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In this issue:
Look at that book in your hand right now: does it matter if it’s art to you?
Quick loon update (because I just can’t stay away from them)
The Writer’s Dog Interview #4: Meet Daisy
Am I making art? Does it matter?
I read this essay by Elle Griffin about what constitutes art in the literary world and it’s been buzzing in my brain all week as I go through the draft of the novel I’m working on. I need to think out loud with you and maybe we’ll all learn a bit more about each other.
Elle sets up and counters three arguments she thinks certain arbiters of art would have us believe:
If it’s popular, it’s not real art
If it’s different, it’s not real art
If it’s self-published, it’s not real art
Going by these, I can honestly say, I’m making art. Or at least I’ve made art.
Casualties, my first and, so far, only novel made it out into the world and into the hands and homes of several thousand readers. I still hear from some of them and it thrills me and always will. That said, it could not be called popular on the scale of, say, any Stephen King or Jodi Picoult novel. So, check.
Casualties is about a mother and defense industry executive whose son returns from the war more troubled than she realizes forcing her to face the consequences of her choices and the complicity we all share. The story is not experimental, it adheres to traditional story-telling techniques. I tried to tear the reader's heart out and hand it back along with hope for a better world. Many books do this and do it well. Again, not so different. Check.
I was published by an imprint of Penguin Random House, so I did not self-publish. Check.
Does that mean the rest of the world views my novel or my writing as “art?” My parents helped put that in perspective. My dad, upon finding out that my book would only be published in paperback, looked a little crestfallen, bless his heart. “I thought it would be hard cover, a real book,” he said. Years earlier, when I showed my mother a draft of a magazine piece I was writing and hoping to sell, she commented, “It makes good bathroom reading.”
So I didn’t think much about art as I slaved away on Casualties. I did worry plenty plenty about being published.
I wanted to be chosen.
One of the reasons I was such a slow starter as a writer was my fear that I was not good enough, not literary enough, not smart enough. My measures for success were the authors on the New York Times bestsellers list, the names on the spines of the books I gobbled -- people whose work had been selected and nourished by traditional publishers. The chosen.
Each rejection of each short story or essay I submitted seemed to confirm that I would never be chosen. So I largely hid all my writing -- my creative writing and therefore the most important to me -- in notebooks and drawers and closets and boxes where few people besides me ever saw them. I told myself that someday I would go back to it all - after I had enough money, when my son was older, when I had more time, when I had more life experience -- you name it, there was an excuse.
For now, let’s skip over the years that followed except to say that, I eventually hit a “now or never” point and began to take myself and my writing seriously. I finally understood that it wasn’t for publishers to decide if I wrote or not, they only determined if or when I got published. By the time I had finished Casualties and was ready to submit, even that had begun to change. Self-publishing was gathering steam, gaining momentum with the advent of e-books, and turning some writers, especially those who focused on particular genres, into authors with giant followings and incomes to match.
When I hit that lottery back in 2015 -- and submitting a manuscript for publication bears a strong resemblance to the biggest game of luck there is -- I was over the moon. I had made it into a club I’d longed to be part of and I’d done it without the MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) that I’d once believed would have legitimized me as a writer in the eyes of all the choosers.
I would not trade the feeling I had the day my agent called me with the news for anything in the world. A big part of me wants that feeling again. On the other hand, there is a growing part of me that is very interested in what would happen if I didn’t wait to be chosen but published the novel I’m now writing myself.
With this in mind, I’ve been paying attention to novelists like Elle Griffin and Kristen Tsetsi and a growing number of memoir and nonfiction writers who are experimenting with self-publishing in all formats including serializing their work online with platforms that allow them to interact directly with their readers -- no publisher cutting into the profits. Bookstores become just one of several distribution options. No one comes between the author and the readers; readers interact directly with the writing and the author all along the way. The writers among us will find a treasure trove of articulate discussion, resources, and a burgeoning community of fiction writers who are also experimenting with these ideas over on Elle’s substack called The Novelleist.
I won’t lie, though, I wonder if publishing my own work would make readers and other writers look at me differently. If I bypass the agents and editors who do the choosing, would the work suffer without their editorial eye and input? Would I come to question my own legitimacy as a writer or, (gulp) artist?
