Monday, December 15, 2014

Who Wants to Live Forever?

Sacchi Green

My modest goal as a kid was to be immortal. Well, maybe not a kid so much as an adolescent, but close enough. That didn’t mean living forever in the flesh, which never seemed like a good idea, but immortal in the way writers like Louisa May Alcott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen seemed to me to be. I read voraciously, but socialized only moderately. There may have been some cause-and-effect going on there. And wanting to write books worthy of becoming immortal  definitely had an element of “showing them” even though I knew already that “they” would never consider literary brilliance as preferable to being attractive, feminine, and popular.

At any rate, I planned to be a writer, but without an actual plan. I wrote plays in elementary school in which my reluctant (and even resentful) classmates were forced to participate when holidays rolled around. I wrote bits of poetry in lieu of doodling during boring classes. In high school I won a couple of essay contests. But that was only playing around with the tools I’d gained from so much reading. In college I got by in the same way, but acquired more tools and more data in the memory bank. One very perceptive professor said that I could write a “tour de force” without having anything particular to say.

My goal kept on being a “some day” affair for a very long time. I’ve gone on at far too much length about that in previous posts, so I won’t go there now. I did, after amassing a good deal of life experience, find things I wanted to write about, and managed to publish short stories often enough to encourage me to keep on writing. It turned out that what I had to say was more along the lines of light entertainment than deathless truths, but having some minor success in fantasy and science fiction, and then some moderate success in erotica, was (and is) seductive. So is editing anthologies. I sometimes think of writing and editing fiction as a form of sculpture, bringing together just the right elements, carving away whatever obscures the true line, balancing the curves and hollows, the smooth and the rough, making a shape emerge that’s more than the sum of its parts, or at least does justice to its parts. I admit that this is an ideal seldom even approached, but that’s the way goals tend to be.      

By now I’ve given up on the goal finding immortality through my writing. The kind of fiction that could escape being out of print and forgotten after four or five years is not the kind of fiction I’m drawn to write. Pretty soon, with the accelerating flood of work being published, almost nothing will be able to rise above that flood for very long. In spite of this flood, though, it turns out that traditional publishers don’t live forever, either. The publishing world as we knew it has been quaking under our feet.

Early in my editing career I worked with several small publishers who folded more or less under me, good people with admirable goals who couldn’t manage the business part, which, for the idiosyncratic type of work they wanted to publish, was probably inherently unmanageable. There were some medium-sized publishers in the erotica genre who did seem to have a grasp of what it took to survive, but eventually sank under mergers and acquisitions by conglomerates that decided books weren’t profitable enough. I eventually achieved a goal I’d had for some time of doing free-lance work with a publisher who did have good business sense (however frustrating that might be when I wanted to do something that wasn’t likely to sell well) and was known for the quality of its products. Their books are carried in major bookstores.

Seven years later, “major bookstores” are on the verge of extinction. Barnes & Noble continues to close its branch stores, and has been returning vast numbers of books to publishers for refunds, books that have often been languishing in their back rooms and warehouses for years without making it to any shelves. Publishers are taking a major hit. At the same time publishers who started up their businesses years ago, who were groundbreakers for genres like erotica, are getting older and wanting to retire. Who could blame them? So one of my publishers (I work mainly with two—let’s not name names, even in comments) has been sold to a company that has been buying up quite a few small presses. The same staff (slightly reduced) is still there, doing their usual good work, but there’s some inevitable chaos during the transition, and a major slowing down of production to the point where I’m beginning to worry about attracting good writers when I have two completed anthologies waiting in the pipeline, one of which may just barely make it into print late next year, with no estimate at all of when the other will get some traction. I have an impression that the number of new releases is being decreased, while some of the backlist is being re-introduced. This may well be a good business decision, and I have hopes that things will work out just fine eventually, but it’s still unsettling.

These days my goals have become short-term affairs. I’m still addicted to editing anthologies when I can, and I have a new call for submissions out now for something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. The somewhat overheated working title is Thunder of War, Lightning of Desire: Lesbian Historical Military Erotica, for my alternate publisher, and you can find the guidelines on my blog, http://sacchi-green.blogspot.com, or on http://www.erotica-readers.com/ERA/AR/Erotica_Authors_Resources.htm

As for immortality, I think of that now as a more nuanced concept. Anything we do that affects someone else’s life can make a difference in the future, even in the tiniest ways, kind of like the butterfly effect. I know a few people have been touched by my writing, and there are probably a few more that I don’t know of. More significantly, I’ve helped some beginning writers and encouraged them to keep on writing. That’s a goal I didn’t think about, back in my callow youth, but it’s become important to me, and best of all, it’s achievable. Why ask for anything more?  

