Life Writing

It’s sometimes thought that a writer’s life is easy.  What’s so difficult about scribbling things that people will pay for?  I’m absolutely certain that, like most systems, this one may be gamed.  Amazon has made it quite easy to slap together words and covers and sell them alongside literary giants.  Only time will tell those that endure.  Most writers, apart from those who achieve early success (capitalism loves nothing so much as a repeat source of money), hold down other jobs.  Many of those jobs don’t involve writing, so those with literary ambitions must carve out time from their busy lives to write.  Not only that, but to write well you have to spend a lot of time reading.  Think about your daily life—how often do you have time to curl up with a good book?  Sure, you can read on the internet, but that’s not the same thing.

I love reading about writers.  Often they had struggles to overcome and many remained obscure as writers until after they’d died.  (At least that takes some of the pressure off.)  Someone saw there was money to be made in what they left behind.  Knowing quite a few writers, I suspect most of them really wouldn’t mind that.  Recognition during your lifetime must be nice, but writers tend to have a longer view.  That’s why things are written down, and, against hope, published.  Literary ambition can be a mean dog indeed.  Especially when the lawn requires mowing again and those invasive trees need constant trimming and gee, why didn’t we buy that house with no yard?  Many writers had even greater struggles to overcome.

Image credit: George G. Rockwood, via Wikimedia Commons

When reading, I’m constantly discovering new old writers that I missed.  I didn’t grow up in a literary family.  I find them by reading other writers and, perhaps more importantly, reading about other writers.  Who influenced whom.  Many remained obscure.  Although it’s only an estimate, 2.2 million new titles are published each year.  Readers are, and always have been, a minority.  Most people don’t read for pleasure.  That makes sense, given that we haven’t evolved for that.  Survival involves working for sustenance and mowing the lawn or shoveling the walk when you’re done with work.  A clueless professional once asked me “Why don’t you hire a service?”  With what?  My royalties?  Sacrifice is an inherent part of writing.  Whether it’s the neighbors thinking you’re a trashy yard-keeper, or you boss wanting you to spend more hours on the clock, or cheating sleep night after night, a writer’s life isn’t for the fainthearted.  That’s why they inspire me.


Short-Changed

Time often feels short.  When we back it up against the pencil marks on the doorpost we find it seems to shrink with its own passing.  It is nevertheless relentless.  This shows especially with daily tasks, such as the posts on this blog, which leave enormous piles of writing behind.  I used to print every entry I wrote but I had to stop because there were too many.  There are now well over 4,500 of them and yet time keeps going and each day demands its sacrifice.  It’s that way with other daily tasks too.  It’s staggering, for example, to think of just how much food you eat in a lifetime.  It makes sense of why we struggle against that middle-age bulge.  Little bits add up.  I suspect that’s why the news can feel overwhelming at times.  It just keeps piling on.

If I’d chosen to study journalism—I really didn’t know what it was, despite being co-editor of my high school newspaper—I might’ve reached the point of being paid for my writing by now.  Even with my published fiction stories (and two of my nonfiction books) no money has ever changed hands.  I know from editorial board meetings that journalists expect pay for what many of us give away for free.  Writing is funny that way.  The best way to improve is to practice, and so I spend time each day writing blog posts, as well as content for books and articles and fiction stories.  As I said, there’s quite a pile.

Time is relentless.  It’s also in short supply.  The marking of each passing day with writing is a reminder of just how quickly the sand slips through the glass.  Other tasks go neglected for writers, which is, I expect, why we appreciate being paid for our work.  But just imagine if we were paid for reading.  What if every book read brought in say, in today’s economy, $1,000.  Would we be a more literate society then, valuing the work of writing?  For nonfiction editorial boards note the difference between professors, who are paid to do other things (and paid pretty well, considering), and journalists who live by the pen.  I have another job, helping other writers get published.  I suppose that means I have less time to do my own writing.  Time and writing are engaged in a complex dance which, when viewed from a distance, may look beautiful.  And when the dance is done you’ll find another piece of paper to add to the pile, regardless of whether it has monetary value or not.


