Situation: Fall for the Book. The panel's topic was literary and genre fiction, something maybe about how those boundaries are all shifting. The brilliant moderator was novelist Louis Bayard and the panel included Alma Katsu -- a debut novelist with a fascinating life -- and critic Mark Athitakis.
The novel itself started out as a bastard genre.
My first novel came out just at the early rise of Chick Lit, during the Great Pinkification of Women's Literature, as it were. I didn't know the term Chick Lit until I read an early review of Girl Talk under the headline "Chick Lit Deserves More Credit." Suddenly I found out I was in a genre -- a disparaged one.
I first thought of writing a novel as selling out -- even writing a literary novel.
Writing poetry is my Kevlar. I can't be called a complete sell-out because, look at this bulletproof jacket of writing for no money whatsoever.
Writing for readership and writing for respect are both burdens, traps. They handcuff you.
My first book was reviewed in The New York Times. I waited book after book for another review there. Finally, when I fully embraced genre, they weighed in again -- calling my really commercial attempt at sci-fi/fantasy world building poetic.
Mark Athitakis, critic, was discussing how we comment on how a genre novel "transcends genre," which is belittling. He went on to say that maybe we should also note when a literary novel transcends literary. I said, I'm going to start saying that, Mark. That certain novels transcend the literary genre. (And here I am doing so.)
Writing a novel is like hauling stones on your back. There's not much difference betwee writing a literary novel or a genre novel. You might switch shoulders but the weight's the same.
It's the blur between art and entertainment. In the creation of good art, entertainment happens. And in the creation of good entertainment, art happens.
Some asks a question directed at the critic. With more and more books being self-published, how do you go out and find those good books and decide which to review. Mark responded that he wants a burden of proof -- proof that more than just one person believed that this work should be a published book. (I'm paraphrasing badly.) He also spoke of a novel now published by University of Chicago Press that was first self-published. I talk about how I'm a champion of the Great Democratization of Art through technology -- music, filmmakers, art, books. I love that we live in a time when where people have options. But I also tried to explain the critic's situation this way: You have to imagine the critic under an avalanche of published books -- hundreds of thousands each year. He's suffering Marxist alienation of labor. He's Lucy, and the conveyor belt of donuts is coming at him nonstop. He's shoving those books down his pants, down his shirt. He's eating them. And they just keep coming. He doesn't reach up from the avalanche or dust the sugar powder from his shirt and go looking for more. Critics are overwhelmed. Review space has shrunk. It's a brutal, brutal industry.
Just when I think I'm completely toughened to criticism, one line will throw me off completely. It's the unpredictability of my reaction to a line or even a word in a review -- sometimes even a word in a positive review -- and it will feel like my entire family has been insulted and the people I come from dismissed ... that's what's hard for me -- my own unpredictability when it comes to criticism.
A kid in the audience raises his hand. He says he likes to free-write. He loves the self-expression and freedom. But after hearing us talk. he says that he wonders if he ever finished a book, would it even be worth it to try to get it published? It just seems like such a hard business. Now, as context, I give a lot of talks. I discuss in very honest terms the difficulties of being an artist in a very tough business -- one that entails a lot of rejection and criticism and failure (in the art itself as well as the industry), and no one has ever acknowledged this. I turn to my fellow panelists and say, "Don't you kind of love him? I mean, finally, someone's listening!" Louis and Alma give brilliant responses. I tell him that my job, at this point in my career, is to protect my relationship with the page. Elbows out, protect the page. That's the place where I'm engaged in a long marriage -- sometimes our horns are locked and it's a battle, but that's the place where I'm free to make my own decisions, that page is the reason why I'm here in the first place and why I continue on. And as hard as the business is, I protect my relationship with the page as aggressively as possible. I feel damn lucky that everyday a part of my job is there -- within that long marriage, me and the page, and the freedom to write it as I see it.
Sometimes I would look up at the small audience during the panel and look at my Dad who drove me to the event. He's in his seventies now and he's been with me through all of it. He's my most-trusted researcher. He tears up when I make money. He knows the relief of a good review and how to spin a bad one. I send him a draft of what I'm working on -- everyday. He was sitting there so damn -- I don't know -- maybe defiantly proud. My God, I can't describe his face -- chin down, his eyebrows raised, his arms crossed. When I was a kid, the nuns at my school taught us how to give speeches and I was eventually sent to contests. My father always took me to these things. I'd be up there reciting -- of all things -- "The Highwayman" -- as a sixth grader -- the woman who warns her lover with a gunshot, one that kills her. I could go on here about why a nun might be drawn to such a poem ... but mainly I remember my father in the audience -- that same expression, that same pride. My father's own father died when my father was five years old. If I could give my father a gift, it would be that one look from his own father. Years from now, that's all I'll remember of this event. Not what I said or what was asked. Just my father's face.
How did the event really go? I don't know. I said things. Others said things. I met some people I admire. I sold less than ten books. I missed three days of being home with my kids -- one of whom threw up in the middle of the night... I was on a train for seven hours and I wrote notes, tried to prioritize my life, tried to give it some order, some meaning ... I think this is what trains are for. My birthday came and went, which is the most one can ask of birthdays really...