Saturday, October 08, 2011

Economics of the Spirit

On this day seven years ago, my first novel The Green Age of Asher Witherow was published. Among the good things that happened for that book, the luckiest was the phenomenal support it enjoyed from this country’s independent booksellers. The Green Age did not exactly come into the world branded for the bestseller list. In fact the book had a lot riding against it. A few examples:

·         It was published just as The Da Vinci Code’s years-long chart-topping run began
·         It was not topical or terribly plot-driven
·         Its author was a total unknown and had received no headline-worthy advance
·         Its publisher was a small decentralized press with no prior titles
·         It was entitled The Green Age of Asher Witherow (the what of who??)

Nevertheless, independent booksellers got behind The Green Age before it even landed, naming it the month’s #1 Book Sense Pick and warmly hosting me in stores from Seattle to Hollywood, from St. Paul to Blytheville, Arkansas in a string of book-signings spanning a good six months.

Because of the indies The Green Age was widely reviewed, because of the indies it saw a second printing within a month of hitting the shelves, and because of the indies a young writer got an actual royalty check.

Times have been tough for independent bookstores since the rise of the chain booksellers, big-box retailers, and the advent of online commerce in the nineties. But probably never have the indies faced a season of famine to match today’s. E-books, coupled with general economic woes and other factors, bring down another neighborhood bookstore or two every few days, it seems. These closures, each one of them, do injury to our community-level cultural life (what other cultural life do we really have?). And I’ll dispense with dignity a minute in order to tell you first-hand that the injury trickles down. That’s to say, authors themselves (those of my “midlist” variety, anyway) don’t go unscathed.

A few years back, in a letter to the New York Times Book Review, I wrote some words on behalf of “unhonored and unpaid” fiction writers whose work “goes into the world untrumpeted, unreviewed, and unbought.” I argued that “the greater number of literature’s real practitioners work under such conditions.” Were I to find somebody else writing this today, these few years later, I’d be tempted to say it reeks with misplaced optimism. For increasingly I fear that honorable, obscure work—of the kind the history of literature is built upon—does not “go into the world” at all, or at least not into solid, silent, beautiful print. Instead, I fear such work languishes in the rooms of its creation.

In the absence of essential cultural advocates like our dwindling number of independent bookstores, serious newspaper review columns, and small publishers who can let an idiosyncratic vision guide them and make a go of it financially, what can we expect? Obscure authors of unlikely little books like The Green Age used to get, if not steady pay or renown, at least an airing in print. Today these authors get whatever artistic/democratic access the Internet can offer them (and that is something, yes).

But today, seven years from the outset of my publishing career, as I stand at my own uncertain turning in the path, I wish to publicly redouble my gratitude to our independent booksellers. If/when my current project gets off the ground, I intend in my own small way to shine a light on you all. I’m equally grateful for the existence of United States Artists, the dynamic organization that just may help me bring my new book to light. It will be a small book, born quietly at midday, and in a limited number of copies—not what they call a “breakout.” But it will be something lovely, with illustrated pages you can turn by hand.

That letter of mine to the New York Times closed with my impassioned avowal that “the art of language and story [is] sustained by the unwavering economics of the spirit.” I still believe it.

Here’s to those who can help me realize my quiet, somewhat old-fashioned idea.