In the age of the blogger, when writers (particularly those in the commentariat) are everywhere, it’s easy not to realize that the work of most writers is invisible—and the writers invisible as well. It’s partly that writing is solitary work that can take a very long time to produce. It’s also that most writing is never published or, when it is, not widely read. Some of the saddest publishing stories involve books that are remaindered and then destroyed after only a few weeks of life. It is also one of publishing’s hardest rules that most books and most writers are given only a single chance.
Besides the blogosphere, what is visible, of course, is stores bursting with an unending supply of new titles that have jockeyed their way into print, the often temporary winners in a lottery whose entrants are the work of an ever increasing number of writers. For whatever reason, vast numbers of people want to write—usually in English where the largest market is—and want other people to read what they’ve written. Many have paid their dues in various ways—long apprenticeships, time in writing programs and writing groups, endless and dedicated hours at desks. Some are both gifted and lucky. Some are just lucky, catching a wave that starts or joins a passion for vampires or dominatrixes or how to do anything, especially lose weight or save a relationship or a prostate. Of all the hordes of writers, the fiction writer’s lot may be the most difficult. It’s not easy to write even bad fiction and, though so many writers have ambitions to write novels and often try, something like 90% of published work is non-fiction. Statistically, things are just tough.
As a fiction writer myself, I have a pretty much limitless selection of rejection stories and near misses to go with a far smaller number of successes. That’s probably true of most people who’ve stuck with writing fiction as a lifetime vocation, although the stories of invisibility I can tell from the inside out are just my own. Here are some of them. Does it matter at all that my first novel, written in my twenties, was taken on by a great agent and considered by some of the best and most experienced editors in New York? It does not except for what I learned from the experience—that something in my writing struck a chord with good readers even when I was offering work I hadn’t even begun to master, that rejection, which ensures invisibility, is painful, that the early experience of making the secret page of the writer open to even a handful of people can be deeply unsettling.
My second decade of serious writing taught me a great deal more about invisibility. My unagented shorter work, going “over the transom” to a long list of journals—each effort like a blind date—moved me into the ranks of published writers though, when the first story appeared, I was already thirty-eight and felt as ancient and desperately unsuccessful as the wonderful Cynthia Ozick did when her first fiction appeared at the same age. For me, that was the beginning of a series of publications but, with each one, I felt as if I’d tossed a rock into the ocean. I had no idea if anyone ever read the stories, no idea if anyone liked them. There were some laudatory comments from editors who had accepted them—“we’ve had a ton of submissions for this contest but nothing that begins to compare with this”; “it’s an amazing novella and we won’t change a word”—but each publication seemed to offer nothing more than a pale line on a résumé.
By the 90s, when I began to feel just slightly noticed with awards and fellowships and occasional letters from agents or editors who actually had read a published story and wondered if I was working on a novel, I encountered a new and stranger form of invisibility. One of my stories was published in a journal in the UK and, some months later, a friend in London came across a later issue of the same journal that had both a glowing comment on the story from a writer who’d won their international competition and a note from the editor that many other readers had also written in with praise. I was thrilled, but I was also very aware I would have known nothing about it without my friend’s report.
That was just the beginning of such unexpected events. By the 2000s and the new age of Google searches, I had stumbled on information that someone was teaching an online course that included one of my stories alongside classics from writers like Shirley Jackson and Tim O’Brien. My biggest surprise came when eight years after the original publication of the story in England, I learned it had been anthologized in a Penguin collection of best stories by Katherine Mansfield and Eudora Welty and a host of other remarkable women writers. By then, I was deep in a period of intense work on novels—researching and writing new ones and, revisiting and rewriting earlier ones. That was my focus. Yet I knew, that some of these things I’d discovered late—or perhaps never learned about at all—might have made a real difference for my writing career in the late 90s when I had work being seriously considered by more top agents and editors at top places. It was a particularly acute moment of invisibility.
Thinking about all this and being aware that the Sky Spinner books—in spite of the enthusiasm from so many readers I’m truly grateful to—may be destined to reside in their own invisible world (another long story having to do with the vagaries of marketing and the various imprimaturs and rules and assumptions in publishing), I feel the same kind of bemusement that has come to me often in my writing life. What an odd juncture of timing, luck, connections, and business decisions goes into the choices we’re given about what to read. It’s a baffling thing. Yet if this sounds like a cri de coeur, it’s not really. Rather, I’m thinking about a silver lining—that so many wonderful books do make their way into our lives. In fact, I’m reminded again of Hilary Mantel, whose work I’ve just blogged on. Recently, I heard her interviewed by Kerri Miller on Minnesota Public Radio. She was talking about Bring up the Bodies, and the whole Wolf Hall trilogy, and she said that until these books, she hadn’t known if she had a real audience, that her work can’t be easily categorized and, though critics have liked it, she hadn’t had many readers. Now that’s she’s suddenly experiencing true success with both critics and readers, she finds herself surprised and very happy, even gleeful.
I love that. I am so pleased she has had this good fortune, late as it may be. For one thing, it means I’ve had the amazing experience of reading her work. It also confirms my innate feeling that life isn’t unfair if, odd lottery or not, things can actually work out. This also has brought me to a small realization. When I was a child, my father often accused my mother of being a Pollyanna. Reading what I’ve just written, I have to assume I inherited that gene from her to go with the one that reflects my father’s more cynical nature. If so, let me share it with you. When you hear about writers who claim they’re serious about their work but have a thin to non-existent list of publications or very few sales, consider reserving judgment. It doesn’t mean they haven’t written good books. It doesn’t mean they haven’t written very good books. In fact, there’s a real chance they’re simply invisible.