WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Perseverance III

So now every day I spend a little time winnowing my list of agents to submit to, trying to glean from their submissions guidelines whether they’d be attracted to my funny little book, We Were Together. It’s hard to go by their featured titles because all the agencies look more or less the same in the clamor of covers they put up. And if they have any famous authors in their corral they show them in big fonts. I always doubt that I could have a shot at the agent of Junot Diaz or Jonathan Safran Foer or David Foster Wallace or Zadie Smith, so I tend to hold off on querying them till the end – if I still have to. Generally they don’t consider queries anyway.

It’s especially telling when I look at an agent’s list of authors and I know not a one. What does that say? I guess it’s nice to see that they don’t pay the mortgage thanks to celebrity memoirs, but by the same token shouldn’t I recognize a few fiction writers? I mean, I do try to keep an eye on that world. Who are these people? I get the feeling that many of them are the MFA profs who probably snatch up most of the literary fiction slots in publishingdom, with their favorite students sucking up the rest of them. Not household names, but New York likes credentials and teaching people how to write short stories for The New Yorker is one kind.

Ironically, because agents are the first gatekeepers in the system, whose goal is to keep schlock from infiltrating our thriving culture, what does seem to pay the bills is genre fiction. Mainly thrillers and action novels, from what I can tell, but also romance and fantasy. A modicum of sci-fi. A pretty good helping of YA.

You realize as you sift through the agent databases that there’s just not a lot of room for literary novels now. And that Joyce Carol Oates keeps taking up one of the slots every six months or so.

Yet – story of my life – you persevere.

But doesn’t perseverance have potentially negative consequences too? Like I said, there’ve been times when I would have preferred to be out from under the burden of “failing by quitting,” as I think Ray Bradbury defined failure. I’ve probably missed out on aspects of life that quitting might have offered. Like interest in something more satisfying than feeding myself through a metaphorical buzz saw every now and then.

For instance, ten years ago I could have thrown myself into learning jazz guitar with the kind of energy and commitment I’ve given to my writing. Not to become a performing musician; just to be a better guitarist and to learn as much as I could about music. A lot of agents might have advised me to go in that direction, had they felt comfortable speaking the truth. I remember a friend of mine had a father who was interested in being an artist, and at some point in his college education an instructor said bluntly, “You don’t have what it takes, I’m afraid. Find something else to do.” I don’t know any aspiring artist who would have taken that at face value. Each and every one of us would instead blame the instructor for not seeing genuine talent and we’d belligerently pursue our dream in spite of him. Just to show him. Except that you never really get to show that guy, do you? Usually because you didn’t hit the big time, just as he predicted.

Maybe our culture puts too much stake in perseverance. That’s all I’m saying. There’s that old saying about the definition of insanity …

Think about it though. If you were an aspiring baseball player, you’d know before you were thirty – usually a lot sooner than that – whether you were ever going to hit it big or not. With artists of any variety, you can keep bashing your head against the boulder as long as you like, and a lot longer than you should. I think of the author of Stones For Ibarra, Harriet Doerr, who published that book – her first – at the age of 74. I’m not sure whether she was trying to publish in her earlier decades, but the fact that her debut took place at that age always kept me going. Then again, that was in 1984 and the business was a lot different then. And Doerr earned a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, leading up to publication of her book. She published one more novel and a story collection before she died in her nineties.

So I don’t know. I’ve been putting a lot more effort into learning jazz guitar these last couple of years, but I’m still not ready to chuck the literary career.

I’ve got fourteen years on Harriet. A lot can happen in fourteen years.

[Photo by Pexels at Pixabay.]

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15 comments on “Perseverance III

  1. Carrie Rubin
    June 30, 2017

    I’ve heard thrillers are becoming a harder sell to agents now too. What seems to be the new literary baby is what’s called ‘upmarket fiction.’ It’s literary fiction that has a commercial flare. At the last writing conference I went to, it seemed every agent was looking for that.

    • kingmidget
      June 30, 2017

      And if somebody can explain what “literary fiction that has a commercial flare” is, I’ll buy them lunch. Pffft … they’re just trying to justify their continued existence.

