Even when the snow is “falling faintly…faintly falling,” prospects for publishing literary work are appalling.
It’s 1:17 a.m. as the writer completes an initial draft and 1:17 again somewhere in the world in the weeks, months, or years after those words were first composed. Quality work does not equate to success. Wait time, unreasonably long, is familiar to writers in every genre but particularly to poets and literary fiction writers who seek to share their work with the public and not just indulgent friends and family.
That poem about communication taking place below language, that novel Socrates is Dead will likely have to wait for a very long time before seeing a substantial number of readers, and that is if those hard-earned words shaped into works ever find readers at all. The fact is that writers’ considerable skills—that are needed in almost every human endeavor—are seldom valued according to their merits.
How did it start? The writer climbs out of his clothes like dead skin, sloughed off every vestige of his waking life, walked down to the dock where he stood facing a dark deeper than night alone; wind moving tiny hairs on his naked body, each distinct, independently felt, every motion sensed, every noise swallowed by his opening mouth before he dove into the cold. Fool that he was.
When it began. Pursuit: four and one-half billion years ago, alien to all that Earth would become, there were pseudo machine sounds made by rock breaking, volcanic greenstone, nothing—even rock—to survive this apocalyptic conception, air a conflagration. Hell not as conceived by men so long later but as inception until zircon from basalt dismantled, kidnapping mineral hitchhikers before their preservation in sediment—stories in these grains embedded in rock—only much later to be read; platinum arriving violently on tail-end of meteors, these last voyagers from distant sources, divisions in stone and ice followed by fire, explosion, sounds concussive, with implication of animate cacophony, seemingly metal teeth clicking and gasping in agitation, blurring. Inarticulate voices of even the inanimate now distinguishable. Intense heat then cold inimical to life, and yet, existence of character creeps in at this unknowable pace.
Sound shadows because scale was too enormous to be as finite as an organism with such shape and precision, moving across domains, eventually borders layered and overlapping, not boundaries after all but, nevertheless, something of demarcation between realms.
From there, not genesis because it was not causal nor entrance, from above and beneath and between, an arduous journey of separating distinct sounds, moving from one land mass and ocean to another, then smaller still, until cities could be heard bellowing in bedlam. He stops here.
Lesson number one that every writer learns early in his or her career: economic gain is what drives business, including the business of publishing. The business of publishing is looking for well-known individuals who already have a following even before they have written a word of text, followed the thought that became a poem. The prospects of getting work released to a wide audience, even in an age with a myriad of small presses, are still bleak.
Writers network, query, attend conference after conference, hoping to make a connection that could possibly result in the offer to publish, but for the majority of talented writers, those strategies don’t really pay off in contracts, rather, they result in large numbers of friends and acquaintances seeking the same kind of home.
For all those waving their hands, yes, there is self-publishing, including the hybrid presses that couch self-publishing in kinder terms than vanity. But most of those familiar with self-publishing endeavors know that few readers see or pay for their work even when that chapbook or novel is loaded on the Internet. All too often, their words get lost. In fact, losing poems and novels in the Internet ether describes what it feels like—giving up well-crafted language, gut-wrenching stories, and poems created in emotional deprivation to watch them all dissipate in intensely crowded, yet nebulous air.
With self-publishing, there are costs, in addition to those emotional ones, hidden in the contract’s small print: writer pledges to purchase 50-500 copies, and the first 500-2,000 copies earn no royalties. While there are writers who have found success within the self-publishing industry, most writers who test these waters, unfortunately, are taken advantage of and feel betrayed at the end of the encounter, left in a leaking boat far from shore.
Writers who do not give up after those countless rejections, do not quit after the typical “no response” response, have to be some of the most persistent, dedicated, and tenacious people because there is little to sustain the effort except an almost irrational faith in oneself. Self-doubt is probably the most undesired but frequent visitor who refuses to leave a writer’s head even after overstaying a nonexistent welcome, continuing to sleep in the guest room, even moving into the writer’s bed, unapologetic and unhelpful.
Try looking up quotations by well-known figures on the subject of perseverance. Most of the best lines are from writers, first, because they are the ones able to articulate this frustration well and secondly, because nearly every writer experiences the need to persevere well beyond boundaries of the expected. Writers who continue to write believe—despite encounters with occasional cyclops or dangerous and tempting sirens—we are Odysseus trying to get home or we’re the patient and clever Penelope whose perseverance equaled or surpassed that of her absent, wandering husband’s.
Poets and literary novelists feel this ache perhaps most acutely because even when their work is published through a small press that does not charge a fee to submit or publish, there is scant, if any, economic gain. Poets and literary fiction writers are somehow supposed to keep writing for love and love alone. It is not exactly an unrequited love because the language does comfort us, sometimes surround us with a glorious sense of purpose, but love does not keep a roof over our heads or even allow us to state, without equivocation, when asked what we do for a living, “I write.” We frequently end up hesitating, stuttering, or apologizing without intending to do so. “Well, I teach/sell advertising/work in advertising /work construction/wait tables/work in the fast food industry/work in health care, but I’m really a writer,” as eyes roll.
A least favorite piece of advice for poets and literary writers is to “get an agent,” as if that instruction did not come with its own set of parameters requiring further perseverance. For poets, agents are non-existent. Agents seldom represent poets because they know full well there is no money to be made. Literary novelists seeking an agent feel similar frustrations to those experienced by poets seeking a publisher: feeling your way in the dark in indifferent territory. Even in the infrequent instances when an agent takes the time to respond, your work is unlikely to be a “fit” for their agency; fit is one of those euphemisms for, “not anything that is immediately identifiable as making money.” To be fair, agents have to make a living, too, but writers who have agents seem to come with them already attached.
Good and even great, writers have to wonder if James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” from which this essay’s opening line draws its quotation, would find a publisher today. Even in 1914, with a publisher’s initial interest in his stories, Joyce struggled to find a home for The Dubliners, in which “The Dead” appears. Supposedly, it took nearly nine contentious, lean years for Joyce and his family before The Dubliners finally came out and only after Joyce agreed to a contract that looked remarkably like the murky, hybrid publishing contracts of today. That anecdote is not entirely encouraging, but it is meant to demonstrate that even immense talent does not always get recognized, at least right away.
Yet, literary writers persist. The 2016 AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Convention had an attendance of around 15,000 writers and writer/educators. Difficulty publishing seems not to have kept down the numbers of writers springing up in this country. There is a lot of work—brilliant, decent, and just plain awful—published out there. Some of it gets read. Writers turn out to be pretty good readers, too.
Then again, poets and novelists do not really need advice about continuing to write and attempting to publish in the face of long odds. We are going to write anyway. Persistence is built into our DNA, and a remarkably healthy ego feeding our originative powers is second to none. We do it for love, for the (near) impossible quest like Cervantes “Knight of the Woeful/Sorrowful Countenance.” We do it for recovery, for all of those old truths, for, as William Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” We do it to settle the restless urge or tic that sometimes causes us to wake in the middle of the night with that one line we know must be written down.
We cannot literally eat our words, yet they are, nevertheless, our sustenance. We persevere.