image courtesy of The Rumpus

Goucher prof Kathy Flann describes what it’s like — for her and her “family” of local writer friends — to be wrapped up in the dream of writing the Great American Novel in the age of Kindle, Twitter, and Twilight.

In the past year, my writerly self-loathing has reached new lows. Or should that be highs? If I weren’t such a total mouth-breathing idiot, I’d know.

My agent has been trying to sell my first novel. These efforts yield a steady stream of rejections to my inbox. Editors have explained their decisions in a variety of ways. The plot/setting/character (circle one) is fascinating, but the plot/setting/character (circle one) isn’t quite believable.

Some have said they liked the book, but that they just can’t sell “women’s fiction” these days. The first time I received that particular stripe of rejection, I said “Really?” to the computer screen and waited a few seconds like I might get an answer. Had I written women’s fiction? Would a novel about a female character, written by a woman, attract only those readers who owned lady parts? But, of course, this probably wasn’t the real issue.

“They have to say something,” my agent explained. “You know, to justify the rejection.”

“You think so?” I was fishing. Please tell me again that the book is good, that I didn’t waste two and half years writing it. Or just tell me that I have good hygiene. That would have been cool. I could have lived with that.

What she said instead was, “Five years ago, the book would have been a slam dunk. No question.”

The change could be explained, she told me, in one dirty five-letter word: E-book.

Up to now, I’d been excited about the online revolution of the literary world. When my short fiction was published online, rather than in a print literary magazine, way more people read it. And to clarify, I mean waaay more. I’d receive messages from high school friends and ex-boyfriends and my dry cleaner.  “Hey Kathy. Your story was, um, interesting. Did this actually happen to you? I don’t remember your owning a llama. Let alone a machete.”

Okay, I didn’t say these readers liked the stories. Or that they even understood that fiction means something is made up. My point is that they read them. And isn’t that what we writers, introverted exhibitionists that we are, dream about? A readership? The more people who read a story, the more chance that a successful writer/reader transaction can develop. We say to the readers, “Hey, don’t you think the world looks a little bit like this?” And if we’re very, very lucky, we hear faint voices from the darkness that say, “I do.” And “I do.” And “I do.”

But in the market-driven world of novels, as opposed to the high art/low-finance realm of short stories, digitalization has had a different impact. My agent explained that e-books operate on a publishing model that didn’t exist five years ago. The downloads cost very, very little. And those “cheap” Kindle e-books take a toll on new writers.

Here’s why: Publishers have to sell mass quantities to make profits. This means they rely more heavily than before on writers who already have well-known names, like Jodi Picoult or John Grisham. These guys already have built-in fan bases who’ll buy lots and lots of copies of new work. The other method publishers favor for selling lots of copies is to put out a book that might become the next movie and t-shirt and back scrubber franchise. These are typically young adult novels with vampire/werewolf/troll/zombie/circus/gladiator/fairy themes. New writers of literary fiction for adults find themselves squeezed out.

Right now, I have five friends who are also first-time novelists and whose agents also are trying, without success so far, to sell their novels. I find some solace in this. But then I hate myself for that. Why find comfort in others’ failures? Wouldn’t it make more sense to find comfort in their successes?

I have decided instead to hate the French. For their great skin. And their lack of obesity. And their adorable pursed lips. And most of all for the foresight they had to protect their publishing industry. With actual laws. According to a June article in The New York Times, the “Lang law” went into effect in 1981, and it fixed prices for French-language books. “Booksellers — even Amazon — may not discount books more than 5 percent below the publisher’s list price, although Amazon fought for and won the right to provide free delivery…. Last year as French publishers watched in horror as e-books ate away at the printed book market in the United States, they successfully lobbied the government to fix prices for e-books too. Now publishers themselves decide the price of e-books; any other discounting is forbidden.”

The result? “E-books account for only 1.8 percent of the general consumer publishing market [in France], compared with 6.4 percent in the United States.” Moreover, French-language book sales have increased 6.5 percent over the past decade. According to The Guardian, “France has more than 3,000 independent local bookshops and 400 in Paris, compared with around 1,000 in the UK and only 130 in London.” I don’t have the numbers for the US, but one can assume it looks like this: :(?

Presumably, new French writers aren’t struggling with the same obstacles as we are. They’re just eating their baguettes that never make them fat, and strolling down the Rue-de-Blah-Blah to cash their royalty checks. Maybe it’s just that the French make everything look easy, but doesn’t it seem like we ought to be able to concoct a model that facilitates e-books and new writers?

Hey, on the bright side, back here at home, The Toronto Star reports that Random House has joined with Fremantle Media to launch Random House Television, a new channel that will provide a platform for TV shows inspired by those vampire/werewolf/troll/zombie/circus/gladiator/fairy stories. The July article says that publishing giant Macmillan plans to follow suit.

When I visited my agent during a recent trip to New York, I said, as I stood to leave her office, “Thanks for meeting me. I’m so glad you like the book.” I figured she’d say something about when we’d be in touch or something about the crisp, sunny New York spring day. I turned and began to gather my things.

No,” she said.

I stopped and turned to face her again.

“I’m sorry?” She looked angry.  My face warmed. I cast back over the past few moments. What had I said?

She punctuated each word with a sharp index finger. “I love the book.”

The cynical among us might say that this is what agents do. They make us feel good. But surely they don’t sign clients whose books they don’t think they can sell. That would be career suicide. Thus, there’s a logical part of me that knows the book has some things going for it.

Still, I fluctuate between hating myself for writing a novel that I fear, way deep in my gut, just isn’t good enough and hating a culture that would depose a venerable literary tradition that gave life to the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor for the sake of a $1.99 troll. Not that I think I’m in that venerable tradition. Or anywhere close. Gah. God bless America… Cripes. Did this whole thing sound bitter? I hate that.

Kathy Flann’s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Crazyhorse, Quarterly West, New Stories from the South, and other publications. Her short story collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. Currently, she is an assistant professor at Goucher College.

4 replies on “Letter to America (from Mouth-Breathing Idiot)”

  1. Books, as in bound volumes of paper, are worthless. I can take you to a used book store in every major city in the country and show you piles and piles of books that the store can’t even GIVE away. A lot of them are almost literally trying to give them away, having switched to a “$1 a book, any book” model. The proof is in the pudding, the CONSUMER does not want books.

    Literature, as in the art of the written word that you are now conflating with books, is in high demand, as you have yourself proven.

    Traditional publishing companies are nothing more than horse-buggy manufacturers. They really good ones won’t go out of business, they’ll just refocus their priorities on weird people who like antiquated things.

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