Saturday, April 7, 2007

Wait, and See What’s Left Standing

[M]any of us…served an underpaid but invaluable apprenticeship in pseudonymous paperbacks—the kind of apprenticeship the lack of which is sorely evident in the work of many younger writers, mostly through no fault of their own; that paperback market no longer exists. It makes me worry about the next generation of popular writers: where will they get their on-the-job training?

—Brian Garfield, 1981

It’s even truer now than when Garfield wrote that a quarter-century ago. There was a time when writers of popular fiction did much of their learning in public. Dean Koontz published fifty-four novels (under several pseudonyms) before Strangers became a hardcover bestseller.

Lawrence Block had probably published as many books as Koontz, or even more, when he finally had a critical and commercial breakout with Eight Million Ways to Die. (8MWD is still rightly regarded as one of the best noir novels ever written, but it was the fourth in the series about Matt Scudder—and Block wrote it in spite of the fact that his publisher had dropped the series, deeming the books noncommercial. Brave guy.)

Almost as many writers, especially literary writers, served out their apprenticeships in magazine fiction, working their way from the dozens of low-paying magazines up to the high-rent district of Playboy, Atlantic, Esquire, and, of course, the New Yorker.

By the 1970s, the mass-market paperback original was on its way out. Mass-market paperbacks weren’t vanishing, but they were increasingly made up of “airport books,” mass-market editions of hardcover bestsellers. Today, mass-market paperback originals are generally restricted to very niche markets—certain classes of romance, some kinds of hard science fiction, and cozy special-interest mysteries featuring murders among, say, llama-breeders, knitting circles, or teachers at religious preschools.

Agent and long-time industry observer Richard Curtis has written a brief history of the rise and fall of the mass-market paperback, ending with the final collapse of the distribution system in the summer of 1996; like anything Curtis writes, it’s well worth reading. (One thing Curtis doesn’t mention as a factor in the equation, however, is the decline of written pornography in the face of increasing availability of sex films and, ultimately video. Some important bestselling writers got their start in the sex-novel industry of the 1960s, but home video players killed this genre dead as the Dimetrodon, and it’s only been recently that ‘Erotica’ has begun to re-invade the bookstores.)

At the same time mass-market paperbacks were declining, the magazine markets were heading south. Not that magazines were disappearing; new magazine titles continued to pop up like pimples before a first date. But fewer carried fiction, and even some of the traditional mainstays began to cut back. Specialized mystery, sci-fi, and romance fiction magazines have almost vanished, with only a few stubborn titles clinging to life. There are still literary journals, such as the veteran Paris Review, the successful Glimmer Train, or upstarts like McSweeney’s and Swink, but it may be easier to get your novel published by a good house than to fight your way through the thousands of submissions the good lit mags receive every month to publish even a single short story. The online magazines offer wider possibilities--but, unfortunately, in most cases readership is low and many in publishing discount them as credits.

It’s fashionable to complain both about the low quality of fiction these days, and about the fact that few people read, but the truth is that back in the days when readership was widespread the literary bar was set far lower. I’m not talking about the top of the food chain, here—the best fiction has to offer has always been great, and identifying a golden age of literary achievement is a matter of taste. But in the 1930s through much of the 1970s, the average was pretty lousy. Most published fiction was written for the market later filled by TV; parking attendants read books in their booths, and muggers read pulp novels while waiting to rob commuters. If you don’t believe me, go to a used bookstore and find yourself a half-dozen random paperbacks in a half-dozen genres from the 50s and 60s. Sorry, nostalgia buffs: the bad books of 1966 make the bad books of 2007 look like great literature.

We once owned a 1907-vintage house in Seattle—what passes for ancient in that part of the world. It sat on a steep slope, and, in the basement cut into that hillside, you could walk beneath and beside the mighty posts and beams that supported the building.

When we were having some work done, I was down in the basement with a contractor, and he remarked on the sheer size of the crossbeams, each the width of a man’s shoulders, sawn in a single piece from the heart of an old-growth Douglas Fir. I made the usual don’t-build-‘em-like-they-used-to remarks, but he cut me short.

“Most of everything built,” he said, “has always been crap. It’s just that the crap falls down. What people see is the stuff that’s still standing.”

Hmm. Guess that brings us back to Brian Garfield’s original question--where do writers practice today? And, while we're practicing, what are we supposed to do with all our crap?


Anonymous said...

a great post. this is something i've wondered since i was in college in the 80s and was writing a lot, wanting to be a professional storyteller, but not able to figure out a way to even find--let alone break into--a market that would pay me even peanuts while i learned by doing. what i've been doing all these years (while working and getting an education) is writing in isolation and have only recently starting showing work to some people (this method is very difficult because it's ENTIRELY self-motivated and suffers from lack of feedback, i think). it's not made for as productive as a writing life as i had imagined for myself, beset by insecurity i've been, but i feel i have gotten to be a better writer. there is absolutely no substitute for the production of a large number of words, i agree.

David Isaak said...

Thanks, Anon.

As to the insecurity of exposing one's work to the world, I think most writers (except for a few real jerks) suffer from this. It comes with the turf. Ralph Keyes has a wonderful book called "The Courage to Write" that argues rather convincingly that anxiety and fear are fundamental parts of the creative process.

I mentioned Lawrence Block in the post. He's fond of saying that fear and courage are like lightning and thunder--they happen at the same time, but the fear travels faster. The lesson being that if one sits with the fear for a bit, the requisite courage will follow right behind.