I just finished an interview with the ACT UP Oral History Project. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of the project before Sarah Schulman asked me to participate in it, but, having seen it, I wanted to take a moment to say what an important endeavor I think it is. This is a moment in history that few poeple under thirty remember, let alone understand the importance of. Because of ACT UP, hundreds of thousands if not millions of people are alive today who wouldn’t be otherwise. I could go on and on about how important ACT UP was, to me and to the world, but in this case I don’t have to, since it’s all there online. Take a moment to check it out.
My green-haired boy continues to attract attention.
First, it’s the “spotlight” book on a very nice blog by Elisa Rolle, who really works hard to promote gay books. Warning though: there are some semi-NSFW pics on the posting. Nothing pornographic, but they might raise a few eyebrows…
Second, I just learned that Sprout’s been nominated for a Lammy in the Children’s/YA category, along with The Vast Fields of Ordinary by my former student, Nick Burd. I’m not saying I’m not happy for him or anything like that, but if he pulls an Eve Harrington and wins over me, I might have to go all Bette Davis on his ass!
Depeche Mode? I wish. Nope, just me. Been away from the page for a while now but trying to get back into it. So here’s the heads up on what’s up:
Body Surfing has been out in paperback for a couple of weeks. No idea how it’s selling. I just imagine people walking into Barnes and Noble, seeing the cover, and falling on the floor in convulsions. In addition to the NY Times mention, however, there was a nice review here. The Sprout pb is up next, in about a month.
I just finished a review of a pair of new books about E.M. Forster: a biography by Wendy Moffat and a “causerie” by Frank Kermode. Look for it in the next issue of Bookforum—and then check back here for a couple of addenda to the review that were cut for space reasons (what can I say, I’ve always been a wordy mf, and it’s not getting any better as I get older).
Also in the pipeline is an essay about anxiety attacks and the art-making process called “Dutcher’s Notch,” which will be in the next issue of Threepenny Review. I wrote the piece several years ago, and when I showed it to my then-agents, they suggested, not unkindly (oh hell, it came off as pretty damn unkind) that it was of interest only to myself and perhaps my friends. I was so chagrined that I put it away and more or less forgot about. In the past couple of weeks, however, I’ve been contemplating putting together a new collection of essays, mostly culling from material I wrote in the early ’90s about what it meant to be young and gay in America in the second decade of the AIDS epidemic, and I came across it and decided to risk sending it to Wendy Lesser at Threepenny, who’s always been a perceptive reader of my work (I should add that this was just after she rejected another essay I’d sent her, so don’t think she’s a shill for anything I do). The subject line of her email said it all: “Yes!!!” Maybe there were only two exclamation points, but you get the picture. That essay she rejected, by the way, is a long piece called “Homer’s Forge” about the relationship of setting in fiction to the real world, and is still looking for a home. Hopefully I’ll find one for it soon.
And, finally, the thing that’s kept me away from this site for so long: Shift, or S H I F T (we go back and forth on the orthography), the first volume of The Gate of Orpheus trilogy (formerly The Flag of Orpheus trilogy), is done and in the bag. I’m reading page proofs now (the book has a really great internal design, btw, but we’re still trying to find a cover: email crown and tell them that retro is way cooler than contemporary slick) and the book itself is due to drop in September. I think it’s okay for me to say drop that way, since the p.r. and marketing campaigns for this particular project are way more rock star than anything I’ve ever worked on: we’re designing websites, advertising, and lots of innovative things I’m not even allowed to talk about but will be pretty cool. More later as info becomes available…
That’s it for now. I’m already hard at work on the second book of the trilogy: from the early 60s to the late 80s: Ollie North, Manuel Noriega, Saddam and the Ayatollah and the mujahideen. It’s going to be a fun one…
The New York Times Book Review was kind enough to list the Body Surfing paperback in last week’s issue. Check out the full blurb (scroll down, scroll waaaay down):
Heading off to the fundraising party for OR Books and Mischief & Mayhem… I know I’ve been enigmatic about this particular venture and my involvement with it, but I promise to make up for it when there’s something more substantial to say. I was asked to talk about why a writer would choose to place their book with us as opposed to a mainstream publisher. Being a little neurotic, I shaved my head, trimmed my pubes (hey, the clipper was already out, and that fresh feeling shows in the face, even if no one can figure out what’s causing it) and went ahead and wrote down what I was going to say. And so anyway, yeah, I thought I’d share it with whoever the hell’s reading this, since, you know, that’s what a blog is for…
I’ve been asked to say a few words about why a writer, established or otherwise, would publish with OR/Mischief & Mayhem over a mainstream publisher.
To answer that question, we first have to talk about what makes OR and Mischief & Mayhem different from mainstream publishing.
Mischief & Mayhem isn’t trying to turn midlist writers into bestsellers. We’re trying to help midlist writers make a living at what they do, while still making an impact on the world of letters.
We don’t believe literature is measured by copies of books sold. It’s measured by quality, diversity, influence. As Virginia Woolf showed, a novel that sells only 2,000 copies can, over time, change the way fiction is read and written.
