Editors don’t necessarily care about making money for the company

You know what’s really nice? Having an agent: I had a question about some publishing stuff, so I emailed him. That was very enjoyable. It was also fun not having an agent, don’t get me wrong. You know like in movies where the woman’s all like, “I need to learn how to be single”? That happened to me. I needed to learn who I was without an agent. Turns out, I’m totally fine. I can write short stories and poetry and essay and blog posts and cynical self-published self-help guides and never sell another novel again, and I would really be okay with that. So that was great to hear. But it’s still nice to have an agent again.

I haven’t been the world’s most productive human. I’ve been looking at the Cynical Guide for the past few days, trying to make sure that I stand behind every statement I make. I don’t think that, taken as a whole, it’s particularly incendiary, but I know that in the world of hot takes, someone could easily take a paragraph out of context and start a pile on. That’s something I’m willing to risk, but I want to make sure I’m being totally fair. I think with all the criticism We Are Totally Normal has taken, the single most helpful thing is that I stand by every decision I made, and you know why that is? Because I went through it and was like, “Is there any place where I’m trying to get away with something?” And in those places, I toned it done and changed it. I’m done trying to be provocative on purpose. I think my blog readers know that’s not my metier. What I’m about is saying the thing everybody knows but nobody says!

With regards to the cynical guide, probably even more important than the book itself is the promotional copy. That’s another thing I’ve got to do. Oh, but I do have a cover! It’s beautiful! Will have to show you sometime soon.

I’ve decided it’d be nice to spice up this blog with extracts of the cynical guide, just so people can get a taste of it. This is from a section early on when I discuss the incentive structure that underlies being an editor:

Although the book business has a reputation for being intensely bottom-line focused, the truth is that it’s not. As I mentioned, books take too long to come out, and people change jobs too quickly. As a result, a person’s job performance becomes largely a matter of perceptions. Within a corporate environment, the most successful workers are those who create narratives around themselves.

So for instance, let’s say you have two editors: Cynthia and Julie. Both spend half a million dollars acquiring ten books each. And at the end of four years, Cynthia’s ten books have collectively made $600,000 while Julie’s books have collectively made $400,000. In this example, Julie has lost money for the company, while Cynthia has made money.

But let’s say that Cynthia’s ten books all performed equally well: they all made $60,000 each. But out of Julie’s ten books, nine made $20,000 (totaling $180,000), while the tenth was a breakout success and made $220,000.

Now which of them will get a promotion? The answer seems obvious, but it could actually go either way. It’s all about how Cynthia and Julie frame their success. 

Cynthia could say, “My books made money. We can just keep buying books from these ten authors and hopefully keep making money.” 

But Julie can say, “We don’t need to buy second books from any of the nine duds, whereas my tenth person, the hit, is someone who’ll give us book after book. All else equal, it’s much better to make our money from one book than from ten books, because one book takes up less editor time, less time from the type-setters, costs less to print and to distribute. So really I’ve made the company more money in the long run.”

Now which of these two is correct? It’s impossible to know! Maybe Julie is right. Maybe that hit-maker is the next James Patterson, who has for the last twenty years almost single-handedly spelled the difference between profit and loss for Hachette, the world’s fourth-largest publisher.

Or maybe that tenth author had a lucky breakout, and their subsequent books won’t perform as well. Even more insidiously, maybe what looks like a breakout success wasn’t actually a breakout. Maybe Julie used all her marketing muscle on that one title and so generated immense sales for that one book—losing $100,000 on her overall list in the process—while Cynthia, by distributing her marketing muscle more equally, made small profits on each book, which added up to that $100,000 profit.

It’s an inherently ambiguous situation. But when it comes to the promotion sweepstakes, Julie has one advantage: people have heard of her book!

When a book is a hit, it attracts attention. People talk about it. They gossip. They say, “Julie had an author who hit the list” (the New York Times bestseller list). They say, “Julie’s author was featured on NPR.” They say, “The publisher is wondering when Julie’s author is going to deliver her next book!”

But Cynthia’s many small books do not generate buzz. They just toodle along in modest obscurity. As a result, Cynthia starts off at a disadvantage, because she has to explain to everybody that she is a success. She needs to walk around with charts and figures and be like, well, if you factor in such-and-such, then really I’ve made us some money.

