The Novelist, Nowadays Conor Madigan Essay

person_pin The Novelist, Nowadays

by Conor Madigan

Published in Issue No. 275 ~ April, 2020

I

At once irreplaceable and hors concours in the book business, further, tact and consideration in the treatment of, the more vital, because, though often arrogant and unreasonable, importance allies with considerable helplessness, insecurity, and anxiety; The Novelist. Publishing history enshrines minuscule minority rather than mere producers of raw material, dependent on goodwill, skill, and resources of others for the process of expedient exploitation. Further, corresponding moments in due time fewer still will be singular purveyors of brand-valued fare and remain in a fixed orbit. Conscious of this, regard the little matter of fulfillment as solely the publisher’s affair, for if success comes quickly, the credit will be the author’s; if delayed, the fault will be another’s (the publisher’s). Strain not for quick compensation, but some strain must be borne. It is from novelists, of a patient kind, now and again derive sudden success, sweep inexplicably across the diadem to our couched and ready, reading public. 

           But, for the very different kind—the permanent member of the cliquish literary coterie, the effect on their publisher, though not always gleeful, impresses less than that of a potential best-seller, for, with all their character, craftsmanship bests sales. Of course, we desire success; but measure success with moderation, of one who despises our Fifty Shades of Offendor runs, in terms of educated appreciation. We have uncomfortable ideas in matters of production (hence my essay). Perhaps we punctuate, edit to mandarin levels, use capital letters along wholly novel lines. The printer, who works to standards of production, either unawares the apparent psychosis of a manuscript intentional, or overlooks general instruction which accompanies (Infinite Jest; The Luminaries; etc. in playful format, best-sellers). The public who reads these works, maybe 45k, mainly a New York, Los Angeles, or London one. These two are called best-sellers, but Lord of the Flies sold nearly 30m worldwide. The compensation of the publisher who takes the trouble to conciliate coterie writers: many more promising fledglings sent them, of whom some fall into parabolic market orbit; and others, when their nonage comes pounded due, fall into ashamedly commercial gravity and burn up in the atmosphere, with an infinitesimal exception. The entente with repped coterie, into one or another of which the brave young authors drift, out of which, in due course, a certain number pass onward to broader things; film, television—their origins MFA, and Creative Ph.D. (whatever that is) programs. 

           There are, and always have been, universally acclaimed whose each new work finds its James Wood, who fail. They steadily produce thoughtful and well-wrought sentences ensconced in meaningful modular and linear narrative, appropriate lyricism and impact; but for one reason or another never get away with the trick—and the longer they orbit the less probability they find lagrange (the stationary point celestial: Coetzee, Morrison, McCarthy, more names stacked like stairs the farther into the distance of publishing history) or ellipse, and zoom out into deep space. Whether or no to contract who fail sits among publishers’ most heartrending head-scratchers. Who fails books will do the publisher’s honor. The author deserves love, cars, houses, fine bitties, and good food! But publishers will inevitably bleed capital. A wonder publisher hasn’t decided on a minimum wage for earners of this soon helical orbit. As mentioned above, these novelists have found television and film jobs, where they maintain a daily workshop-style team writing, dull their senses for novelistic integrity, ever farther into commercial cosmos, now more filmic in any approach to narrative, failed vassals of a kind to their lord Novel. Worse: others teach, as DFW points out in his first published essay; an awful way, exposing oneself to the bad side of teaching, not really teaching at all—at once begrudging a full class for the well-lit singular peopled study, shoving novice scribblers hand to and not to this and that way, always from bent having-been-rather-than-being a producing, solely concerned with novel-writing, novelist… Helpless expectancy addles even super-cooled minds under criticism. One type may assume lofty indifference while deleting and drafting inwardly; one may squander criticism, reject it, and clamp down on truancy for best effect; but no amount of indifference or truancy can heal wounds left by contemptuous barbs, or prevent uneasy belief a more seasoned criticism justifies the weakness of the author’s text—most heatedly, an editor in place of a have-been author. Careless faultfinding by a quick and forward critic ignites bottomless spite, the stuff of duels. Pistols drawn, two authors, one professor, one plebe, sweat the class their pits—learning nothing. 

