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ESSAY

A writing career becomes harder to scale

Authors used to expect to struggle as they gained experience. But now it is sell -- or else.

February 07, 2010|By Dani Shapiro

The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry -- always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media -- has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.

I recently had the honor of acting as guest editor for the anthology "Best New American Voices 2010," the latest volume in a long-running annual series that contains some of the finest writing culled from students in graduate programs and conferences. Joshua Ferris, Nam Le, Julie Orringer and Maile Meloy are just a few of the writers published in previous editions, but now the series is coming to an end. Presumably, it wasn't selling, and its publisher could no longer justify bringing it out. Important and serious and just plain good books, the kind that require years spent in the trough of false starts and discarded pages -- these books need to be written far away from this culture of mega-hits, and yet that culture is so pervasive that one wonders how a young writer is meant to be strong enough to face it down.

The new bottom line

At the risk of sounding like I'm writing from my rocking chair, things were different when I started. My first three books sold, in combination, fewer than 15,000 copies in hardcover. My editor at the time told me there were 4,000 serious readers in America, and if I reached them, I was doing a good job. As naïve as this may sound, it never occurred to me that my modest sales record might one day spell the end of my career. I felt cared for, respected. I continued to be published, and eventually, my sales improved. I wrote a bestselling memoir, appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and published a subsequent novel that found a pretty wide readership. My timing has been good thus far -- and lucky.

But in the last several years, I've watched friends and colleagues suddenly find themselves without publishers after having brought out many books. Writers now use words like "track" and "mid-list" and "brand" and "platform." They tweet and blog and make Facebook friends in the time they used to spend writing. Authors who stumble can find themselves quickly in dire straits. How, under these conditions, can a writer take the risks required to create something original and resonant and true?

Perhaps there is a clue to be found near the end of Solotaroff's essay: "Writing itself, if not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer's main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer's main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger."

The writer who has experienced this even for a moment becomes hooked on it and is willing to withstand the rest. Insecurity, rejection and disappointment are a price to pay, but those of us who have served our time in the frozen tundra will tell you that we'd do it all over again if we had to. And we do. Each time we sit down to create something, we are risking our whole selves. But when the result is the transformation of anger, disappointment, sorrow, self-pity, guilt, perverseness and wounded innocence into something deep and concrete and abiding -- that is a personal and artistic triumph well worth the long and solitary trip.

Shapiro's new book, "Devotion: A Memoir," is just out. She will read at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena on Feb. 24 and Diesel Books in Brentwood on Feb. 26.

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