Julie doesn’t need to do that. She doesn’t need to do anything. The aura of success is already clinging to her. She just needs to avoid dispelling it.

pen business money research
Photo by Anna Nekrashevich on Pexels.com

Still feeling very, very happy about having an agent

Dear Internet, having an agent still feels good. Sometimes people come across my online journal without knowing who I am, and they leave comments that are a bit condescending, like, “Wait until you’re on submission! That’s the real tough part!”

I know about the tough parts. There are a lot of tough parts. In a way it was nice not having an agent: I felt very in control of my career—whatever I wrote I could submit—nobody could stop me—I could always push out more queries—I could be bold and do whatever I wanted, be very nimble, not have a filter. But it did get old feeling like there was a barrier between me and the publishing industry. I generally don’t ever expect to sell books—every book feels like a complete fluke—but it’s nice to at least have the chance! With the search for agents, you’re competing for the chance to have a chance.

Now that part is done. My agent is older than me (in comparison, my first agent was basically my age—I was 27 and he was 27 and a half), so I’ll definitely need to go out there again someday. Who knows what the publishing industry will look like then? Over the past few weeks I’ve talked to a number of older women who’ve left their agents or been left by their agents; it’s hard. Although most of the readers are older women, the world is still used to not taking you seriously. And someday that will be me! I’m 35 now—I’ll be fifty or sixty, searching for a new agent. Kind of exhausting to think about. But you manage.

One reason I’m publish8ing the Cynical Guide (which is coming) is just so I’ll always have something that’s mine, some sort of brand, some direct-to-market connection. The Cynical Guide has an extremely distinctive voice—something like my blog voice, but much more so—and I’m hoping to write many books in that voice.

This half-year-ish period of not having an agent has been great for me! I’ve written short stories, book reviews, my cynical guide—it’s confirmed for me that there will always be a place for me in the writing world. I’m not someone who can get excited about writing unless I see some way of publishing it. I think although I started off writing short stories, for the last seven years, I’ve really only thought of novels, but that’s not the only thing out there.

I don’t know. It feels incredible that it’s over. The search really took over my life for the first three months, and then it was sort of constantly in the background for the next three. It changed me, probably more than any other period of submission ever has.

View full post

Nebula noms close on Feb 28th: I once read (on someone else’s shameless award self-promo post) that half the Nebula ballots come in on the last two days of voting. So, you know, get out there, vote. My story “Everquest” is eligible. It’s about a young man who likes to play as female characters in a computer game. Not saying if you like to play cross-gender chars in video games then you’re trans, but…every trans person did do this. I think it’s a good story. You only need circa ten votes to make the final ballot, so every vote counts.

There! That is my last post like this for a while!

Errr…thank you to everyone who’s congratulated me on finding an agent. I still feel pretty chuffed about it. This was a long journey! If people knew how difficult and arbitrary this business was, they probably wouldn’t enter it. But that just makes it more fun when something actually happens.

I’m back to my “not checking business email until 3 PM Pacific Time” schedule. Some days it is a real challenge. I also don’t log onto my writer Twitter (@rahkan) until then. Without Twitter and continually refreshing my email, there’s way less to do on the internet!

Now I just need to, like, actually finish rewriting my book. So we can, like, submit the stupid thing. It’s some pressure.

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately. Most recently made my way through the poems of Sara Teasdale: an early 20th century American poet. I thought her love poems were the best. One of my faves was “The Kiss”:

The Kiss

I hoped that he would love me,
And he has kissed my mouth,
But I am like a stricken bird
That cannot reach the south.

For though I know he loves me,
To-night my heart is sad;
His kiss was not so wonderful
As all the dreams I had.

A day of (Relative) rest

It’s like eighty degrees outside my door, so it’s safe to say that spring is finally here. Whenever spring begins in the Bay Area I start to get nostalgic for my college days. It doesn’t happen during the winter–probably because the SF (and even East Bay) winters are significantly colder than the winter down in Palo Alto, where I went to school (at Stanford).

The first five years after college, I still had definite feelings of longing for the environment I’d experienced during my junior and senior years. I’d lived in a vegetarian co-op located on top of a hill in a huge, rambling mansion. I made lots of very close friends there, developed a lot as a person, and took pretty excessive amounts of hallucinogenic drugs. I’m still close with many of my fellow Synergy residents, to the point where, if my wife meets a college friend, she’s surprised if they didn’t live in Synergy.

