Novel after novel, I take my manuscripts to the side of the Cascades and lay the pages out in numerical order, spelling HELP on the side of a mountain. Spelling PUBLISH ME. I hope for a plane passing overhead, full of editors and agents. Perhaps they'll look down as they glide between international deals, and what will they see? Well, a writer. A writer among many writers, one of the masses hoping for a big contract.
Are you there New York? It's me, Monica.
If I wanted to reach one reader, I'd write a letter. For a small crowd, e-mail works just fine. But after spending five years crafting a novel, it seems only reasonable to want an audience. A big audience. And a paid book tour, too. I want into the mainstream publishing houses, the big book club, the New York scene. You could say it's a fixation of mine, growing stronger each year I spend on the outside.
"Writers write because they weren't invited to the party." That's what author Tom Spanbauer says, quoting some other writer who came before, articulating the same struggle. Writers write because they want to be read. They want to be heard, to have a voice in an indifferent world.
I grew up in a house of small press publishing. Nights I nursed an anxious grade-school insomnia to the cheerful click of a stapler in the kitchen, a flock of graduate students shuffling around our circular table, collating their latest poetry anthology and exploiting the limits of the "mimeo-revolution." Ah, those lovely blue-tinted pages, the sweet ka-thunk of the mimeo machine as a big metal drum slapped each page into print. Our front porch was crowded with letterpresses; a mimeograph big as a loveseat broadcast to visitors right at the front door: "We run a small press here."
Of course, it's the availability of copying technology that sets our country apart from others by granting freedom of speech, freedom of the press--the glorious right to burn through hours, days, weeks, and cash, printing and distributing leaflets, pamphlets, fliers, and poems. A newer option, corporate print-on-demand, asks only a small fee to facilitate the self-publishing process. And "demand" is the perfect marketing word, appealing to the private dream of every writer locked out of the big contracts: A publication might be so special that it incites a mob to demand more copies--and then rest assured, dear author, there will be more.
James Joyce started out small press, friends remind me. Yes, sure. He's one of many authors on the small-press-to-canon list. I know, I know. And Joyce Carol Oates signed her name among contributors on one of the old homemade anthologies of my childhood. It doesn't escape my notice.
They "started out" small press, but they didn't stay there. Small presses are charming and daring and cutting edge and brash. They're where the raw stuff is, the edgy material, the taboo work. The "real." Small presses are brave and idealistic, hoping to offer the world ideas and styles not found in the 80,000 books already published in the U.S. alone each year. Small press work is populist, generous, and experimental--qualities I value tremendously.
So with the self-publishing and small press options, why am I still waiting for New York to call? A quick walk through the local zine store reminds me how often small press publications are also dusty and neglected, dog-eared and alone; the raw, edgy, and taboo lies limp, too impotent and easily overlooked to even drift to the remainder table. Any small-press corner of a bookstore is a raucous spot of wild ideas and individualism--and yet also a dismal party, forlorn and forgotten, brilliance overlooked in the mad shuffle of the book industry and therefore by readers as well.
Not long ago, in an effort to bridge the gap, I flew to New York on a Saturday and had lunch with a writer that same afternoon. "Where are you staying?" the writer asked. I was staying at a friend's place--another writer, the daughter of a famous author more established than any of us.
Ah, my lunch-date writer-friend nodded, picking through his plate of arugula. "I just saw her," he said of my host. "At a party last night."
For the rest of my visit, this would be the pattern: Every writer, editor, and agent I met would ask where I was staying, nod, and mention the same party. In short, I arrived in New York one day late and missed the party of the weekend, the party of the month, the party of the New York literati. The proverbial party became literal, and I'd missed it by staying one day too long in the faraway Pacific Northwest.
At another party, on this side of the country, I met a young writer with a Hollywood screen deal. "All the rewrites!" she said, rolling her eyes, talking about her editor. She was writing a second novel, and editors were guiding her through the process. "What a drain!" And I was supposed to relate to this? She might as well have been complaining that her house was too big to clean, or that her husband was overly sexual, or that her finances were too complicated to manage.
I'd love to be in her position. All I could hear, beyond the party sounds, was the distant snapping of a stapler, the ka-thunk of an ancient mimeo machine, a copier, calling my name, taunting me.
This isn't a question of money, though money certainly figures into the equation. It's a question of love. Money is only the tangible evidence of corporate love extended to an artist, a writer, an individual adrift and practicing self-expression.
Money is the fast track to validation. In my heart of hearts, I can't let go of the notion that small press publishing is a consolation prize. It's a marriage of convenience--you feed my need, I'll feed yours. You let me be a writer, I'll make you an editor, a publisher. Then, perhaps, we'll turn it around. Under a new label, you'll be the writer and I'll be the publisher, and look at us, suddenly famous together--at least on a single shelf in a crowded lit mag section. And this is what holds me back: the conviction that there's a more sincere, true love out there worthy of my manuscripts.