Finishing a new book and see it go out into the world should
be a time of great relief and excitement for me as an author. But as
is often the case when I begin the promotion part of authorship, I go
into a deep depression. I am drug down by the sensation that I'm
beating my head against the Great Wall of American popular culture,
which seems absolutely impervious to books about serious subjects.
Yes, I confess, I'm one of those. I am a writer of "serious"
non-fiction. Worse, I labor in the trenches of the "midlist," which is
book-talk for relatively unknown authors who toil for modest advances
and modest sales, who write books that, maybe, ten thousand people on
Planet Earth will read in a good year. I could write a bestseller,
though, yes? Well, probably not. I'll put it this way. The other day
I received an email message from my publicist setting me straight when
I noted that our radio campaign needed to hit bigger markets in order
to build momentum. "As they say in the New York Lottery," she reminded
me, "you gotta be in it to win it!" I thought that was awfully sweet
of her to point out after I'd spent three years of my life working
eighty hours a week on my book, giving a pound of my flesh in the
process. It was no sweat, like a casual stroll down to the 7-Eleven to
buy a lottery ticket.
I write books basically for free. In fact, when you consider
that pound of flesh I lose each time I produce a well researched,
engagingly readable 350 page book, giving my heart and soul to
something I believe deeply in, I am in essence paying for the
privilege of giving the world that book. I wish I could justify this
insanity by confessing that I'm a vanity author, who pays publisher
money to produce and market a book that no real publisher would want.
No, it's worse, really. A real publisher -- a highly respected one, at
that -- thought so highly of my book that it decided to publish my
book and promote it. My new book has been out a couple of months, and
it's not a bestseller. In the brave new world of book publishing, for
me to concede that my book has not become a bestseller feels like a
confession of abject failure. When some of my clueless friends ask me
about my book, they rarely express interest in its substance. But
they're dying to know whether it's a hit. I get the weird impression
that, if it's a hit, only then would they actually consider buying it.
If Oprah likes it, then it must be worthwhile. If it's on the New York
Times Bestseller list, it must be good. The winner takes all.
Reading, and reading what strikes one's idiosyncratic fancy,
is a declining art. Reading books is even more endangered. A recent
AP-Ipsos poll found that almost one of every three Americans hadn't
read a single book in the past year. And, except for history, about
which there seems to be an endless supply of bestsellers, reading
serious non-fiction books about current and pressing issues -- apart
from name-calling books by political hacks and right-wing bitches with
flowing Breck-girl hair -- is on its deathbed.
Ok, I'm sorry about the bitch remark. I take it back. But I
am troubled (actually, I'm rather pissed about it) that the
inflammatory garbage being written these days can pass for a "book."
Such "books" have no detectable ideas or thoughts, and yet these
so-called books seem to be what many readers want. Like political
campaigns, negativity sells books, and the more inflammatory,
thoughtless, and ideological the better. The more that authors of
such "books" disregard facts or logic, indeed flout the very notion of
truth, the more successful such "books" are.
When I get into one of my post-publication, book-promotion
funks, it's easy to fall into the existential black hole that writers,
artists and other creative people get sucked into. In that dark space,
we come to believe we are failures. We think we talentless hacks and
clueless goobers. But the pain of authorship is all the worse when I
know in my heart of hearts that I have written a very good book. I
know that I have done justice to my subject. I have done justice to
the ordinary people whose stories I have told. I have done justice to
the notion that some readers really do care, and are willing to open
their eyes wide to reality rather than be put to sleep by the Huxleyan
drug of American Idol and Paris Hilton.
Oh, by the way. I use big words sometimes and what some might
call obscure literary references. I occasionally write in complex
sentences, too. Maybe that's part of my problem. I refuse to dumb it
down, and I'll persist in the belief, until the day I give up writing
altogether, that readers are smart, that Americans want to read, and
that they have attention spans of more than 30 seconds. But don't tell
that to Amazon. Recently, the online bookseller installed a new
feature on its website, presumably to allow its more anti-intellectual
customers to keep their book purchases to a 6th grade reading level.
Thus, I have learned from Amazon that my new book has 1.7 syllables
per word, and that 61 percent of the books in its system have fewer
Alas reading is a declining art, and it's giving way to the
great postmodern tidal wave in advanced societies. In the postmodern
world, we are all producers now. We are all bloggers who produce
"content," and content is now a commodity. You don't need much talent
to produce a commodity. You don't need to be particularly creative or
to have an original idea. When you produce content, you feed a
machine, which chews upon your commodified words for a few fleeting
moments until it spits them out into the void of digital hyperspace.
Meanwhile, a thousand splendid authors, working in relative
obscurity, have written a thousand splendid books that you will never
hear about. We splendid authors dwell on the dark side of the
publishing world, clinging to our precious bones of good news -- a
possible review coming up in a small magazine, a publicist who
continues to answer our emails, a slight bump in our Amazon rankings.
We wonder what it might be like to live on the light side, where A
Thousand Splendid Suns shines so brightly that few inhabitants of
American culture could possibly be unaware of it. For those of us on
the dark side, however, we endure, hoping for just an ember of that
warmth. That would be enough. That would keep us going.