I turned 35 in November, and I’ve been feeling my years. If I’m not middle-aged right now, I’m certainly approaching it. Almost certainly more than 2/5ths of the way to the grave. Even my literary novel, which is about twenty-five year olds, is about a time very far in the past (and my YA novels? Forget about it. I am twenty years older than the protagonist in the proposal I just turned in!)

Okay I don’t know where I was going with this. I am taking the day off from serious work. I continue to feel very pleased about having an agent. When I can finally reveal the story (which will hopefully be in a few months), you’re gonna be like wtf. It’s such a quintessentially publishing-industry story. What’s funny is that almost all authors have these crazy stories of how the sausage gets made, but we don’t share them, because in some way they reflect upon our own abilities and our own commercial viability.

I’m a good writer, but mostly the whole thing feels like luck. I don’t feel ashamed of my ups and downs, because both the successes and the failures aren’t really about my abilities. So much in life is good fortune.

People used to believe in fate. You were born with a destiny. You would face certain challenges, certain encounters, and success or victory was foreordained. I think that’s true. We all have a fate. We are all bullets being fired at a target we can’t see, speeding through the air thinking, “I’m doing it! I’m going so fast! I’m going really fast! I’m really making progress!” But the explosion that set us on our way is long behind us, and our ability to contribute to or alter our flight path is pretty limited.

I’m not going to google it, but I think there’s data showing that a strong belief in fate, and in the role of luck when it comes to success, actually has benefits. For one thing, people who believe in the role of luck tend to be less prejudiced against women, for some reason, than people who believe in the meritocracy. If you believe in the role of luck, you’re more resilient when it comes to failure. Like, oh okay, I had bad luck, let me try again. Or not try again! But I don’t need to internalize this. This was all luck.

New Representation

My agent search is over! I’m now represented by Christopher Schelling, agent to Rainbow Rowell, Augusten Burroughs, Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter, Emma Bull, and a host of other literary, YA, and sci-fi writers (as well as a few celebrities). It’s been a long, long road. I’ve sent out 200+ queries in the last year, which have resulted in 75+ manuscript requests (most of which turned into rejections). Christopher originally rejected my literary novel for adults back in November, but he’d clearly come very close to taking it. I convinced him to reconsider it–I’ve been doing a rewrite for the past few months–and he decided to make me an offer.

There’s been lots of drama, lots of moving pieces, but honestly the mechanisms by which already-published authors get new agents are not relevant or interesting to most of my readers. Suffice it to say, the process is not nearly so simple or clear as you’d think. In the end, I had a few different offers from agents, but Christopher’s clients, including all of the ex-clients that I could find, were very complimentary–they had nothing bad to say and much that was good. I was forced to eat my statement that all agents have downsides–it’s just a matter of knowing what your agent’s downsides are before you sign with them.

So we’ll see! But I am very, very, very happy to be done with this. It was exciting for the past few days to be the belle of the ball, to be courted and to be in the position of being the chooser, but ultimately it felt very foreign to the experience of being a writer, which is largely about quiet and silence. I’ve often wished that the writing life were more exciting. This past week I’ve gotten a glimpse of what that looks like, and I must say: excitement is pretty great, but not necessarily for me.

Thank you to the dozens of authors who took the time to speak to me by phone or email. Thanks to the agents who considered my manuscripts. And thanks especially to the many author friends who’ve held my hands through all this. There’s been so much excitement and genuine joy on my behalf (my closest friends have seen how long this process has lasted and the toll it’s taken on me!) At a certain point in this year, I was carrying a lot of anger because of the agent search, and in order to make a final decision I had to finally start letting go of some of that anger. That and the compassion and camaraderie shown by my friends has made me realize that there are serious benefits to being a more open-hearted author. I’ll probably continue to be miserable, envious, and hateful, but maybe I’ll sometimes be slightly better!

It’s been great to finish this up at a time when there’s so much Twitter discussion of agents and of the querying process. I’ve come away with more than a few insights into the whole process, which I hope to share in the next few months.

One nice side effect of having an agent now is that the path is finally clear to me releasing my Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry. It’s already got a cover and everything! So look out for that in the next few months,.

