Wednesday, June 18, 2008


No one deceived me. I deceived myself, or maybe I could defend my ego by saying it’s a systemic deception and not one confined to the United States. Maybe it’s a deception of white Euro-based culture. I mean the illusion that a person can make money by writing books. Another author came to visit and kindly explained to me what I sort of knew but had been steadily denying: “Bronze Inside and Out” will not make any money for me. Any. I have confirmed this with the new publisher who is not part of the deception and tells the truth. No money. Not ever. It will, however pay the salaries of the press employees.

It’s not their fault. The acquiring editors did not know what they had acquired, did not understand how to manage it, did not have the basic necessity of publishing: monetary capital. They were an “academic press,” meant to accommodate the need for proof of value of faculty after they had their degrees by publishing a book now and then. (The acquiring editor had a contract to supply a certain number of “Legacy” manuscripts about important locals every year and framed my manuscript that way.) In Canada they say, “Publish or prairies” because prairie colleges for a professor is banishment, where you go if no one respects you. And this particular university is focused tightly on the past -- narrow, hoarding, defensive. Like Montana.

In our culture the fact of “being published” is a stamp of value. And in our culture value means money. Not much more than that because not enough people are educated to know what “value” in intellectual endeavors might mean. Anyway, it used to mean conformity to those who had the power in the status quo. (Seminary taught me that.) Now it means almost anything from “I like it” to “it changed the world.”

So the truth of this is that I can no longer say to myself, “when the big check comes I’ll get the pickup fixed” or “the shower fixed” or “my teeth fixed.” I mean, when these things become intolerable, what WILL I do? In a world where bananas cost $10 a pound, will I be able to eat? In a place where all jobs are thirty miles away and gas costs almost as much as a banana, where’s the net gain of going back to work? With my ideas and personality I might only be repeating the Cut Bank High School fiasco.

But the deeper truth is something else: the validation. Now I’m back confronting the problem of how good a writer I am. Richard Stern, my most demanding professor, says, “I enjoyed your book a great deal. The picture of your husband is full and powerful. As for money, it's not in the literary cards. It's been 35 years since I made any -- even then it wasn't enough to live on.” He’s one of the best writers in America and has been telling me the truth gently all along and so have many others. In the end, how good a writer a person is has to be decided by the writer him or her self. I believe I have the skills and drive, I believe I have something to say.

One of my best efriends this past year has been (gasp) Tim Barrus. His aboriginal nom de plume, Nasdijj, was beside the point. (I also correspond with a Cree-Chippewa grandpa whose name is Nadjiwan.) Tim didn’t sound to me like a Navajo but he certainly knew what he was writing about. Maybe more than most “white ladies,” I’ve been in and out of derelict hotels, abandoned hulks of houses, tumbled and weathered shacks. Not because I lived there but because work took me there. I know one heckuva lot of Blackfeet mixed with other tribes. What Barrus wrote rang deeply true to me.

He was praised, certified, raised to the skies as an example of how people can rise from humble roots. Then some enterprising journalist not interested in revealing George Bush ripped away Barrus’ writing persona. Instead of the book world being embarrassed, they attacked him, reviled him. One minute he’s flying first class with his helper dog named Navajo, and the next he’s a pariah. But the man is so endearing to ME because he didn’t just lie down and beg for forgiveness like the shit-eating James Frey, so that the same people who had raised him up could throw him back down, so they could get their Jimmy Cho 4-inch heels embedded in the back of his neck. Instead he bitch-slapped them back with words. All the things you’re not supposed to say.

The sad part is that those (mostly) women were only a puppet front -- Stepford editresses -- for the corporation masters who have changed publishing from a gentleman’s business, which was a way of managing capital by seeking fine writers and selling fine books (the origin of the status of published authors as something like gentry) into an assembly line for profit, a thing they call “book packaging” where they steal words from formerly successful books, throw them together, invent a writer of some kind with ethnic difference and low class afflictions, and hire someone to pretend to be that person.

This is not what Tim Barrus did. (He does NOT write like Sherman Alexie.) Tim Barrus was mocking that whole patronizing concept, wiping it away and writing from his heart. He wrote the deepest life-problem a person can have, betrayal by a parent that is denied by everyone else including the other parent. Somehow, from somewhere, he got the strength to transform that with love. Is that why the book was published? No. It was sensational. It won a lot of prizes because it was sensational. But it was also damn good writing and it was deeply, deeply felt, so it couldn’t be controlled by publishers.

Can I come up to that standard? I don’t know where to look for the markers except within myself. My more literary cousins have been highly supportive. My money-centered cousins want nothing to do with me. My brother wants nothing to do with me. My best undergrad friend who always said I was a great writer now tells me he’s dyslexic: he buys the books but that’s it. No reading. MANY people tell me they bought the book but have only read parts or just look at the pictures. I had no idea I knew so many non-readers. They say they don’t have time. They have to be in the mood. The review copies sent to eloquent people were read, but then no reviews were written. How do I interpret that?