I saw myself in this quote from Elle’s essay:
“In this model, it’s the gatekeeper who decides what counts as good enough to publish vs. bad enough not to publish. But they are making those decisions for us based on their own subjective taste. As a result, authors lust for the third-party approval of a Penguin publishing contract—even if it will earn them fewer readers and fewer earnings than a self-published novel.” - Elle Griffin
Ouch. I had lusted for that approval. I wanted it more than I wanted to succeed financially with this book - which is a good thing because while publishing my novel made my dream come true, I made no money. In fact, if you count what it cost me in time to write and promote, I’m deep in the red. Turns out that being chosen may get books on the shelves of the stores but it was up to me to get them to fly off and into people’s homes -- my publisher gave me some support but had other priorities. I had a steep learning curve to climb.
The idea that I could reach the same number of readers or even fewer with my next novel and keep more of what I make is attractive. That there may be more creative ways and fun ways of finding and engaging with my readers by publishing online than I once thought is also attractive. I recognize though, that I might also lose potential readers this way. There is much to think about.
In the end, I’m coming to understand that writing my novel or even this essay right now is only one half of the creative equation for me. The other half is wanting it to find a reader and resonate. However I end up publishing my next novel, this is the most essential piece. It is also why I work hard with Spark to help writers and readers find each other. I remember those who helped me, who spread the word, who introduced me to book clubs, their mothers, aunts, uncles, friends, bloggers, podcasters, newspaper folks, bookstores and more.
When I think about it, the glow from being “chosen” by the publisher faded much more quickly than I expected. The thrill of connecting with even a single reader never gets old.
So now I need to ask you as writers and readers, what matters most to you when you are looking for a good read? Do you want that book, essay, article, to be curated by experts before it comes to you? If you read a book and then find out it has been self-published, does it change how you feel about the book? If Charles Dickens, the pioneer of the serialized novel, published his Pickwick Papers online today one chapter at a time, would you be among those waiting anxiously for a new installment each week?
Do you consider the book on your bed stand right now to be art? Does it matter?
“But is it Art Eddie?”
I feel the same way about Absolutely Fabulous as I do about chocolate: it satisfies some dark need deep in my soul. Small bites are advised but every now and then we’ve all got to binge. AbFab is available on Hulu, Amazon Prime and other places on the Internet. Here is the scene that hooked me forever and just happens to be on point for today:
Kristen Tsetsi recently interviewed writer Andrea Askowitz for Jane Friedman’s website, covering, among other things, her views towards self-publishing which were conflicted. She talks about wanting the collaboration and support of an agent and publisher but also:
“You make good points about other kinds of art going public without any gatekeepers. I have an old-fashioned bias against self-published work. I need to get over it, because I realize that writers are going outside the gates all the time and if they’re good, they get readers.” - Andrea Askowitz to Kristen Tsetsi
Long Read: Casualties ( In case you’ve missed it)
I went on bit about my first novel here today so I thought I’d share it with those who may be new subscribers or haven’t read it. For those who are new subscribers or haven’t read Casualties, here’s what NYT bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt said about it:
“How do you survive the unendurable? Marro’s gorgeous debut is about war, grief, guilt, and grappling with the truths you don’t expect, and finally taking the risk and acknowledging the ones that you do. Moving and full of heart.”—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of With or Without You.
Click here to read more. This link also takes you to all the major online outlets that sell e-books. If you like the feel of a hard copy in your hands don’t worry when you can’t find one online. All you have to do to buy one for you or a bunch for your book club is to click here. End of self-promotion for the day. Thank you.
Loons: The Return Of the Matriarch
Big love is sometimes just not big enough. For those of us who like closure, here’s an update on the Loons of Pleasant Lake. The “older female” has successfully banished her rival and has returned to the hapless male who was her mate for years before he went rogue with a younger woman. There were losses; the chick hatched by the younger loon has vanished. Nevertheless, a kind of peace has been restored to Pleasant Lake and a few of us are now speculating on the kinds of conversations going on among husbands and wives who live on its shores. Read the full update here and check out the lovely photos by Jen Esten and Jon Waage.
The Writer’s Dog: Meet Daisy (Full name: Daisy Snoop Dogg Conn)
Daisy lives with writer Bobi Conn, author of In the Shadow of The Valley: A Memoir. In this “elegiac account of survival” Bobi Conn takes the reader to the remote “holler” in Kentucky where she grew up before breaking away. Published by Little A, the literary imprint of Amazon Publishing, Bobi’s memoir is “A clear-eyed and compassionate memoir of the Appalachian experience by a woman who embraced its astonishing beauty, narrowly escaped its violence, and struggles to call it home.” Daisy has a survival story of her own, finding a home with Bobi after being abandoned by the side of a road. Here’s her story and more about Bobi’s compelling memoir.
