I am twittering, (twits I call my own, not tweets) and writing this blog (or “blug” since for the most part, plugging is the purpose, not only to share my publishing experience but to somehow interest others in the book as well). I librarything, I shewrites, I shelfari, I goodreads, I facebook, and I turn all these nouns into verbs, and do so nearly every day, not ever knowing if any of it will come to much. Of course, I have already made what seem true connections with people who simply love books, whether they ever know of or come to love or even like mine. This is enough benefit, and it’s the reason why most readers enter these communities. If my intentions were not at first as pure, can my change of heart and renewed interest save me from the label of “publicity hound”? I hope.
In reaction to my continued squirrelliness about publicizing me, my book, and the family life that inspired it, I’ve had any number of friends—dear hearts really—remind me that I’m not actually selling “myself.” I’m selling my “book,” and in so doing simply assimilating to that world of Capitalism and production that is our country’s bread and butter (if not its best face). These reminders seem to lift the idea of bookdom to that old fashioned, thought-provoking, day-dreaming thing called literature that has its own purposes and gifts. But is every book literature? Even if it aims to be? When art is considered a commodity, can we still call it art?
When I first attended the Bread Loaf writer’s conference, the community seemed in the throws of panic as to its purpose in the world. This was the summer after 9/11. If the Holocaust had destroyed poetry, did this event—albeit US-centric—belittle the rest? The leading writers there convinced us that literature was still important, doing so with a pounding of fists on the podium and not a little sweat. But surely, literature’s highest function is the expanding of our sympathies to those unlike ourselves (even those decidedly unlikable, yet human all the same). As James Wood’s quotes George Eliot: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies… Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”
But can I claim I am extending anyone’s sympathies? Unless I can prove that my book is entertainment or literature or a combination thereof, it remains only an object to be bought and traded, never more or less important than an inventor’s greatest achievement which might be…. say… a purple commercial-weight eraser with its own bamboo basket holder (the Macro-Eraser 2000!). What a product! What originality! And what purpose! If I claim I am selling my “book” instead of my “myself,” does this semantic trick make my pimping any less egregious, my product any more important, than that practical and fine-faced (just look at the purple hue! The real bamboo!) eraser of the twenty-first century?
So what is it? What gives my novel any significance other than for my own mother who is in a complete (if respectable) tizzy over this swelling of events (she’s an emerging writer herself). What sympathies can I claim to expand? I know I have attempted to represent a certain temperament, the kind I understand best because I grew up surrounded by it—one of reserve and work and strength—and that I consider this temperament worth saving in an otherwise over-expressive televised world. I know I’ve tried for beauty, though beauty aimed at directly usually becomes its opposite. I have tried to fulfill for my reader Dillard’s query: “Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed.” That bareness, or barrenness, that’s certainly what I’ve tried for on the Midwestern plains. And of course I’ve tried to save my great-grandmother’s seventy-one years on the page, to capture a woman of stoicism and grief, a husband of quiet and faith. I’ve tried to give my proud and self-righteous antagonist Mary a bit of music, and her volatile husband a final word of sympathy for everything in the novel that is lost. I hope I’ve succeeded in all these things and that this book stands firm on its own merits, that all the years I’ve spent wringing the thing out will ring plenty in the reader. Despite all my pimping, I hope it still does.
In any case, I am posting this blug from the Russian hinterlands, off on a several week vacation in very good company before I return to the ecstatic momentum of my publication date at the end of June. In truth, every step of the way has been a wonder. Every new blurb and review and message from a reader (particularly the messages from readers) has left me wordless and grateful and handing out dollar bills to the homeless in attempt to balance out my karmic luck. When I received my Publisher’s Weekly starred review, I stared at my computer and simply scrolled up and down the screen, wondering if I was seeing straight. I leapt around the hallway in my apartment. After several hours of similar activities I sat down and took a nap. I’ve already received a number of similar surprises now, and I can’t say I’ve slept as well since.
I worked very hard on this novel, yes. I worked for years. I once considered titling it simply The Failure and throwing it out. But somehow I didn’t. Still hard work and stubbornness doesn’t always earn praise. Sometimes a person has to shout a bit. There’s a tragedy in that. But I think someone famous has already written that play.