This month’s column was inspired by another author interview I read thanks to the recommendation of Erotica for the Big Brain’s Terrance Aldon Shaw. TAS pointed me to “Back to School? How to get your novel published,” an interview with Jonathan Kemp (author of London Triptych, a novel about the lives of three gay hustlers in three different time periods) from Gasholder: The cultural guide to King’s Cross and beyond. The interview touched on some issues I’ve been thinking about as I continue writing and researching my historical erotic novel, in particular the meaning of "success" as a writer.
First, let’s get the title of the article out of the way. The interview with Kemp doesn’t really reveal new secrets on how to get your novel published, but rather advocates the values I think most of us here at ERWA follow in our writing: write a lot, be patient, stay true to your project, and do it for love not money. (For the record, if you are writing for the money and love doing that, that’s cool with me!) So clearly the interviewer or an editor decided to make the article more clickable with a classic “what’s in it for me?” hook for the wannabe writer-reader.
However, rather than get-rich-quick tips to finding a superagent, readers will find observations from Kemp’s experience teaching creative writing such as this:
Q: Do students think they’ll wind up famous?
A: There’s a lot of starry eyed-ness around creative writing; and yet what always drove me to it was the opposite. Jean Genet said, “the only two things a poet needs are anonymity and poverty”: there’s that sense in which the true spirit of literature is being compromised by capitalism, and the need to be rich and famous is driving the desire to write a book, rather than the need to express the human soul or psyche.
I myself am also nostalgic for the days that probably-never-were when literary writers did it for love alone and disdained profit or acclaim. From what I’ve read, even Genet dined out on his outcast celebrity on occasion. However, as writers we know that the hard work of storytelling does require some ego and expectation of reward to overcome all the obstacles inherent in the creative process. Writing for the market does not necessarily mean you’ve compromised your values, although it can. I’ve written dozens of stories for themed anthologies, which I’ve definitely shaped for a certain market, but tell myself I always put something true in my stories, something I want to say beyond the glory of a byline. Still I won’t deny that at an earlier phase of my writing life, the validation of publication was an important goal.
Perhaps it’s the lot of the fairly oft-published writer, but I don’t have stars in my eyes about authorship anymore. Publication, even by a “prestigious” press, isn’t enough. Writers have to earn my admiration. Frankly, these days I tend to avoid fiction, especially the ubiquitous bestsellers with “girl” in the title that invariably deal with murder, addiction, sexual abuse and other titillating violence that seems to be the surefire path to fame and riches. Good writing always makes me want to sit right down and start writing myself, but the predictability and sensationalism of these novels just makes me feel stupid, if I can even make it through the book (I often end up skimming). “Beautiful” writing doesn’t do it either. I need to feel my reading experience enriched my life and didn’t just show off how clever the author was. All too often, the mainstream fiction of today does not satisfy me.
Fortunately, I’ve found a steady source of nourishment in a different genre of writing: specialized nonfiction. I suspect that few of these authors have made millions. Still I regularly finish these books with a deep sense of gratitude for the love, care, and amazing amount of time and research these authors have put into their work.
I’m immensely grateful to Brian J. Cudahy for his books on public transportation in the New York Area (Under the Sidewalks of New York: The Story of the Greatest Subway System in the World and How We Got to Coney Island: The Development of Mass Transportation in Brooklyn and Kings County). His painstaking research and obvious love of subways and trains has recreated an important part of city life of one hundred years ago for me. Kathy Peiss’ Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture traces the history of cosmetics, once considered the lying trick of prostitutes but now seen as a way to express your “true self.” And Aine Collier’s The Humble Little Condom penetrates the silence around birth control, which is not only useful to get a sense of how a couple might control fertility in 1900, but puts the current controversy about this issue in perspective. These books have made me think about the world in new ways. I wish more fiction did the same. (In all fairness, some does, but not nearly enough).
Excellent and engaging writers that they are, these nonfiction authors are clearly privileging history and information over the effort of showing their brilliance as superior creative geniuses. I find this dedication to teaching us more about the human experience far more inspiring than the self-conscious pursuit of canonization as a literary genius. These authors rarely, if ever, make the cover of Time magazine a la "Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist." But for me, they have enriched and entertained and brought the past to life, magicians all. I’d like to thank them and the dozens of authors I’ve already consulted about life a hundred years ago for their labors of love. I appreciate what you’ve done more than words can say.
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor