Our Mad Mad World: One Writer's Oddyssey    
 One Writer's Oddyssey4 comments
picture6 Mar 2009 @ 17:33, by Paul Quintanilla

"When I was young it [writing novels] was the most exciting thing you could do... It was more exciting to be a major novelist than to be a movie star. That was then. Today you could line up 10 major novelists and three teenagers would run them down in order to shake a movie star's hand, male or female. No, the fact of the matter is that, the novel may be on the way out. You know, essentially from now we may be as the only people who practice it. We are the kind of people who write five act verse plays in iambic pentameter."

Norman Mailer, speaking at the New York Public Library, June 27, 2007.

The Eager Muse - Like the aging fat man who's married to a beautiful young wife, the artist is sometimes the last to know.

..........................................................


I've created a new web page which includes information about several novels I've written. The following is an explanatory essay accompanying it.

To go to the web page: [link]



One Writer's Odyssey



Publishing acts as a form of validation. A seal of authenticity. It reveals that someone in the publishing world believes your work is good enough to distinguish it from the mountain of dreck which daily arrives on his desk. That at least it has passed through the scrutiny of an unbiased professional judge who believes enough in your work to put up his own money to present it to the world. Hoping people will buy and read it.


For, certainly, the vast majority of unpublished works tend to be bad. They can often be quite bad: presumptuous, vulgar, untalented, wildly eccentric or, simply put, an amateurish and ungripping read. And even if they constitute a form of "good medicine," something which ought to be read, they can, perhaps worst of all, be dull. (Though many ugly human traits often emerge in the work of some highly popular authors, such as Mickey Spillane. The irony being that much of what is published is dreck too.)


That is the company the unpublished author keeps. Nor, until he is finally published, can he even legitimately call himself an author. Or even a writer. For the inevitable question which follows an introduction to a well disposed stranger often enough is: "Oh, you write, do you? And what have you published?" And the empty blank the unpublished author responds with can surely awaken that tiny ironic amused smile we are all so familiar with. For everyone knows anyone can write, but to be a genuine author, a true writer, one must publish. That is the true seal of authenticity.


So upon being introduced and asked what he does the unpublished may lamely only offer his day job as an answer: the mundane means by which he earns his daily bread. For not existing yet as an author he cannot admit with any pride that he writes. Never mind that he rises up early every morning to work two or three hours a day. That his entire inner and spiritual life is tied to this deep aesthetic quest, attempting to bring something meaningful and new to life. For, indeed, we the unpublished are in a sense much like the undead. Our work denied, unrecognized, non-existent in the eyes of the world. And whoever comes across it naturally enough will balk at ever reading it. For, after all, it is unpublished. It has not received a stamp of authenticity. It has not passed the basic test. And considering the overwhelming odds in all probability it merely truly is more dreck. A painful and difficult experience to read. And if that reader also happens to be a friend of the writer isn't he, that poor friend, placed into the terribly embarrassing situation of becoming forced to say something nice? To compliment his writer friend's work? Though, in truth, he thinks it is actually bad?


So we, the unpublished, are much like the undead. And for many years now I have kept a deep cover. And only rarely have discussed my creative work with anyone. For not only lacking the "authenticity" and bona fides to openly speak out about my own work as an author I also do not care to discuss what I am currently doing. For writing is an extremely private matter and bringing in any outsider, no matter how sensitive or sympathetic, can be ruinous, a terrible distraction. Writing must be performed in private: in a state of near secrecy. And talking about a work in progress can often be a sure way of ruining it.


What's more, at one time I suffered from a writer's block which, to me, seemed like one of the most persistent on record. A Guinness sized block which lasted more than two decades. For I have only truly desired to do one thing in my life: to write. And this block endured from my late teens into my late thirties. During that time I simply could not continue or finish anything I started: for on the following day I would simply stare at what I had done the previous day with an unyielding, unmoving blank.


Why was I so cramped in this manner? There were many reasons, the desire just to "live" being one. I was often more drawn to the beckoning sunshine outofdoors than to the solitary quiet and shadows of my writing desk. (How poorly I understood Proust's need for a corklined room then!) I drank a great deal too and hangovers, like the common flu, can be a great impediment to writing. But most foolish of all, revealing my worst misconception regarding creativity, I relied upon inspiration to write.


This great misconception and reliance on my part derived from my earliest experiences at writing. For in my late teens I often felt an exultant rush of inspiration whenever I wrote a page or two, experiencing what I believed to be a transcendent leap. And desiring to be a literary artist - most certainly not a mere commercial "hack" - I always hoped to be motivated by that transcendent rush each time I sat down to write: believing the only truly good creative writing resulted from this spark.


You may be thinking this was foolish on my part? And you are certainly right. For inspiration comes to those who work. What I should have done, starting in my late teens, was persevere: set apart a certain fixed time of day, during the morning or at night, to faithfully work - every day - during that dedicated time. And perhaps I should not have been quite so self-critical, loosening the cramp of my block by focusing more on my theme, by concentrating on it every day. For, as I said, inspiration comes to those who work.


