Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Monday, February 04, 2013

The nun and the public self

He must practice; he must work hard; he must sacrifice mere pleasure to the demands of art; he must be, in a sense, both single-minded and monastic. Unless he is a polymath of the most formidable proportions, he cannot afford or support a second career as a public figure.
Sissman adds:
In a word, the serious writer must take serious vows if he is to concentrate on his chief aim. A vow of silence, except through his work. A vow of consistency, sticking with writing to the exclusion of other fields. A vow of ego-chastity, abstaining from adulation. A vow of solitude, or at least long periods of privacy. A vow of self-regard, placing the self as writer before the self as personality.  --Patrick Kurp, 'A Vow of Ego Chastity,' seen via D. G. Myers on twitter
Patrick Kurp quotes poet L. E. Sissman on his blog, and of course I measure myself by those severe words. In many ways I measure up. I work hard and in solitude; I regard my work as an intense pleasure, so that call to vocation is easy. Because I write and am the mother of three children, I am utterly without hobbies of my own (I should like them but have no time to devote), though I vicariously enjoy my husband's. I'm not sure I can be called absolutely single-minded, as I have those three children and husband (Is that a second career or just a life?), but I doubt that Sissman took his monasticism that far--he was married twice and his literary executor describes him as being fond of motor cars and photography. I do get grand praise now and then, but I can't say that it has shaped me, as I was brought up as a proper old-fashioned Southerner, obsessed with tact and not thinking too well of myself (after all, back then we Southern babies of the caucasian variety arrived with a certificate of national sin, thanks to the painful workings of history. Now nobody knows history, so the practice has been mostly discontinued.)

Kurp talks about being left with a bad taste in his mouth after hearing an author interview; clearly the radio interview violates Sissman's protocols. I've felt similarly about many interviews, usually because the interviewer and author talked about things that I felt were as intimate and secret as life events can be--things like the writer's mental illness or the death of a child or early sexual abuse. In part my distaste comes from the simple but enormous fact that I am a Southerner brought up by a Southerner who was the ninth baby of a mother born in the nineteenth-century. Essentially my mother received the training of the prior generation, and it was a genteel education that also tinted my childhood to some degree.

But there's a more important reason that such personal issues should be secret. Secret things have a power. They are seeds. They grow and produce fruit. They are essential wounds that never quite heal. Unless, of course, you talk them away... Power can be dispersed and lost like water running away from its source.

As a Southerner who has lived in Cooperstown, New York for some fourteen years, my first thought when I see an essay ending with something like "The rest is X" is Twain's hilarious evisceration of Cooper, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." Twain's essay ends this way:
A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.
For Twain, the "rest" was art, and the line is simultaneously tribute and condemnation. Kurp's post ends this way: "The rest is marketing." His X, marketing, stands opposed to all that a writer should be.

What are we to do about this little problem of marketing in the 21st century? Does any writer who does not receive a major push from one of the Big 6 or some lucky "black swan" accident (like an Oprah pick, a Big Read, etc.) have the freedom to say "no" in the current day when t.v. or radio or interviewers for print or internet call? I have tried the Big 6--I published four novels with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and have had paperbacks from Penguin and Harcourt and others in that rich group of publishers. But I have not received a push, not in all my 11 books. When John Wilson, the editor of Books and Culture, read one of my books many years ago, he asked this: "Why are you the invisible novelist?" I hope that I have improved in visibility since, but that question is evidence of the hard fact that it is difficult to collect a readership without assistance in this enormous, busy country.

In some ways I am an unusual case, as I have published novels, short stories, poems, an epic, and a couple of children's books. In just the past year various houses published a novel, a collection of poems, and a blank verse epic of mine. That variety means not doing what the publisher wants; that's not consistent, according to the worshipped doctrine of genres. Yet even if I had only written novels--and if those were related in some way, as mine are definitely not--I doubt that I could have achieved a very large readership without luck or a push.

Now the world is changing; I have ebook rights to five of my out-of-print novels and two forthcoming ones and intend to use them. Still, I don't have the luxury of being monastic about marketing. That choice would be terribly unfair to my publishers--particularly to a small press like Phoenicia Publishing, where each book means a financial risk for the house, and each review or interview is important. If I look at the just-out Thaliad, I see a book that was desired by the publisher but that was costly in many ways. The design work, incorporating the art Clive Hicks-Jenkins made for the book, was much more demanding and time-consuming than the average book, and it made the book more expensive to produce for the publisher (although not to buy for the consumer.) The whole idea of publishing an epic adventure in verse was a risk--is a risk--no matter how beautiful the finished product. I've always thought it silly for writers in this country to claim "risk" for their writing, but publishers really do gamble and take risks. To say "no" to marketing is, no matter how much I would like to live in a fairy tale world where no such work is needed, impossible.

