The Levels of Greatness a Fiction Writer Can Achieve in America
From Lowest to Highest
CENTIPEDE IN THE DARKNESS: Noah Cicero
Has published seven books. One on Lulu, two on his personal blog, and four POD on small presses. Rarely, if ever, has sex with fans he meets on MySpace. Gets more hits on his blog in half a week than has sold books in five years. Ignored by all print, for-profit media except in foreign countries. Makes enough money from his writing to get drunk once a season. Will likely die alone of something easily treatable if he'd had money or motivation to go to a doctor. Will be forgotten in 20 years (while he is still alive) when he loses the ability to blog after getting first-degree burns on both hands while boiling potatoes at work. Will be rediscovered 60 years after his death. Blog will be published as a hardcover in 2270 on Mars.
THREE-FOR-A-DOLLAR FEEDER FISH: Steve Almond
Has been reviewed by the New York Times and published books on corporate presses but one of them was a nonfiction book about candy and he fights back publicly when shit-talked by Gawker by first making sure that everyone knows he does not read Gawker and only found out he got shit-talked because someone else told him. Quit his adjunct teaching job because Condoleezza Rice was invited to speak at his college. Has sex once a month with fans he meets through MySpace. Receives up to three e-mails a day from a mix of MFA students at community colleges, Centipedes in the Darkness wanting blurbs, and 14-year-old girls who have lived their entire lives in gated communities. Will not be forgotten easily even after he is dead and his books are out of print because of how easy it is to talk shit about him. Will then be forgotten very easily, completely, and forever a few days after I type this when there's someone easier to talk shit about.
$9.98 PETCO GERBIL: Anne Tyler/Carol Shields/Jane Smiley
Have won the Pulitzer Prize and other major awards but are thought of by most critics, writers, and journalists to be primarily romance authors or perhaps "self-help" authors, partly because all their books are bestsellers but mostly because they are women who write about human relationships and are not from a foreign country. Make enough money to not have blogs, MySpace pages, or their e-mail addresses on the internet. Will never be written about in Review of Contemporary Fiction. Secretly considered "unseemly in a wholesome way somehow" by serious literary critics; "I don't know, is it okay to read these people?" by MFA students at Iowa Writers' Workshop; and "I really, really want to stay away from those people and their books" by people who like Thomas Pynchon a lot.
PONY ON A PONY FARM OF A CHILD OF A BILLIONAIRE: Joy Williams/Mary Robison/Frederick Barthelme/Ann Beattie
Considered "important" and "serious" by most critics, writers, and journalists, but are held back from further greatness by an inability to make grand pronouncements using sociological, political, or psychological terms in an earnest tone that conveys "I am very smart and this is my serious literature." Held back also because they sometimes publish in smaller magazines, some of which don't even contain advertisements from Knopf or American Airlines; because some of their e-mail addresses can be found on the internet; and because they would never consider writing from the perspective of someone in a terrible event that they did not experience. Occasionally mentioned by Used Honda Civics in "Great" Condition (see below) to prove a generalization wrong. Do not make enough money from their books to not have teaching jobs. Too godless and without rhetoric to win a major award or be satisfactorily written about by the important literary critics of our time.
USED HONDA CIVIC IN "GREAT" CONDITION: Jonathan Franzen/ Rick Moody/David Foster Wallace
Frequently cited in comments sections of blogs with 2,000–4,000 unique visitors a day as "Great American Novelists," or sometimes "the greatest writer ever that is still alive and American." Published novels at first, then got distracted and published nonfiction books, story collections, essay collections, and other things that made them less powerful. Also held back by their inability to write about the Holocaust, genocide in Africa, racism, or the immigrant experience; that they sometimes publish in places that are not the New Yorker; and that photos of them exist where their faces do not convey "I am very smart and this is my serious literature."
F-14 FIGHTER PLANE SHOOTING MISSILES AT CACTI IN NEVADA: Don DeLillo/Thomas Pynchon
Distinguished from Used Honda Civics in "Great" Condition because they are able to control themselves and focus only on novels, because they would never consider publishing something in a magazine that does not contain advertisements from major corporations, and the only photos of them that exist are ones that convey "I am very smart and this is my serious literature." Are not familiar with MySpace and do not have e-mail accounts. Unable to attain further greatness, just like foreign-born American citizens cannot be president, because they were born in America and their parents aren't Jewish. Rarely do women attain this level of greatness.
F-16 FIGHTER PLANE SHOOTING MISSILES AT A HUT IN IRAQ WHILE SOMEONE INSIDE IS SHITTING IN A HOLE AND TRYING TO READ A COPY OF 'PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT' THAT WAS AIRDROPPED BY ACCIDENT 10 YEARS AGO IN AFGHANISTAN: Philip Roth
Publishes only on corporate presses and only publishes novels. Every book is a bestseller, but always in a good way. Almost every book wins a major award. Is never sarcastic in interviews (or in his books, except occasionally the kind of sarcasm where authorial meaning is the direct opposite of the literal meaning). Will never be forgotten. Shit-talked only by $9.98 Petco Gerbils or lower. Strong contender for the Nobel Prize. Never considers publishing in nonprofit, university-run, or independent magazines or journals. Would rather commit suicide than create a MySpace page. Is Jewish and therefore vaguely but satisfactorily connected to non-Americans, terrible events from the past, and current events that cause CNN and Fox News to suspend regular programming. Has sex only with people he meets in real life.
Tao Lin is the author of the poetry collection you are a little bit happier than i am, the short story collection Bed, and the novel Eeeee Eee Eeee. Melville House will publish his second poetry collection, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, in May, 2008. Read his blog.