Slow Running

It’s extremely slow.  In fact, you might think nothing is happening at all.  I mean the book publishing process, of course.  It takes a long time to read 60,000+ words.  Even longer if you’ve had a few poor nights of sleep.  And many people have to read it before it gets anywhere near a printing press.  Everything about writing a book takes time.  While everything in the outside world happens at an unbelievable pace—last year at this time there was no war in Ukraine, for example—the slow process of organizing thoughts, putting them into words, sending them to a publisher who has many, many other proposals and manuscripts to consider, getting it rejected once or twice, finally finding a publisher, making the requested changes, getting it copyedited and typeset, getting the files sent to one of the few domestic printers left (who have tremendous backlogs), then to the bindery, and finally shipped out to the warehouse—it takes years.

Centuries of work

Current events publishers can rush things through and it often shows.  Meanwhile the authors of all other books learn to wait.  And wait.  Often the payoff isn’t great.  (I’ve received no royalties at all for Nightmares with the Bible.)  So why do we do it?  Those of us compelled to write have many motivations, I suppose.   One is to expand human knowledge.  We’ve discovered something and we want to share it.  We want to inform and entertain.  Those of us who write fiction also hope that our ideas may speak to others.  Having the fiction piece accepted is a validation of our outlook and experience.  Those who do so well may be inflicted on future literature classes.  I still remember The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe.  We had to read it in twelfth-grade English.

None of my friends liked it.  It was a collection of short stories by Sillitoe, titled after the one story that is still his only real claim to fame apart from his novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.  The tale of an English boy’s alienation didn’t speak to the rural western Pennsylvanians of the late seventies.  One of my classmates disliked it so much that he drove his pencil through the runner’s image on the front cover in a kind of uncouth performance art.  Now as I experience trying to get short stories published (with a little success here and there, but no royalties), I can feel for Sillitoe.  Still, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” was made into a movie and has quite a few cultural references pointing its way.  Long-distance running, like publishing, is sometimes a slow process.  And at times you decide not to finish the race.  Or at least realize this race may last for years.


Free Research

I’ve lost track of how many times it’s happened, but it has been relatively few.  Someone I don’t know will approach me and ask me to post about something on my blog.  Sometimes they’ll even send me a book to highlight.  Perhaps not the most effective way to build a library, I’ll admit.  And some of the books haven’t been great.  I admire them nonetheless.  It takes great effort to write a book.  And not a small amount of faith, too.  Many books—perhaps most—never get published.  A great many are self-published.  (Those who work in publishing can be a stuck-up lot sometimes.)  Even those professionally published can use a push from time to time.  On this blog I’ve actively resisted the urge to make it about one thing.  Why?  Is life just one thing?

In a recent conversation I laid out for someone new what had been my research agenda as a young professor.  It had a direction still reflected in some of the categories you’ll find on the right column of this blog.  After writing on Asherah, I was going to give similar treatment to the other ancient goddesses attested at Ugarit.  This was perhaps ambitious for an academic waif at Nashotah House, but it was well underway.  My book on Shapshu was making good progress when the market (that dragon to every St. George) led friends to suggest turning biblical, which led to Weathering the Psalms.  A new research agenda—explore the weather terminology (the meteorotheology) of other biblical books—arose.  There were storms, after all, becalmed over lakes.  Horror entered in the jobless period and beyond.

And social justice.  I’m not a thrice-failed minister for nothing!  In fact, a recent freebie was a book on social justice.  I have a colleague as interested in monsters as me.  This particular scholar had decided to focus on the cause of the poor.  Even economists are starting to say the unequal distribution of wealth is hurting us.  While the rich fly to space on personally owned rockets, the rest of us have trouble filling up at the service station, even if we have jobs.  So it is that this blog is eclectic.  A friend told me early on that it would be more popular if I just stuck to one topic.  That’s probably true, but my mind can’t settle down like that.  And when people send me things to talk about, I’m happy to do so, if it fits somewhere in my mind.


Underestimated

Under-printing, ironically, can create great demand.  Books are generally under-printed because publishers don’t see much of a market for them.  Back before the days of inexpensive print-on-demand (POD, in the lingo) books may not have even existed as electronic files.  Often a publisher won’t print a book unless it anticipates that it can make back its costs.  If they think it won’t sell that well, they’ll print just enough.  And they might even melt down the typeset plates to reuse them for other books.  I’m not sure if that happened in the case of a book I’ve been looking to consult, but something has made this under-printed book extremely rare.  It’s not on Internet Archive.  WorldCat shows it in only two libraries world-wide, the nearest one over 3,000 miles away.  Its price used (and there seems to be only one copy) is $46,000. I can’t tell you what it is because you might buy it before I can.

