It took me more than three years to finish Shlepping the Exile. I had a job as a researcher in pediatric neurosurgery to go to and a dissertation on the Middle English Pearl to try to avoid, and more than disappointed, I was positively crestfallen to discover that nobody in the exciting, high stakes worlds of commercial and small press publishing really cared. I sent queries, unagented and unsolicited, to various publishers, submitted selections to every literary magazine whose address I could find. The encouraging rejections usually included a Yiddish word or two—le-chaim at the end instead of yours truly, or “Mazl tov on a stunning achievement, but it’s not for us at this time.” The less friendly ones tended to come from editors who’d received my manuscript from one of their writers. To many of them, I was an anti-Semite; to a few others, a disgrace to my people—”Would you let your parents read this?” Virtually all of them saw the use of Yiddish as an anachronistic drawback. The only thing that might have interested them about my adult characters was their experiences during World War II: “You can clearly write,” one of them told me, “give us more Holocaust.” After letters like that, I was almost happy to have the manuscript called “pornography in dialect,” a put-down that didn’t really sting, though I’d have been even happier if the woman who’d handwritten it on the title page put “pornography mit a heksent” instead.
After two or three years of this, I was starting to get desperate. I forgot about publishing and took the book back to its origins, presenting self-contained excerpts in comedy clubs, storytelling venues, theatres, anywhere where I could get onto a stage. I’d done enough storytelling and stand-up that finding places to appear wasn’t much of a problem, especially because I only held a piece of paper in my hand if the event was called a reading. Otherwise, I gave performances of material from the book, selling photocopied, perfect-bound copies of the texts wherever sales were allowed.
They moved surprisingly briskly, even though they didn’t look like much, and proved beyond any doubt that the suspicions I’d been nursing for so long were true. Jews liked the stuff, gentiles liked the stuff; English-speaking Francophones really liked the stuff. Young people, old people, women and men. Everybody liked it except people who worked in publishing. I like to think of it as the dawn of a tradition.
Five years after I finished the book, I performed part of it at a party in honor of the great Chilean poet and artist, Ludwig Zeller, who was living in Toronto at the time. After I’d finished, his Canadian publisher came up to me and asked if I had any of it written down. “All of it,” I told him, and explained what I was up to. He told me to send him a copy; I did. Two years later, it came out. There was no line-editing, no copy-editing; aside from typos, it was the text as submitted, but it took two years to come out.
If he’d ever sent me any money, it might not be coming out again, corrected and plumped up, a good forty pages longer than it used to be. People ask me how you fit new stuff into the midst of material up to thirty years old. The answer deserves a book of its own.
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My third book was published this week. Needless to say, I’m somewhere between panic and excitement. It’s the first one in English after my two books in Hebrew. When I come up with a new book I’m preoccupied with all kinds of questions, such as:
- Will people buy it?
- Will they like it?
- Will the reviewers like it?
With my new book published in the US, I also have worries as an Israeli author, such as:
- Will my writing be interesting to a foreign reader?
- Will people who are not Jewish or those who know nothing about Israel want to read it?
- Will the book be received as universal, even though certain stories are clearly set in my own country and culture?
- Will the Israeli “situation,” as conveyed in my book, seem bizarre or extreme from a distance?
But now I have a new set of questions that have to do with technology. Take these, for example:
- Do people still read books?
- Is there life outside of Facebook?
- Will there still be bookstores in 10 years?
So many times have I been advised to start a blog or publish on the web. But there’s no way. I’m too attached to the print, the paper, the smell of the book. It’s a totally sensual experience, isn’t it? How can I give up on my first and biggest love? Like everybody else, I live a considerable part of my day on the computer, but I resist giving up on the rest of the world. Here’s a universal message that has nothing to do with being Jewish or Israeli: I’ll continue reading and writing books, real physical books, even if I’m the last one to do so.
The period immediately after your book comes out is a wonderful and strange time. On the one hand, the work you’ve done—which for most of its existence just hung out on the hard drive of your computer, feeling not quite real—is now in front of you, in a very concrete form, between two covers. Your work is a book, a thing with mass and substance, an object that other folks can find and get and read—maybe even folks you don’t know! In that way it’s the joyous culmination of perhaps years of work and efforts to get the work published.
