As my flight descended over the turquoise Caribbean, I wondered,Who would go to the Cayman Islands and participate inmy literary event?I soon learned the answer: none. Only empty chairs, clumsy booksellers. Maybe you could swim with stingrays tomorrow? one suggested. They always show up.
Promoting a book can shock you. After years of quiet work and loud typing, you clutch a published book and step forward to meet the public, eight billion humans who, mysteriously, seem unaware that your new novel has just come out.
Occasionally, someone treats you like the important writer you wish you were (but you probably aren’t). They are enthusiastic about your prose and frown intently when you speak. It’s an adrenaline rush, straight into your ego. Then you’re at the autograph table, the pile of hardcovers are all unsold, and everyone’s gone. You’re just another nobody in need, your ego crushed underfoot.
Occasionally, a literary novelist AND brought fame. But most of it is swept only by the polar wind of indifference. To avoid oblivion, authors will turn into hucksters, the spokesmen for their books, the representatives of their inner lives.
I’d like to blame the technology. I try to blame him for everything.
When the Internet crushed traditional print, it crushed book coverage as well. But the internet has launched alternatives, from literary websites to Zoom readings to BookTok.
Literature skills are not necessarily skills to promote it.
In the end, novelists needn’t rely on the guardians’ blessing. They may yell themselves to get attention. On the flip side, they had to shout themselves out to get attention.
Publishers and agents are rarely certain why a decent book will skyrocket when a thousand other authors lobby to become more accessible, not just loitering at festivals and bookstores, but pushing forward for inspection on Goodreads and Twitter and reachable. via direct message. The myth of the writer has changed.
Previously, biographies and gossip portrayed The Novelist as a tormented character, prickly with debauchery, infidelity, alcohol. Now, the writers who prevailed seemed downright likable: the endearing quirks, the correct politics.
Being bestial has never made anyone a talented author. Nor be nice to cats. My point is: the skill set for literature is not necessarily the skill set for promoting it.
Imagine Dostoyevsky, pestering to update his Facebook page. Or Emily Dickinson at a poetry slam, posted to Instagram. Or Kafka addressing his fans on TikTok: Hey, kids! Brutal alarm clock today: I open my eyes and I’m like an insect, what’s going on?! Check out my new story, #Metamorphosis. Like and subscribe below!
Consider the case of Suzanne Young, author of a young adult horror novel, who showed up for her reading in Phoenix and found she outnumbered the audience. Ms. Young tweeted a photo of the deserted store, with the caption, If you ever want to see a career low point, this is it. Crying all the way home.
He didn’t need to sob for long. Her tweet went viral and ended up on NBC Nightly News, experiencing a twist worthy of an enjoyable narrative:Whyno one showed up, it was successful.
What is the moral of his story? What an internetCandiessave us? Or that bookstore readings are a waste and you’d better advertise yourself online?
For today’s author, the trail of shamelessness begins before the novel is published, perhaps before it is written. Developing an online fan base will inhibit your writing, but your career may depend on it. (Prior to her heartbreaking event, Ms. Young already had more than 12,000 Twitter followers, which helped circulate her post, eventually seen by 8 million people.)
Needless to say, when you promote a book, you attend whatever event comes your way. The organizers are delightful; they revive your faith in contemporary literature and restore your desire for a place in it. So, you’re watching from a lectern seven people, three of whom are personal friends. You wonder if all of this makes sense.
The events of the book expose a fundamental flaw in promoting fiction: novelists tend to be mutters with bad haircuts who can’t bring their writing to life in front of a crowd, and are inarticulate when answering questions about the craft. SomeI amperformers; some are insightful; some, inspiring. More is the diner that no one notices, but that he has thoughts, and collects them, composes them, types them in private, reviews and elaborates and only then finds the words.
One of my first bookstore reads was at Politics & Prose in Washington. Previously, the organizers had hidden me in a side hall next to a staff member on break, whose calmness contrasted with my terror. In a few minutes, I would need to declaim in public about literature. I had no right. I was an imposter.
