Monday, February 18, 2008

Some Thoughts on Finishing a New Book

Et in Arcadia ego--Olympia, July 18, 1960

I’ve just finished a new book. It’s a sequel to At the Cut, my memoir of growing up in Gloucester, Massachusetts in the 1940s. I’m tentatively calling this one From Gloucester Out. I should be happy, or at least relieved after the completion of a not insubstantial piece of work. Instead, I feel sad—and it isn’t the melancholy one often experiences after giving birth or reluctantly letting go of something that has engaged us significantly. I’m sad because I think I’ve written a consequential book about how reading liberates, how education empowers, and how speaking up and fighting for what one believes in is ultimately liberating; yet I know there is little hope of its ever finding the kind of publisher who could make it accessible to a wider readership than it will have when it is inevitably published by a small press, or, barring that, when I bring it out myself.

I’ve read the stories about authors who self-publish and whose books are subsequently picked up by trade imprints after they create a sensation. But these books are generally of the self-help variety, or they are novels that would have elicited a commercial interest anyway, due to their subjects or the genre to which they belong—romances, mysteries, thrillers, the occult. There is a further story that accompanies the accounts of success of such books, and that usually tells how the authors promoted them vigorously and often with great creativity. I recently read about a couple in Salem, MA, who spent $50,000 of their own money self-publishing and promoting the wife’s historical novel about women with the ability to read the future in the patterns of old lace to the extent that it won the author a million dollar two-book contract from a major trade publisher. Again: history-mystery-the occult. Also: women's lives.

But I have not written such a book. There is little or no suspense or mystery in the story I’ve tried to tell about my life from high school to the present—the teachers who’ve influenced me, the books that have mattered, the places I’ve visited and the people I’ve met, both in my own country and in Europe. The book is also about my political and intellectual coming of age, narrated against the backdrop of life in America’s oldest fishing port. Furthermore, it’s a record of my search for and discovery of an identity through my involvement in the life of the place where I grew up, a city I left briefly, and, against all expectation, eventually returned home to live and work in.

In my earlier memoir, At the Cut, I wrote about my childhood in one Gloucester neighborhood and about the city, as I watched it change under the pressure of time and historical events. In this sequel, I’ve attempted to write about what it meant to attend a local high school at the height of the McCarthy “Red Scare,” and what it felt like to be a small town boy, the son of Greek immigrants, at an upper class college in New England. I’ve tried to describe what it was like to return to the Europe of my family’s origins during the Cold War—and then to come home on the eve of the war in Vietnam, where I married, started a family, divorced, and have spent the rest of my life living and working.

From Gloucester Out is not a memoir of trauma and recovery. It does not explain how the author overcame addiction, incest or abuse and found religion, peace, or a new life, as many current memoirs do. Neither does it describe how a writer escaped from her New York society life with a distant father and a drug-taking mother, who tried to seduce her boy friends, to find eventual happiness as a housewife and newspaper columnist in rural Montana, as another recent memoir, which one reviewer called “an emotional thriller,” recounts.

My book doesn’t have a single narrative arc--I always tell several stories simultaneously. It isn’t written to mimic a novel, like most memoirs published today. Though separate chapters focus chronologically on my life from high school and college to the present, the narrative also moves backward and forward in time, developing a series of inter-related themes, including my psycho-social development, my search for an identity, my political and intellectual growth, and a prolonged vocational crisis. From Gloucester Out also tells how an alienated bookish young man became a political activist, how I was finally able to combine potentially conflicting interests into parallel careers as a writer, teacher and social worker; indeed, how, contrary to what Thomas Wolfe suggested in You Can’t Go Home Again, I was actually able to return to the place of my birth and enjoy a rewarding life, though not without difficulty and struggle.

All of this should be of interest to book lovers beyond my usual readership on the North Shore of Massachusetts. But I’m skeptical. Agents or editors who have looked at my previous work tell me that because I focus on a single American place, which I know better than any other, my books are “too local,” or that they lack commercial appeal. One agent confided to me that the “gritty, unrelenting realism,” of my novel Broken Trip (which was eventually published by the late Grace Paley and her husband Robert Nichols’s Glad Day Books) wouldn’t sell because “readers want to feel good.” At the very least, they want “redemption.” In writing about loss and pain, about troubled lives at the bottom of the social ladder, about the violence of an addict’s life, I would apparently be depressing my readers, the implication being that everyday life is hard enough for most people, why make them read about adversity when all they are really seeking is escape?

Readers who, like me, grew up and went to school in the 1940s and 50s will remember that it wasn’t always this way. While publishers still churned out best sellers and television had begun to cut into the time many had previously spent reading, there was a wide readership for serious literature. Books also did not have to compete with the Internet, and we had not yet shortened the attention span of readers currently conditioned by cell phones, iPods and text messaging. Equally, the saturation in violent action and the hyper-visual stimulation today’s media offer make it more difficult for a reader to sit for hours absorbed in a book. Life moves too fast for those who do not already have the habit of print.

Nevertheless, like all of my books, my memoir is simply and directly written. I focus on a single American place, a city like Gloucester, which is fairly well known in the world. Even after the notoriety of The Perfect Storm, readers paradoxically don't appear to be curious about other views of Gloucester (so editors tell me); and there are so few readers of serious literary writing, fiction or non-fiction, today anyway. My best hope is to find a small press that will take a chance on me, like Grace and Bob did with Broken Trip, or a university press that likes the way I write and finds my work of some intrinsic interest or value because they ultimately know they won't make much money from me. Otherwise, I will publish and promote my book locally, with a friend’s small press or under the imprint a group of us have created to produce books and promote and distribute them via the Internet.

I am fortunate to have a loyal readership in Gloucester. These are the people I write for and care about, and they respond by coming to readings and buying books. To my great pleasure, they actually want to discuss my books with me. Still, like most writers, it remains my hope that somewhere out there is an editor who will pick up my manuscript and say, "This is interesting. I like the way he writes. The voice is unique and the approach to memoir is original. I think we'll take a chance on it." Perhaps one can still dream...

Addendum: February 21, 2008

As if to corroborate what I wrote about the current state of publishing, this morning's New York Times has a double review of father-son memoirs. The son is writing about his addiction to methamphetamines and the father is writing about the effect his son's addiction had on him. Again: addiction/recovery; trauma/salvation (redemption). The reviewer even notes that the nation seems "addicted" to reading this sort of memoir. I don't know what it will take to break the cycle. Publishers just seem to want to cash in.
But the rejection of books that don't fit into established (and marketable) patterns is a form of censorship, and that is very dangerous. It forces writers either into silence or the pitfalls of self-publication, which is both costly and often self-defeating because it's hard to gain a wider readership. Main stream media outlets don't generally review self-published or small press books. Without reviews book stores won't stock a title, hence sales are limited and the vicious circle continues.

There is a further concern. Just as market demands can act as a kind of censorship, there is the self-censorship writers are often forced to undertake if they write to meet commercial demands instead of writing the books they are compelled to create, books that take their own shape and find their own form, books that say what they want to say, regardless of what commercial publishers feel they can sell or what the readership wants. Some of the greatest books in contemporary literature, like Joyce's Ulysses, would never have existed if their authors had not fearlessly followed their own dictates rather than pandering to a market. Who is to say what significant books are lost to us today as writers turn away from what is best in them, away from the great risks that are inherent in our most important works of art? And what happens to the artist who is not faithful to his or her vision; what damage is done to one's creativity, not to speak of what is lost to the world when a writer or artist does not respond to what is best in him or her?

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