For the purposes of my research, this is actually the only book on this particular topic.  (The subject isn’t even that obscure.)  The book is cited everywhere this topic is mentioned, and at least one person on Goodreads has actually seen a copy of it.  I have to conclude that all those who cite it must live within driving distance of one of two libraries worldwide.  For the rest of us the book is simply inaccessible.  As an author this is one of the worst fates imaginable.  Even if some price-gouger is selling a copy for $46,000 the author gains nothing from it.  Royalties are null and void for used book sales.  The only profiteer is the person who happens to have found a rare book (from the 1990s!) and is determined to ensure only the most wealthy will be able to purchase it.

I’ve known people who sell used books online.  Those who want to move books try to undersell the unfortunate under-printed title by pricing a bit lower than the competition.  There is no regulation, however.  You can charge whatever you like.  The funny thing is, if someone eventually forks over $46,000 for this book, and then has it appraised (it is a paperback from the 1990s), its actual worth is probably at most in the hundreds of dollars.  Back when we watched the Antiques Roadshow we always knew that the poor person who brought in a book would be disappointed in the appraisal.  Last time I was in Oxford I saw rare books from the 1400s for sale for far, far less than $46,000.  I only hope that my books, as obscure as they are, are never deemed that expensive.  And I would encourage publishers to print a bit more generously, for the sake of knowledge.


Living Right

Horace Liveright had an outsized influence for his somewhat foreshortened years.  Initially a bond trader, he eventually moved into publishing where he founded the Modern Library as well as Boni and Liveright.  The Modern Library still exists, now as an imprint of Random House.  Liveright ceased publishing operations eventually, but the name was revived as an imprint of W. W. Norton.  There have been many publishing Wunderkindern, including Richard L. Simon, co-founder of Simon and Schuster (and father of Carly Simon), and the Scot William Collins whose name still appears in HarperCollins.  While reading about Liveright recently I learned that he also was responsible, in an unexpected way, for the development of the horror film.

Liveright never worked in the film industry.  He did, however, work as a stage producer in New York in the 1920s.  Among his most successful works was a play titled Dracula.  It starred Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan as Dracula and Abraham Van Helsing, respectively.  The success of the Broadway show caught the attention of Hollywood and Lugosi and Van Sloan were cast in the same roles in Tod Browning’s Dracula, widely considered to be the first horror film, released in 1931.  Van Sloan went on to appear in Frankenstein as well, and Lugosi reprised his Dracula character as well as several other monsters.  It’s possible, perhaps likely, that horror would’ve begun with some other entry into the genre, but as history stands Dracula, based on Liveright’s stage production, started the whole thing.

Unless we work in it, we tend not to think about publishing too much.  We don’t pay attention to the publisher of the book we’re reading, and who lingers over the copyright page?  Giving a thought to these details, however, often adds new stories to the ones between the covers.  A fellow editor is fond of saying that books are as much about the author’s story as they are about the story the author’s telling.  The press, for example, often focuses on the former.  Who is it that wrote this book and why?  The question may be extended further—what publisher took it on and how did they even get into the business of deciding what people will read?  The internet has democratized that quite a bit, of course, and some authors can become their own authorities by knowing how to handle it.  So I’m taking one such opportunity to highlight the work of a sometimes forgotten pioneer who nevertheless began a publishing venture from which we’ve all most likely read.  And he also helped created the horror movie.


Literary Thoughts

A book is a physical object.  It is printed on paper and has a cover.  It has a publisher who undertakes to have it printed and bound (and with any luck, marketed and publicized).  This, I would contend, it what most authors have in mind when they sit down to write a book.  It isn’t just “content,” of which you can find far too much on the internet.  It is an object of pride that you can slot onto your shelf with a great sense of personal achievement.  It has taken a lot of work, and headaches, to get to this point.  Several months or even years of your life.  An idea that can’t be addressed in a couple dozen pages.  A book is born!

