Molly Best Tinsley ~ Guest Writer
© All Rights Reserved. Molly Best Tinsley.
Thirty years ago, I was finally following my passion. Completing a Ph. D. dissertation in literature had taught me a surprise lesson: I did not want to spend my life writing literary criticism. I wanted to write literary fiction. Two National Endowment of the Arts fellowships and a bunch of awards later, it seemed I’d made the right choice. Then my first novel, My Life with Darwin, came out to positive reviews but modest sales, and from the point of view of mainstream publishing, my writing career was over. Houghton Mifflin, the publisher, passed on my story collection and a second novel. So did the other big publishing houses. In the late eighties and early nineties, when all this was happening, I was too busy wrestling the pain of rejection into creative defiance to grasp the larger picture.
Older and cooler now, I tend to view my problematic literary debut as an accident of history. It happened to coincide with a cataclysmic change in the publishing landscape. Pardon the drama, but it’s as if the devolution of contemporary publishing has been tattooed on my heart. Of course, I wasn’t the only casualty. I had friends in the same boat, and they had friends. The ranks of outcast writers were swelling. They still are. For those of us who still berate ourselves and doubt our talents, I offer the following story.
In 1979, the Supreme Court handed down the Thor Power Ruling—it was against a tool company, but it changed tax law for book publishers and reshaped practices in the industry for good. Before this ruling publishers could write off on their taxes the inventory of unsold books stored in their warehouses. After it they couldn’t. Hanging onto unsold books suddenly became more expensive. Better to shred them. Literary euthanasia for the failed blockbuster was way cheaper than life-support that might allow it to build a following over time. (This was the fate of Darwin: about a year after its release, Houghton Mifflin offered to sell me some boxes of the book at cost plus shipping. What I didn’t rescue, they would destroy.)
Then came the eighties, when deregulation under Reagan spurred the free-for-all growth of corporations. Eventually they began swallowing publishing houses, and as soon as they did, they jacked up the traditional profit margins of five per cent to fifteen (and higher), a 300% increase. By the mid-nineties, when I was shopping around my story collection, Throwing Knives, mainstream publishing had become firmly entrenched in the profit-obsessed business mindset.
I decided to submit my story collection on my own. Small, independent presses and numerous university presses run annual contests for manuscripts in the effort to take up the slack in literary publishing left by the big houses in New York. Good news: the second year of entering a few of these, my stories won the Sandstone Prize at Ohio State University Press. Bad news: the press is under-funded, and their marketing and distribution methods are geared to academia rather than the general reader. I learned too late that review copies were never sent to the list I provided.
I can’t resist this sidebar to the story of literary fiction, because it sadly confirms the toxic impact of business on culture and the arts. Twenty years ago, I teamed with a colleague of mine at the U. S. Naval Academy to craft a textbook for creative writing. We had similar approaches to teaching it—lots of free writing in response to prompts—and we were tired of Xeroxing handouts. The Creative Process was published by St Martin’s textbook division. It’s still in print and selling steadily. I still receive royalties! But a book that we wrote expressly to be small, manageable, no excess bullshit, all muscle, and affordable at $14, now costs $50. (The royalties are calculated on the original price, by the way.) Thus the profit-motive strikes again, to exploit a captive market of already debt-laden students.
Today after decades of mergers, mainstream publishing has consolidated into five international corporations more interested in making money than supporting new voices and developing original art. In fact, the current gatekeepers know little about writing or literature. A decade ago, my agent defected from the publishing scene to go back to school in early childhood education: she said she was no longer able to sell the kind of book she liked to read. My original editor was hired by a larger house, then left editing altogether to become an agent–for non-fiction only.
For increasingly the Big Five opt for book-like objects, how-to’s, celebrity memoirs, “histories” of current events. In fiction, they prefer formulaic genre stuff, cranked out by a stable of authors at the rate of at least one per author per year.
So that’s the picture. In the current world, mid-list books are freaks–the ones that take several years to write, whose covers have no metallic lettering, which don’t debut to blockbuster sales, but rather build their readership slowly. In the current world, profit-worship discourages original writing, emotional nuance, subversive vision. My favorite rejection excuse for that second novel, by the way: it was “too quiet and intelligent.”
Placing your creative efforts in their historical context helps you see that for the most part rejection isn’t about you. It’s no excuse, though, to give up the work that infuses your life with meaning. I remember taking a workshop once with the poet David Ray, which he began with this advice, “If you can quit writing, do so.” Obviously he was trying to emphasize the ego-shattering challenges of life in the arts, but I’d propose just the opposite. “It’s easy to quit writing, but we can’t.” Standing up for our creativity has become a political act.
© All Rights Reserved. Molly Best Tinsley.