The following piece was sorta kinda commissioned by someone at Salon.com, which subsequently decided they had much more important things to run in December. No other organ has rushed to publish it no one wants to hear the truth, man! so here it is (in the usual place).
Well, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) has wound down again, and all across the nation legions of first-time novelists are straightening up stacks of freshly completed manuscript. While many no doubt took up the challenge of writing a novel simply for fun or diversion, it's a safe bet that an awful lot of these proud new parents will be launching their little bundles of joy out onto a thousand literary agents' desks and publishing house slush piles in the unquenchable hope of seeing them published. It's a funny fact of life that an amateur watercolorist will happily put his work up over the mantelpiece but an amateur novelist doesn't think he's done until his book is under a cover and piled on display tables across the land. Why do these people think this is likely to happen? Moreover, why do they imagine that it will be a rapturous, fulfilling, life-changing event if it does?
I don't know. I only know that I used to be one of them. And now I'm here to report back from the other side.
I had a first novel published last year. This was after a depressing number of years banging my head on a wide variety of unyielding doors, filling lawn leaf bags with rejection slips. I'd been through the long years in the wilderness of the slush pile. And now, unexpectedly, I'd taken up residence in the promised land of the book deal. I signed with a major publisher. I got reviewed. I did the launch parties and the readings. And now, after all the hubbub, I've had a chance to sit back and take stock of how the reality of being published compares with my long-held expectations of it.
Looking back now, I can see that I walked through the world for many years in the untroubled belief that there were only two types of people: those who had written and published novels, and those who had not. And I further believed that it was vitally important to any success or happiness I was going to have that I get into that first group. The expectation that publication will bring happiness, that achieving your dream will make everything okay, is of course naive. But it's also probably inevitable. Else, how could one carry on for so long, in the face of so much blistering resistance and rejection?
Most of us probably do understand, on some mental level where the elevator doesn't go, that having a book published isn't the kind of thing that makes a person enduringly happy. But won't being published at least make you feel differently afterwards? At the very minimum, won't you enjoy cocktail parties a whole lot more, when people ask you what you do for a living?
Okay, yes, it is pretty heart-swelling when you first learn you've been picked up. And seeing the book under a cover for the first time is a giddy, if unexpectedly surreal, thrill. But, the thing is, those little jolts of pleasure wear off breathtakingly quickly. And afterward, you don't feel any differently than you did before. (Or you don't feel better at any rate more on which in a minute.) And as for the cocktail parties . . .
Kind of gobsmackingly, it turns out even that magical exchange you've imagined so vividly for so many years ("What do you do?" "I'm a novelist.") is inevitably followed by this horrible frozen moment when your fellow cocktail partygoer asks, absolutely unvaryingly, "So what's your book about?"
Well, in my case at least, it took longer to write a satisfactory one-page synopsis of the book than it took to write the whole 145,000-word book in the first place. And of course the synopsis is no use for cocktail party purposes. Nothing is. I've tried a dozen types of answer, from the flippant and evasive ("It's about the meaning of life, of course."), to the self-serious and detailed ("So there's this group of brilliant, heavily armed, existentially afflicted hipsters, and so they learn about this apocryphal, mystical document hidden out in the badlands of the Internet . . ."), to referencing it in terms of genre ("It's sort of a philosophical cyber-thriller Douglas Coupland meets Neal Stephenson and then they both get into a huge gunfight with John Woo . . .") and all of them make me cringe. All of them. Cringe.
So now, at cocktail parties, I don't even tell people I write anymore simply to dodge the whole awkward scene. Who could have predicted that?
After the happiness myth, there's also the ever-popular one about getting rich and famous which of course isn't going to happen, and you always knew it wouldn't happen, but of course you secretly hope anyway. But the fact is that no one makes any money writing novels no one except Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Danielle Steele, John Grisham, and Michael Crichton (who together account for some horrifying majority percentage of all book sales). That's it. Just those five guys. Everyone else has a day job.
I have friends who think I must be rich after being published on a recognizable imprint. Bwahahaha! With the arrival of my first royalty check, I learned that ten years of writing had netted me the same amount as two weeks of doing computer shit for an investment bank. (And, yes, my book actually did pretty well by the modest standards of first novels.) The fact of the matter is that the world is drowning in fiction (most of it awful, admittedly). And it is a very vain thing indeed to think the world needs your book much less that they'll pay you gazillions for it.