Publishers are more and more pushing the ebook, however.  The ebook is not a book in the same sense as a printed object is.  In some sense it may be more durable.  It’s certainly easier to get quickly.  But how do you get excited over writing an ebook?  Whenever I’m writing a book, there’s clearly an object in mind, not a cloud of electrons.  Ebooks have their place, but as people start talking about a post-literate future I start seeing visions of my own tombstone.  It gives me a strange kind of comfort to know that all of my books so far reside in the Library of Congress.  Some university libraries even buy copies.  Would a carpenter take pride in an electronic table she built?  Can you set your book on it?  If you don’t carve your “Kilroy was here” in stone, how will you ever prove it?

As handy as ebooks are, nothing matches the sensation of walking into a room full of books.  The sense of rapture is palpable.  Such rooms are monuments to our culture.  A screen with metaphorical tons of content may be a tribute to technology, but is any of it real without ink connecting with paper?  There’s nothing wrong with “content;” I produce some every day.  The thought process is different from book writing, however; just like the process of writing poetry differs yet again.  The publisher always looks at the bottom line.  (And I don’t mean the last line of a poem.)  And to keep “books” profitable the conversion to “content” seems attractive.  It breaks down, however, if writers no longer think in terms of books.  The book has a storied history and a long future, if we keep in mind that it’s something far more refined than mere content.


Moral Compass

Where have all the morals gone?  Well, not exactly song-worthy, but it is a question I think about a lot.  You see, I work in publishing.  Publishing, above all, is a business.  People make their livelihood at it, and so they have to find a market that pays.  Money and morals don’t mix well.  A recent New York Times story pointed out that the political polarization that’s tearing America apart is reflected in bestsellers.  Political nonfiction bestsellers have topped the charts since Trump was unfortunately elected.  Books both pro and con have flooded the market.  What’s this got to do with morals?  Well, I believe publishing should be in the business of educating.  If you’re going to publish nonfiction, it should be material that doesn’t cause more problems than it helps solve.

When I look at a book, after checking the title and author, I next look at the publisher.  Some publishers are conservative, and that’s fine.  That’s what they do.  Most, however, consist of highly educated professionals who realize the severe, and continuing damage that Trump caused.  These publishers, however, will produce pro-Trump books if the numbers look good.  There’s gold in them thar hills!  I often have these scruples working for an academic press.  Some ideas are clearly distorted.  I’m no elitist—I’m still pretty much working-class all the way down to the bones—but education reveals when something very bad (fascism) is happening.  Others see it too.  Still, the temptation of all those dollars… it’s a real pressure, almost like being at the bottom of the ocean.  There’s money pressing on us and we want it.

The gray lady story bothered me.  Instead of publishers looking out their windows and seeing the political grand canyon of this nation, they see profits.  This is business, after all.  Just business.  Is there any such thing?  Morality informs the way you live, the choices you make.  Do I promote education, reflection, and sound reasoning or do I promote a very real 2024 threat of a man who leads by refusing to lead?  After elected Trump immediately began campaigning for his next term, loving the rallies, the cheers, the adulation.  Who doesn’t want to be worshiped?  But is that what we want to see three Novembers from now?  I remember the shock the morning after election day 2016 in New York City.  I see the damage four years of environmental degradation caused just when the effects of global warming were becoming obvious.  I see women demeaned.  I see voting rights quashed.  And now I look at the bestseller list and wonder where the morals have gone.


To Write in Black and White

It can be seen as a black and white issue: either you’ve written a book or you haven’t.  Many people do write books.  Many more want to.  In a survey I saw sometime in the past few months—I can’t recall exactly where—a survey indicated a high percentage of Americans wanted to write a book.  What exactly does that mean?  There are many different kinds of books and several motivations for writing them.  And, depending, your work may or may not be taken seriously, even if you publish.  As someone who’s published four nonfiction books, all of them obscure, I often think about this.  Working in publishing I have some privileged access to the ins and outs of how this works, but that doesn’t necessarily help in writing success.  So what are the motivations?  Is there any way to tell the difference?

