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THE OPRAH QUESTION: HOW TO MEASURE LITERARY SUCCESS?


I had two thoughts when I read in the New York Times recently that Oprah was considerably reducing the number of selections for her Book Club. On the one hand, I instantly registered the news as a loss. Whatever one thinks of her selections—middlebrow? lowbrow?—the inescapable fact is that she has, virtually single-handedly, sold millions of books. To me, that is an indisputable good.

Although I've never seen Oprah's television show, I have, of course, long known who she is. I don't recall when I began noticing "Oprah's Book Club" stickers on book covers. Checking out the placement of my novel, shortly after it was published last year, I was amazed to discover that stores devoted an entire section to books anointed by Oprah's Book Club. Her book club fueled the creation of many, many new ones. Publishers began to market books with reading guides for reading groups, printed or posted (as mine is) on-line.

Best sellers, conventional wisdom went, allowed major publishers to "invest" in good writers by subsidizing "good" books, e.g., literary first novels. Now, having been acquired by two German consortiums, most of the big publishing houses in America are driven by the bottom line. The bottom line has become the global measure of success.

I wasn't thinking about the bottom line when I read that there would be fewer book endorsements by Oprah, even though it was clear that publishers would now sell millions fewer books than in recent years. That led me to assume that, henceforth, far fewer good books would even be published. The news made me sad.

Simultaneously, I had another reaction to the near-demise of Oprah's Book Club. I was ecstatic. In the past year-and-a-half, following the publication of my novel, Swimming Toward the Ocean, virtually everyone I know has asked something to the effect of, "When are you going to be on Oprah?"

I have also been asked by strangers, at readings and talks I've given in Seattle, around Washington state, and in cities across the country, from New York to Phoenix. Sometimes the ubiquitous mention of Oprah is phrased as advice: "You should be on Oprah." The comment is made in all seriousness, without a trace of humor.

It amazes me that people do not realize how hurtful they are being. I chalk it up to a lack of imagination. Imagine that it takes twelve years of your life, many thousands of dollars, a lot of grief (miscarriages, failed implants, marital stress, etc.) before you manage to give birth to a child. Imagine that, immediately after, everyone you know asks, "When are you having another one?"

Or, imagine that during a major recession, you are glad to gain employment as the lowliest clerk in a large corporation. For a dozen years you toil away, obtain a series of tiny promotions, outlast rivals and layoffs and mergers, and overcome other obstacles to become supervisor of a section. Following more toil and major setbacks, you become assistant head of a division, and finally, finally, you become a division chief of what is now a global corporation. When you tell people the news, they immediately say, "So when are you going to be running the company?"

To haul the Oprah word at a published writer is to undercut the enormity of the achievement of getting a book, a literary book, published these days. It takes courage for a writer to devote thousands of hours to write and re-write a novel, to work virtually in the dark, alone, scrounging for financial support though other means, without any guarantee of literary success—whatever the measure. It takes strength to keep on in the face of rejections, tenacity to obtain an agent. Writerly gifts aside, it also takes luck. My first book, Useful Gifts, a collection of short stories about a family with deaf parents and hearing children, was published as the result of winning a competition sponsored by the University of Georgia Press. Garnering good reviews did not make my writer's life any easier.

Twelve years elapsed before last year's publication of Swimming Toward the Ocean. I had two literary agents during that period. One day I walked down Broadway on Seattle's Capitol Hill, thinking, Nothing good will ever happen to me again. I hung on. I got back my first agent. A contract from Knopf (part of Random House, which is part of Bertelsmann's) followed, then publication. Knopf published fewer than two dozen novels last year. Does that make me a success? Every writer of a hardback devoutly wishes for an ensuing paperback. Mine came out this year from Vintage/Anchor (also Bertelsmann's-owned). Was I a success? Not when I had to answer the Oprah question.

Money has never motivated me to write fiction, and thus I find it painful when, along with the Oprah question, people continually ask: "How is the book selling?" These include those who say they got my book out of the library or they passed my book on to "so many people." On hardbacks, a writer gets 10% of the sales price (so if Amazon.com sells the book at a discount, my royalty is also discounted). On paperbacks, the standard royalty is 7.5%. Very few fiction writers in the country—world, probably—can live on the royalties they make from their books, which usually go in their entirety to pay back the paltry advance. Often, writers teach. I have taught. I free-lance. I work with people on their books; I critique manuscripts. I write propaganda for political candidates and office holders.

Occasionally writers are paid to give talks. Mostly we are asked to give talks for free. I get numerous invitations: Does that make me a success? Who would ever think of calling a plumber who lives on the opposite coast to ask him or her to fly across the country at his/her own expense and to provide plumbing services for free? Yet people think nothing of asking a writer (e.g., me) to fly across the country at her own expense and give a talk for free. Sometimes they will say, "We can pay a small honorarium." Who asks a dentist or auto mechanic to provide services for "a small honorarium"?

By the way, I am writing this article for free. The day after I wrote the above, a woman called from Long Beach saying she'd read about my book and it sounded interesting. Would I donate an autographed copy for a fund-raiser she is having for a woman's organization? I did. Weeks later, I have yet to receive a thank you.

People often say to me, "To have a book published—you must be on Cloud Nine." If I say that publication is stressful, I get a look that I interpret as meaning "What's with you? Can't you even enjoy your success?" What do they mean by "success"? Being asked the Oprah question?

Apart from financial success, there is, of course, "critical success," i.e., getting good reviews. But if people ask about reviews they'll say, "Have you gotten any bad reviews?" Is success having people confront you with avenues for failure?

Is success achieving a minute of fame, e.g., being reviewed in Time magazine by someone who clearly did not read my book? Or receiving five-star customer reviews on Amazon.com.? When people track me down, send me notes or e-mail or even call me to tell me they loved the book, does that make me successful?

Whatever literary success is, I know that nothing makes me happier than the process of writing. When I am at my computer in the middle of the night, creating new material, or in Starbucks in the afternoon editing what I've written, I have no thoughts of reviewers, readers, fame, or the bottom line. If, by dint of luck and hard work, I manage to create something that meets my standards, I feel rewarded. Such moments (yes, moments!) keep me afloat.

You may see my book around for a few more months (most books have a short shelf life), you may hear me speak at some community event, you will not (unless you personally arrange it yourself) see me on Oprah. The next time you speak to a published writer, don't envy her. Don't torture her by holding out standards that ninety-nine percent of writers cannot possibly meet. Pity her. Then go buy her book.


© 2013 by Carole Glickfeld. Website design by Seattle Webcrafters.