Sunday, March 29, 2015

"My dumb life," and Cakes and Ale

The pictures of a March sky look as bleak as a November or a February sky. I can tell you, however, that all in one day I heard three wonderful spring sounds: the scratchy trool-cool of sandhill cranes migrating, at a low altitude this time (I'll wager it sounds a lot more like "trool-cool" than dickcissel sounds like whatever dickcissels say); the strumming peep or froggy sound of those unseen frogs in wayside ditches and marshy areas, which I think are called spring peepers (the frogs, not the marshes); and at long last, the bright announcing chup ... chup of a robin, followed this morning by a robin's carol.  So now you know that.

And I want some couture designer to use wintry images like this to create gorgeous frocks. Think black lace on ice blue, or deep brown lace and net on pearl-gray. That glowing light is the hidden sun, though it looks almost as pale as the moon. Years ago Diane von Furstenburg did an ad campaign claiming to draw from nature in just this way. Big glossy spreads in the magazines showed her gawking pleasedly in the woods. Probably they were only a stand of trees in Central Park twenty feet from her Upper West Side offices. I don't recall being wowed by the clothes. She tacked a few brown leaves on a hem, was all.

I show you photos of the bare trees in my woods, and I tell you that the sandhill cranes and the robins have returned. But why?

If you are a blogger writing on this, the Blogger platform, you know that at the top of the page the toolbar gives the simple option "Next Blog." You can click on it, and be directed to some other blog in "the unnavigable morass" of the internet, still only via Blogger, that somewhat resembles yours. If ever, like me, you get excited about your 950 visitors a month, and think "hey! Pinterest must have helped! I've got an audience for the spring peeper thing!" -- clicking the Next Blog option will bring you back to an understanding of your own anonymity. Most of the blogs you'll meet in this way have been defunct for years. Most of them were about a mom's children, or somebody's sewing projects, or somebody's advice on the best way to pack for a trip to London. Don't think you are not in the same unvisited stream. Except so far you're not defunct.

I have a niece with literary ambitions who also half-despairs this anonymity of blogging, but who further notices that there always seem to be a few people who attract attention, get a book going, or at least get some ad placements and therefore some revenue. "I could write about my dumb life, too," she complained. Yes, she could. She should work more. If nothing else, writing more would give her a pile of personal papers to bequeath to her grandchildren ... oh wait. Why is it that so many right-thinking, compassionate young millenials don't bother having children to pass their right thoughts on to?

Anyway the pattern of success she notices seems to be, write softly about your personal life, get yourself a loyal following of women (let's be honest) who feel ushered into your living room, and then approach the legitimate publishing industry, largely staffed by women, with proof that you have an audience and can sell your blog-book. Hello, A Homemade Life and Delancey, neither anything to render even Pride and Prejudice ridiculous. Hello cashing in.

But good heavens, how personal and living room-y must one get? I hardly dare tell you that my friend's ex-husband just crashed and totaled his, I don't know, maybe fourth car in the last four years, out in California where he went to be with his internet girlfriend, who dumped him after a year of True Love and medical problems and "neediness." My friend, Fanny, told me she knows what the girlfriend means. She got a text from him, mistakenly one night years on, simply saying "Hi!" when it turned out he had meant to send it to Her who was sitting on the couch beside him. And now who knows what will come of the new job as a security guard since he doesn't have transportation anymore and will have a hard time buying a new car, having just got out of bankruptcy. Isn't it weird also that his new job is the same as my friend's gentleman friend's? Even though Fanny's ex can't really carry out the basic duties of a security guard, because he has an unresolved diabetic foot injury, so he can't walk much. His new employer hired him to drive the perimeter I guess. And to crown all, how in the world is Mr. Pacifist, "I'm not sure I could protect you and the kids if an intruder came into the house, because of my pacifist beliefs -- though I think instinct would probably take over," how is Mr. Pacifist going to reconcile himself to carrying a gun on the job? I'm thinking the bevy of sisters back home are going to have to go and rescue him in time. Thereby hangs another tale.

As I say, I hardly dare tell you all this because after all in our grandmothers' day there was such a thing as privacy, and besides I know He used to read my blog ("I read your blog") whenever he was mad that Fanny asked him for money while my blog was proving that she bought new couches or good liquor. But if enough chuckling women feel ushered into my friend's living room, a book contract or some ad placement might make it all worthwhile. And if that doesn't happen, what are my 31.66 readers a day, women or men,  going to care about my cashing in on anyone's Dumb Life anyway? Next Blog.

What we are talking about, I suppose, is just human achievement, of the best use of time. My niece and I and all of us except maybe her, we know we're not Jane Austen. We are talking about the 'why bother' of it.

I wonder if the productivity spurred by the internet, among writers or would-be writers (garrulous, often delightful people who like to write but have nothing to say -- "my hair lost a ton of volume after I started taking birth control pills" -- and she has great photos, great clothes, a following and ads), I wonder if all our productivity levels must be similar to those once spurred by old-fashioned methods of subscription publishing. By these methods an eighteenth or nineteenth century 'Lady' for example got friends to "subscribe" for a copy of whatever she wanted to write once it was finished. It was her stab at non-anonymity. Unless you had absolutely no human contacts to give you a sou, subscriptions meant that nothing stood in the way of your getting professional packaging for your wuhk, except your desire to work or not. By subscribing, friends essentially loaned you money to live on, or for your father to look after, while you wrote. Or friends ponied up to help hire a printing press for a couple days. Or the booksellers themselves, "liberal-minded, generous men," in Samuel Johnson's words, bought your book and printed it "in the hope of being indemnified," much as publishing houses do now -- provided you've got in their door first. At any rate, largely without gatekeepers your little eighteenth- or nineteenth-century book was released to the world exactly as you wrote it, as if it had been wanted. It might only reach your own circle, much as a blog does, or it might go further. For Fanny Burney, the result was intoxicating fame and a post as lady-in-waiting to the Queen, which nearly killed her; for Jane Austen, the result seems to have been scarcely a ripple. Anonym-- .