           The author’s first perplexity, choosing a publisher, as many fine as fraud, relies not on whether the publisher is good, but many more considerations. For the author to regard their publisher as a Count who pays for manufacture and hands the finished book to retail trade for distribution is not only to misinterpret a captivating and complex calling, it is also to risk damage to your own reputation; for the personality of the publisher, first and foremost, the fit, character, and toughness, mean more than the éclat of a muscular debut. 

The character of the person producing your book should be of the utmost importance. Most often, this is not the case, except for represented authors, who more often delegate choice to trusted agents. But, helpers often fail their authors; professors see contact lists grow for their own literary ambitions; agencies’ eye on the money chooses the most paying of publishers for the muscular debut. A glut of over-hyped under-performing books flood to market from every house, every boutique house; we have a confused public, too many options from too many publishers. The sun burns too hot. We are afraid. We choose a for-sure biography of Einstein, Grant, Currie, or once again to The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

           Without an agent, or backing of an MFA’s professor’s hall pass, our primal author on their own, a few widespread, absurd fears take shape. Paranoia, a first thought upon finishing any first manuscript, grafts a few new-to-them-fears to the bone. Firstly, partial-read-full-rejection. The drug-resistance of this illusion that a publisher is a rogue, driveling idiot hinges on the misconception that publishers don’t require manuscripts. Manuscripts are the raw commodity of the trade; your new antidote, you ill thing you. Wherefore they invite manuscripts, do not read them, or have them read; a wolf who runs after a hare gains to its hinds and slows to watch a meal on legs run away. Of course, it is not always the thing for anyone to read the thing full through any more than a whiff will tell you of the month of your milk; equally, of course, readers may overlook inaccurate or dangerous statements: your book provokes contradiction; worse, legal action; but that their manuscripts are not just looked at but returned, after a horrid or minor delay, is an idea which authors can safely dismiss for good and all. Really, after a book is accepted, edited, published, the publisher must continue to gather evidence of its tenure, contact the author at intervals to include them on the work’s development, and offer the author insight and calm, or commiseration and support. Much of these tasks are far more work than the author can ever understand unless they have worked editorial or some framework within a major-, minor-, or small-publisher; and much of these tasks are done in half by a publisher knowing the rank and quality of a fair, or merely finished, work. Indeed, there was, at one point, a special department in the New York book press who oversaw the singular aspect of contacting and communicating with the author. Alas, no more. In the US, because the ideal is prohibitively expensive, most publishers give their teams many roles. The editor then becomes a kind of contact point or salve for the pain of criticism; the publicist may also keep company analytics; this kind of publisher, more commonplace now, thus understaffs, underpays, in overwhelmingly expensive cities. But even halfway to ideal betters publishing in the nineteenth century, the golden age of human exploitation. We now approach faster, more reliable business, within it built-in empathy for novelists, in part due to public obsessed with the lives of artists, and highly reflective analytics inform a publisher of the development of a literary work, an author, their brand. 

           Another fear, majestic star nursery Book Clubs and Societies, has created an opposing force to non-best-sellers. Best-sellers have the unique lift of the Oprah-like voices, which inform libraries and booksellers where to put their exacted cheese. The more exact year after year. Following, mid-list authors have declined since the early twentieth century. A sudden best-seller, quick and agreeable profit for a publisher, has since the 1990’s attracted a type of agent, editor, publisher, and mindsets unnerved and lost the venerable few who would enjoy vibrant lists of diverse who fail authors. The various departments of a publisher focus on their miraculous thoroughbred. Follows, too, novelists have pathetic optimism characteristic of their craft when it comes to Book Clubs, Societies, etc…. In truth, the Book Clubs are as much a part of the novel’s life, and in not dissimilar submission, to that of the publisher, granting liberty of economic windfall when the fickle board member of this or that institution heed. A second chance, in a way. Publishers know this well; most novelists do not. To most, the Club and Society institutions represent the fiction authors often disdain, for their quality falls that much lower, or confounds. How could anyone read typos or repeat words on every page? How anyone could stand a newsprint stuffed paperback! The truth there; millions gobble up cheap books, have since Dent.