Obviously, I can’t speak for others’ motivations but I can see the results.  Most of the writers with whom I work are academic writers.  Their books are generally written for fellow academics and they’re the result of years of research in specialized libraries often off-limits to non-academics.  Those are pretty easy to tell at a glance.  Another class of nonfiction writer is the journalist.  It’s assumed by the industry that someone who majored in journalism is a talented writer.  If, after reporting on a topic for a few years, a journalist wants to write a book based on experience, that frequently gets a publisher’s interest.  The results may not be academically reliable.  I recall that as a grad student it was assumed there were even certain established publishers not to trust—mainly those that weren’t university presses, but not exclusively.

The self-published book has a more difficult trajectory to trace.  Some authors, no matter how good or insightful, just can’t get a standard publisher’s attention.  Others are convinced of their own wisdom and now have an easy route to become a published author.  Yet others realize some money can be made from writing (although making a living at it is very hard work).  I’ve been reading a book by a journalist that has lots of factual errors in it.  I try not to judge, but I do wonder when I know it’s shelved as nonfiction.  Now, these aren’t the kinds of errors that will cost a life if dosed incorrectly or will set off a war between dominant personalities that are heads of state.  I also know that most books do contain inadvertent errors—books are written by humans and we don’t have all the answers yet.  Still, I think of the readers and how we define nonfiction.  What counts as a book anyway?  Things are seldom black or white.

Writing my first book

Pricing out of Business

Maybe you’re like most normal people and don’t pay much attention to who the publisher of a book is.  If you read a lot, and can get behind the glitz and glam of an Amazon page, you might come to trust certain publishers over others.  The fact is, despite the difficulty some of us have getting published, there are a lot of presses out there.  Some are clearly self-publishing vehicles, but many are small, independent houses that focus on specialized topics.  The sheer numbers can be bewildering.  I was looking for a reputable book on a certain subject the other day and, given my job, I always check the publisher.  Several in a row came up that I had never even heard of before.  I guess there is money to be made in publishing yet, if only one could find the matching pieces.

With academic publishing you can spend five or more years of your life writing a book and you’ll earn royalties that literally won’t cover a month’s rent when you’re done.  Even while this is happening there are people who make a living publishing books with presses you’ve never heard of.  They know how to get average citizens to buy their books.  I’ve been working in publishing for over a decade now and I guess I still don’t have it figured out yet.  It’s complex, and even with online publishing helps like agent-finding sites or Duotrope, you’ll find that each day brings its own changes.  I’ve learned through personal experience that many publishers simply don’t last.

What many of these fly-by-night publishers understand better than established academic presses is that price matters.  Well, let me put that in more precise terms, for all publishers need money—fly-by-night publishers know that average people will buy only the books they can afford.  These presses I’ve never heard of sell books for the industry standard of about sixteen bucks.  My least expensive book sells for about twenty-two and I’ve been told more than once that it’s too expensive for most mortal budgets.  Collectively, my four books cost almost $250, averaging out at sixty per pop.  Two of them were written for general readers who have no hope of being able to afford them.  I tried to find an agent for one of them, and the other was a series book (no agent will touch such a thing).  Perhaps I should’ve tried a lesser-known press that could afford to offer my books at affordable prices.   You could do worse.


Proof in the PDF

The proofs of Nightmares with the Bible are sitting right here on this laptop.  If I’ve seemed distracted, now you know why.  My life is unaccountably busy for a mere editor, and I’m afraid my September is being consumed by proofreading and index-making.  I had some fiction I wanted to submit this month, but proofs are a necessary part of writing and for those who take nobody’s word for it, reading them is important.  I have books on my shelves from very reputable publishers literally littered with typos.  I fear that.  I try to read proofs with as much concentration as a busy life will allow.  And yes, proofs come with hard and fast deadlines.  I only wish they’d been here in July.  Or June.  But still, Nightmares are on their way.

Since this was a “Halloween season” book, the goal was to have it out in September or October.  That won’t happen now, but there were a couple of things that transpired along the way: one was a pandemic.  The other was another paper shortage.  Strange as it may seem, both of my last two books came out in a time of paper shortages.  In 2018, the industry had supposed ebooks would wipe out print.  That didn’t happen, and when Michelle Obama’s Becoming took off, well, let’s just say academic books weren’t a priority.  Printing schedules across the industry got bumped and books from small publishers targeted for a specific date just didn’t match the demand.  This year the paper shortage is due to the Covid-19 outbreak.  Paper suppliers shut down for a while and, guess what?  Print came back!

