A Moment of Jen
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Sunday, September 14, 2003
posted by Jen at 9/14/2003 11:56:00 PM

Is this just me being grouchy, or is it okay to be a little peeved by people who email me with letters beginning "I haven't read your books," and then go on to ask for advice/help/my agent's phone number?

I swear, it's the third time it's happened in the last few days, and it's starting to tick me off. I mean, if I was going to ask a writer for advice, or help, or a blurb, or how to find an agent, or how to write a novel, I'd made damn sure to have read her books beforehand (or at least read as many reviews as would enable me to lie convincingly)

Also, reading ahead of time would tend to prevent inappropriate requests, like the one from the woman who wrote asking for help in spreading the Love of God and Jesus through her books.

Actually, she wouldn't even have had to read my books. She just would've had to take a look at my last name and realize that if I'm not the last person to ask for advice about evangelical Christian fiction, I'm at least in the bottom third of the list.

Part of me thinks that I should be flattered that people think highly enough of me to write in the first place, whether they've read my books or not.

The other part of me just feels put-upon and grumpy.

And speaking of grumpy, that Stephen King is not a happy camper.

In his latest Entertainment Weekly column, King rallies the troops behind "the best book you won't be reading this year," the story of a "smokes-too-much, drinks-too-much, eats-too-much heart attack waiting to happen" who rides his boyhood bike across the country to pick up his sister's body from the county morgue in Los Angeles.

Why can't you read it? Because its author, Ron McLarty, can't get a publisher.

Why is that?

"Publishing houses, once proudly independent, are today little more than corporate wampum beads, their cultural clout all but gone," King writes.

The strong survive, he says, but the worthy don't always, as the publishers churn out "dopey best-sellers (think James Patterson) (or) dull ''serious fiction'' (think William Gaddis, Paul Auster, and their overpraised ilk)... Dull or dopey: These days that's pretty much your choice at the bookstore."

Affirmed in part, as the judges say. I agree that there are plenty of bestsellers that are plodding, predictable, regurgitated crapola. And overpraised critic's darlings? Don't get me started. Walk into your neighborhood bookshop, be it fiercely independent or one of the big chains, and you will find dull and dopey aplenty.

But I just don't buy the notion that the publishing world is set up to filter out the weird, the improbable, or anything that would prove too challenging to the average consumer of John Grisham and Danielle steel (or Stephen King for that matter).

In the past months alone, I've read a book about a guy trying to teach his dog to talk so he can learn the truth about his wife's death. I've read a book with an autistic narrator that opens with a poodle impaled on a gardening tool. a

I devoured the tale of a fiftysomething spinster recounting her fortysomething married friend's torrid affair with a fifteen-year-old, and a Greek-American hermaphrodite's coming-of-age, and I'm about to start a book about multiple births and a giant wheel of cheese.

A few of these books were book club picks for national morning news shows, and went on to make the bestseller lists. One of them one the Pulitzer.

Which suggests that if a book doesn't find a publisher, its author should spend less time sulking about the sanitized, corporate-run marketplace and editors who spend their days bean-counting for the Man while waging a war against weirdness, and more time considering the painful but relevant question: is my book any good?

King's right when he says that there's a lot of crap in the bookstores, badly-plotted, poorly-edited stuff where you could skip every other page and still see the ending coming from a mile away.

And there are legendary good books that fall through the cracks -- A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, which King cites, is the classic example.

But books like that are exceptions that prove the rule: if you're persistent and diligent and reasonably thick-skinned, if you find an agent who believes in you and what you've written, and if what you've written has merit in the marketplace, you, too, can become a published author.

"The marketplace!" the purists moan. "What place does filthy commerce have in the transcendent realm of creation?"

Here's a dirty little secret -- bookselling is a business. Publishers want to make money. Thus, the books they publish are the ones they think readers will actually shell out five or fourteen or twenty-five bucks for. And if a book crosses their desk that they can't imagine will find an audience, they will decline to publish it.

I know. It's shocking But when you think about it "making a profit" translates into "publishing books that people want to pay to read." Which is far from the worst goal in the world.

What I believe, and what I've said before, and will continue to say to would-be novelists who email me their hard-luck stories of rejection and ill-treatment: good books find a home in the world.

And if they don't find a place at one of the corporate-run, profit-seeking houses, there are ways to do end-runs around Big Publishing -- namely, self-publish, find an audience, build the buzz, and eventually sell the rights to one of the places that rejected you the first time around.

Self-publishing was once regarded as the last bastion of dreck -- and in many cases, still is -- but there are an increasing number of books that have started life as self-published works, found their way into reader's hands, gotten praise and gotten buzz, and eventually gotten scooped up by mainstream publishers....and gone from there on to glory.

There wasn't anything stopping McLarty from going the same route followed by the likes of E. Lynn Harris, my former colleague Karen Quinones-Miller, and Laurie Notaro, whose Idiot Girls Social Club was originally self-published and spent months on the Times best-seller list.

Where there's a will -- and the Internet, and bn.com and amazon.com -- there's a way to get any book, good, bad or middling, into the world.

Meanwhile, in what may or may not be a related question -- where is King's wife's Tabitha's latest?

I'm a big fan of both of the Kings -- ONE ON ONE and PEARL are two of my all-time favorites -- and it seems like I've been waiting forever -- or at least since SURVIVOR in 1996 -- for a new Tabitha King book.

I know in his book ON WRITING, when Stephen King listed the books he'd loved and been inspired by, there was a new Tabitha King title, with the parenthetical notation "manuscript."

So what happened? Where's the book?

If anyone has any information, I'd like to hear it.

Finally, in a weird parenthetical note, I just went to Amazon to double-check the publication date of SURVIVOR, and the opening screen said "AMAZON HAS RECOMMENDATIONS FOR YOU!" And at the top of the list was IN HER SHOES.

Should I email them and tell them I already know how it ends?
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