      • Carrie Rubin
        June 30, 2017

        Maybe something like “All the Light We Cannot See” or “The Lovely Bones.” Jodi Picoult’s books too, I imagine.

      • Kevin Brennan
        June 30, 2017

        Always tweaking the packaging. 😠

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 30, 2017

      I’ve heard that too and always interpreted it to be genre fiction with a more literary writing style. “The Girl On The Train” kind of thing? I have a feeling these books are heavier on the commercial than on the literary. 😉

      • Carrie Rubin
        June 30, 2017

        Probably so. That’s what brings in the $$$. 🙂

  2. Phillip McCollum
    June 30, 2017

    This sounds like a familiar road. I guess, in the end, there are no right answers and we just have to make choices we can live with. This is a battle I’ve fought more times than I care to count when it comes to the hard stuff in life. But, I guess actions speak for themselves … here we are! 🙂

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 30, 2017

      True. I think it’s the road all writers find themselves on at one time or another. “What’s It All About, Alfie” Lane. And you hope it’s not a dead-end.

      Good to be on that road with you, bro!

  3. John W. Howell
    June 30, 2017

    Sometimes I don’t think I get anything. (Called clueless)

  4. Audrey Driscoll
    June 30, 2017

    I’ve thought of that definition of insanity too, many times. But at least now the self-pub option is there, so if chasing agents and publishers doesn’t work out, writers can at least get their works out of the metaphorical cardboard box in the basement. And if anyone shouldn’t quit, it’s you, Kevin.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 1, 2017

      So true. At least self-pubbing offers a place to get the work seen. Though I do have some things still in a literal cardboard box … 😉

      • Audrey Driscoll
        July 1, 2017

        Since I write all my stuff in longhand first, I have a couple of big boxes full of mss, notes and printouts. Who knows, they might come in handy in some post-apocalyptic scenario. 😊

  5. Woebegone but Hopeful
    July 1, 2017

    Kevin: A hard dedicated worker. One who is not failing. It’s the effort and the doing on which counts in the final analysis.
    Getting published through the Main-Stream with its eyes on profit, ‘names’ and the latest ‘buzz’ is a lottery or as the old time-honoured phrase goes: ‘a crap-shoot’. Five, ten years time who knows?
    Putting together the work onto paper or memory is the achievement of the soul, the writing spirit. Getting published is the muscle work. From my two years in the WP community I have journeyed more to the self-publishing wing. I’ve encountered folk who put incredible amounts of work into getting their books ‘out there’. Oh sure maybe their sales figures won’t compare with some nebulous best seller list, but what does count is that they got ‘out there’… (and any professional who decries self-publishing is not worthy of the title- ‘Writer’-)
    The important aspect, Kevin, is that you have books under your belt. In this you have achieved so very much. You have created worlds, characters, situation. Out there is Kevin Brennan, and he’s not written pulp, he’s not written cheap wannabe knock off, he’s not written weird rambling hate-filled diatribes; he’s written Kevin Brennan, and now, your work ‘belongs to the ages’ (ok I stole the phrase, so sue me!).
    Keep on writing, keep on pushing. Never give up. At the end of the day, we who have written can look back and say ‘I wrote that, and I don’t give a happy-hoo what any professional thinks about it. If I reached one, just one, that’s fine by me,’

    Keep on keeping on man.
    Best wishes
    Roger

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 1, 2017

      Inspiring, Roger. Thanks. It’s a little strange, having once won the lottery, to be in the same spot I was in before that. Thems the breaks, as we like to say over here. What I didn’t know back then is that it’s harder to get a second novel published than a first.

      Having a small dedicated audience is wonderful, I must admit. 😉

      • Woebegone but Hopeful
        July 1, 2017

        A small dedicated audience read your book, keep it and remember you.
        A best seller sometimes gets loads of folk who buy it; never crack the spine, or read it half way and ditch it, or speed read it so they can say they have (and then forget it) .
        A small dedicated audience is a better heritage.

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This entry was posted on June 30, 2017 by in Publishing.
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