Most of the writers here tonight sell five or ten times that amount. We’re contributing to the world of literature in a variety of ways, and we have the reviews, awards, and peer recognition to show for it. By Woolf’s terms, we’ve even got the numbers.
But we’re not making a living at it. And, if you talk to a mainstream publisher, the thousands of books we sell are barely worth the effort of printing.
It’s not that the money isn’t there. It’s that the money gets eaten up by middlemen—by distributors and booksellers at the retail end, and, at the production end, by byzantine corporate bureaucracies whose ineffeciency and profligacy is summed up in a single term: “the publishers lunch.”
Of course we all have a soft spot in our heart for our local bookstore. But the fact is, 80% of books are now sold through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Far from being an integrated part of local bookreading communities, their monopoly power enables them to dictate pricing, marketing, even content—not just the books publishers sell, but the books they buy.
These policies, and publishers’ acquiescence to them, have had a destructive effect on contemporary literature. More and more, books that aren’t considered commercial aren’t being picked up by publishers, which means readers don’t even get a chance to decide whether they want to buy them.
Of course, a certain number of midlist writers do get published each year. But after the distributor takes its 15-25% cut for placing the book in the bookstore’s warehouse, and the retailer takes its 50% cut of the sale price—which has often been discounted by as much as 20%—there’s almost nothing left to pay the army of editors, editorial assistants, designers, design assistants, publicists, publicity assistants—not to mention all those waiters—who work for the typical publishing company, let alone the writer.
So the question isn’t: why would a writer want to come to Mischief & Mayhem? It’s: why would a writer want to stay with mainstream publishing?
Don’t get us wrong. We wouldn’t ask you to invest in OR simply because mainstream publishing isn’t working. The fact is, alternative publishing models can and do work. Indeed, they’re part of a grand tradition. To mention Virginia Woolf again: she and husband Leonard founded Hogarth Press, which published not only their books, but other major work, including the first edition of “The Waste Land” and the complete works of Sigmund Freud. And, speaking of T.S. Eliot: he partnered with Geoffrey Faber to turn what had been a tiny scientific press into the foremost venue for avant-garde poetry in the English-speaking world, publishing himself, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore, among others.
If we jump forward the present, we see that independent presses are still having an impact, whether it’s New Directions, Dalkey Archive, Soft Skull, or McSweeney’s. Major writers have started their careers at these kinds of houses—Barbara Epler brought the English-speaking world W.G. Sebald in the 90s, and then Roberto Bolaño in the noughties—and others have had their careers saved. I’m reading David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress right now. Widely regarded as a modern classic, the novel was published by Dalkey after being rejected by 54 other publishing houses.
With our partnership with OR Books, Mischief & Mayhem hopes to push the possibilities of the independent press to a new level. By eliminating bookstores and distributors, bloated bureaucracies and the huge costs of printing thousands of books at a time, only to scatter them across a nationwide network of anonymous bookstores like individual grass seeds sprinkled on Central Park’s Great Lawn, we’ve freed up thousands of dollars to spend on bringing a book to its audience, and still pay the writer a royalty that would cause a traditional publisher to laugh you out of his office, if he didn’t have a heart attack first.
We plan to publish the kinds of books that mainstream publishers can’t or won’t. Not books that don’t sell, but books that mainstream publishers won’t sell—books that, because of their form, content or their author’s track record, are deemed not to have an audience. An audience is pretty hard to find if you wait for it to come to you. But with OR’s unique production and marketing strategies, Mischief and Mayhem will be able to bring our books directly to readers, at a lower price than traditional publishers, and still pay the author a royalty between 40 and 50 percent, and make a profit to boot.
Over the past several weeks we’ve had the opportunity to see that strategy put to great effect with Going Rouge. With your support, we can do the same thing over the next several years.
At least once a year (maybe once every two years), I get an idea for a novel and bang out the first 20 or 50 or 100 pages before I’m forced to set it aside to return to whatever it was I’d been writing before inspiration struck. Over time I do get back to these books—I started Body Surfing around 2000 or 2001, but didn’t actually write it until about three years ago. Right now my working life for the foreseeable future is completely dominated by The Gate of Orpheus, the trilogy I’m co-writing with Tim Kring (look to this site for updates about book 1, Shift, in the near future), but, in an effort to keep my literary (and not-so-literary) projects alive and out there in the world, I’ve decided to create a section on this site called First Chapters of Future Novels. To kick things off, I’m posting the beginning of an historical novel called Caretaker, the idea for which was actually thrown to me by my agent over lunch six or seven years ago. You can find it under the exclusives section, or just follow the link here.
In 2006, I began a review of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (for a publication that shall remain both nameless and blameless), but I didn’t manage to finish the book until about three months after it came out, at which point the review was no longer timely. When Pynchon published Inherent Vice I thought I’d post the review of AtD here, but of course the site wasn’t ready in time. Now, however, things are up and running, and, even though the piece is now doubly tardy, I’m posting it anyway, in the hope that the piece is of interest to Pynchon’s readers, or mine.
Click through to read the essay.