Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Centipede in the Tub (and Writer's Notebook)

I was sitting on the can one day, thinking about Bush, and watching. One of those centipedes or millipedes appeared in the bathtub (any creature with more than eight feet may as well have a hundred or a thousand, it is all the same to me). He or she had come out of the drain in the tub, and was attempting to climb up the slick side, by the wall.

Many others in the long history of my bathroom had tried before this one, and all had met the same fate. They would get halfway up the side of the tub and fall backwards, sometimes tipping ass over teakettle, back into the center of the tub.

Why, I thought, did they always try the impossible route, the way of struggle and frustration and inevitable death, when the shower curtain was hanging down the opposite side? If they chose that route, they'd be on a fairly sticky surface well before reaching the tipping point, and would be able to successfully escape. Why did every one of them choose to attempt the impossible, to compulsively pursue the path leading back to the bottom, and to a watery death? Who were these creatures, and what Devil sent them to me?

I concluded that they must be heads of state, or at the least, generals.


Writer's Notebook: Navigating the "Obsese Oceans"

Many of us who write are faced with the same dilemma as your average socially-aware corporate job seeker: we long to be a part of something that we also recognize as a grave problem, the demon of corporatism. In other words, we desire entrance to Hell, in order that we may help to transform it. No wonder we speak of the "horns of a dilemma."

Publishing today is a corporate kingdom. George Tenet fattens his bank account with royalty checks while his former employees look on aghast at the monumental arrogance of it all. Condi brushes aside questions about her mushroom cloud remarks (not to mention Congressional subpoenas) and proclaims that all will be made clear when the time comes to write her book. Apparently, having an oil tanker named after you is simply not enough.

So the rest of us who are writing today ask ourselves, "is the sale of one's soul, the enslavement of my integrity, the necessary price for a moment on the bestseller list? Must I condemn myself to being damned by history for a little comfort today?"

Fortunately, to even ask the question is to open the path to an answer. Perhaps one day, when they are watching death's shroud unfold around them, people like Condi and Tenet will face these realities and ask themselves these questions, when it is too late. To ask them now, while we are reasonably young and strong enough in our ability, is to feed some oxygen to the lungs of hope.

Jeff Herman is one agent who is acutely aware of what writers who care about such things face in our corporate world. In the Introduction to the 17th edition of his massive guide to agents, publishers, and editors, he notes the domination of multi-national publishers, the "small number of obese oceans" that now exist where there were once hundreds of small islands of independent enterprise.

In his Guide, Herman takes the trouble to demarcate the "obese oceans" into their own section, so that authors can see them together and be thus advised: this is the territory of Condi and George and The Secret and whoever Oprah's current favorite happens to be. This is, most likely, not the kind of star by which an unknown author would navigate, even if he wished to.

The problem is that agents like to romance these monsters, because they pay the most; and when you're only getting 15% of the take (as most agents do), the bigger the better. I once went through a year-long ordeal of watching an agent tilt at such windmills on my behalf. Even though I had never published a book in my life, this agent shot straight at the moon for me, with the likes of Random House, Penguin, Harper, and Morrow. Of course, all of them simply said, "Brian who?" and sent him a polite refusal ("we'll pass on this one"). When it was over and the book proposal had gone across every editor's desk in Rockefeller Center, the poor fellow was positively flummoxed by the outcome, while I thought it was entirely to be expected.

If I had it to do over, I would have stopped the guy before he ever got started. But he threw stardust in my eyes at our first meeting: the contract would be in the neighborhood of $200K - $400K, although we may have to refuse the highest bidder in the interest of ensuring future business. He would, of course, have them competing against one another, and we'd soon be sorting through the bids. The only thing I can say in defense of the guy's seemingly foolish strategy was that it must have worked for him with other writers: he had an obviously busy and successful practice in Manhattan, was a memeber of AAR, and had a long list of published titles he'd represented.

But he had no Plan B (sound familiar, Bush-watchers?). When the Goliaths didn't fall for his marketing of my book, he just stopped trying. And I was too ignorant and too breathless, standing at the threshold of writer's heaven, to question, criticize, or recommend a more sensible and modest strategy. He gave up, and I fell back to earth. The book remains unsold, and this is not likely to change.

So what's the lesson? To me, it's this: the moment you stop asking questions, posing alternatives, and offering criticism, that's when you have opened the door to failure. I ceased doing the very thing that I teach in these books I write: asking questions of power, wealth,and authority. I stopped asking because I was scared that a critical breath from me would shoo away the flock of golden geese who were so close, so tanatalizingly within reach, that I was already wondering how and when I would quit my corporate job.

Don't be a self-defeating idiot like me: don't quit on the very activity that defines you as a creative artist, at the very moment when you need it most. If you sign a contract with an agent, that's the time you most need to be a pest. Don't let their airs of authority, their claims of busy-ness, or their bland promises of impending wealth and success put you to sleep. Their success comes in many little bites of 15%; the occasional loss will not crush them. But if you fail to fulfill your artistic promise in this of all relationships, then you will be defeated. If the agent is a real pro, he'll understand that; he'll listen to your questions and adjust accordingly.

At all events, don't be a fool like me: do not be afraid.

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