18 comments:

  1. Sacchi:
    I think it was the character of Yossarian in Catch-22 who said, "I want to live forever or die trying."
    Books in the electronic realm last forever, so in that sense you have accomplished your goal. More importantly as an anthology editor you have given immortality to a host of other writers. Who knows what careers you may have launched or suffering you have aided. Maybe you get to see that on the other side.

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  2. I agree that literary immortality is more or less defunct as a possibility. In fact I wonder whether the giants *we* consider immortal will remain so in the future. Given the way Hollywood is plundering the canon, perhaps. I read that after the release of the most recent remake of The Great Gatsby, the book was flying off the shelves.

    I saw your CFS, and even though I have an aversion to even thinking about war, I'm still tempted. You know me - something I haven't tried yet is always irresistible!

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  3. This is a great post. (I always fear I sound like a spam-commenter when I say that... but, hey, it's a great post!)

    I think you and I have a lot in common. The desire, primarily, to entertain. The dream of some kind of immortality for our creative work, abandoned in the face of millennial realities. The ability to "write a 'tour de force' without having anything particular to say." (:v> (Though I know this isn't quite what you mean, one of my impossible-dream jobs these days would be for a successful but overcommitted comic-fiction author to hire me as a collaborator: s/he plots the story, I actually write all the witty narrative and dialogue. The joy of doing what I love doing, without my needing to have any ideas larger than the next well-turned sentence!)

    I love the sculpture analogy, too.

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  4. You've taken a big bite here, Sacchi. Lots to think about. Momma X was in publishing for her entire career and we've witnessed what you're talking about first hand. Also, coming from the art world myself, yes, writing is a lot like sculpting, the way we nip and tuck here, eliminate bulk there, add some embellishment only in the right places with the right intensity etc.

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  5. Jeremy and Daddy X, I've always wished I had a talent for visual arts like painting and sculpture, but I don't, and even if the mind would work that way I don't have the fine manual motor skills required. Computer writing programs were a huge thrill when they came along (yes, I started writing when you had to use typewriters and send your submissions on paper with a stamped, self-addressed envelope included for a response.) The cursor, like a fine carving instrument! Instant deletion, like a magic hammer and chisel! Cut-'n-paste that can manipulate chunks of text like handfuls of clay! Potentially dangerous tools, but I've learned to manage them, and they still thrill me.

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    1. I write software, too. It's a kind of magic. You begin with nothing but ideas, then end up with an artifact that can change the world (for better or worse). It's one of the best examples of how mind shapes reality. And yes, as I tell my students, "software is infinitely malleable".

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    2. Software certainly seems like magic to me, Lisabet! And definitely art as well.

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    3. I never could create art either. Whether it was music, painting, sculpture-- my projects never progressed beyond first or second grade, along with my handwriting. But after cultivating an eye, I did manage to learn to separate the good art from the bad, the real from the fake.

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  6. Aww man, I miss being good at art. Or I miss being naive enough to take pride in whatever I produced, the way kids do.

    Sacchi, I told you I spotted Girl Crazy in the general fiction stacks at the library, right? To me, that was just the coolest thing ever and I'm not even a contributor to that book. I wanted to go up to random people and be like, "I KNOW HER!!!"

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    1. Giselle, you did mention the library sighting a while back, and I was thrilled. I don't think my books have made into many libraries, and I'm surprised that any have at all. (I actually feel weird calling them "my" books when the real worth comes from the contributors, but I don't mind getting the credit for being a catalyst.)

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  7. This is thought-provoking, a little sad, and frightening, too.

    I’m there with you about thoughts of immortality. I imagine that’s pretty common for kids, although these days they likely think they’ll get famous on some reality show. Over the years, I moved from that future thinking (one day I’ll be famous) to presence (I just do what I love in this moment), as all those Facebook memes tell me I should do. It’s a grown up thing discovering that, yes, we’re uniquely ourselves, but no, we’re not uniquely talented. You may not be famous in any of the mainstream Bill Cosby ways (yes, I went there), but you’re famous in the niche erotic fiction way. You won’t be lost to the ages for the reason you say—passing on your interest and enthusiasm to others. But you’ll also remain known for damn fine editing and writing. You were always encouraging to me, even when you rejected a story ;-). The bonus is you were here at the beginning of the Revolution. That revolution is two-fold: the explosion of niche erotica and the invention of digital publishing.