Tomorrow for an artist can be a great friend. For tomorrow is always another day. Tomorrow an artist can review what he did today and try to correct it or do it over again. But the point is that an artist has to work without idling, or waiting to begin. For there no excuses for not doing so. He will accomplish nothing if he does not work. That simple maxim may be quite obvious but it needs repeating: an artist will accomplish nothing if he waits to be hit by a lightening bolt out of the blue. Unless he happens to be very, very lucky.


But when I reached my thirty seventh year (1977) a miracle occurred. At that age I saw that forty was quick approaching. That if I continued in this empty manner by the time I reached my fortieth year I would have written nothing. That my lifelong ambition would become no more than a sterile dream, accomplishing nothing. So in a somewhat urgent state of surrender I sat down at my desk one day, yet again, and tried to write. I wrote without hope. I wrote thinking that in all probability I would never finish what I started. I wrote without taking any of my words too seriously, without seeking transcendence. I wrote because it was now or never, this was it. And a miracle occurred. For on the following day I was able to continue what I had started the day before. And on the day following that I was still able to continue. And each day I developed my story a little further. The miracle had happened! I was actually writing something! I was able to continue it! And what's more inspiration, I discovered, soon followed the beginning of each day's writing stint.


The story becomes a little complicated now, what with graduate school, entering a profession, one thing and another. But this first novel of mine, The Adventures of Jamie Budlow, eventually extended to more than fifteen hundred typewritten pages. It is still raw, perhaps amateurish. Unfinished. For I have not been able to re-read it. What's more, I wrote it before the word processor became a common writer's tool. And to work on it once again would require putting all those fifteen hundred pages onto a computer. A Herculean task, I'm sure you would agree.


Then in nineteen eighty eight (ten years after my father died) my mother died. I had recently been toying with the idea of writing a biography of my father, writing brief sketches here and there. Wondering how I would put the biography of such a fascinating life together. And having recently finished my first novel I also felt I had the liberty now to tell my father's story: the story of an artist-soldier which in many ways was quite heroic and passionate.


I finished my first draft of Waiting at the Shore sometime in the early nineteen nineties. And then my experiences with the publishing world began. I met literary agents, publishers and several writers. Many expressed great enthusiasm and I am quite proud of the long distance phonecall I received one afternoon from that New York publishing "legend," Alan Williams, who enthusiastically praised my book and invited me to his home in New Jersey for dinner. (That being, I later learned, a traditional means of welcoming a new writer to the writing world.) I also received several recommendations from famous authors and, after many years, during which time I revised and polished my book, improving it, a university press finally took a serious interest in publishing it. The editor - a woman - was kind and sensitive and we could have perhaps worked well together. But in the world of university publishing a "peer" review is required. And an anonymous distinguished scholar volunteered to review my book: a man who professed to admire my father. To this day I have no idea who this scholar was for in the world of academic publishing a "peer" reviewer often remains anonymous. There are understandable reasons for this but on the other hand an author's curiosity is naturally aroused. An author would like to know just who it is who has expressed these opinions which have such a significant influence on the future of his book.


Though he confessed he couldn't put Waiting at the Shore down my peer reviewer really didn't like the book very much. And since I had taken several large swaths from my father's memoirs (at the time unpublished) to incorporate into my text the reviewer suggested I "convert" what I had done into an "autobiography." But this would have been an entirely different book. And since I had already cut the length of my manuscript in half to adjust to the publisher's "price point" I turned down the university's offer of a contract for the book the reviewer envisioned: which would have been a scholarly version (it was being published by a university press after all) of a story which was not at all scholarly in spirit.


Bad luck, huh? Since several distinguished authors and scholars have also read the self-published version of Waiting at the Shore and have complimented me highly for it. Following this experience with the university I sent out a few more queries and began to receive only standard rejection slips. From the great enthusiasm and interest at the start of this journey, several years earlier, to finally the blank anonymity of an unsigned conventional rejection slip. We, the unpublished, all know what they look like. It was as if the whole enterprise had simply finally petered out and the publishing world displayed its vast indifference by no longer even acknowledging my basic efforts.


This process, the process of attempting to find a publisher for Waiting at the Shore, lasted over several years. By now I had become a librarian in the San Francisco Public Library. And one of the advantages of working there was a fairly flexible schedule. I could come in late in the morning and write at home for two or three hours before leaving for work. Also, being at work in the library was a good way of forgetting what I had written that morning, so that it would appear newly fresh when I looked at it again the following morning. So while I was attempting to find a publisher for Waiting at the Shore I continued to write. And, no, I didn't tell any of the contacts I made in the publishing world about what I was doing. Following that first novel (1500 typewritten pages long) I wrote seven more. These are the books I am offering here.


