Suspend Your Disbelief

Essays |

AWP: Hope Takes Flight in the Basement of the Hilton

At first, I didn’t care too much about the economic troubles of Wall Streeters, or people living off their investments, or people with things called “401ks.” Let them give up their limos and learn how to take the bus; let them eat at the table next to me at Ali Baba’s Kebab House. But then the publishing world followed. Has the prospect of getting a literary novel published plunged from very unlikely to totally unlikely to absolutely-forget-about-it-impossible with each drop of the Dow Jones average? Or is there hope?

I’ve been at this writing business a long time, so when the bottom fell out of the economy this fall, I didn’t think, Oh, no, there goes the villa in France. I’d long ago relinquished any illusion that fiction quite so poetic, so sad, so damn literary as mine would actually make me money. Rather, the prospect of getting a literary novel published had plunged from very unlikely to totally unlikely to absolutely-forget-about-it-impossible with each drop of the Dow Jones average.

For quite some time before the big drop, many had been saying the market for literary fiction was even more terrible than it had been. “Literary fiction,” I’d heard more than one person say, “is the new poetry.” And they didn’t mean because quoting it from memory could get a college student laid.

At first, I didn’t care too much about the economic troubles of Wall Streeters, or people living off their investments, or people with things called “401ks.” Let them give up their limos and learn how to take the bus; let them eat at the table next to me at Ali Baba’s Kebab House.

But then the publishing world followed. First there was the announcement that Houghton Mifflin—publisher of such a diverse list as to include the works of Jhumpa Lahiri, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, and Curious George—was suspending acquisitions of new manuscripts. This is akin to a butcher no longer buying fresh meat. “What are us cows going to do?” one of my fellow writers mooed to me as we trudged over to Ali Baba’s Kebab House. Never mind that that metaphor was a little off (it isn’t like we actually die in the process of writing a book, though it may feel like that); the question was apt. Indeed, what would us cows do?

In December, Macmillan—publisher of such titles as The Letters of Ted Hughes, The Lemon Juice Diet, and Real Men Do It Better—cut 64 jobs. And the cutbacks continued, most recently with the shutdown of the Collins arm of HarperCollins—publisher of John Keats, Wally Lamb, Very Valentine, and Spain…A Culinary Road Trip—causing an untold number of layoffs. Untold, literally, because no one has been told just how many jobs have been axed.

And now, agents, some of whom were known for encouraging their less-than-famous authors, are admitting that what keeps them up at night is the fate of the author who doesn’t bag a Pulitzer or sell 300,000 copies.

Super-Agent Binky Urban, vice-president of ICM, was quoted recently in a Haaretz article issuing a warning about the fate of “mid-list authors.”

“The major writers will keep publishing, debut books will always be published, and the ones in the middle will have a problem,” she said. Yeah, a problem like having to find another means of self-expression, not to mention figuring out how to earn a living.

Then the most horrifying of all casualties: one of my students, a talented writer of beautifully poetic, languorous, complicated fiction, came to class one night and collapsed in a heap, unable to read when we concluded the evening’s writing exercise. This was particularly startling because she’s a practical, down-to-earth type, with a good job teaching English at a prestigious private school, a solid marriage, and a baby on the way. She always reads her exercises, and it typically sounds as if she’s labored on it with the polishing machine, not knocked it off in ten minutes. Yet when I came to her, she wailed, “I made a terrible mistake!”

“What?” I asked. She is not easily ruffled.

“I showed my novel to someone,” she whispered, horrified to hear these words coming from her own mouth. Then she put her notebook over her face.

“Oh, I could have told you not to do that,” I said. “In fact, I did tell you not to.” It’s one of my few rules: never, ever, show your work to anyone outside of class, until you reach A Certain Point. And it’s hard to know when you’ve reached that point, which is why you have a group of trusted fellow writers around you.

But not only had Andrea shown her work to someone, she had done so to an agent, the mother of one of her students who’d been pestering Andrea for a look at her manuscript since Andrea had (ill-advisedly) let drop that she was writing something.

“Oh, I’d love to see it,” the agent/mommy had gushed. “Really, whenever you have anything to show me, please. I’m sure it’s just wonderful.”

To her credit, Andrea had resisted this flirtation for a long time. But it’s like being a married woman and having a glamorous, handsome bon vivant ask you out for a drink. And if that bon vivant is also praising your beautiful eyes, your slim waist, your…Well, how long are you going to hold out? After all, it’s just a drink. It isn’t like…

So who could blame her when she handed over a stack of pages?

Two days later, she told us, her phone rang. Two days! “I can’t possibly sell this,” the agent/mommy began, sounding affronted. “It’s way too poetic. You’ve got way too many characters. I can’t even get through all this language you have. You need more plot. I’m just lost in all this, you know, language…”

With the help of the other students, I bandaged up Andrea’s ego, put her on the stretcher I keep handy for these situations, packed her in ice, and headed off to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, dreading what more bad news I’d find there from the world of letters.

Cue the Disney bluebirds and the harps.

There, in the basement of the Chicago Hilton, I found encouragement, hope, and life.

And that’s not overstating it. If you’re thinking this means I walked away with a publisher for myself and another one for Andrea, well, you are living in a world of your own delusion and you ought to get a job already so you can afford some quality psychoanalysis.