On the other hand, it’s definitely a weird time. The main weirdness is that, when your book comes out, suddenly you’re probably doing all kinds of unusual things to help the book succeed: you may be giving readings, driving from one bookstore to another, sitting on panels, Googling yourself way too much and checking your Amazon Rank (please don’t, if you can help it)—and also perhaps doing what I’m doing here, which is writing about writing. Every one of these activities is the result of very good fortune—you couldn’t be doing them if you hadn’t gotten that book into print—and they’re generally a lot of fun (aside from Googling and Amazon Ranking, the dangers of which I cannot stress enough). Yet you’ll notice that there’s one thing missing from that list of activities: aside from writing about writing, you may not be doing very much writing at all—not the kind that probably led to the actual book you’re now holding in your hands.
It can sneak up on you. If you’re anything like me, spending too much time away from writing means getting more and more irritable, and getting on your loved ones’ nerves. Often it’s my wife who, finally fed up with me, demands that I find some time to write or else. In those moments, it’s even possible to get a little resentful of your own good fortune—I would be writing if only it wasn’t for all this author stuff! But I don’t recommend embracing that resentment. These author activities are not only fun, not only the fruits of tremendous good fortune—they can also be an important part of the creative cycle.
Writing about writing (like I’m doing right now) is a great example of that. When I’m in the midst of writing short stories or poems, I’m not thinking a lot about what I’m doing. First drafts come out in a sort of unplanned, raw way, and even revision involves some specific strategizing, but not much thought about big questions, like Why do I write? or Why am I writing in this particular form? or What’s the best way to get work done? or any of a variety of other possibilities. The time after a book gets published is actually a rare and valuable time to sit back and get some perspective on what you do. It can add layers of meaning to your work, and it can make you a better and more purposeful writer.
For example, this fall, my writing about writing has helped me to: finally understand the basic difference between a novelist and a short story writer; to get clear on how a short story collection comes together successfully; to really appreciate the fact that I use writing to understand things that initially confuse me; to explore the Jewishness of my work and my process; and—right here—to value the very writing about writing that I’m doing now. It has also helped me participate in a larger conversation between writers and readers—a conversation I first encountered as a little boy learning to read. I want to be a part of that, and I’m glad that I get to be.
Of course, none of this replaces the real writing, the stuff that you’re most passionate about. And it makes sense to get a little agitated if it’s been a while since the last story or poem, and it makes sense to get back to it as soon as you can. But in the meantime it’s probably worthwhile to pay close attention to all you’re doing as an author, because, even in the middle of all the strangeness, you have an enormous opportunity to grow as a writer.
And really—just leave those Amazon rankings alone.
This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. In this post, Justin responds to Josh’s initial thoughts.
Okay. You’ve thrown a lot of questions at me here, so let me describe what I’m seeing and then let’s see where we are. (I almost wrote “hearing,” because when I read your words I hear your voice in my head, but if I were having the screws put to me by the fact-checker I’d have to admit that what I hear right now is the desk fan in my office, my own keys clacking on the keyboard of my MacBook, and Nathan Salsburg’s wonderful instrumental acoustic guitar record, “Affirmed,” which I switched to just a minute ago from Hendrix at the Isle of Wight, because that was too noisy to “hear” myself think over, despite having only a minute before that having posted on my Facebook page that I intended to listen to Hendrix for “most of the afternoon.” He’s lucky if he got forty-five minutes. (So much for the honest presentation of a public self).
Like you, I compose my fictions by hand and type them up later, editing as I go, then printing out again for another read-through (often aloud) and hand-written edit. This process is repeated as many times as a given piece demands. But it doesn’t bother me that I use the same computer to type my fictions as I do to write you a note about where to lunch on Sunday, anymore than it would if I were to use the same pen I was first-drafting with to dash off your address on a postcard I was sending you. I don’t see the materials themselves as inherently sacred or profane. The computer is a nexus-point for so many different parts of our lives (public, private, interpersonal, professional, political, artistic, cultural-consumptive, &c.) that historically were experienced or pursued separately and without reference to one another—as in, when you were doing thing A, you were necessarily not doing things B and/or C and/or D.
It’s up to the individual, therefore, to decide what degree of simultaneity is appropriate at a given time. Just because you have the ability to watch a dirty movie clip in one browser window while leaving a birthday message on your grandmother’s Facebook page in another browser window doesn’t mean that you should. Similarly, just because you have the ability to make lunch plans or trade gossip or read “status updates” using the same device you use to edit your magnum opus does not mean that trading gossip and reading status updates is a good use of your designated Valuable Writing Time. So the problem—if there is a problem—in my view is not with the tool but with the user.