In any case, hoping against hope that we can make the November publication date, I’m trying to read the proofs with record speed (and care).  That means other daily activities may suffer for a little bit.  Those of us who write think of our books as something like our children (not quite literally that high, but not far from it).  We want them to be launched into a world that will be receptive to them.  And so my morning writing (and reading) time has been dedicated to Nightmares with the Bible.  And indexing said book.  I’m not good at many things, but one talent I do have is concentration.  Until these proofs are submitted (hopefully ahead of deadline) there won’t be much else to which I can pay attention.  I’ll continue to post my daily thoughts, of course, and if you can click that “share” button on Amazon’s book page it’d be much appreciated.


The Birth of Nightmares

It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child.  A similar idea lies behind the writing of a book.  Sure, the lion’s share of the research and writing are done by the author—the person who gets credit for the work—but publishing is an industry.  That means other people’s livelihoods are based on the end result as well.  The author often doesn’t know what’s going on when the book is in production.  It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find the publisher’s website for my book is up.  You can see it here.  My own site for the book has been up for months (here; go ahead and take a look, there’s not much traffic).  Those who only read these posts on Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter may not realize there’s a whole website out here that addresses things like books and articles.  (I think the CV part requires updating, though.)

In a writer’s experience, seeing a book’s website—receiving an ISBN—is like the quickening of a baby.  You’ve known for some time that it’s there, but the proof is in knowing that other people can find out.  I only learned of this because a friend wanted a link to the book page.  If you google the title without quotation marks you’ll find lots of websites about Christians and nightmares.  (Who knew?)  People of my generation still often don’t realize that, much of the time, searches with quotations marks are increasing necessary on a very, very full internet.  I’m still not sure of a publication date for Nightmares with the Bible, but you can preorder it.  (Sorry about the price.)

Once a friend asked me why we do it.  Writers, I mean.  Unless you’re one of the few who are very successful you don’t make much money off the project that has taken years of your life to complete.  I’ve never earned enough in royalties even to pay for the books I had to purchase to research the topics on which I write.  It’s not an earning thing, although that would be nice.  For some it’s an expectation of their job.  For some of us where it’s not, writing books is perhaps best thought of as monument building, a long and intensive “Kilroy was here.”  You notice something you think other people might find interesting, and so you write it down.  Chances are the number of other interested people will be small.  Family (maybe) and a few dedicated friends will lay down the cash for an academic book.  But still, there’s a village behind it, and I need to thank them here.


Graphic Graphomania

You can spot them fairly easily.  Graphomaniacs.  Perhaps it’s a bit closer to the surface when you work in publishing, but the person who writes too much can run risks.  Some authors turn out a book every few months.  While this may be okay for potboilers, for academics it is seldom possible to do this well.  Research and reflection take a long time.  Those who churn out book after book sometimes wonder why their works don’t sell.  Graphomania has to be reined in.  Horses have to be held.  I’m sympathetic, actually.  If you write every single day you’ll soon end up with a surplus.  So much so that your computer will tell you to empty some stuff out or it’ll go on strike.  I had to order a new terabyte drive this week exactly for that reason.

To free up some additional space on my laptop I went through the many, many folders that have essays, book drafts (both nonfiction and novels), stories, blog posts, etc.  While I didn’t throw them away, I had to clear them off my working disc.  As I did so I realized that the great majority of these writings will never see the light of day.  There are really a lot of them.  Part of the problem is you never know what you’ll feel like writing when you get up in the morning.  Sometimes the best ideas come after a wretched night’s tossing and turning.  Well-rested you can get up to a brain so content that it doesn’t have much to say.  Or that story you started yesterday may seem dumb today.  That nonfiction book that burned with passion just last week may now seem lame.  My fear is that by moving them off my hard disc they’ll become forgotten.

The terabyte drive is a thing of wonder.  It can hold so much information.  I have to go back and hook it up to my laptop to find it, however.  Out of sight, out of mind.  I’ll move on to other things.  I honestly can’t count the number of projects I have going.  Graphomania can be a problem.  This blog is a daily outlet, and you, my faithful few readers, are saints for coming back.  In my attic, next to the brick wall of external hard drives, are folders full of handwritten material.  Many of them are stories that are complete, but that haven’t been transcribed.  Some writers suggest flooding the market with your stuff.  Others of us know that graphomaniacs are feared in some quarters, and so we keep our own counsel.

