I have to be honest—I hate blogging.
It’s an intriguing medium, and its best practitioners—Andrew Sullivan, say—keep it pretty lively, to the point that there’s a lot of interaction between writer and audience, which is part of the point of this whole writing thing.
Given the current state of the publishing industry, I feel like I’m expected to be that lively with my own blogging—it feels like a classic Catch-22 situation, where you’re supposed to prove you have an audience before anyone will put the effort into helping your books find an audience. But truth be told, between working a full non-writing workday, working out, working on a relationship, and keeping up with other need-to-do-stuff, I don’t think I have the time. And with the time I DO have, I’d rather be writing books. Rather than shooting from the hip every day, hitting sometimes and missing others, I prefer taking the time to revise and edit and polish, to come up with something solid and coherent and well put-together. (I also kind of like the process of envisioning scenes and dialogue. It’s like working out, in that there’s a certain fear of the effort that can keep you dilly-dallying and doing other things. But once you dig in and the terror wears off, a certain euphoria settles in, not unlike a runner’s high, and that sticks around for a few minutes, at least, once you stop writing.) Even when I do write things that are more immediate and interactive than fiction—Amazon product reviews, facebook status updates, blog posts—I spend a lot of time mentally revising what I say and, if time allows, editing. (Even this blog post has taken at least six days to write. Granted, in that time I’ve also put a lot of effort into my latest manuscript, Messiah, but still, I ain’t exactly doing this in real time.)
Despite my best efforts, I’m still Catholic enough that I engage in an unhealthy amount of self-flagellation. (Figuratively speaking, for now.) I’m particularly good at this when it comes to things I “should have” done, such as channeling my creative energies into something a little less lonely, like, say, being a musician. The level of artist-audience interaction, and its immediacy, is way higher for musicians than novelists; the sheer length of time it takes to consume a book guarantees this. Even those books that are quick reads and thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking/memorable (Camus’ The Stranger or The Fall, say, or Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, or even Bukowski’s Ham on Rye or Factotum) will, in the absence of vacation time, take a few days to rip through. And plenty of books that I’ve really enjoyed, or at least that I like to TELL people I’ve really enjoyed (The Brothers Karamazov, or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) have been multi-month ordeals, with plenty of great moments, but also a substantial amount of time spent gazing longingly at the other books on my shelf, wishing I were reading them instead.
And that’s a hard thing to remember when I’m at the stage I’m at with my novel, where I have a few manuscript copies out there in the hands of (hopefully) eager friends, and a few emailed query letters sitting in the Inboxes of (presumably) overworked agents. I think and I hope Resistance is the type of book I’d like on my shelf—thoughtful and well-researched, but lively and insightful; arty without being pretentious or inaccessible, even (dare I hope) something that will hold up to multiple readings and still be around in a couple hundred years. That’s the vision I have, at least, but obviously beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the creator can’t ever be an objective beholder. So I’m awaiting feedback from the friends and activity from the agents, a state of being that usually lends itself to still more self-flagellation.
I had the good fortune of meeting Gary Shteyngart a few weeks ago, at a book reading for Columbia alumni in Chicago. Prior to this reading, I’d never read any of his books, but he has attained the level of literary success I tell myself I’d like as the end state of all this punishment—a comfortable level, where one wouldn’t get mobbed on the street or shot by deranged loners, but where one could get a book out there every few years and have total strangers willing to pay for it, read it, and respond to it. (Granted, when they asked for a show of hands to see who’d read his latest, 98% of us hadn’t. But we knew who he was, at least!) I asked him a couple questions about publishing during the Q&A session, and we got to chat a little afterwards. In between chitchat and jokes (I got a laugh out of him by comparing Gogol’s Dead Souls, with all its skips and gaps, to a bad Netflix disc), he gave me his take on the literary world.
Hunter S. Thompson famously said that T.V. was a “cruel and shallow money trench…a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.” And Shteyngart’s view of writing seems even bleaker, a nonstop merry-go-round of psychoanalysis and self-recrimination and Herculean effort towards an uncertain end. Success (in my recollection of his estimation) sets you on a book treadmill where you have to keep churning out books regardless of whether or not you actually like them, but lack of success—or a decline in success from one book to the next—is far worse, and sends you into a deep funk. So authors, even at his level, have to put a tremendous amount of energy into marketing themselves. To promote his latest work, Super Sad True Love Story, he had to enlist the help of his M.F.A. students to film a movie for the YouTubes. “We had to make a movie so we could publish the book,” he said. “That should tell you everything you need to know about publishing these days.”
So my fears are confirmed: you need to get an audience before you can get an audience. It seems absurd, but (this is the last time I’ll name-drop, I SWEAR) as Shteyngart told me, we can long for those days of all-expenses-paid book tours and superstar literary authors, but they aren’t coming back, so that’s just the way it is. And like it or not, I HAVE to do it, because I don’t know how to not write. (Others have said they don’t know how to do anything else, but I can’t exactly say that—I do make a decent living at my Clark Kent job, and I’m earning something close to what I’m told is the annual income level that corresponds to the optimum amount of personal happiness.) And, for as much as I hate blogging, I can still put something out there, which means it still seems far superior to querying agents, a prospect about which I’m slowly acquiring an unmitigated and pure hatred, far more substantial than the pretend hatred I have for blogging. (I’ve had two agencies request my full manuscript. One of them seemed excited and went through a round of revisions with me but abruptly stopped returning my phone calls or responding to my emails, and a subsequent agent never got back to me after requesting the full manuscript. And BOTH were friend-of-friend situations; blind query letters have gotten me exactly nowhere, which is why I’m reluctant to continue sending them out.)
In fact, I’m considering self-publishing (again), but perhaps doing a little more pre-publication work this time and possibly even establishing my own imprint for other self-published authors, so we can all project the image of having passed through the tough judgment of the tastemakers and gatekeepers. Of course, if I do that, it’ll be a LOT more of what I hate—blogging and tweeting, counting my followers and my page hits—and that’ll suck up still more of my virtually nonexistent free time.
I believe in my book enough that I’m willing to do these things for its sake—or at least, I want to get it out there and see what the marketplace says about it, because, frankly, as much as they like to pretend otherwise, agents and publishers don’t know what will or won’t sell until it sells or doesn’t sell. Still, the thought of doing still more of what I hate for the sake of what I love left me with a fair amount of fear about all the effort that entails. So I asked a good friend for his advice about being crushed by this self-imposed crisis. And he responded with a question: “What would you expect of yourself if you were humane?”
It’s obviously an absurd question—if I were humane, I wouldn’t put myself through all this trouble. So here I am in Catch-22 land, or embracing the paradox, at least—disconnecting from my life to connect with yours, doing something I hate, in the hopes you’ll like it, at least.