           The greatest distribution of works in the English language over the past two-hundred years occurred under the moniker of Everyman. Therein lay the prospect of affordable literature, high literature made available to even low earners, who wished to read but could not, simply, afford to. In current climes, as hardcover books still represent large portions of readers’ food-money, softcover dominate, and even cheaper still, softcover with cheap innards, a vast frontier of digital books, this last decade, ballooned and deflated for all but genre. Literary works of merit are still preferably hardcover, more often signed by the author on cam at home or event, with nearby smiling readership waving to selfie-stick-mounted iPhones. (yes, the reader has entered the home) The intimacy of the reader with their favorite author has thinned to cask-strength social media; the privacy of a quiet home in which to write now floods phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop light for filming, photographing the author in their unnatural habitat, the film screen, labor near impossible to monetize at any reasonable level, and ultimately drawing time and energy from the author’s finely-tuned craft. Time-and-again-best-sellers have some parabolic anonymity (Rowling; Brown; Patterson; etc…), going far from reach and coming back in with predictable orbit; but our nation’s best literary authors are forced into the public through media and tours, guiding them evermore away from their quiet desks, evermore on their tip-toes to reach breathing air of quiet contemplation, evermore consigned to controversy and microscopic attention to social gaffe and malapropism. It is a time not unlike Dent’s, where Everyman has access to the work of every author, but now also that author’s big toe. Publishers will have to take note, help to monetize this type of labor the author must unwittingly relent to should they have a slingshot-chance in hell before accidentally jettisoning into the sun.

II

“Creativity, in its simplest and most refined form, occurs in the right section of the brain. The stories we come up with as we move along through a narrative, those pieces of the whole, relate to some aspect of our generated and lived lives—be it work we’ve read, written, or the life we’ve lived. Relating happens in the right side of the brain as well, that true form of empathy, where the refined creases of love and thought make their best moves.” 1 

           But, for the sake of readership and clarity, the cleaning up and dusting off of our creative work must come from the left and right sides of the brain in collusion; where the left categorizes, logs, lists, enumerates, files, and refines; the right side means, connects, congregates, refines within connection and characterization to reveal to the author through revision how less can mean more—a goal of the process of structure, story-telling, and narrative design. We understand through our right hemisphere. 

It is the right hemisphere that understands the emotional or the humorous aspects of narrative. –Iain McGilcrhist.

When we sit or stand to begin to write, what are we exactly asking our bodies to do? Is the initial process an act of empathy in itself? Doesn’t that come a little later when we know characters come to know voices? Creative-writing is, in its basest self, an act of empathy. Word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to the page to chapter, we are telling another a story—we are engendering a voice for their listening. Markedly, they are doing much more work initially than we do initially as creative-writers. Or, as Joseph Epstein puts it, we want to get famous and “earn an honorable discharge from the financial wars.” 2

           When readers embrace a page, it is an emotional, logical, and grammatical embrace, one in which all lights are on, and pleasure causes relief, continuance, and acknowledgment of grace within the author’s imparting of the story. Grace comes so late in the author’s writing of the work, it’s remarkable that it comes in the first sentence, often, of a reader’s reading. 

           One of the most difficult aspects of selling work for a creative-writer to understand, that fact of the reader’s first embrace, the grace they must encounter to love, kills many creative-writers at the first inkling of sitting or standing to write. They’re dead in the water with such immediacy, it’s almost frightening to continue on. And for the most part, they don’t. The few who carry on have a secret within them. 

           We all have it. It’s a matter of when, and from whom, it came. Rarely whispered, more intuited or imparted, the secret of the will to continue on in a creative endeavor, has been passed down from master to novice, from novice to child, and sometimes from child to master, depending on the master’s will to know the master in the child. The secret has to do with something I have always despised to name because the words they’ve come up with it are very distracting: gumption, knack, willfulness, chutzpah, stick-to-it-ness, moxy (literally doesn’t spellcheck, maybe I spelled it wrong), and other countless terms that mean just this: don’t give up. 

           How is it?

           Don’t give up. Why is this the secret? Because when you’re told it, for creative-writing, it doesn’t make sense if you’re seeing so clearly the other side’s disregard or distaste for your work. This person doesn’t like it, and they’re so-and-so’s agent/publicist/editor/friend/mother, and you’re sunk. Well, there’s a lot to this Don’t Give Up that sounds more like Who Cares What They Think. This is a part of my familial trait, luckily. 