It’s been a crazy week

Today I told my wife “Naomi is gone; only Crayomi remains.” I am exhausted. When an author says they’re having crazy times that they can only talk about in vague terms, it usually means either a movie or a book deal is afoot. I refuse to confirm or deny either of these possibilities. But publishing is an insane industry.

Wrote a story based on JErome Bixby’s “It’s A Good Life”

Hello friends. Typing once again on my electric typewriter gadget. Haven’t used it in a minute, but it is actually good for blog posts. Am reading a lot of poetry these days. Have been making my way through the Penguin Book of Twentieth Century American Poetry. Lots of good stuff. Odd to read it in juxtaposition with the book of Renaissance poetry, since the latter is largely metered while the former generally isn’t. And yet as poets never tire of telling us, unmetered doesn’t mean that it has no rhythm. I’ve been using the book to see which poets I want to investigate further.

You know what I love? Books of Selected Works. God save me from Complete Works. Why would anyone, with the exception of a scholar, want a poet’s Complete Works? There must be so many bad poems in there! Anyway, it’s been perhaps a shopping spree, but I have many, many Selected Works waiting for me.

Writing is going well. I’ve turned our bedroom into an office (Rachel works out of what used to be our storage closet. It’s so claustrophobic in there, but she seems to like it). I have covered one wall with post-its, detailind random to-dos and notes to myself. It’s great. And I have a little bookshelf where I store my various devices. And there’s a yoga ball where I sit when my back isn’t doing too well.

Back pain remains the major problem with working from the bed. I keep thinking I’ll find a solution, but there simply isn’t one: I just need to shift positions regularly.

I got notes back from the editor for a story I have coming in a YA LGBT speculative fiction anthology. My story is called "Nick and Bodhi". It’s like if the cartoon show Rick and Morty had an episode based on Jerome Bixby’s short story "It’s A Good Life" (where a seven year old with magic powers takes over this town and enacts his will without scruple or limit, and the townspeople, to survive, need to pretend that they like it). In my vision, the surviving members of a school’s queer student organization do their best to survive until graduation in a school that’s been taken over by a teenage genius.

(Sidenote: The Bixby story was also the basis for an episode of the original Twilight Zone)

As I get back into writing science fiction stories, I find myself going back more and more to the classic SF stories I read when I was first getting into the field. I went through a period where I was constantly hunting down old anthologies and compilations. I think it’d be not unfair to say that I’ve read most of the influential stories that came out between 1926 and 2000, and it shows. My most recent story in F&SF, "The Leader Principle" was clearly based on Heinlein’s "The Man Who Sold The Moon" and I have a story in circulation that’s based on Robert Silverberg’s "Dying Inside".

I have no idea whether any of these stories hold up. I suspect they do, but I am not going to reread them to find out. Even twenty years ago, it wasn’t really in vogue to read Golden Age (or even New Wave) science fiction. Now it’s really not in vogue. I think that’s sad! There’s a lot of great stuff there. And I say this fully aware of the hit some of these authors have taken for their various stances. Heinlein supported the Vietnam War (in 1968, sheesh) and Robert Silverberg, who is to my knowledge the only major Golden Age figure who’s still alive, got into a very recent online controversy.

Speaking of which, you know who I’m gonna bring into vogue if I ever have the power to single-handedly bring artists into vogue? Cordwainer Smith! His massive shared-universe collection The Rediscovery of Man is so brillig. I reread it so many times in high school and college. Actually now that I think of it, a recent story I wrote (not yet out on submission) is directly based on his first published short story "Scanners Live In Vain"–about a guild of spacefarers who have to electrially suppress their emotions to do their job, and about their resistance to innovations that might make their sacrifices moot. I think about that phrase all the time "Do scanners live in vain?" Meaning, were all these sacrifices worthless? Did they give up everything, give up their humanity, for nothing?

Chills.