I spent five or six years searching for a publisher for Waiting at the Shore. (A friend once sympathetically explained the reason why I finally couldn't find a publisher was because my father wasn't famous. And he may have been right.) But during that search I obtained a glimpse of the mentality of several professionals in the publishing business. And haven't attempted to find a publisher (with the exception of one) for any of these novels because I am convinced of the utter futility of doing so. Why put myself through that ordeal all over again, waiting anxiously for replies? For I know that even if any one of these novels artistically succeeds it will never be published. The barriers are simply too high.


Speaking once to a literary agent I earnestly informed him that the only thing that mattered to me about Waiting at the Shore was if it succeeded "artistically and intellectually." I can still vividly recall the suppressed amusement that agent revealed at the presumptuousness of this bold assertion. And he came close to openly laughing at me. To believe, as an author, that my work may have some importance or genuine worth may indeed be presumptuous, but to desire it to be an artistic success should not be. For why else write? Samuel Johnson famously asserted "no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." But there are far quicker and safer means of becoming rich than writing. And such expressions of sophisticated cynicism don't belie the fact that most genuine writers write because they are compelled to. For if an aspiring unpublished author focusses upon the accomplishments of Faulkner and Hemingway instead of Ludlum and Clancy it's not because he necessarily compares himself to Faulkner or Hemingway. It's because he doesn't care about Ludlum and Clancy. For why else become an artist if not to also enter the great game, attempting to succeed both intellectually and artistically? To do something truly valuable? Which is always a risk, a step into the unknown.


When I sought a literary agent many years ago only a few took an interest in my work. (None finally represented me.) And I soon discovered that agents can be rather touchy people. They are proud people and would like to believe that they foster talent, discovering new talented authors. That mere crass commercialism doesn't fully motivate them but that they have an eye out for genuine quality: for good and new and talented authors. But scratch the surface of an agent's lofty literary posture and you will soon discover that "quality" is indeed defined as that which actually sells. And that a "platform" is often required by new authors. For, after all, publishing is a business, not a charitable enterprise. And the world of publishing has certain high standards.


The largest enemy of all art is, perhaps, fashion, whether it be conservative or avant garde. In the world of corporate publishing, under the pressure of the ever higher profit margins the parent companies place, there are numerous formulas for success. And that which is truly original is not included among them. For not having been tried the original may not be profitable. And fostering the arts, experimental or otherwise, is not the publisher's mission unless a guarantee of high earnings accompany it. Which is why most new authors require a "platform." In other words, guarantees which have nothing to do with the innate value of a manuscript, unless it catches the eye of a publisher or agent as a sure winner. Fitting, in all probability, a known formula. Though true enough, an instinct for satisfying an agreeable public can be highly helpful.


I can not speak for my own work. It may, in truth, be quite bad. A literary failure. And it may not deserve to be published or read. But there is no societal mirror available to me which can offer a worthy criticism of my work. And I would like to know the truth about the actual literary value of these novels too. Nor will I find that by stepping out once again into the publishing world. Not even, if I had the stomach for it, by searching among the small non-profit publishers. And the only feedback available to me can come from you, the reader.


What's more, the novel no longer possesses the exalted standing it once had. The mass electronic corporate media has taken over that cultural position as the widespread modernday mirror of American life. The pressure of popular culture on the arts has always been large. But art, high art, always had its place. Today it has become an even smaller artifact of the larger culture. The great novel as an artistic mirror of society is becoming, as Norman Mailer pointed out, a museum piece. And we speak of great artists and writers as if they were all notables out of our historic past. Though some of us are old enough today to remember when many great names were still alive and working among us. Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck. No more. And this is true not only of literature but of all the arts. The corporation has become monolithic and reaches today into all aspects of modern American life. But the human spirit can not die even in an artificial culture, where its human roots may be smothered. Creativity never vanishes. How will it find its expression in the future? In the new technologies perhaps? In those mediums undominated by corporate power?


There is indeed no such thing as a dull work of art. So I hope that these novels of mine are not at all dull as well as artistic and intellectual successes. Are they any good? I am, of course, aware of what I tried to accomplish. And sense some pride and excitement about what I did. But the artist, or writer, can never be the final judge of his own success. That is up to you. Though you, too, may not be of one opinion: so the question may only remain unanswered, pro or con. That's the way it sometimes is with art, at least for a long time. For only time is the surest critic of art.




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4 comments

14 May 2009 @ 09:37 by vaxen : Thankyou...
Mr. Quintanilla...

"And though the world told me over and over and over again that I had to work, had to support myself, bitterly I wondered at the quality of life this demand returned to me if its truest recompense was to rob me of my life?"  



15 May 2009 @ 04:30 by a-d : Here Quinty, here Vax!

[link]  



10 Apr 2012 @ 18:09 by jazzolog : Update
Paul has a wonderful new novel, not yet at the link. It's called "Hemingway's Beard." What a great title! I did a little bit about here, with a link for purchase if interested~~~

[link]  



1 May 2014 @ 14:31 by quinty : Waiting at the Shore
Sussex Academic Press and the London School of Economics have published it.....

[link]  



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