leisurely reading, I expected to feel like I was in the Garden of Eden, but the first time I went into Borders I had a panic attack. I felt like rushing home immediately to read, afraid I’d never catch up. On the heels of panic came a plunge into hopelessness: The world does not need anymore words, least of all mine. It was all too much for me; there were simply too many books.

merry go round

I suppose it’s the baby boomer boom—too many of us reached the age of creative invention at the same moment in time. I’ve lost all sense that being published is a great accomplishment. I no longer care very much if a book I write gets published. At this point it would hardly matter, practically speaking:  It’s not like I have that many years left to live out my dream. I still love to write, and I’ve been fortunate to have published quite a bit other than novels—in newspapers, magazines, anthologies, poetry journals, and on my blog—so I’m not half-crazed with frustration and a burning need to share my work.  The only area in which I haven’t filled that need just happens to be my deepest passion:  I bought the Great American Myth that The Great American Novel is the brass ring you grab as the merry-go-round turns.But if everyone has a brass ring, it’s not as meaningful. If publishing a book is the latest hot trend, count me out.

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