But here is what I did find: thousands of writers, editors, publishers and MFA program directors who believe in the power of language, who aren’t afraid of writing that makes us think, who know that fiction can help us to live, who think poetic language does have a place in prose, and who even give out delicious little chocolates to everyone who stops by their booth.

As I made the rounds of the hundreds of tables in the book fair, I stopped at a promising-looking one, meaning the books by this publisher were nicely produced, with enticing covers. “Do you publish novels?” I asked hesitantly, and the man looked up from something he was reading. “Yes,” he said, eagerly, as if he was starving and I’d asked him if he liked a roast chicken dinner.

“I have two published novels,” I said, and he stood up. “My agent,” I said—and he leaned toward me across the table—“can’t sell my third because it’s too literary and poetic and sad.”

I thought at “sad” he’d surely sit back down and resume his reading, but no; he was now climbing over the table. “Really?” he said. “I’d love to see it. Would you send me the manuscript?”

I took his card, and then I gave this little rap to the next prospect, and to the one after that. Each time, I got a similar response. Emboldened, I started asking if the publishers ever worked with, um, novellas, which are the toughest sell of the tough sells in publishing. Even more so if it’s literary, poetic, and sad. My agent had called the week before after reading mine and said, simply, “Sarah, I can’t sell this. People are depressed enough right now. People want to be cheered up. I can’t sell a book where everyone dies at the end.”

I winced a little as I offered the synopsis up to a representative of a university press: “It’s set in 2000 BC, in the Arctic, and everyone dies at the end.”

“Really? Here’s my card.”

The book fair at AWP didn’t only encourage me in my own small endeavors; it made me believe that exciting, carefully crafted work will be brought to appreciative readers, no matter how far the mainstream publishers fall. There were crowds of writers mobbing the aisles between the tables on the exhibit floor, the exhibitors proudly displaying their books, their magazines, their chapbooks and one-offs, all of it beautiful, or odd and quirky and full of life. There was Lawrence Schimel’s A Midsummer Night’s Press, putting out thin, delicate little books of poems that fit in the palm of your hand. There was One Story, publishing just what it promises: one story in each small issue. There were young people with crazy ideas that I think will never get off the ground, and there were old people still doggedly publishing good old fashioned novels with a beginning, middle and end. There were broadsides and chapbooks, hardcovers and magazines. There were books impossible to categorize, like Kathleen Rooney’s Live Nude Girl—part memoir about being an artists’ model, part art history, and part philosophy about seeing. It’s impossible to categorize, impossible for a mainstream publisher to market, and impossible to put down once you start reading it.

Like Alice dropping into Wonderland, I felt as if I’d entered a world both more real and more imaginary. Was this an older world, the sedate world of letters that existed before the publishing bloat? Was it a happy herald of the future of publishing? Was it just the arcane world of oddballs who really love writing, which had been spinning away all this time?

I think it’s the latter. Some of us (that’s me, slowly raising my hand in the back row, hiding my face like Andrea) got swept up in the promise of fame and glory held out by the big houses and their representatives. It’s easy to dream of a hardcover book with beautiful artwork printed 100,000 times. Who wouldn’t? To say nothing of imagining an advance that averages out higher than the working wage of a barista. And the fact that the big publishing houses have put out some very good books in recent years only made the fantasy easier to believable; if it could happen to Andre Aciman, or Alexander Hemon, or A.M. Homes, it could happen to me!

Meanwhile, people with more acumen about the publishing world, or maybe just with purer hearts, have continued to acquire, edit, proofread and publish manuscripts from my bunch: the (wince) “mid-list” writer. The University of Michigan even states that their fiction contest is designed to offset the problems created by the big houses; their guidelines state:

When a first book doesn’t sell in the tens of thousands of copies, further book submissions often will get immediately consigned to the reject pile. We expect and desire to attract the work of writers of literary fiction looking for, and deserving, another chance.

So while the big publishing houses have had to axe their editorial staffs and suspend acquisitions, the world of small and academic presses has been quietly pushing onward, as evidenced by the activity in the basement of the Hilton that frigid February weekend. There, I discovered not a collection of second-rate runners up, but a gathering of the people who have never wavered in their commitment to providing the bridge between author and reader, regardless of the demands of something called “the market.”

Yet here the evidence was abundant, and lovely to look at. There were books, and books, and books, all surrounded by their people, people who encouraged and nudged and nurtured them. The books were the center of this grand circus—toeing along on the tightrope, tossing the flaming juggling cones, leaping onto the flying trapeze—while below them their people stood in a ring, doing everything possible to keep them aloft.

And so I came home to New York, with a fistful of names to whom I could send my novel and my novella, as well as a collection of magazines to which I’ll make my students send their work—when they’re ready. I don’t know that any one of these publishers will put my book or theirs into print, but I do know the work will be read and considered for its own worthiness as a story, not solely for its marketability and how much profit it’ll bring in once it’s off the hoof and repackaged as a rump roast.

There is still the problem of the collapse of the publishing world; there is more bad news to come from the big houses of New York. But meanwhile, there is hope. Oh, that feathered thing! And it’s kept alive by an eccentric, literate, dedicated, unflagging group—my fellow writers, my colleagues, my people.

Sarah Van Arsdale writes and teaches in New York City, where she runs the Atlantic Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of three novels: Grand Isle, Blue and Toward Amnesia.

To find out more about Sarah, go to FWR’s Contributors page, and to learn about the Atlantic Writers’ Workshop, visit its website.

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