 * * *

Notable responses to the post--

D. G. Myers on A Commonplace Blog
D. G. Myers is perenially interesting.

Myers has a grand, complex response to this post here. I agree with him, although I pointed out afterward that after I left my second agent (Liz Darhansoff), I simply did not bother getting another and have relied on presses that asked for a manuscript. There are all sorts of things such action and inaction might indicate... Should you ask me why in an interview, I might be willing to suggest the range of possible feelings that would make me act or not act in such ways. But I would not be willing to explain which of those actually were mine.

James A. Owen on facebook
I'm abashed by this one, but nevertheless was glad to see it go out to James's many fans. Repeating it here is definitely in the realm of marketing. It strikes me that the reason I'm a little reluctant is that it includes a phrase about me, and is not simply focused on the book. I could take out the line, but then I would fail to admit that I e-know James, who once published a story of mine in his lovely magazine, Argosy. Such things are what one dithers over--what I dither over--when I do anything that approaches marketing.

Marly is someone I count as a friend, and one of the smartest writers I know. THALIAD is freaking amazing. The last time I had such an emotional response to a book, it - KAVALIER and CLAY - won a Pulitzer. Read Marly's essay, especially if you do creative work for a living. Then go buy a copy of THALIAD.

22 comments:

  1. I agree with that marketing is an unavoidable necessity in the present climate. I also agree that it's an unfortunate necessity, in my case because I'm not good at it and, despite the numerous sources of instruction on the subject, am unsure of how to become good at it. It inspires the same sort of anxiety I feel when I'm asked to address a crowd.

    The analogy between the writing life and the monastic one appeals to me very much. There are, as you say, other obligations: in my case a day job, and single parenthood. These leave little room for anything else, and so it's easy and welcome to devote what time remains to a solitary pursuit.

    This reminds me of the poem "How to be a Poet" by Wendell Berry. Particularly this stanza:
    Breathe with unconditional breath
    the unconditioned air.
    Shun electric wire.
    Communicate slowly. Live
    a three-dimensioned life;
    stay away from screens.
    Stay away from anything
    that obscures the place it is in.
    There are no unsacred places;
    there are only sacred places
    and desecrated places.

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  2. Marly, thank you for writing out your thoughts on this, and especially for what you said about Thaliad and Phoenicia - things I know but can't, and won't, say myself. I hope that eventually you will receive the readership you deserve. Still, if we look at many artists and authors throughout history, many did not get that in their lifetimes. What they did do, however, was the work, with single-minded devotion and dedication, as your opening quote describes. Modern life is different of course - most of us don't have patrons, and have to compete for attention in a very fragmented and distracting world. Marketing today does require the author's cooperation and help, but it's important for you to keep writing too, without worrying about what will or won't sell.

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  3. I read Kurp's post and was busily writing a "grrr, argh, thanks for wishing zero readership on all of us, Patrick" comment when I took a breath and stepped away to find this post of yours.

    My debut novel and a following book are coming out on a tiny indie publisher, really very lovely people who involve every author they sign in every step of editorial/production. I want my books to do well for them, not only because I want readers of my own but also because publishing and selling books is how the folks at Rhemalda feed their two sons. They've put up their own money to publish my novels, and I will do what I can to help those novels sell.

    Sissman is right in that a writer must work in solitude and place the work before his own ego, but Kurp is wrong to mistake being interviewed on NPR as a violation of that solitude. He seems to be conflating ego with marketing, and pushing the idea that book sales detracts from the worth of the book. It's a romantic and false notion of the writer that does nothing but harm. What's broken is not the writer's pact with herself as artist; what's broken is the supply chain to get new books to readers. Kurp could fix that if he wants to be useful to the cause of literature.

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  4. Nathan,

    I just imagine we are congenial on these things...

    And I find it hard to tell what is a good investment of time and what isn't. I think social media is because I've met interesting artists of all sorts and readers; as I live in a remote place, that tends to be positive. (For example, I bought your book after e-meeting you! But I've also had lots of writing-related requests on facebook and twitter. I'm on other sites as well, but those definitely have helped me.) Oh, put a chapter of your upcoming book on Scribd. That's easy and my feeling is that it's useful.

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  5. P. S. Like the Berry poem--the 3-dimensional life!

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  6. Beth,

    Those are good things to say! I feel that as soon as I'm in my proper place, all thoughts of such things melt away. And for that I am very grateful.

    I'm also grateful that you asked for the book, and that you wanted to do such an outrageous thing as publish an epic!

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  7. Agreed. FB, despite its many and well-catalogued evils, has kept me in communication with many writers and artists, and has facilitated meetings just such as ours. That's why I know I'll stay, despite my occasional agitation.

    I don't know anything about Scribd. I'll look into it. Thanks for the suggestion!

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  8. Oh, dear, I've just lost comments from Scott Bailey and one other person--my first day of comment moderation is a bit iffy.

    I'll try and see if they're lurking somewhere.

