Monday, August 1, 2011

Greg Olear talks about publishing, purgatory and never giving up

Greg Olear is an original. He's also the senior editor at the fabulous The Nervous Breakdown, the author of Totally Killer and the amazing Fathermucker, about a day in the life of a stay at home dad. You don't want to miss the hilarious and strange book trailer, either. I begged Greg to write something for the blog, and I'm thrilled with the results. Thanks, thanks, thanks, Greg!

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Three-and-a-half years ago, when my debut novel, Totally Killer, was making the publishing house rounds, I wrote this piece and sent it to a (minor) literary magazine, hoping to at last see my name in print.  The day that the rejection letter came from said lit-mag—you can’t make stuff like this up—was the same day I found out I got my book deal.  The lesson?  Don’t give up.

When I was in the apprenticeship phase of my novelist career—and by “apprenticeship” I mean “getting as much lousy writing out of my system as possible”—I had an administrative day job with the Associated Press.  The avuncular gentleman who handled the book reviews, knowing of my literary aspirations, would pass along every how-to-get-published guide that crossed his desk.  The gyst of those books was that to get in print, you needed an agent.  The agent, the books explained, was the bouncer at an exclusive nightclub called Publication, where hobnobbed the Paul Therouxes and the Ian McEwans and the Bret Easton Ellises (Bret Eastons Ellis?)—and where I stood outside, with countless other wordsmith wannabes, waiting beyond the velvet ropes.  The key, the books assured me, was to get through the door.  Find an agent, and you find a publisher.  End of story.

Mind you, I didn’t think I needed an agent.  My novel, after all, was perfect in every way; its understated brilliance would be obvious to any editor worth her salt.  Why should some glorified middleman (or middlewoman, as it were) be entitled to fifteen percent, I reckoned, just because the antiquated system happened to work that way?  It was only after investing several paychecks in SASEs that I discovered the problem with this thinking: editors don’t read anything—even unequivocal masterpieces like my novel—unless an agent tells them to.  

With no choice but to play along, I did what the books instructed: I went out and found myself an agent.  And it’s a good thing, because, as it happened, I did need one—and not just to forward my manuscript to Random House and HarperCollins.  What my agent did was nothing short of alchemy.  She took what was a leaden first draft and turned it into…if not gold, then something that doesn’t poison small children when used in paint.  Then she did one better, selling some editors on the project.

So why is my book not available at Barnes & Noble, you ask?  Ah, there is the rub.  The how-to-get-published books, it seems, were not entirely straight with me.  Agents are not gatekeepers.  There is no literary nightclub.  For all I know, Bret Easton Ellis and Paul Theroux have never even met. 

I’d been led to believe that if an agent sold an editor on the book, that’d be that.  Not so.  Agent-to-editor is merely the first step in a complicated dance.  The editor, once on board, must then pitch the book to senior editors and marketing people at what is known in the industry as the Editorial Meeting but what in my house is playfully nicknamed The Bane of My Existence.  It is at the Editorial Meeting where the powers that be decide to eschew cutting-edge first-time fiction for more marketable fare, like Monday Night Jihad, by Denver Broncos placekicker Jason Elam.  Four times my novel has made it to the Editorial Meeting, and four times it’s been kibboshed.  To continue the football motif, I’m like the Buffalo Bills, who went to the Super Bowl four times in a row, only to lose all four times. 

Not that this warrants the playing of violins or the rending of garments.  There is consolation.  There is solace.  For one thing, to lose the Super Bowl four times in a row, you have to be pretty good.  I’m reasonably certain, at this point, that I am a better novelist than Paris Hilton is a musician.  Not that this stopped Warner Brothers from bestowing a record deal upon her.  In fact, if Paris Hilton were to write a novel (working title: Paris the Thought), she’d have no trouble finding a publisher—and she’d probably outsell everything this side of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.  By virtue of being a blonde leggy hotel heiress, Paris Hilton is a brand that can attach to, and sell, anything, from pop records to trade paperbacks to blue movies.  I am not, needless to say (and alas), a blonde leggy hotel heiress.  My name has neither cachet nor kitsch value.  Whatever you think of my product, I am generic, the marketing equivalent of Vintage Cola.  And my lack-of-named-ness is why my novel keeps getting killed in committee.  Or so I tell myself, as the weeks turn to months, and the rejection letters pile up. 

