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Braving the Landscape

Even when snow is “falling faintly…faintly falling,” prospects for publishing literary work are appallingly dismal.

How did your story start? “A writer climbs out of his clothes like dead skin, sloughing off every vestige of waking life, walks down to the dock, stands facing a darkness deeper than night alone, wind moving tiny hairs on his naked body, each distinct, independently felt, every motion sensed, every noise swallowed in an open mouth before he dives into black waters. Fool that he is.”

1:17 a.m. as a 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months, or years after those words were first composed and continue motionless, along with the rest that make up an unpublished novel sitting inside a drawer or buried in a computer file no one will retrieve. Quality, passionate work does not equate to success. Wait time, unreasonably long, is familiar to authors in every genre but particularly to poets and novelists who seek to share their efforts with an audience of readers and not just a few indulgent family members.

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 a novel or poem ever find readers at all. Authors’ considerable skills are seldom valued according to their merits. Scribes who have been at cluttered desks for a while know that an insider connection is what is needed, yet seemingly impossible to find.

“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 later but, as inception, until zircon from basalt dismantled, kidnapping 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 are now distinguishable. Intense heat then cold inimical to life, and yet, existence of character creeps in at this chaotic pace.

“Sound shadows the only choice because scale was too enormous to be as finite as an organism of 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 creation was not causal, 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 or she stops here.

Lesson number one that every writer learns early in his or her career: economic gain is what drives business in a capitalistic society, including the business of publishing. Publishers are looking for already well-known individuals who have a following even before they have written a word of text or followed thoughts and emotions into a poem. Prospects of getting literature released to a wide audience, even in an age including a myriad of small presses, are still bleak.

Writers network, exhaustively query, attend conference after conference, hoping to make a connection that could possibly result in offers to publish, but for the majority of talented wordsmiths, those strategies don’t really pay off in contracts, rather, they result in large numbers of friendly acquaintances seeking the same kind of terminus.

For all those waving their hands, yes, there is self-publishing, including hybrid presses that couch such ventures in kinder terms than vanity. But most of those familiar with self-publishing endeavors know that few readers see or pay for their literary product 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 Internet ether describes what the experience of giving up well-crafted language, gut-wrenching stories, and poems created in emotional deprivation and sweat stained tee-shirts to watch words all dissipate in intensely crowded yet nebulous air.

Accompanying self-publishing, there are costs, in addition to those emotional ones, hidden in contracts’ small print: contributor pledges to purchase 50-500 copies, and the first 500-2,000 copies earn no royalties. Marketing is expected to be authors’ forte as much as crafting creative language. While there are writers who have found success within self-publishing, most who test these waters, unfortunately, are taken advantage of and feel betrayed at the end of these encounters, abandoned in a leaking boat far from shore.

“I ordered five copies of Part II just to give my book some action, and it took eight months before one really cheap-looking paperback—filled with typographical errors and words spilling off pages—finally arrived. Some pages were miss-numbered, and one blank page stuck in the middle was never printed at all.”

Writers who do not give up after those seemingly countless rejections, do not quit after typical “no response” responses, have to be some of the most persistent, dedicated, and tenacious people because there is little to sustain exhaustive efforts 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 guest rooms, then moving into the poet’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 frustrations of not finding audience, and secondly, because nearly every wordsmith experiences a compulsion to keep going beyond boundaries that logic dictates. We continue to believe—despite encounters with occasional cyclops or dangerous and tempting sirens—we are Odysseus trying to get home, or we’re 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 novelists are somehow supposed to keep writing for love alone. The act is not exactly unrequited love because 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/work in advertising /construction/fast food industry/in health care, but I’m really a writer,” as eyes roll.

A least favorite piece of advice is for poets and fictionists to “get an agent,” as if that instruction did not come with its own set of parameters requiring further, maddening perseverance. For poets, agents are non-existent. Agents seldom represent poets because they know full well there is no money to be made. Novelists seeking an agent feel similar frustrations to those experienced by poets seeking a publisher: feeling your way in indifferent darkness. Even in the infrequent instances when an agent takes time to respond, the product of your months or years of labor 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.” A compassionate agent may give writers a piece of advice, such as, “don’t frame this as a literary novel; call it upmarket fiction because this term gives your novel a broader appeal.” To be fair, agents have to make a living, too, but authors who have agents seem to arrive already attached to such brokers before a word has been conceived.

We have to wonder if James Joyce’s most perfect short story “The Dead,” from which this essay draws its opening 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, finding a publisher 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 murky, hybrid publishing contracts of today. That anecdote is not entirely encouraging, but this bit of literary history is meant to demonstrate that even great talent does not always get recognized and rewarded.

Although good and great literary authors persist in anonymity, there is always hope. The 2016 AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Convention had an attendance of around 15,000 writers. Difficulty publishing seems not to have kept down numbers of storytellers springing up in this country. There is a lot of work—brilliant, decent, and some that is just plain awful—published out there in various vehicles. Fortunately, some of it gets read.

“I should have been intimidated, overwhelmed with words but did not have that kind of intelligence or fear. Unlike Wahl, I didn’t know better, didn’t realize that there was no way to continue. While the rational mind suggests drowning lay ahead for me, as well as for Wahl’s incarnation of a contemporary Ismael, I picked up a piece of paper ready for my own tortured contortions. Maybe it would be different this time. Maybe I wouldn’t write something worthy, but I was going to try. And then? Then I began to write.”

Poets and novelists do not really need advice about continuing to write and attempting to publish in the face of terribly long odds. We are going to write anyway. Persistence is built into our DNA, a remarkably healthy ego feeding our originative powers is second to none. We write for love, for the (near) impossible quest like Cervantes “Knight of the Woeful/Sorrowful Countenance.” We put pen to paper or our fingers to a keyboard 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 create to settle restless urges or tics that sometimes causes us to wake in the middle of the night with that one line we know must be scribbled on a piece of paper. Faulkner’s word “endure” is a perfect compass.

Navigating our way through the maze of this world, across difficult terrain, we pause, scoop up a cup of water with words. We cannot literally eat words, yet they are, nevertheless, our sustenance.

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