Do I think that non-writers struggle to find the right tone—the thing that will make them sound like the people they wish to project themselves as or perhaps even actually are? Sure. I think everyone’s always working to become or at any rate maintain their status as their best self. If anything, the writer (more generally, the artist) has an easier time of it, because we spend so much time practicing on these microcosmic people we create just to fuck with; we have (or ought to have) a more refined sense of how these things work.
You should be very honest about your attitude toward publicity. I’d be curious to hear you articulate it, perhaps in the form of a guiding policy or principle if you have one. I’ll give you mine, which is to mostly say “Yes” to things, unless there’s a compelling reason not to—time or dignity being the main ones. The work of writing has literally nothing to do with the work of publicizing that writing after it’s finished. I’ve never sought “fame” or a spotlight for their own sakes (and God knows haven’t found them) but when I make the decision to publish my work, I’m saying that I want it to have an existence beyond my own desktop, a public life, and if it’s going to have one I want it to have the biggest, best one possible. I don’t think there’s anything unseemly about that. They’re two different skill-sets, two entirely different and in certain crucial ways irreconcilable frames of mind. There are ways to have fun with it and ways to get through it when it’s not fun, but more than anything else, choosing to participate affords you the best possible chance of message control. Anything you’re willing to say “Yes” to and actually do, you can be responsible for. The more hands-off you are the more you’re at the mercy of somebody else’s press releases, tag lines, and surmises, or at risk of simply being ignored.
I hope I haven’t gotten too far off track here. I worry too that my instinct to be contrary, when applied to your deep ambivalence, causes me to play the wide-eyed Happy Guy. There are a lot of things about “publicity” that I hate—particularly the way young writers are taught to crave it above all other things—such as craft, discipline, and integrity. And of course I notice that the one question I shirked was the one I was most interested in—the question having to do with voice in fiction, this notion of convincing similarity versus convincing difference. Maybe you can expand a bit on your concept, or clarify how you see this question of aesthetics/mimetics relating to these notions of the public/private self, writerly or non?
This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Today, Joshua begins the conversation.
I hope you’re doing well. I’m looking forward to the lamb spines, certainly. Sunday would be good. They’re on me, of course, of course. I owe you as much plus drinks for your help with this—this—I don’t know what this is. The Jewish Book Council has apparently read and enjoyed this new book of mine, Four New Messages—now that, after Citizens United v. FEC, a for-profit corporation can be considered a person, I feel comfortable saying that a nonprofit corporation can at least read my fiction and enjoy it enough to ask me to write a series of posts for their blog, gratis. Rather the recompense is contained in the idea that these emails-to-blogposts—a medium perhaps appropriate for the book, because the book is set, partially, on the internet—would help publicize the book, would help sell the book to the Jewish bookbuying public (who buys books? Jews, women, Jewish women). I didn’t know what to write, so I roped you out of Park Slope and into public.
Which will be, essentially, our subject.
Now I’ve read a lot of your writing—I’d guess about 4x what’s been published—and you’ve read a lot of mine—let’s agree on the same random ratio(cination). Though most of the writing we’ve sent each other hasn’t been writing-writing, but this: emails. Stuff about what, where, when, a sliver of how—the why’s always implied. In fact, if this were an email only to you and not an open crier type bellringer I wouldn’t have to explain all these facts. We’ve already discussed this exchange. We’ve agreed that you’ll be remunerated for this interlocution in lamb spines at Xi’an Famous Foods. On Sunday. Time and which among the East Broadway, Bayard, St. Marks locations (not Flushing!!), TBD. We’ve discussed, we have, the Jewish Book Council. Their cattlecall auditions that offer Jewish or Jewishish writers slots in various book or bookish events throughout the country. Their general—let’s say shepherding or herding, to continue the metaphor—of the Jewish(ish) (and Jewish[ish] female) reading public(s). We know all this. We also know what it’s like to publish and promote books—to have to promote books—and God knows you’ve given gracious audience to my own whisk(e)y philosophizing over the necessary evil of this promowork, my barstool history take on how writers even just a generation older than us never had to care much about this, really actually didn’t feel it necessary to care much about this because the book advances and criticism gigs paid high enough and living costs were lower.
Also there’s the pride or pride in art issue.
Writers were either dignified or Norman Mailer (which was another form of dignity, perhaps).
But the purpose of this email isn’t to ask you to articulate your feelings about the devolution of authorship/authority via the devolution of PR responsibilities (though if you’re so inclined, go ahead), rather the purpose is to ask you how you feel, specifically, about my writing—our writing—this.