Another writer, who wanted me to help him, offered in return to show me how to form a nonprofit corporation and use it to get grants from foundations established by easy-money guilty millionaires because that’s where the money is, not in publishing. One thinks up a lofty purpose, milks it, does a minimum of work. I could name several of these. One was going to be a great boon to Montana humanities, a quarterly that would showcase excellent work. So far it’s more of an annual, while the directors on salaries flog their own work. Classic reservation boondoggle. The humanities scene in Montana is controlled by people serving their own interests, which they fancy are the same as serving others but have the effect of closing out a great many or trivializing those they serve. The Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel -- don’t ask.

Someone asked Mary Clearman Blew, an honest person, whether it were possible to earn a living by writing. She said no, but that the peripherals paid well: teaching, panels, speeches. But they are peripheral and they may be on their way out, since they are funded by benevolent non-profits and universities which are less and less benevolent. And then there’s the price of travel now.

Barrus says his central focus is survival and he does this by going to video instead of print, publishing on the Internet (the publishers are dying, the bookstores are dying), and gathering a posse of young men who take care of him when he’s away from his wife. (Don’t think dirty thoughts about it. They are learning to be good fathers.) I’m about to the point where I don’t care about survival. I’ve tipped my hat to what I think will sell, but not really compromised. Now I won’t compromise at all. No more looking for publishers. No books, just writing. I’ll publish my words for a damned Kindle and learn to make Podcasts so commuters can listen to them. No scandals will ensue. This is who I really am: no mask. Like it or not.


prairie mary said...

I like it a lot. I learn a lot from it, too. Publishing is, indeed, the Great and Powerful Oz. A humbug. A despot who used to sell tonic from the back of a donkey wagon. But they tell me I am simply sour grapes. Maybe. Maybe not. I know this: as things stand, the entire paradigm has existed for about a hundred years where the surplus of writers and writing worked in their favor. You typically pay the writer a dollar a book, the printer a dollar a book, the marketing folks a dollar a book, the unanticipated expenses get a dollar a book, legal gets a dollar a book, the warehouse gets a dollar a book, and you've just spent six bucks. You are charging twenty-five.

Do the math.

Every year, it's the same song and dance, and the same dog and pony show. "We have no money times are tough."

They never have any money and times are ALWAYS tough.

They don't know tough.

I used to steal gas. To write. I used to shoplift groceries from the Gallup Texaco station. To write. I held my muffler together with piano wire. My truck had holes in the floor and you had to be very careful about where you put your feet. I did what I had to do. To write. Winter was the hard part.

I lived in places like the free campground at Bluewater Lake. It was a million-dollar-view and glorious.

I slept with coyotes at 4am in the desert.

I never anticipated that. It just happened and in this writing life -- that's the key -- life happens.

Some people get published.

Some people (very few) make money.

The publishers make the lion's share of everything. The writer is exploited. There is no quid pro quo.

And I know this, too: it's all changing and fast.

They're very nervous and are forced into the position of trying to keep up (they can barely handle email) and they resent it.

Because "the little people" are having a not so little revolution.

Which just happens to be the equivalent of the invention of the printing press.

I want to be around for that.

Language is a living thing. It is fluid. It evolves. Or it dies.

The language of storytelling is changing.

Sure, the book will be around a long time.

But it's going to get a run for its money.

The new language is digital. I want to learn how to construct a storytelling life using that language as a tool.

Why. In a word: revenge.

They have to deal with me. They don't like it. They play Big Girl games and they're mean as a reservoir dog. They will bite. But they don't control the worlds they used to have exclusives on.

They wish I would go away. But in the back of their minds, they know it will not happen.

If I can survive winter in the high desert mesa, I can survive them and their silences and their rules and their disdain.

They don't know trouble.

They have never slept or ran with coyotes.

I have.

I am not going to go away.

The new languages are simply battlefield instruments of war. I want to be as literate as possible because I want them to have to eat it. They represent everything that is wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

I can make better stories than they can. I will develop an audience. I will.

-- Tim Barrus

beadbabe49 said...

I've often wondered lately about where publishing on the web might go...not that I'm a writer but I'm a lifelong reader who can live without the book in her hands (although I'll miss it) but can't live without writers.
So, I'm wondering about writing and allowing folks to download it (maybe a chapter at a time?) for a low rate.
You wouldn't get rich (unless you developed a really large following) but you'd make some money and surely that beats none at all?

Whisky Prajer said...

"I had no idea I knew so many non-readers" -- that cracked me up. I, too, was surprised at the number of friends who freely confessed (if an admission without even the lightest patina of guilt actually qualifies as "confession") they'd bought my book, but didn't expect to get around to reading it -- ever. I thanked them for the beer.

One of the envies that niggled at me when I published my stories was my lack of access to "literary crowd" and the sort of conversational interviews one reads in publications like Bomb magazine. When I finally pulled my head out of my ass, I realized I'd already been enjoying these conversations with you and others who dropped by my blog and sent me the odd e-mail. They just hadn't been formatted and thrown out to moulder on some arty magazine stand in the city. Society's loss, my (very considerable) gain.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Right on, Tim