by Hugh Gilmore
“There are no second acts in American lives.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Last Tycoon,” 1941
In nearly seven years of writing this column, I’ve tackled two major themes: The Enemies of Reading and The Enemies of Writing. With the first, I wrote about the things that get between us and our good intentions when it comes to reading books. With the other, I described the frustrations facing aspiring writers – with myself as the model.
The tone of the “Reading” pieces was slightly angry, often sarcastic, and openly opinionated. The “Writing” pieces, on the other hand, were offered humbly and genially, as though I were a slightly comical Walter Mitty-ish character. A more-than-middle-aged participatory journalist. A good sport – What ho! let’s give this book-writing business a spin!
Despite the self-parody, I was entirely serious about writing and wanting to be published. My stated dream was to see a book I’d written on the shelf of a major bookstore. I was born in the age of the printed book, but live now, through no fault of my own, in the age of the electronic book. So be it, I’ve adapted. I read and write in both media now.
But I was also, artistically, born into the age of the novel – an epoch when the grand pantheon included such recent American geniuses as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, John O’Hara, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth, all of them shadowed by the great Ernest Hemingway. Any young man or woman of ambition, who loved literature and came of age reading American fiction, felt the desire to take up the challenge and write “the great American novel.” It virtually felt like one’s patriotic duty.
And what era do we live in now? The age of “Flash Fiction,” I fear. These are very short stories, less than a page, barely distinguishable from haikus. Nearly every writing workshop or conference sponsors contests in writing them now.
They’re very suitable to “Open Mic” nights. Some are quite good – sometimes – and it’s a big world and certainly there’s room for all kinds – but the Flash concept has had a kudzu-like effect on most people’s mental gardens. The days of quiet reflection and delayed, achieved, payoff have yielded to the world of quick “Aha!,” followed by “Next!” The motto being: Strike shallow, pop another Pringle, and let’s go home. Novels are a dying art form.
Yes, people still read lengthy fiction. And there is a market (ever-shrinking), for literary novels. But most people satisfy their need for a “a good read” with mysteries, romance stories, wings ‘n’ fangs tales, fantasy, urban fantasy, and ultra-violence.
In my own case, in the past dozen years I somehow developed the writing discipline that eluded me as a young man. I’ve written and print-published two novels and a collection of stories. Also an unpublished memoir, and two other novels. And three short pieces of non-fiction in Kindle format.
With hundreds of columns behind me, I also have material for several themed anthologies. I love writing. I really do. Even the drudge work. I feel really alive and happy when I write, even when experiencing sadness or regret while writing certain kinds of scenes. It’s work, but I love it. I feel I was born to it.
But now I confess: I burnt out last year. Other than these Local columns, I have not written anything new since December 2012. I published three books and several Kindles in 15 months and had to mount publicity campaigns and do readings. Such events are exhilarating but exhausting.
And ultimately (here comes my warning to those of you wanting to write), the payoff is small if you measure your “success” by huge book sales. If you are marketing your own book, the marketing never stops. When you nap, sales go to sleep.
Once you know that dreary marketing fact, it never stops leaning on your shoulder when you sit down to write. That can be discouraging if you let yourself think about it. I am an eager writer, but a reluctant publicist. And, further, in my haste to publish my recent novel, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour,” (launched last February), I let it be published with many errors and technical glitches. Chagrined to the max, I withdrew from the market. It took me till July to clean up that book. The thought of starting another repelled me.
But here it is, October, and the falling leaves remind me that I need to get going again. I like people, and I want to be among them. I feel like a house-bound dog at the sight of a park: I want off the leash. So, I’ll be at the Chestnut Hill Fall for the Arts Festival. The Chestnut Hill Book Festival will have a tent outside the Chestnut Hill Hotel. I and a number of other intrepid authors will be sitting there selling and signing our latest books. Please stop by and say hello. I’ll be there from 1 to 3 p.m.
Hugh will have copies for sale of his noir crime novel, “Malcolm’s Wine,” his collection of rare bookshop stories, “Scenes from a Bookshop,” his novel about a strange dysfunctional family, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour,” and an anthology of humorous stories, “Local Humor,” written with Local columnists Janet Gilmore, Jim Harris and Mike Todd.