As a minor point of trivia, Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym of Paul Linebarger, an expert in psychological warfare who trained CIA agents, and he is also rumored to be the subject of a classic psychological case study about a sci-fi writer who’s lost touch with reality. I once began so interested in Cordwainer Smith that I actually hunted down a copy of that case study, in a book called the Jet-Propelled Couch, but I no longer have much memory of what was in it.

golden temple near water in evening
Photo by Nav Photography on Pexels.com

Trying not to go crazy

Got good news about my YA novel proposal. It could all fall apart though, so trying not to get too anxious. As I texted a friend ““I first went on sub 7 years ago. I’ve had two agents. I’ve gone to acquisitions upwards of seven times; I’ve had five separate books go on submission. I can be normal! I can not let this ruin my life!”

So yeah, this is me doing normal things like writing in my blog. SPEAKING OF NORMAL THINGS: you only have ten(ish) more days to nominate for the Nebulas. You don’t need many votes to get a Nebula nomination in the short story category (maybe ten). So if you’re a member of SFWA, read the story my story “Everquest” and consider it for a nomination. If you want to know more about it, the story notes are here.

Err, so anyway, I’ve been reading this book of early modern English poetry, curated by one of my favorite writers, John Williams. It’s extremely slow going. Lots of poetry, lots of archaic language. But I think I’m getting a better sense of rhyme and meter than I’ve had before. The problem with Shakespeare (insofar as there is a problem) is that his writing is extremely ornate. This anthology starts with poetry from the Naive tradition, and some of the writers who predate Shakespeare are much more accessible. I particularly liked Thomas Wyatt and John Skelliton. But of all the poems I’d say the one that affected me the most was this one by Robert Greene.

Now that I’m a parent I’m getting sentimental!

Aaaaaand, do I have anything else to say? No, probably not. No. No. No. I don’t think so. No. I am happy and not anxious at all.

Oh here’s something: the pandemic has been great for making friends with other writers! I have several who I text regularly. It turns out that when all social life is cancelled, the only people with whom there is anything to talk about are those who have the same work as me. It’s been unexpectedly fun and sustaining. So I retract everything I’ve said about how writers shouldn’t be friends.

There’s been a lot of gossip online about agents this week. Brooks Sherman getting called out was a massive bombshell. He is probably the biggest agent who’s been called out on Twitter. He is Angie Thomas’s agent and ran the immense auction that sold The Hate U Give. If you want the deets just look him up on Twitter. Anyway, it’s led to people opening up more about agent stuff.

I’ve had mixed experiences with agents, but I can’t complain too much. They’ve sold books for me. But agents can really, really, really harm an author’s career. The biggest issue is when they either refuse to take your book out on submission, or they refuse to do a second round after the first round fails (in Sherman’s case, he allegedly apparently lied about books even being on sub in the first place, which would be, like, sociopathic behavior). At the very least (and I mean this is the absolute least), when an agent signs you, they should be planning to take the book for which they signed you for multiple full submission rounds. It’s not right to simply lose interest partway through, because you feel like it’s a harder sell than you initially thought. And it’s definitely not right to do endless revision on a book and never send it out in the first place.

What authors don’t understand is that agent have certain incentives to not send books on submission. They’re limited in terms of their connections and their capacity. An agent only knows so many editors. And they can, at most, have one book with each editor at a time. If you’re an agent who specializes in kid-lit, as many do, and you know 60 editors, then you can at most have 60 submissions out. With rounds of fifteen, that means four books out at a time. If one of those books sells quickly, then it frees up those fifteen quickly. If it doesn’t sell, then it’s really taking up a lot of your submission capacity.

All an agent has to offer is their taste. Every submission is a job interview: do I understand this editor well enough? If you think a book isn’t going to sell, then it can only harm you.

If books didn’t have authors, it would be understandable to drop books after ten or fifteen rejections. But they do have authors, and you made a commitment to those authors. If you’d told an author up front that you were only going to do ten subs, they wouldn’t have gone with you.

As in most things, it’s a question of integrity. That’s not a popular thing to say. People want everything to just be business. But business requires integrity. You need to be able to trust the people you do business with.

But it’s very difficult to know who has real integrity. And the honest truth is that most people don’t. They won’t go to bat for their clients when it means potential risk to themselves. They don’t see the advantage in being known as someone with integrity. And they also just don’t–they’re too trapped in survival mode–they don’t see that there’s simply no point in doing this if you can’t do it with integrity.

I understand that. We spend so long being powerless that we don’t know what to do when we finally have power. We treat others the way we were treated ourselves.