Photo credit: NASA


No Smoking

I have never smoked anything in my life.  As a kid with chronic bronchitis few things scared me as much as being unable to breathe.  I have not assassinated anyone or consorted with aliens—at least not that I know of.  Otherwise I think I understand the Smoking Man.  As far as my X-Files rewatching saga goes, I recently reached “The Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.”  I remember the first time I saw it I found it improbable that the assassinations of the 1960s were the work of a single man.  What hit me this time around, however, was the Smoking Man’s real frustration in life.  He wants to be a writer.  Having completed several novels myself, none published, I have received pin-head letters very much like those he does in this episode, only in greater quantities.  When he finally finds a publisher, he writes his resignation letter to whomever hires assassins and those who change the course of history.  I know just how he feels.

You’d think that by the logic of any reasonable system that those who work in an industry might have some inside tracks.  Some, no doubt, do.  Others of us in publishing are just like the average, uninformed person on the street.  Publishing is a cliquish place.  A friend with some success getting novels published advised me to look at the names of editors and editorial boards on the literary journals that get noticed.  “You’ll see the same ones coming up over and over,” he said.  It is, as the Smoking Man discovered, a kind of cabal, which is, I suspect, the point of making him out as a frustrated novelist.  He can set the course of history, but he can’t get a legitimate novel published.  Cue the X-Files theme. 

I know many academics who write fiction.  My second novel (depending how you count these things—this one was never finished) was a pet project while I worked at Nashotah House.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to publish it when I worked there.  In fact, my first fiction publication only came three years after being shoved out of the nest of academe.  I’ve completed seven novels now and I’ve managed to get some short stories published.  Then again, I don’t have clandestine knowledge from a lifetime of access to the truth about alien-human interaction.  I don’t shoot people for a living.  I’m not even a professor any more.  Still, I think I can begin to understand why someone might turn toward a more interesting career, given the situation when it comes to getting published.


Gratefully

I confess.  I read acknowledgements.  Part of it is the vanity of finding someone’s name I know.  Or the worse vanity of finding my own name.  Acknowledgements, however, reveal quite a lot about the book you’re about to read, or have just read.  Not all books have them, of course.  Most academic books do.  A recurring theme occurs in the acknowledgements I read: privilege.  Many academics are feted and pampered and their institutions pour money on their desks.  Often they show a nonchalance about it all.  ‘Tweren’t nothin’.  What seems to be missing to me is the struggle.  Anything worth having, in the experience of many, is something for which sacrifice was required.  Hard work, long hours, and nobody pouring money on your desk.

Privilege breeds a strange kind of entitlement.  Many academics complain of how difficult they’ve got it.  (The stories I could tell!)  Now, I haven’t walked in their loafers so I can’t say if the personal circumstances of others are trying or not.  My own experience at Nashotah House—how good I had it!—wasn’t exactly pristine.  Conflicts between dean and faculty.  Required chapel twice a day whether you needed it or not.  Your every move watched for any indication of heresy or disloyalty (that’s not limited to the Oval Office).  And yet, those days were much better than I realized at the time.  Once in a while you have to crawl up next to Job on his ash heap to get an idea of what you simply couldn’t see before.

Acknowledgements are often like mini biographies.  You try to make sure you don’t leave out anyone that helped you along the way.  Books, particularly academic books, are the product of many people, not just the author.  Sure, the author’s the star of the show, but if the support staff wasn’t there, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.  Book making is incredibly complex, which is why self-publishing, while sometimes necessary, often shows in the end results.  Editors come in many flavors: acquisitions editors, copyeditors, line editors, production editors, and more.  Sometimes there’s overlap between positions, but even books that barely get read have plenty of sets of eyes upon them before they come to the public.  Acknowledgments don’t always name everyone.  In fact, they simply can’t.  It takes a village to publish a book.  Instead of feeling entitled,   I find acknowledgements always instill a sense of humility.  It’s an honor to be part of bringing a book to birth, even if your contribution is hidden away in unread pages.