    Now, this whole publishing thing is scary. Few are making money and with so many markets, publishers are all begging for quality writers. This year, I started a press for no other reason than I’m sick of reading erotica with penises in it (Strange Flesh Press). There just isn’t enough lesbian erotica written for lesbians (don’t get me started on the crap I read). I don’t want to be big or famous. I want to do quality work and have fun. If I were in it for the money, I would be screwed. Those adolescent fantasies have become reasonable goals. The other aspect for me is I get to do EVERYTHING. That’s exciting! Publishing has been an assembly-line process with every decision out of the author’s hands. Now, I can do it all. I have a print book coming out in January that I wrote, illustrated, designed the cover for, and formatted (I let someone else edit it because I don’t believe an author should edit their own work for publication). All the decisions and creative work were my own. So when think back at my youth, I realize what thrilled me then was creating. The writing, the drawing. I tried so hard to turn my ramblings into coherent projects like my own comic book or novel, but I didn’t have the tools. Now I do. I LOVE this age.

    The definition of “lasting” will be different from what it was a century ago. But you know what? A lot of what we call classic and “real” literature stood the test of time because there was really no test. A few hundred books a year written by (mostly) rich white men. Now, we have thousands written by everybody. It’s a Publishing Reformation, and I welcome it.

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    1. Teresa! I was so happy to see your book featured at ERWA last edition. I hadn't heard anything from or of you for a long time, since you had your story in CREAM.

      Your publishing venture sounds ambitious but I don't doubt you have the passion to succeed. I'd love to have you as a guest over at Beyond Romance if you'd like to talk about it (or your novel). Just contact me privately:. lisabet ....at....lisabetsarai....com

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    2. Cool! I'll have to go over there and check it out. I have to confess that I mostly only visit the Calls for Submission page. Mia culpa.

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    5. A lot of what we call classic and “real” literature stood the test of time because there was really no test. A few hundred books a year written by (mostly) rich white men.

      I believe print publishing was huge in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. The dominance by white males is of course a sad truth, but a class of professional writers living sale to sale (as opposed to independently wealthy writers) has been in existence for a long time. And I think the vast majority of these immense quantities of books and stories and articles that were published over the centuries have been largely forgotten, even when they're physically still intact in libraries and archives.

      My wife has a book that compiles best-seller lists from over the course of the twentieth century. Most of the authors who appear on the lists, at least those from the first few decades, are people we have literally never heard of. Just think: some of these forgotten people repeatedly wrote best sellers (in the more meaningful old-school sense, not the "I'm no. 3 today on some Amazon chart" sense) less than a hundred years ago. Their children might still be alive, telling well-read acquaintances, "My mom/dad was a best-selling author, and no one I meet has ever even heard the name."

      Obviously, the digital haystack into which we publish our needles dwarfs everything that came before—and the killer, as I see it, is that standing the test of time goes from unlikely to virtually impossible when only 6 people ever see your book in the first place, and it has no physical form in which to lie around in a library somewhere. But I don't think literary immortality was ever a free pass, not since Gutenberg at least.

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  8. Hi Teresa! Glad to see you commenting here. Sometimes it seems as though nobody talks with us but each other, with a few welcome exceptions.

    You make a good point about the new world of possibilities in publishing for those with the energy to pursue them. i'm still stuck in the past to some extent, nostalgic for the old days of bookstores on every corner (or at least in every shopping mall and fair-sized town.) As far as lesbian erotica books goes, it seems to me that the market for them in print form has dwindled, for whatever reason, and then people who only read unedited freebies online conclude that all erotica is like that. But I have to admit that I haven't kept up with many of the new start-up publishers, so I have no informed opinion about the market as a whole.

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  9. Sacchi, I love everything you said, but most especially your last paragraph. I think of the relatively obscure books I've read that have touched me deeply, and I bet those authors have no idea that I carry their words in my head. I'm sure you've done the same, and I hope I've done the same, and it's a thought that gives me great comfort. Also, I think your encouragement of your writers, and obvious concern for them, is a really big deal, too.

    It's also quite cool to see a comment from Teresa/Strange Flesh. As a reader, I'm really interested in what you're doing, and I've been dying to check it out. I'll make a point of doing that sooner rather than later.

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