It’s all understandable, but the net result is that authors lose years of their lives. And it’s not something you can protect against. Angie Thomas was smart to go with Brooks: he got her a massive deal and kicked off her career. Other people went with him, and he ruined their careers. You can talk to other authors and try to get the scoop, but authors lie: they’re so locked into this relationship that they simply do not tell the truth about their agent. You’re simply rolling the dice, hoping you get a good one (or, more likely) you simply never have to face a situation that tests your agent’s integrity.

And that’s all without going into the OTHER major danger of agenting, which is agents who simply shouldn’t be in the business, and who don’t have the connections to really sell books. But those agents are a bit easier to suss out, to be honest.

person signing loan agreement for purchase of apartment
Photo by Gabby K on Pexels.com

Trying to read more poetry

Hello friends, as you might remember, I’m doing this thing where I only check my old email (which I still use for all business matters) at around 3 PM every weekday. This means I haven’t checked it since last Friday! Who knows what’s in there??? (Probably a lot of rejection). Actually, what’s surprising is usually there isn’t even any rejection. Just zero or maybe one rejection. I don’t really get much email.

I’ve also been off my old Twitter, though I check it at around the same time to see if I’ve any messages that I need to respond to. Like most rules, these rules will inevitably break down after a while, but for the past week they’ve been good. By de-centering the business of writing from my life, I’m more focused on the here-and-now. My other rule, more tentative, is to write fifty words sometime between 9 AM and 10 AM. I’ve observed that the sooner my writing day begins, the better I feel, and that once I start, I get in the writing mood and don’t stop. But we’ll see what happens. Today I just finished a little spate of writing, did 600 words in the novel rewrite, and I do not absolutely need to do anything more for the rest of the day (although I probably will).

For a while I was contemplating hiding my Nintendo Switch, which takes up a lot of excess time, but I realized that I was often playing it when I was tired or just totally out of energy. In keeping with my general feeling that self-help is largely useless, my basic plan is to at all times try and move just one rung up the ladder of useless procrastination. Instead of sleeping, I’ll play games while listening to books, instead of playing games, I can watch TV, instead of watching TV, I can read, etc etc.

Life has been good, no complaints. I’m going to say something that will probably strike many as infuriating or annoying, but I’ve basically read the canon of English prose fiction. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonookoo through Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Robinson Cruseo, and Journal of a Plague Year, to Fielding and Richardson, George Eliot, Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc, etc, I’ve read almost all the touchstones, including many that are relatively less well known, like Godwin’s Caleb Williams or Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstones or M.E. Braddock’s Lady Audley’s Secret. I went through an 18th century kick a while back, actually, and I had a surprisingly good time–it was nice to read English language fiction that was less mannered than 19th century stuff. I’ve also read a lot of the great novels from other languages: Tale of Genji, Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Story of the Stone, Madame Bovary, Germinal, L’Assommoir, Lost Illusions, Dangerous Liaisians, Pere Goriot, Les Miserables, The Magic Mountain etc, etc. There are some gaps: I’ve never read Tristram Shandy, Gulliver’s Travels, Pilgrim’s Progress, Gargantua and Pantagruel, but I’ve read a lot of novels.

I began the process of reading these books more than ten years ago, when I seriously committed myself to writing. I was like, “I do not want there to be anything in the world of literature that I do not understand.” And although I started with a long list of great writers, I gravitated towards the novelists, and I naturally tended to complete these first. But along the way I also read the great historians: Thucydides, Herodotus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Plutarch, Gibbon. Anyways, for years, I’ve been gearing myself up to start reading the philosophers. And I’ve made progress with these too: I’ve read a fair amount of Plato and Aristotle, I love Rousseau and Voltaire (everyone does), and I adore Hume. I read enough of Philosophical Investigations to get the gist, though I can’t say I understood it.

But recently I started to peruse Kant, who I gather is the ne plus ultra in terms of difficult-to-read philosophers, and I was making my way through it, and the ideas were interesting, and I could sense there might be some reward in this study, but I was also like…I just don’t care. I have no desire to make my way through this. What am I trying to prove?

I think because I wasn’t an English major, and because I mostly read science fiction and fantasy growing up, I always felt inadequate before the great works. I’d open something like Hegel or Kant, and I’d be like, I want to be able to understand this.