           Speaking, as it happens, is also the right side of the brain function of communication. Speaking, this creative prosody amounts to an ongoing risk-taking venture of empathy and control, re-placement of words, revision, and listening, self listening. At first, creative-writing must do none of these. The old disembarkation metaphor does the initial act of creative-writing well because we so often feel the boat move under us as we go, but soon we have a foothold on steady shore, and soon we’re walking on the beach. At this point, after some time, you will be able to ignore the boat dancing in the waves. For some, the boat will distract, distract and annoy, and make the full disembarkation very difficult. The boat you must disembark for an MFA program sits inside a closed-in four-walled room with a small pool for the medium-sized boat and the shore, a walkway around the boat and pool holds all of your classmates and teacher, there about a half-foot of walking space. It’s almost impossible not to fall back into the boat with all that attention for your work. Some are very good, though, and can ignore the world for the page, others’ eyes for the page, their parents for the page, long-dead authors for the page, and these are the most likely to disembark and never look back at the boat. They always know it there, where they left it in the waves, and they’re respectful in the very right side of the mind way. They keep their informational realm, their creative realm, from the view of the boat. And then, because all metaphors have some amount of the fantastical to them, they stop writing or thinking, and they’re back on the boat without having to find it or embark. The process takes a synapse’s length of time, and soon they’re thinking about Jim or Marcy in the second row and what they’ll think of their work, or they hear their roommate squander the last of the coffee on their morning, or their parents have woken and bang around, or the library custodian shifts the broom to the side of the rectangular bucket. 

           What you must learn to do in these situations comes from intuition learned and some natural to you, can breathe you back into your work, or leave it on the desk for later depending on your ability. Another metaphor is needed to describe what should be simple enough to name: attention. Attention is a moral act. We pay attention to a dying man across the street differently than we pay attention to a pill bug crawling across the pavement. Within the creative-writing realm, attention must become a known entity to you. It can’t be that every time you sit down or stand to write, you have a different set or threshold of attention. It must be your most guarded and willed attention, your freshest face, your strongest, most adamantine mind. For some of you, it may be Sundays at three pm because the rest of the week, you are tied up. This then should be your time. It is no less professional of you to have one time a week rather than one time a day to disembark. It’s that you’re willing to mark out that time, defend it ruthlessly, and champion it in your soul as your own. And what is your own? Well, I’ve covered that pretty well. You’ve left the boat. No one is with you. Some will find, with time, they can write with a partner (see The Expanse), and this is fine. But initially, you must wall off that time, protect it, and get to know it. Voltaire’s walled off time was around six hours of the day. I have never, in modern times, known anyone with this type of willful attention, save for Murakami if he’s writing a novel. I have never heard of anyone who clocked in six hours of writing a day—pure writing, pure willful attention. The vast majority of creative-writers clock in at most three and, in the very least half an hour of sustained willful attention. This is the right side of brain time. We’re not editing, we’re not filing, logging, or refining, we’re generating within a disembarked time. Charles Johnson, one of the great authors of our last quarter-century, found his time from 3 to 5 am.

Dostoyevsky, depending on the time of his life you choose, wrote from midnight until around 4, or when everyone was dead-quiet and asleep. At that point, he was also running a journal and tirelessly finding new and good authors, reading manuscripts, writing missives, letters, and tracts for the journal, and then, right when everyone boarded up their beds and went to sleep, he dozed a few minutes and then got to it. Disembarkation. Likewise, Goethe had a time of day. Alice Munro. It’s just a fact of life that we must find that time. It’s wonderful if it’s daily, but as Rosellen Brown said, “writing is not a hobby, even if it’s once a week on the weekend, it’s a profession.” So, take it seriously, and never give in to sacrificing that time, barring of course doctors appointments, jury duty… We all have things, but the course of life should flow around this time, your time, and voices from life should stop in you for that time so that it’s quiet, reassuring, and above all productive. Not necessarily words on the page productive, but the story and character productive. 

           And here is where creative-writing gets very interesting. We utilize so much of our mind to write, to creative-write, that in time we can access the worlds we create and elaborate upon them within them while we’re out in the world, on our boat. The family surrounding us, a feast on the table, lover in our arms, we ignite the cherry from our last having set fire on the beach. “A gilded time,” what Philip Roth called the last few drafts, of knowing a work so well it seems to give back tenfold what we’ve put in. For some, this will happen a few times in their lives. For others, it will be an occurrence for each manuscript. Others will grow to it, losing many manuscripts before the first one. Charles Johnson went through six novels before producing his award-winning work. We must rush back to work then and engage. 