We spend most of our days writing words, some written for an intimation of eternity that to my mind has been projected from the purview of fantasy or dream to that of technology (our writing might last forever—not because it deserves to but because of the bytes), but others written to communicate South of Union Square Chinatown food options/rescheduling due to mass transit malfunction. Yet we write them on the same platform: the computer (to be sure: I use the computer only for journalism and to edit—all fiction’s drafted by hand).
I guess I’m not asking about your process (again, unless you’re inclined to address that)—or about if/how you consider those two types of writing differently (again, again, etc.)—I’m not asking about anything that might be answered better with a sneer at preciousness or, best, the offer of a singleride Metrocard to Maturityville—rather I’m asking about registers, valences, casualness/formality, Truth. How honest should I be about my attitude toward publicity? Should my attitude change and why? What are the uses of distance and estrangement and obfuscation and plain old lying—in life? in fiction? Lastly, until you give me your lastly: Omniscient narration and dialogue in fiction are often delightful when delivered in the same “tone,” and often delightful when delivered in different “tones.” But so many books I’ve read lately—contemporary books—fail to find a convincing similarity (everything overassumes in the vernacular, or bores back to the nineteenth century) OR convincing difference (the narrations stately like Henry James but the dialogues like a scatological Hank Jim). Why is this? Do people—which is to say “nonwriters”—have the same problem “in life”?
Answer those and I’ll spring for the ribs.
Here’s the thing about being both an author and a blogger: It makes you impatient. When I write a rant or draw a cartoon, I scan it in, click a few buttons, and — zoomba! — the world gets it. Or, you know, anyone who happens to be looking at my Twitter page at that moment. When I write a book, I send it to my agent, the editor, the publisher, the copy editor, and then, three years later, you can walk to a bookstore and pick it up.
I’m sure there’s some Jewish lesson I should be able to glean from this. Like, how Jerusalem wasn’t burned in a day or how over a thousand years passed between the time the Gemara was written and the time it was printed up in its first printed version, the Vilna Shas, the kind that we read today, with all the wacky columns and stuff.
Except, not really. Because the Talmud is called the oral Torah, and the essence of a story is in the telling, not when it’s written down and printed with a day-glo green cover and sent to a bookstore. There’s something about the immediacy of storytelling that the three-year publishing process, which is standard for the industry, has missed out on. And, weirdly, I think the Internet is bringing it back.
So, partly because I’m a naturally impatient person — and also partly because it’s 15,000 words, which is a weird length that’s way too long for a short story and way too short for a novel — I put out this new book, Automatic, and I did it myself.
I didn’t just write it in a day. I spent most of a year editing it. I’d probably still be editing it, except that it’s sort of about the band R.E.M. (it’s also sort of about my best friend dying) — and, one day a few weeks ago, R.E.M. broke up. It’s now or never, I told myself. In the space of half an hour, I’d signed up for a Kindle author account. And then I hit send, just like sending an email — and, zoomba. I’d published a book.
Amazon is sort of a double-edged sword — yes, it’s crazy that they own half the universe, but it’s an author’s dream because THEY ACTUALLY SELL BOOKS. People who never go to bookstores, people like most of my family, will click on Amazon and buy a book in a second. (I also put it on Smashwords as a pdf — also $2 — if you don’t have a Kindle.)
But I’m old-fashioned. I don’t own a Kindle and I don’t like reading long things online. Plus, I’m a design slut. I like things that look cool, and books that open like toys, and books that smell like books. So I designed a non-Kindle edition that does all the things ebooks will never do — it has hand lettering and easy-on-the-eyes layouts, and layouts on the page that (hopefully) make you feel like you’re luxuriating in something, not just squeezing the words out of a mass-market paperback. (But, I promise, no annoyingly coy stuff or Fun Fonts). I also made a die-cut front cover, because, dammit, books are meant to be touched.
I showed it to my friend/icon/if-I-wasn’t-a-Hasidic-Jew-I’d-say-“idol” Richard Nash, who said, “Oh, it’s a zine!” And I thought, Oh, yeah — that’s it exactly. Fifteen years after being a teenage zine-maker, using a copy machine at my summer job, I’ve reverted to being exactly where I started. It isn’t glamorous, but hopefully, the product is. And there are worse things in the world.
I know self-publishing is still a dirty word — it’s like Amanda Hocking said, authors shouldn’t have time to do all the stuff involved with publishing; we’re too busy being authors. And I’ve been really fortunate to have people like Scholastic and Soft Skull to take the foot-dragging stuff out of my hands for my big projects. But it’s also nice to finger this little handmade thing in my hand and say, dammit, this is mine.