Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Thank You For Reading (Or Not)

Unless you’ve come across one of her books; unless you tread bookstores with the same hunger and thirst a revolutionary Parisian used to raid a bakery; unless you think of your life as an introspective journey that has taken you around the ages while still being sat at the same table in the same old cafe, it is unlikely that you will know who Dubravka Ugrešić is. I can tick of all of the figurative boxes above, yet, I didn’t find Dubravka’s work by word of mouth or printed matter, I found her because of a very peculiar book.

I recall when our encounter took place. It was during my slow and painful return to work after my sick leave years ago, when I could browse bookstores in the afternoon, mid-week, without the lunchtime sword of Damocles hovering above me like Mancunian thundering clouds. I was in Waterstone’s Deansgate, where a table was neatly stacked up with the latest Shakespearian edition, next to this intriguing title, Thank You For Not Reading. I had yet to start approaching agents at the time. I lived an uncracked clean state of optimism and ignorance which, usually, go hand-in-hand insofar as the working life (or life in general) is concerned. Still, those five little words framed under the vintage, good-looking lady, somehow rang prophetic bells in my then empty head, clear as it was of the preconceptions of so many agents being surplus morons and of the publishing world being sales-, and not quality-, driven.

Dubravka can be defined as an academic writer, where academic means a thinker who does not limit herself to skimming issues (that’s what most journalists are for these days). She deconstructs the sub-text(s) and re-assembles the parts in ways often surprising and always spot-on. Using academic as a description of anything often raises eyebrows, especially so among those whose eyebrows don't sit very high to begin with.

It’s academic... I have heard this hateful expression in a multitude of instances in the business world. Middle managers and senior managers relish in the opportunity of pulling this out of the drawer and throwing it onto the meeting table with the same quiet pride and countenance of a poker player laying down the winning hand. I suppose in their minds saying ‘yes, but, all of this is academic’ highlights their supposed great thinking skills high and above the debate in order to be able to solve it.

The sub-text of ‘it’s academic’ is that the academia only ever debates, it never provides suggestions or solutions to the debates that rage within itself. It is easy (and simplistic) to think in this misguided manner, for few people realise that the greatness of studying philosophy, for example, resides in the knowledge that this provides of the understanding of mankind’s evolution. One needs a greatly analytical mind in order to be able to grasp, understand, de-construct and utilise the meanings of works as old as mankind itself. Except a philosophy graduate is currently considered an un-employable opium-filled dreamer who is about as useful to the working environment as a painter or a writer. And here enters Dubravka in what I like to view as an excellent defence of the gift of creativity.

“While one person’s self-esteem wanes, another’s grows. That is, presumably, how the commercial world is arranged. I say ‘presumably” because I don’t know much about it. But I do know something about my own kind, about writers. If a writer isn’t sure that he or she is a writer (and real writers never are), then the sense of his or her own profession isn’t real either. So how can such writers charge money for their literary efforts? With difficulty. So the publishing industry profits from the low self-confidence of its producers.

“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a writer.”
“I don’t mean that... we’re all writers in some ways! I’m asking what you do, how do you pay the bills?”

A real writer always has problems with low self-confidence, is always consumed by doubt, even when he or she is publicly acknowledged. By winning the Nobel Prize, for instance. Especially then. I once met just such a Nobel laureate, so I know what I’m talking about. Someone with low self-esteem is like a punching bag that anyone can use; whoever passes by gives it a punch. A real writer feels guilty and thinks that what he’s doing is unimportant, or useless, or privileged (although he’s not paid for it), while other serious people work. Such writers are always in awe of physicists, carpenters and surgeons, and can always be crushed with the greatest of ease, like a worm or a fly”.

So what do you do in order to be less wavering in your quest for high self-esteem? You seek agents. I do not think writers seek agents because, first and foremost, they want publishing deals. Writers seek agents because individuals depend on one another for self-validation throughout life. Think about this: I could be the most self-sufficient and self-confident of writers with the deepest understanding of the publishing industry there is. I am likely to still be the same confident person after ten rejections from agents. I may even be the same after thirty. But some very fine lines may start to appear on my conviction around rejection number fifty. Or number one hundred. Or, if I am a true stoic, around rejection three hundred.