           Zadie Smith came up with literal disconnection, to disconnect from the internet when you’re enjoying your writing time. That’s difficult for most people. Our reward response system is wired so heavily in favor of communication that often what trumps our need for quiet and writing time ends it completely. Our writing time doesn’t include stiff dopamine pleasure responses often. We’re not reading erotica or war stories, or crying with every page; instead, we’re giving our full attention. Asking 13-year-old people to give their full attention is difficult. Asking a full-grown adult to break a twenty-five-year relationship with email, text, communication is akin to throwing their food on the floor after having missed a meal. We’re always primed for it. So turn that shit off. Turn it off. If I had all the money in the world, I would have a writing computer and a communications computer, ne’er the twain shall meet. That being said, I just looked up the proper usage of ne’er because I didn’t immediately realize the word never was part of the concept of the phrase because I was using my right side as a concept and not the word for word meaning of the phrase. I used the internet, which is inherently connected to my email, phone, all that crap. If you have the means, I would recommend writing by hand, or writing by machine so that you’re allowed internet search, but all else none. You don’t want the momentary glimpse of your mailbox. It’s too intrusive, and the intrusion shuts down the aspects of our willful attention that make our time our time. Outsiders beware the writer interrupted by noise. Earplugs, often within surround headphones, writing closets, writing rooms, Ted Hughes found a room at the top of a stairwell in an unused building, and there took a small desk and chair.

Franzen does the same thing. Rooms away. Places, spaces away allow us to populate our hours alone in willful attention. I had the incredible honor of having a colonoscopy one day after a day of prep and was put on Propofol to put me under, oxygen through me to keep me alive. I awoke after will the feeling of complete rejuvenation and bliss. My mind had been altered, I knew it. I felt great. Not a worry in the world. My mother and father, I was 38 at the time, picked me up, and we went to lunch. I’d lost my writing time that day. I wouldn’t get it back. It took a few days to get back the composure I knew I had before the Propofol. Composure is that part of willful attentiveness that makes the decision to proceed, deny, access, evaluate, continue writing. We need, sometimes, a few days to get back our composure. If you can have composure all of the time, regardless of the upheaval, well good on you. We believe Maupassant did. If you can write while traveling, while in the throng of a loud Cambodian street, fine. Graham Greene could find solace in loud places, but I bet he would add that the louder and more chaotic the better because, within the loudness, he found his room. In the war, he found himself at his happiest, his best, and wrote good work. Greene wasn’t an author like most. He found Hemingway’s approach to living the work somehow perfect; that the work itself needed the seed of known truth, an experienced truth. It’s a complicated world creative-writing, and therein you find what works for you. For my money, I’m more attuned to the Flaubert model of quarantine and quiet. It’s how my brain is wired, that I prefer an awayness to enter my work. Somehow, I feel Greene and Hemingway utilized the similar parts of their brains in escape—in the intrepidness of their lives, but I would wager when it came to the actual writing they found their rooms, their sanctuary. Muriel Spark found sanctuary on her living room floor to lay it all out in front of her to best see the short and sharp novels she wrote. Spaces, places of reverence, of seeing, of knowing and listening. 

           Illness, like the Propofol experience, can also impede the quality of creative-writing. We’re a system when it comes down to it, and if we’re ill, we must strive to get better to find the best of ourselves to work. If you’re too ill, or if you have within the illness no ups and downs, write about your inability to write, but don’t force the creative work until you’re better, or in the very least find the up part of your day to engage and disembark. I have read enough illness works to know that the principle function of disembarkation is difficult, if not impossible, at the point of an illness, mental or physical. Often too clearly illness-writing constructs a sense of its own, closed off to the outside world, where logic and tone shift. Then we’re asked, what is this, a work of illness or fiction? Best to write an ill character when healthy rather than trying one’s hand at writing illness when ill. Knut Hamson’s ill protagonist in Hunger was to the page a defying character, filled with the anxiety of the illness of starvation. Knut wrote that he religiously fed himself his meals to keep away from that character. In the end, we all eat at our fingers a little to get the words down. 

  1   Harnad, 1972

  2   Epstein, 1996 Winter Hudson Review

account_box More About

Conor Robin Madigan is the author of the short novel Cut Up (Republic of Letters Books, 2011). Madigan received his MFA from the School of Art Institute in Chicago. His short fiction has appeared in Horla, Fortnightly Review, New York Tyrant, The Saturday Evening Post Anthology of Great American Short Stories 2020, and elsewhere. The Novelist, Nowadays, is his first published essay. www.conormadigan.com