Check that: as the rejection letters slowly pile up.  It hasn’t actually been forty years of wandering the desert—I’m only thirty-five; old for a ballerina, young for a novelist—but boy does it feel that way.  The publishing world moves at so deliberate a pace, Al Gore could make a documentary about it melting.  After waiting so long and working so hard, with nothing to sustain me but the manna of an occasional “rave rejection” and blind faith in my writing talent that may turn out to be delusional—I can’t even get a short story published!  I didn’t even get into an MFA program!—I’ve gone as far as I can go on my own.  And lo, there is the Promised Land, in my sights.  All I need is the thumbs up from Jehovah (or Jonathan Galassi, not that there’s much difference) and I get to cross the River Jordan.  Until then, I wait in literary Casablanca.  And wait.  And wait.  And…

How does one cope with Publishing Purgatory?  On this subject, the know-it-all how-to-get-published books fall dumb.  Successful authors who crank out memoirs about their craft—Stephen King, say—have little to say about my situation, because if they were in my situation, they wouldn’t be successful authors, and if they weren’t successful authors, they wouldn’t be writing memoirs about their craft.  Heck, even the Bible, which is supposedly so uplifting, offers little hope; the Promised Land didn’t work out so well for Moses.

So where does one turn for guidance?  If there is an analog in all of literature, it is found in the nineteenth sonnet of John Milton, of all places.  Throughout, and in the ultimate line particularly, the dour DWEM perfectly articulates my close-but-no-cigar anguish:

              …thousands at [God’s] bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Milton, of course, was coping with the loss of his eyesight, next to which the loss of Editorial Meeting consensus takes on a decidedly hill-of-beans sort of quality.  Still, the Zen lesson intended by the Christian poet is clear: Stay ready, and don’t lose hope—the Universe has a plan for you. 

Bret Easton Ellis was published at twenty-one because he was supposed to be.  I’m where I am because I’m supposed to be.  My writing talent will not go to waste!  It will just improve with age, like single-malt scotch, digital cameras, Harry S Truman’s presidential ranking…and John Milton’s writing talent.  Paradise Lost—the greatest literary achievement in the English language, it says here—was published in 1677, when its author was almost sixty.

So, while more fortunate men of letters speed and post without rest, I will keep standing and waiting.  The publicity people may not be on my side.  But time is.

—Greg Olear is the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and the editor of Fathermucker: The Blog.  He lives with his family in New Paltz, N.Y.


Robin Antalek said...

You are spot-on as always, Mr. Olear, and so very erudite. Great piece. I'll save a seat for you at the good table in purgatory, although I'm betting the publication of Fathermucker will probably get you a more exclusive table upstairs....

Greg said...

Thanks, Ms. Antalek. Or downstairs, as the case might be...

gae polisner said...

I have been to the Bane of Your Existence so many times! Funny, until this post, I had thought it was the Bane of Mine.

Great post!

Greg said...

Thanks, Gae.

Rest assured, you are not alone!

J. Allen Fielder said...

I needed this today.

Christi Craig said...

I just love this:
Stay ready, and don’t lose hope—the Universe has a plan for you.

I'm a firm believer, too.

Thanks for such a wonderful essay with plenty of inspiration.

Greg said...

Allen and Christi --

Thanks for leaving a comment and for the kind words.

It's true that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's also true that sometimes, that light turns out not to be an oncoming train.

Keep on keepin' on!

Donna Baier Stein said...

went thru that bane of existence last december - thanks for such an upbeat article -

Maddie Dawson said...

This is wonderful. I am passing it on to everyone I know.

Laurie Boris said...

An excellent post. Thank you. I feel less alone. I will no longer wait for Oprah to return my calls.

Greg said...

@Donna - There's nothing quite as agonizing...hope you made it through okay.

@Maddie - Thanks so much. Much appreciated.

@Laurie - Yeah, I'm waiting for that, too. Word on the street is, she's not returning calls to any author until that bitch Jane Austen returns HER call.

Claire Bidwell Smith said...

Such a great post, Greg. I can't even tell you how many rejections I've received in my day. I gave up so many times that I was embarrassed to tell people each time I dragged myself back to those velvet ropes.

BUT it paid the eleventh hour I sold my first book, to Penguin. Hardcover in February.

It's a crapshoot. And it's about persistence and endurance and masochism, I think.

Greg said...

And writing isn't the debt ceiling; the eleventh hour keeps moving.

You're right about the masochism, though. We're all masochists.

Looking forward to your book!