After the event, my sister rushed over to me, assuring me that I hadn’t humiliated myself. You didn’t look nervous at all, she said.
Tranquilizers, I confided. I have taken many tranquilizers.
According to a recent survey, most first-time authors say that publishing books has harmed their psychological healthThe booksellerpoll ended up on medicines. It took me a long time to reconcile the train wreck of my debut, reported another. I had to work hard to recover, both professionally and mentally.
But writing careers have always been marked by failure rather than glory. And mass indifference preceded the Internet age.
Is it really new?
When it comes to contemporary literature, one hears debates about identity and appropriation, about awards and autofiction. But what matters is the competition: those words and images and videos that warm up the device in your pocket, which vibrates so impatiently, urging you to check hisstories.
While the Internet is the most powerful marketing tool writers have ever had, the Internet is devastating to an art that requires close concentration.
Once upon a time, intelligent types read contemporary novels for amusement, to reflect on what it meant to be human, to shock themselves at what others were doing in private, to join the intelligentsia, to enter the debate. This role is rarely taken on by a novel today.
A subculture of ultra-literary types still gathers around fiction’s latest darlings. A larger constituency purchases those selected for television bookclubs or by award juries. Most years, a novel adapted for the screen also joins the bestseller list. But underneath those few titles are piles and piles of disappointments.
The study of literature also decreases, as with the rest of the humanities. According to a report of theSunday times, a decade ago a university had 200 English literature majors; now it’s down to 30.
When I meet book types with young adult children, many talk about how their children once devoured fiction, but gave it up. What those middle-aged book types are ashamed to add is that themselves with vast scholarship and extensive shelves barely read fiction.
A culture critic told me privately that he still reviews novels because he’s forced to read them. The authors made similar admissions to me: You don’t actually have time for new fiction, do you? said a literary novelist whose primary job is to teach creative writing.
The internet is devastating to an art that requires great concentration.
Will Lloyd, journalist of the political and literary magazineThe new statesman, he noticed that he had read many books lately and none of them were novels. So, she spent a week polling her peers in literary circles, asking if they were reading fiction, were they discussing it, looking for it. Out of 40 people, only 2 were.
I feared that I was an imposter in writing. I’ve come to wonder if all literary novelists are imposters now, bursting into the culture, kicking up reams of pages, saying:I wrote something look at it!
How conceited – engaging in fiction, asking strangers to admire it. They too have something to say, and nowadays they can comment, film, like, downvote.
The strange thing about being a novelist today is that the position retains a glimmer of prestige with only a glimmer of an audience.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she is aloneMywriting that is wilting away. Maybe I’m projecting my eclipse onto the field.
I would not fight that accusation. I’m tired of fighting for attention, begging strangers to care about what I cared about, begging to be heardMyvoice in an art that seems increasingly tranquil, that somehow misses the point.
A New York book publisher told me that publishing has always been like this: A few megahits support those below. Even the top writers are rarely satisfied. Look at Philip Roth. He has had success after success. And he died bitter for not having won the Nobel Prize. How much is enough?
Last week, at the request of my British publisher, I visited a smattering of London bookshops. Shyly, I approached the staff, saying I should sign my new novel. They’ve been chasing a few copies. I always feel absurd signing books.
But it’s also exciting, if you don’t look down: that someone was crazy enough years ago to take me to the Cayman Islands for a reading.
I’ve been an imposter, unsure of what I was doing here, dazzled by a screaming world, distracted, outraged, my thoughts ignited, I hesitated to say them, so I put them on paper, fighting with the sentences, removing the commas just to replace them, judging me a failure, hating what displeased me, despairing at my irrelevance, writing to cure myself, wanting to say something that would make others listen, try, try, above all fail.
The impostors by Tom Rachman is available from Little, Brown and Company, a division of the Hachette Book Group.
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