But…it’s just not my thing. I read Hume and I read Wittgenstein, and those too honestly solved philosophy for me. Which is to say, it’s pointless, these questions aren’t answerable through reason. I can see how Kant makes a very good try with his ideas about pure reason, but it just still felt flimsy to me. And I could work through the entire book and figure out why it’s not flimsy. But I could also…not do that.

In the end, I’m content to leave the philosophical world alone. I have my intuition that it’s mostly sophistry, but to confirm that intuition I’d need to do a lot of reading that I don’t want to do.

Which leaves the question of…what to read next?

Of course, there’s the possibility of reading increasingly avant-garde fiction. I certainly didn’t fully understand Ulysses, and making my way through William Gaddis’s JR was more an act of will than of pleasure. I could read Pynchon, find other difficult works. I could also explore the writing of other cultures. I’ve read a fair number of Japanese novels, my favorites are Yasunari Kawabata and Natsume Soeseki, but there exist many more. I’ve read almost no Chinese novels, few African novels, few Portuguese novels. (I only read in translation, so learning another language is also a possibility).

But instead of (or in addition to) doing that stuff, I’ve decided to try and read more poetry.

Personally, I have an arcane system whereby I assign point values to books based upon how long and how difficult they are, and I’ve decided I’m going to read 100 points worth of poetry from before 1900 and 100 points worth of poetry from after 1900. As always, I’ll be reading haphazardly and less-than-systematically.

I’ve read some of the great poets. I made my way through Paradise Lost a few years back, but in general I’ve neglected poetry. I always felt it was above me, that I wasn’t patient or careful enough to understand it. My technique with classic literature has always been to read it just like I’d read anything else–I might not gain as much as I could from a close reading, but it’s much more interesting, and I can’t help thinking maybe closer to the way these works were meant to be read. ANYWAY, I’ve made some progress already. I read a volume of Kay Ryan’s Selected Poems. I was impressed by her rhyming. Really subtle, innovative rhymes. I did sometimes feel like the poems themselves were a bit…empty? That they didn’t arouse much feeling? But maybe that’s only me. And I’m working through an anthology of Renaissance English poetry. Man this Thomas Wyatt guy really loved the ladies! How come there’s not as much poetry about trying to get with some lady anymore? Or feeling sad that she won’t get with you? Poetry nowadays is all about trees and nature and stuff. I guarantee you Thomas Wyatt spent way more time in nature than we do now, but he was like…I wanna bang.

Oh, and I’m mostly going to try and read English poetry. Not that poetry in translation doesn’t have value, but, well, poetry is literally the thing that is lost in translation.

So that’s where I am right now.

white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile
Photo by Thought Catalog on Pexels.com

The courage to be disliked

STRONG TW HERE FOR WEIGHT LOSS STUFF

So, one reason I was fearful of starting feminizing hormone treatment was that I’ve always been ashamed of my weight. In retrospect, there was probably some body dysmorphia in there, but it’s kind of unproductive to read gender dysphoria into one’s past. I didn’t like my weight. I lost 110 pounds a few years ago, mostly through calory counting, and when it was done, I still didn’t like my body! I still had a belly! I still felt fat!

In the last four years, I’ve regained about 40 pounds, going up to 260, and it’s made me kind of sad. I’d heard that when you start hormone treatment, you often gain weight, or at least it becomes much harder to lose weight.

That hasn’t proven to be the case for me. I’m not on estrogen, because of my blood clot, but I’m still taking spironolactone, which suppresses testosterone production, and it’s been great. My libido is down, but still healthy. I haven’t detected many physical changes, but my appetite is way, way down. Like, I am hardly ever hungry. It is insane. I eat lunch….and then I don’t eat again until dinner! And then I eat dinner, and maybe I eat a snack later…but maybe I don’t!!!! I’ve never experienced anything like this. I mean it’s very early, so it’s hard to tell what the long-term effects will be, but so far I’ve been losing weight, simply because I haven’t felt the urge to eat. I think my metabolism is down, but my hunger is down even more. Long story short, I’m down to 245. I also, totally indepndently, hate my body slightly less! Mostly just feel less dysphoric. Miss being on estrogen though, which was doing good things. But I talked to my doctor (who is trans herself), and there are some options for getting me back on, so whatever.

It’s hard to be me, clearly.