“From the first sentence, I smiled in recognition of a natural storyteller, one ‘born and bound to this land,’ who is a keen observer and a loving inhabitant of the land of which she writes. This book is a wonder—a dark, tragic Appalachian ballad come to full, lush life.” —Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne, author of Holding On To Nothing
But first, meet Daisy
Known for… Snoring like a grown man when I nap. One time, my writer was in a Zoom meeting for work, and her boss thought someone was doing construction in the room – he specifically thought someone was drilling through a brick wall. So yeah, I’ve got an impressive snore.
Expert at...I’m an expert at stealing my writer’s seat on the couch. She likes to read and write on the couch, and when she gets up to get me water or take me outside, I slide on over to her spot. I have perfected my innocent look, so when she comes back and finds me sitting there, I act like nothing happened. She often moves me, but she loves me a lot and sometimes will let me stay there.
What I live for...Food! Dog food is fine, but sometimes I get a treat of real cheese or chicken, and that’s the best. My human sister recently taught me to sit before I get my meals and treats, and that seems to really make the humans happy.
How I met my writer...A few years ago, someone dumped me from their car near a little grocery store, and someone saw me limping nearby. They brought me to the store and later, my writer came in to buy a sandwich, and she saw me sitting behind the counter. She had told her kids they should get a Boston terrier, and her daughter pointed out that I’m a Boston terrier. They waited a couple of hours to see if someone else claimed me, but they took me home that night and I’ve been part of the family ever since.
How it’s been going so far...Life is great! I make Bobi so happy. I can tell a big difference in her since I came into her life. At first, Bobi was a little scared of me, even though I’m a little dog. But we quickly became best friends, and she tells people how healing I’ve been for her. She’s a great human for me, too.
Something you should know about my writer...She works really hard to take care of her family – including me – and her home, so sometimes she seems strict. But she is a huge softie and has so much love for me and her human kids. I help her write sometimes by licking her hand while she’s typing, and I’m sure that has been a big help lately.
Meet Daisy’s writer: Bobi Conn
Known for...In the Shadow of the Valley: A Memoir, about growing up in eastern Kentucky. She has a novel in progress and will be announcing the publication date soon. The novel is historical fiction meets magical realism, inspired by stories Bobi grew up hearing about her ancestors.
What writer does when not engaged with Daisy...Bobi has a “work hard, play hard” mentality. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s doing something to improve our home or to be working for her job. She loves to have friends over and they eat yummy food, listen to music, and laugh a lot. I often get little bits of cheese and lots of attention when she has friends over, so I love it, too! She has written a whole lot of essays about her birthplace, obstacles her family faced, and about writing itself. You can find them here: www.bobiconn.com
How Daisy helps...I help by licking her while she’s writing, as I mentioned before. I also snuggle up close to her when she writes on the couch, so she knows I’m there for anything she needs. We love each other so much, just being in her life helps her every day.
One of the writers publishing fiction online right now: Ajinkya Goyal
I’ve been checking out some of the fiction writers online and connected with Ajinkya Goyal who publishes his fiction online in Innocently Macabre. He specializes in the speculative, the gothic, the strange. Given my fascination with the butterfly effect, I was intrigued with “Within and Without,’ the cautiously surrealistic tale of a dying last breath undoing the past half-century. I was also intrigued when he dove into his archives and came up the piece, “To Infinity” which contains the beginnings of five projects he bravely put out there because now it means he has to finish them. He also just started a new series, “Due North.”
That’s it for this week. Let me know how you are and what you’re reading, thinking, doing, the weird thing that happened to you in the grocery store this week. Anything. I love hearing from you. And if you see a Zen moment, pass it on! We could all use it. If you are looking for something new to read, browse the Spark Community Recommendations page over at bookshop.org. Proceeds help independent bookstores and, if we can help support literacy programs.
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Ciao for now. Gratefully,
P.S. And now, your moment of Zen…Low Tide
Calling for Your Contribution to “Moment of Zen”
What is YOUR moment of Zen? Send me your photos, a video, a drawing, a song, a poem, or anything with a visual that moved you, thrilled you, calmed you. Or just cracked you up. This feature is wide open for your own personal interpretation.
Come on, go through your photos, your memories or just keep your eyes and ears to the ground and then share. Send your photos/links, etc. to me by replying to this email or simply by sending to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The main guidelines are probably already obvious: don’t hurt anyone -- don’t send anything that violates the privacy of someone you love or even someone you hate, don’t send anything divisive, or aimed at disparaging others. Our Zen moments are to help us connect, to bond, to learn, to wonder, to share -- to escape the world for a little bit and return refreshed.
I can’t wait to see what you send!
(And if you’ve gotten here, liked something, and still haven’t hit the heart below, now’s your chance! )