The Diamond Lane
, published in May 1991, was my second novel, and what is most striking about the difference between the publishing process 23 years ago and now is not that the book was written on a Kaypro, Xeroxed at Kinko's, and sent overnight in a FedEx box to G. P. Putnam's Sons, but that after the manuscript was accepted and given a pub date, I asked my esteemed editor, "What should I do now?" and she said, "Just write the next one."
Before I get too far down the road extolling the good old days, let me say that I'm not particularly nostalgic by nature, that Xeroxing manuscripts and sending them FedEx was a pain in the ass, as was hanging around the house waiting for your editor to call, which felt exactly like waiting for a boy to call in 8th grade; that I love my Kindle, enjoy a lively love/hate relationship with social media, admire the pioneering souls that have forged the way for quality self-publishing, and have no desire to hop in the way-back machine.
That said, in 1991, the main job of a writer was to just write the next one. Publicity-wise, you were expected to be able to show up to a reading (arranged by your more charming publicist) and read from your own work in a manner that didn't put people to sleep. You were expected to be socially awkward, possibly unkempt, and a little wild-eyed — bonus points awarded for not being falling down drunk. After your book tour, whether large or small, you were expected to disappear into your scribe-cave.
This division of labor made sense. My literary brother, the inestimable Tom Spanbauer (our first and second books were published by the same editor at Putnam's in the '90s, and we've each had a title reissued by Hawthorne Books Rediscovery Series), once said, "A writer is someone who wasn't invited to the party."
He means, of course, that writers are outsiders, and usually not by their own choosing. It's why they're writers. If they didn't feel alienated from human experience, they wouldn't feel so drawn to writing to make sense of their lives. It's not the outsider's facility for language that makes her a writer — many a student body president or homecoming queen can turn a phrase — but her ability to howl at the moon, on the page. To bring all his anguish, anger, sense of injustice, and loneliness to his work. This is true even for those of us who've been accused of being funny; in my case I wasn't invited to the party, and was also the smart aleck at the back of the classroom.
In 2014, the landscape of a writer's life is so different as to be unrecognizable. Every writer, whether legacy or self-published, is expected to be capable of launching a sophisticated, far-ranging, full-throttle, buzz-generating, platform-building, unending branding extravaganza. To do this, you must be charismatic, witty, attractive, selfiegenic, while also possessing the marketing chops of the team who rolled out the iPod, thus saving Apple from impending bankruptcy.
That the time-consuming, solitary indwelling required to build a world in your head and put it on paper and the zippity-do-dah extroverted glad-handing required to be a successful promoter of, well, anything rarely exist inside the same human being is immaterial. Publishers have always wanted to sell books, but historically they've tended to acquire books they believed they could sell; now we've entered an age where they acquire books which they believe the writer can sell. It's a little like signing a player to the NBA based on his marketing plan to boost concession stand sales during half-time, and incidentally, his field goal percentage.
Still, we try. We try very hard. (I think we may mistake the push to self-promote as a party invitation.) And it has made trying to make a life as a writer incredibly complicated.
In 1991, this is what could prevent you from having a successful writing career:
- You fail to finish your novel.
- Your novels don't sell.
In 2014, this is what could prevent you from having a successful writing career:
- You think platforms are shoes.
- You think branding is best left to cattle.
- You look like a basset hound on Skype and thus shun the all-important Skype book club appearances.
- You have less than 3,000 Twitter followers.
- Your Facebook author page has less than 1,000 followers.
- Your LinkedIn... fuck, you don't even know what that is.
- You are too moody, and thus lack the ability to express the amount of gratitude and enthusiasm required by social media.
- You are slightly homely, and not in a geek chic sort of way, and thus avoid having your picture taken.
- The food you eat is not photogenic.
- You never go on vacation.
- You lack the proper amount of guile to promote yourself at all hours of the day and night without seeming to promote yourself.
- Your website is always three years out of date.
- You fail to finish your novel.
- Your novels don't sell.
I can't complain (a lie: my loved ones will tell you I've made complaining an art form). My personality, about one tick into extroversion, makes all the modern self-marketing folderol less onerous than it might be for someone else. But only when I'm in the mood. And that's the key: being in the mood. If I'm deep in the writing of my next book, I am never in the mood. When I am writing, I'm as antisocial as Kafka on a bad day.
I'm worried that very soon the marketing tail will wag the literary dog. That the Ed boards of legacy publishers will find themselves signing up a mediocre novel over a great one because Crappy Novel comes equipped with 3,000 Twitter followers (which, by the way, don't translate to book sales in any measurable way).
What will happen to the bona fide iconoclasts (not just the ones who play iconoclasts on social media)? The singular voices who don't possess the ability to crack wise on Twitter, shy away from the camera, aren't eager to share? The glorious, disorganized lunatics and visionaries and people who simply can't keep track of their WordPress password? The Kafkas, the Prousts, the Rilkes? The Kerouac, who famously said, "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."
I recently posted this quote on Facebook, and my writer friends were quick to Like it, longing, I suppose, to log off and burn, burn, burn.