I like self-help books, and I like to do self-helpy things, but I am wary of writing about them, beecause self-help blogs are always so full of improvement, but the person is never like, "I did it! I am better now!"

Self-help does run its course. For a long time, I had all kinds of tricks to write more. I don’t do that now. I don’t monitor my word counts or anything. I write a lot. It’s become a habit.

Anyway, that’s not important. When it comes to the emotions, I sometimes wonder if the best advice isn’t to just suffer. I mean, it sometimes feels like all this self-help stuff is just another way of torturing ourselves. Going to therapy, meditating, being grateful, etc, it just creates and exacerbates a cycle of shame ("Why am I not better? Shouldn’t I be better? Why am I not working harder at not being depressed!") These aren’t solutions to suffering; they’re merely a form that suffering takes.

It’s like writer’s block. When you’re blocked, there are all these exercises you can try, but that stuff just constitutes another way of being blocked. You just do that stuff, or don’t do it, or go to therapy, or start something or try something else, and eventually you’re not blocked anymore. But where’s the causality? Maybe if you’d just not worried about it for a year or two, it would be the same. But trying not to worry is itself a form of suffering!

So the point is that I like self-help, but I don’t expect too much from it. I’ve recently read a raft of these books about how to love yourself and feel less perfectionism. The two best were The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fxck and The Courage To Be Disliked. The later in particular was great! It had that quality that all great self-help books have, where for twelve hours you feel like you’ve solved all your problems! But then reality comes back.

Anyways, this book, The Courage To Be Disliked, is structured as a dialogue, between a philosopher and a quarrelsome young man who comes to dispute his teachings. They’re both pretty lovable characters, and it was enjoyable even as just a story. I was sad when it ended.

But the philosopher is all like, "What people want, ultimately, is to feel like they’re useful to other people. But they get all worked up and demand recognition from people in order to convince themselves that they’re useful, whereas if they just knew they were useful, then they wouldn’t need recognition, and they could be happy in themselves."

I found it very convincing! I wondered how I am useful to other people. I think a lot of people, particularly marginalized people, derive a feeling of usefulness from the idea that these voices, these stories, aren’t represented in the popular culture. I don’t know…somehow that doesn’t do it for me. I just feel like, well, I have a unique voice, I guess, but if I don’t write something, somebody else will. Or no, not that, I don’t know. It just feels very off for me to be like, "My fiction helps people!"

Maybe it does. Probably does, in fact. Certainly my stories are really different from the YA norm, and there is some small number of people who respond well to that.

But I think what gives me more meaning is this blog, to be honest. I feel as if the writing world has so much falseness out there. So much posturing. So many status games. I like aspiring writers. I mean, I often don’t like their work, but I like that they are such dreamers. The artistic world is a bit harsh towards dreamers. We don’t trust them. You’re supposed to check all the boxes. You’re not supposed to come in from the outside. But I just think it’s nice that in our field, a person with no connections, no background, no publication history, can still maybe have an impact. It’s really beautiful and sustaining.

I think because I believe that newcomers genuinely have a chance, and that they may have something to offer, that I don’t peddle myths. Like, yeah, you are not gonna be able to sell a book to a major publisher if you don’t have comp titles (other recent books with similar content, style and themes that have been commercial successes). I know we have a lot invested in that not being true, but why bullshit people? Or when I used to talk to potential MFA candidates, I’d be like, "This is a great program, but it’s also pretty austere. You won’t get a lot of mentorship from your professors outside of class." I’m similarly honest when people ask me about my various agents or publishers. I understand why people try to softpedal, but I’m not sure they understand peoples’ lives are at stake (it’s for this reason a friend became convinced that I am the YA call-out account @YAWhispers. I’m NOT, but I wish I was).

If life is about being useful to people, that’s where I find the most use. Which begs the question: why write fiction at all? I don’t know. The truth is that the impact I can make on peoples’ lives with a novel is probably less than that I can with an honest blog (just because the latter is so rare). But obviously all of my writing is of a piece, and it all partakes of a similar worldview. But still…the fiction isn’t that high-impact.

Oh well! I don’t know! I just like it! Writing fiction is a fun and harmless way of occupying oneself. Not every question in life can be answered by referring to the teachings of a Japanese self-help book.

woman showing paper with prohibition sign
Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com