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  9. Marly,

    Kurp’s last line is an allusion to the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Shabbat 31a). You probably know the story. A derisive skeptic approached Hillel and asked him to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot. "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor," he replied; "that is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary.”

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  10. Scott,

    Ah, that's a good closure! I've seen his posts before and think that not the main purpose of his blog, which is interesting... But more glances at contemporary work are always good.

    Certainly for most writers, marketing is simply a thing that must be done willy-nilly in the current day, rather than something bound up with ego. I do know a very few people who leap into marketing with great exuberance and seem to do well, but they have a certain amusing shamelessness that most of us could never mimic without looking absurd!

    IAlso, think a great many of us who attempt to help with marketing are unsure where our time is best invested, and the truth is that words on our behalf by others are always best. Yet most writers are too busy to take on a gatekeeper role as well, and depend on marketing efforts and the kindness of strangers.

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  11. David,

    Thank you! Yes, I have heard that--and like it very much.

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  12. Nathan,

    I'm not sure how good Scribd is, but I have had 1400+ reads on the new novel there. I just added the two 2012 poetry books, and they are getting some reads as well. I just have no idea, though! Mine is scribd.com/marly_youmans.

    Oh, another thing I've done is make Pinterest boards that illustrate the book in some way--doesn't take long, and you can just now and then add something.
    Both of those were suggested to me by Joyce Dixon, I believe.

    I also love meeting people after knowing them online--in 2010 I met my longtime penpal Clive Hicks-Jenkins, UK novelist Clare Dudman, and Pennsylvania poet Dave Bonta, all in the space of ten days in Wales. I had corresponded with all of them. I now have seen Elizabeth Adams (Phoenicia) several times; she asked for "Thaliad" after accepting a piece of it for "qarrtsiluni." Etc. It's wonderful to meet people and "know" them immediately.

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  13. Are you a "Nathan" in everyday life? Or are you a "Nate" or "Nat" or some such? (One thing about living with Yankees: they're always snipping people's names off short!"

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  14. I go by Nathan typically, but plenty of people call me Nate and I don't even notice. Either works. (I'm a Yankee by birth, a Midwesterner by heritage, and a Southerner by circumstance -- so I am nothing if not adaptable!)

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  15. I have a Nathaniel/Nate at home, named after a great-grandfather with 22 legitimate children + at least two more...

    "Nathan" it shall be. Well, I'm glad you're lodged in Asheville--no doubt we shall meet some day.

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  16. There’s long since Kurp merely vituperates; which is a thing of the fake prophets. He sounds embittered and nasty, envenomed and puffed—up, always giving lessons, dismissive and patronizing; I am quite unconvinced of the quality of his literary choices—to an European, they seem parochial and all—Americana. There’s something very unpleasant, resentful and rancorous about Kurp’s remarks, an unmistakable nastiness, the righteousness and sternness of a legislator—he merely gives edicts, etc.. Hence the moralism, and the risible indignation of his stern vituperations. He is dismissive and inquisitorial, eager to spot the heresy, and to reprove.
    I do not think Kurp was alluding to Hillel, but to an overused cliché of rhetorical punch—‘the rest is silence’, etc.. It’s an usage of a very dubious taste, but it shows the nature of Kurp’s self—image—the prosecutor, the one who dismisses with a jarred grimace. His touch is heavy with bitter resent; his knowledge, parochial and very uneven.
    Unlike Hillel, Sissman can’t sum. He merely indulges in a low—brow sermonizing, to comfort the feeble—minded. He sets, indeed, the precedent for Kurp’s posturing. That the ‘serious writer’ dislikes marketing is a petitio principii.
    And the ‘mere commentary’ is still within the Torah, I believe; useful and interesting.

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  17. More annoying is that Kurp obviously misunderstood Sissman, who only wrote against the writers who made ‘a second career as a public figure’, like the two novelists; they marketed not only their novels, some of which are remarkable, and others, good or very good—instead, they marketed themselves, as entertainers, as shock characters, etc.. Is this also the case with the writer whose probably bland interview disgusted Kurp? Sissman meant the novelists who become public entertainers, media stars, etc.. He said nothing about giving radio interviews.
    The two novelists mentioned with disdain were public figures unlike most other authors; they both had a taste for histrionics, and indulged in it freely. Whether they merited the astringent sermonizing of Sissman, it’s another matter; yet they certainly didn’t deserve Kurp’s.
    If two novelists weren’t the greatest, it doesn’t follow they weren’t very good. There are degrees, but Kurp is too busy holding the tables of the Law!

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  18. I am being bumped off the net by a pack of children, so shall read the last two later today...

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  19. Thanks for the comments--I'm not sure what I think of some of them but will take a look at the original post and source again. I tried to take a look at your blog, but "Google Translate" is fairly poor.

    Good cheer.

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  20. Thanks for the comments--I'm not sure what I think of some of them but will take a look at the original post and source again. I tried to take a look at your blog, but "Google Translate" is fairly poor.

    Good cheer.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.