A few weeks ago I sat in on my friend R.’s memoir writing course in
Paris. The class was filled with students — most in their early 20s —
learning about structure, about research, about how to frame a story. I
was trotted out at the end to answer any questions the young writers
may have about what awaits them in the real world and stand as an
example of… I’m not sure what. Of success? The idea feels ridiculous.
As the editor of the seven-year-old
whatever-it-is-that-Bookslut.com-is-exactly and freelance writer, I
would much rather steer people away from my particularly thorny career
path than present myself as a trailblazer.
- Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer by Jeff VanderMeer. 240 pages. Tachyon Publications. $14.95.
But R. spoke with the hyperbole he uses when he talks about me, calling me an authority and a strong example of what is possible in the industry. Oh yes, I thought to myself, as I was going through a particularly rough time. The possibilities of periods of destitution, of being turned on by past contributors, of uncertainty, self-loathing and doubt. Pick up your pens and follow me. Straight off a cliff.
I have sat in on classes before, either short-term classes like this one or those that were part of an MFA program. In any given classroom, there is a student who simply vibrates with ambition. They have usually gone straight from college to an MFA program, and they are ready to establish writing careers. Now, I am not one of those who sneer at the word “career,” who use the word “careerist” as a slur and talk about purity. That happens a lot in the poetry blog circles, and I have always thought it less than charming. I know how important it is to make a living, and how unbelievably soul-killing it is when you can’t. But something about these students’ ambition blinds them to the point at which they overstep decency and polite boundaries. The questions go from, “Do you know any agents?” to “How much money do you make?” so quickly that I’m baring my teeth and coming very close to saying, “Oh, you’re writing a mental illness memoir? How adorably 1997 of you.”
Desperation breeds this kind of behavior, and of course it is a weird time to be a writer, as everyone with even a toe dipped in the business will tell you. It’s no wonder the classes are full, the MFA programs are bustling, and the How to Be a Successful Writer books are freshly rewritten every season. Everyone is uncomfortable, everyone wants answers, but there is now an emphasis on conquering the online world of blogging, Twitter, Facebook, or some other new platform that may or may not be outdated by the time you’ve figured out how to upload your profile photo, just to find and nurture an audience and produce the kind of platform that leads to $5/word writing assignments. If those still exist.
It’s no surprise, then, that a growing number of the Successful Writer manuals are focusing on how to survive in the digital age. They are written by people ready to stand up and declare themselves examples of things done right and lessons learned. None of them, however, gave me as strong a creepy-crawling feeling as Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer. (Full disclosure: VanderMeer was briefly a contributor to Bookslut.com a few years back.) It’s not the book’s fault. Booklife has good intentions. Despite the peppering of self-help speak (“Booklife can significantly reduce your learning curve and give you new, energizing strategies” and “I believe in visualization to achieve goals”), it’s a humane book, covering things like the despair that sets in after too much rejection or struggle and, equally important, how not to derail yourself with success.
And yet Booklife made me uneasy. I put the book down, I hid it under my mattress, I tried to forget it existed, but it bothered me from afar. It’s not just reading that I am handling my career as a writer all wrong. I already knew that. The book instead reminded me too much of my years as an editor, dealing with ambitious writers. Most of them are just benignly pushy, annoyingly unaware of how ineffective cyberstalking is as a method of gaining employment. Occasionally, though, it has turned ugly, with one contributor who I had to let go sending a six-paragraph threatening e-mail (“You have no idea how sorry you’re going to be,”) to others’ spreading toxic gossip when they did not appreciate comments about their work made on the site. All because I got in the way of what they thought they were entitled to have. Booklife‘s first section (after the overview) covers networking, emphasizing the need to use people to get ahead in your career. “EVERYONE YOU KNOW IS A POTENTIAL CONTACT,” Booklife blares in caps. And just as a helpful reminder, everyone you meet has “connections of use to you.” So we’re back at the cocktail party, trapped in a corner, and the guy is laughing a bit too loudly and falsely at your joke because he’s pretty sure you know the editor of the magazine he wants to write for.
If you’re going to read a book about how to be a successful writer, it would help to find a book that shares your definition of success. Mine involves being able to eat nice things, of course, and being able to afford to live without roommates. But beyond that, it diverges quickly from VanderMeer’s, explained in “Five Minimum Elements for Success.” His is all about utilizing contacts, finding high profile blurbs, guaranteeing review coverage. These things are important, of course, and nothing can kill a career faster than not finding an audience. But the priorities seem so out of whack. The networking chapter comes before the instructions on how to work in the face of so much online distraction. How and whether to construct a persona shows up before how to exist within a community. One of the skimpiest sections of the book — how to find and maintain inspiration — would be a huge chunk of my ideal book about success.
In Chapter 1, VanderMeer writes, “I was 17 and beginning to think about my long-term goals.” His long-term goals included publishing his first short fiction collection in five years. There are people in this strange little world of ours who have romantic notions about being a writer, and that, to them, is much more important than actually writing. This is the order in which people like that think. “How do I get a book deal” comes before “How do I become someone who has something to say?” Writing is an act of ego, but your ego should not be the only part of your personality involved. Booklife is an ego-feeding book.
None of this is fair to Booklife itself, which is why this is a column and not a review. I fully acknowledge my own hang-ups and will probably recommend Booklife to the bright, shiny MFA students who start asking me invasive questions. To the other writing students, I would tell them another Booklife is possible. One where people are allies and not contacts, one where you work with the people who bring your best writing out of you, who are not necessarily at the highest profile or best paying publications. But that, class, would never sell books. • 11 August 2009