I defy even the most capable professional out there not to start even a fleeting introspective questioning once three hundred people act like he isn’t as good as he thinks he is. Because we depend on others to define ourselves as individuals, the work of the writer is one that can easily be relegated to the bottom end of the hobby pile. Yet, it is worth hanging in there and fending off the paranoia because:

“In the world of the jet set, wealthy party-givers, socialites, star-editors, star-agents, star-publishers; in the world of the media conglomerates, where publishing itself is only an incidental business which doesn’t make much money; in the world where the one-time fee of a catering-artist (a cook) exceeds the advance of a serious writer several times over; int he world of TV stars; in the world where the memoirs of Monica Lewinsky get a thousand times more publicity than the collected works of Marcel Proust; in the world of the powerful, in other words, things happen differently. Exactly how, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t been there.


Some time ago , I found an agent with a PhD in classics from Yale. Encouraged by his references, I sent him my manuscript. After a while, a letter arrived:

I have read your manuscript. It is an elegant, unusual, and unconventional work. In other words, it would be hard to find American publishers who would buy such an essentially “European” work. As a lover of European literature, it is hard for me to acknowledge that the battle against the resistance of American publishers (and readers) to European prose is in vain. There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare. I would like to be of more help and to be able to respond more optimistically.
With great respect, cordially yours,

At the same time, a letter arrived from a French agent:

I have not read your manuscript, but I do not doubt that it is an exceptional literary work. However, it would be hard to sell it at this time to any West European publisher. East Europeans are no longer the trend, which is of course sad, but true. If Solzhenitsyn has problems finding a publisher, there there is nothing we can do but wait for happier times.
With warn greetings,

At the same time, a letter arrived from my former Croatian publisher:

Hey, you’ve been on the blacklist for ten years, it’s natural that your readers have forgotten you! Not more than a dozen people would buy one of your books together. No one reads local writers anymore. They hate anti-regime writers, while regime writers make them sick. Books are expensive. It comes to the same thing, one way or another. Only the Croatian edition of Mein Kampf has sold really well. So there you are.

Am I being all doom-and-gloom these days? Will this place soon turn into Domestic Mess - A Bitter and Sour Slice Of Life? No it won’t. No it isn’t. My readership has grown from zero a month back in January to almost ten thousand a month. You may not have noticed this, but there is a little counter at the bottom of this page telling you how many people have visited since I installed it for all to see, on June 23rd.

Out of these (almost) ten thousand visits, many of them will be knitting and crocheting people, others will be people interested only in food and cooking, others are real-life friends who can now gain an insight much more accurate than any afternoon spent with me could provide them with. And then... others will be writers who are well-read and well-educated, who know what they are doing and where they are going, except their self-esteem is non-existent.

When I wrote this, I didn’t write it in order to have a dig at agents. If I wanted to have a dig at anything or anyone, there would be venom dripping off your screen because a certain type of criticism is fun to read and even more fun to write, yet, it is not subtle nor long-lasting. I wrote The Agent Fairy in order to encourage and, yes, even inspire creative people to have more faith in their capabilities before those three hundred rejections come through the door. And if you still have to ask yourself why your work is so little valued, why your gift of creativity is unrecognised and scorned, or why everything is shit, do not waste your time with this (although it will give you yet another example of shit itself), read this instead:

“ [...] “While the price of gold is more or less stable, the price of shit has seen astronomical growth in the last thirty years. And it’s still rising” [...] The transmutation of shit into gold is nevertheless no simple thing, for if it were we would all be rich. You need institutions, galleries, media, a market, publicity, interpreters (those who will explain the meaning of the artistic gesture), promoters, art dealers, critics, and, of course, consumers.


There is, presumably, something in the very nature of shit that makes it so loooooved. And however much the theoreticians of popular culture try to explain why shit ought to be loved, the most attractive aspect of shit is nevertheless its availability. Shit is accessible to everyone, shit is what unites us, we can stumble across shit at every moment, step into it, slip on it, shit follows us wherever we go, shit waits patiently on our doorstep [...]. So who wouldn’t love it! And love alone is the magic formula that turns shit into gold”.
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