Gradually publishing changed, and one submitted one's manuscript to a publishing house which already owned the press and which now employed editor-gatekeepers, who decided whether or not one's book was not only worth the business risk, but also perfect in execution, too. I feel sure this was a formal change because so many of the classics of yesteryear are flawed. It isn't only a matter of different tastes in different eras. Any editor with gatekeeper power would have told Charles Dickens to pick just one ending for Great Expectations. Any editor would have told Daniel Defoe that the last quarter of Robinson Crusoe is a hash, and would have sent it back to him for revisions. Ditto for 'Currer Bell's' Jane Eyre. These books stand as they do because the writer thought he was done. In fact, I remember reading that, once upon a time, writers were paid by the word. The more they puffed out their books with verbiage, the more they earned. Some Continental master, Victor Hugo or someone, made fun of the practice precisely by having two characters discuss it, wondering at it at great length .... If my memory serves me right and that practice really existed, then my lord the Editor cannot have existed, or he would have slashed many a classic's bulk and therefore many a literary giant's pay. Only now, with blogging, do we seem to have come full circle. Now we publish whatever we like anytime, whenever we think we're done. We don't even have the bother of writing longhand or soliciting subscriptions, from anyone. We also don't make any money as a rule, and yet, curiously, it costs AdSense nothing to load a blurb into our sidebar if we wish; at a time when real newspapers are losing ad business, Google/AdSense will take a chance on getting an eyeball or two from us.

By blogging we also don't have to face, if we don't want to, what you might call the moat outside the true, the Simon-pure gates, and that is: the professional agents who can submit your wuhk to a publisher if you first please them. This is not easy to do. They are young and smiling and very particular women. Freshly minted university graduates looking to build a stable of authors and a career, they are "excited about" outside-the-box murder mysteries featuring "three mothers with children in the same school," or looking for "anything upmarket with series potential." They are interested in suspenseful historical fiction with unreliable narrators, "anything set in Poland," "Adult Dystopia," anything involving women working in STEM fields. Etc. 

Seeing all this on Writer's Digest "new agents" page, I got up from my desk in a snit and went to my bookshelves to pluck down the oldest and most dog-eared classic I could find. I opened it to page one, determined to read the first paragraph and ask myself whether any young woman would accept this as a query today. 
I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, as it's important, the matter is more often important to him than to you.When it comes to making you a present or doing you a favour most people are able to hold their impatience within reasonable bounds. So when I got back to my lodgings with just enough time to have a drink, a cigarette, and to read my paper before dressing for dinner, and was told by Miss Fellows, my landlady, that Mr. Alroy Kear wished me to ring him up at once, I felt that I could safely ignore his request.
Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale, 1930. No, I think she would not. Coincidentally enough Cakes and Ale is about writers, or rather about a world in which a lot of otherwise ordinary people write books. What the young women have not been trained to look for, what they would never dream of looking for, are just manuscripts of one thoughtful person's slow-unspooling reaction, in fiction, to life as he knows it. Back then it was Maugham, among many. Today it doesn't have to be me. But some anonymous out there is doing better things than Adult Dystopia or (Polish?) women in STEM fields. Where are they?

They're blogging, I think. They've come full circle, we all have, Next Blog if we stick with it, perhaps to the personal productivity levels of pre-gatekeeper days. We're not paid by the word but we don't have to watch our word counts, either, for example to make sure each post hits, but does not exceed, "take me seriously" numbers. Hint, your debut novel, for example, must be at least 80,000 words. My question is, Is our productivity worthwhile? -- need you know that the sandhill cranes are trool-cooling overhead, or about my friend's ex? And if the internet was shut down tomorrow, or taxed to death or its content policed for correct thought, would we all take out pen and paper and go on writing for maybe nobody, as A Lady did? Then we might see how important all those recipes are, or your hair's volume. We might see how important privacy is. Yet after all, human beings are built to achieve. Why not bother? 

Early in Cakes and Ale Maugham muses on the one "compensation" enjoyed by a writer -- any writer, the Writer -- otherwise aggravated and disappointed by the dreary routine of success. (Really? Really? More evidence of an era without gatekeepers. And we haven't even addressed outside evidence that people used to turn to writing to earn a living when all other sources of ready money dried up. How on earth?)  "Editors harry him for copy," Maugham says, " ... secretaries of institutes want him to lecture ... youths want his autograph." But at least he is free in the (Aristotelian, isn't it?) sense of purging the mind.

Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as a theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.

 There. Even if your productivity is maybe stupid, and your 31.66 visitors a day click Next in five seconds, at least you're free. So the sandhill cranes, grus canadensis, are in the midst of their spring migration. The spring peeper, pseudacris crucifer, is the size of a paper clip and those trilling peeps come from the males, cruising for chicks in marshy wayside ditches and open fields near gas stations. Finally of course we salute our beloved robins -- formerly turdus turdus I think, horrible name now thankfully amended to turdus migratorius -- a change by which science seems to acknowledge that for all the claims of robins being year-round residents across  North America, no they are not. They do vanish for the winter and they do, blessedly, migratorius.

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