As far as I'm aware, I have not, up until this very moment, gone out on a date with one single woman as a result of being a published author. Not one. This the idea that chicks will dig it is not merely the number one reason a man will write a book. It is the number one reason why a man will do absolutely anything at all, ever. In actual fact, I broke up with my then-girlfriend right at the end of launch week the stresses of which probably contributed generously to the death of the relationship.
And here's the kicker. You're going to love this. In the year following publication of my novel, I slept with: no one. That's zero sex. For an entire year. How's that for the most crushing correlation of all time? Of all the very many things I imagined, more or less vividly, that I would be signing up for by being published . . . celibacy, I can tell you, was right at the exact bottom of the list.
One also naturally imagines that getting published will impress your friends and enrage your enemies. And this it actually does do. But, the thing is, you won't feel about it remotely the way you imagined you would. In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace captures the phenomenon perfectly in a young tennis prodigy who burns to have his picture in a tennis magazine, alongside Michael Chang. The kid imagines that his painful envy of Michael Chang must have a counterpart namely Michael Chang's pleasurable feeling of being envied by the kid. But of course there's no such animal. Sad but true.
And then there's the glamour. Glamour! Glamour, it becomes painfully clear, is a property that only exists at a distance. Now, this I should have known. I have friends who work in publishing or music or film-making, and their lives look pretty glamorous to me, and then one of them will say, "Yeah, let me tell you how glamorous film-making is: try sitting for 14 hours, doing nothing at all, on a freezing outdoor set, eating stale cheese Danishes, for $14,000 a year."
I should have known this, but I didn't. Readings! Launch parties! These are particularly graphic images in the daydreams of those who seek the grail of publication. But, for my part, I merely found readings and launch parties stressful and depressing. I actually started turning up to these things half-drunk, scowling, wearing very dark sunglasses (indoors). I'd unwittingly turned myself into this ridiculous cliché. But I wasn't doing it because I thought I was a literary rock star; I was doing it because I was freaked out and depressed and ardently wishing I were somewhere else.
I don't know. On good days, I still kind of feel, on some level, that being published is better than not being published. While the experience hasn't really given me a whole lot of positive pleasure, it has at least taken away the particular, acute, years-long pain of not being published.
But nothing's ever what you think it is. And one finds that, in the end, the toughest thing of all is this: in getting published, you lose the animating dream you've had your whole life, and which gave you your drive and purpose. You had the prospect of a future in which everything would be just ducky; and now you're unexpectedly in that future, and everything's not ducky; and you don't have the prospect anymore. As the world's greatest living rock drummer has put it: "A dream is not only over when you give up on it. It's also over when it comes true." And when it is over, you may or may not find that you have something to fill up the hole in your life that it has left.
On bad days, I kind of want to tell all the aspiring writers I meet, "Whatever you do, for God's sake don't get published! Hang onto the dream instead!"
Lately, I've started getting heat from my editor about how the next book is coming along. Which is a nice problem to have, if a very strange one. For years I couldn't get people to look at my work if I fellated them; and now I've got guys at a major publishing house asking me to write more? But, then again, why do I really have to write any more books? I put ten years of my life into the project, and I haven't gotten much out of it, so what incentive do I have to keep at it?
If there's any answer and, slowly, painfully, one seems maybe just to be materializing, very faintly, way out on the horizon it is in the following enormous cliché: the writing has to be about the writing. I guess if I have any advice from the other side, that's it. Write a book because you want to write a book, or because you've got these fabulous ideas that you think the world needs to hear, or because you personally need to work out your demons on the page. Don't write a book to get it published.
And if you do write to get published, just make sure and keep your expectations down with the dust bunnies, down with the fishes, down on the bottom of the lowest seabed. Because, believe me, you won't want to give them any further to fall than you have to.
Michael Stephen Fuchs is the author of The Manuscript (www.the-manuscript.com) and, more recently, Pandora's Sisters (www.pandoras-sisters.com), both published by Macmillan.