Today I read this: “The Confessions of a Semi-Successful Author”
In it, a pseudonymous author bewails her fate – pseudonymously – regarding her publishing career which has included several large advances, award-winning books and, except for one book, low-ish sales (though the lowest she reports is 10,000, which according to all I’ve read, is a decent sale for a literary novel).
But what spurred this response is that at one point she talks about how The Curse of the Mid-List Writer is to be a writer who no one ever recognizes. Strangers find out you’re a writer, ask if they’ve read your work, and you say, “Undoubtedly not, good sir.”
People couldn’t pick your name out of a lineup.
Your name couldn’t get you passage on the Titanic, First-class or Steerage.
Your name is a (collection of) dead letter(s).
Which is, truthfully, no different than any poet in this country. Who is still living. Even Billy Collins, as ubiquitous as he is, can’t be sure that the person he’s sitting next to on the plane has heard of him. After all, no one makes movies specced from poetry books. There’s no celebrity who is starring as your main character who, for the most part, is probably you. If your book has reached the bestseller lists, that means that it’s been taught in a class this semester and that twenty to forty students bought your book with the same glee and excitement they approach buying any textbook.
Which is to say, not much.
Okay, the caveats: The screed linked to above was written in 2004. The first deal she mentions getting was in 1994. The advance for that deal was $150,000.
Granted, that was a long time ago. Granted, there are taxes to be taken out. Granted, I don’t know where the author lived at the time, what her expenses were, etc.
Granted, I could live off of that for at least three years, sans work, barring any major fatalities.
But none of this addresses how, exactly, being a poet has prepared me for being published.
1. Lowered expectations.
While I dream of being offered a huge advance, of being sold everywhere, of being sold out everywhere, of being able to live off of my writing alone, I realize that is probably not the case. For example, I have already attended readings/book signings where the organizer was my only audience.
2. The belief that writing has to be the end in and of itself.
Jane Doe Austen (the writer of the Mid-list exposé) ends her article struggling with the idea of ever writing again. Her theory is that the risk of her next manuscript being rejected is too great – based on her past experience – to go through with writing the novel in order to face that near-inevitable rejection.
Well, okay. But so what? It sucks, yes, to have had it all (high advance, multiple awards, a bestseller) and yet be relegated to fourth- or fifth-string status.
But writing poetry teaches that it is the poem that matters, not the publication because publication isn’t guaranteed and, truthfully, even if that poem is published, what does it get you? For most, the reward is your poem in a magazine that has a circulation of maybe six hundred and a few copies for your personal library.
No great shakes (I prefer vanilla), but that’s why the writing has to trump the results.
You can’t control the results, whether with a poem or a play or a novel, but you can control the writing. And if you don’t get joy from that writing for that writing, then, as a writer, you’re already a lost cause.