Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Pitfalls of Contemporary Fiction

I’m feeling a little schizoid these days, at least in a literary sense.

My first novel, A More Obedient Wife, was set in the late 18th century and based on the lives of some real, albeit obscure, historical figures. After it came out a few years ago I started a second novel, set in the early 19th century and, once again, based on a real person’s life.

But after I’d begun that second novel, I had an idea for a contemporary social satire about mother-daughter relationships. And THAT novel, The Mother-Daughter Show, is due to come out in December from Fuze Publishing. So at the same time that I’m trying to gear up for the launch of The Mother-Daughter Show in the near future, I’m trying to launch myself back in time to continue work on my second historical novel.

It’s a little dizzying. What all three novels have in common is that the main characters are women. Otherwise, though, they’re definitely apples and oranges, or maybe even applesauce and kiwi.

For one thing, in my historical novels my goal has been to reconstruct as much as possible, from letters and other documents, what my characters were really like. With The Mother-Daughter Show, I started with real people in a real situation—a musical revue at my daughter’s school—but to a large extent I tried to depart from that reality. I didn’t want to write about what really happened, because what really happened wouldn’t have made a good novel. Life rarely hands you a tight plot. And while certain things happened that were amusing, to make the book really funny it was necessary to exaggerate—and invent.

Nor did I want to write a roman a clef, with thinly veiled fictional characters standing in for real people. For my novel to work, I needed fully developed characters with rich and complicated lives, and I just didn’t know enough about the people involved in the real Mother-Daughter Show (aside from myself) to write about them successfully. Nor, of course, did I want to hurt anyone’s feelings, even inadvertently. Some novelists may be out to settle scores—I once saw a T-shirt that said “Be Nice to Me, or I’ll Put You in My Novel”—but that wasn’t my motivation.

But while I know that my characters are products of my imagination, I don’t have control over the reactions of readers. And that’s another difference between this book and my other projects: when you write a novel that’s set two hundred years ago, you don’t have to worry too much about readers thinking you’re actually writing about them, or people they know. So, despite my disclaimer, there may be people who think they recognize themselves or others in The Mother-Daughter Show.

And in a sense, they may be right. The fact is, I recognize myself, or parts of myself, in each of my main characters. That’s true, I think, of any author’s fictional creations, because as a novelist you need to find a strand in yourself that corresponds to each of your characters. And my hope is that readers will also find aspects of my characters—including my 18th- and 19th-century characters—with which they can identify. Beyond that, while there’s no one-to-one correspondence between the characters in The Mother-Daughter Show and real individuals, I’ve certainly lifted bits and pieces of real things I’ve heard and observed at various points in my life and put them in the novel. All writers do that—we’re like magpies.

Of course, there’s at least one other difference between this novel and the others: The Mother-Daughter Show is a satire. I hope all my characters come across as sympathetic, but they’re also flawed—and those flaws are often a source of humor, or at least I hope they are. And I hope that if readers think they recognize themselves, or parts of themselves, in my characters, they’ll be able to laugh—just as I was laughing at myself as I created them.

One final note: I’ve decided to create a second blog that will focus on matters having to do with the general themes of The Mother-Daughter Show, and keep this blog focused on writing fiction based on the lives of historical figures. Astute readers will notice that I’ve renamed this blog—instead of “Natalie Wexler’s Blog,” it’s now called “Imagining the Past.” I don’t have a name yet for the new one. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 29, 2011

What's in a Name?

Reading a piece about the opera singer Maria Callas in The New York Times a few days ago has set me thinking about the use of names of real people in fiction.

The Times piece discusses the Terence McNally play Master Class, currently on Broadway, which is based on a series of classes Callas gave for aspiring young opera singers almost 40 years ago. Regrettably, I haven't seen the current production of Master Class, but I did see another production years ago, and I remember it fairly well. Callas was imperious, dictatorial, at times almost sadistic with the students. It was fascinating to watch, and great theater.

But, Anthony Tommasini tells us in the Times, that's not exactly what happened. It turns out there's actually a book about Callas's master classes, and also a three-disc recording of them. And according to Tomassini, they reveal a Callas who was "frank and demanding," yes, but also "unfailingly patient and encouraging." Most important, she was way better at providing substantive artistic advice than the Callas of the play. And it bothers Tommasini that theater-goers will come away with the wrong impression.

It bothers me too. If you're going to write fiction that messes around with the facts of people's lives--and that clearly presents itself as fiction, the way McNally's play does--why use those people's real names? I find this particularly bothersome when the people whose names are used are still alive (see, for instance, the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network), but I also find it a problem when the subjects are dead. Maybe it's actually more of a problem, since they can't defend themselves. Would it have detracted from the drama of Master Class if the main character had been a Callas-like figure who was called something else?

I've come across a number of instances of this lately in fiction. I recently finished a novel called City of Light, set in Buffalo around the turn of the century. Among the many things that bothered me about the book was the fact that the author played fast and loose with the reputations of a bunch of real people (most of them known only to aficionados of Buffalo's local history), inventing a plot in which they casually father illegitimate children with underage girls and scheme to offer up the protagonist as a kind of sacrificial virgin to the sexually rapacious Grover Cleveland. (Okay, Cleveland really did father an illegitimate child--but I doubt he was as warped as he's made out to be in the novel.) A descendant of one of the people slandered by the author has posted an understandably outraged review of the novel on Amazon.

I also recently had a conversation with someone about the E.L. Doctorow novel Homer and Langley, based on the lives of the Collyer brothers. I haven't been able to bring myself to read the novel because I read that Doctorow changed quite a few facts, including having the Collyer brothers live on into the 1960s, when in fact they died in 1947. None of that bothered the person I was talking to, who was enthusiastic in her recommendation. She even told me that Doctorow had changed the brother who was blind, making it Homer when it had actually been Langley ("Well, he had to," she said, alluding to the blindness of the original Homer). It turns out it really was Homer Collyer who was blind. But what bothers me is that the person I was talking to wasn't bothered by the idea that Doctorow made the switch.

I'm currently reading a novel in which Senator Joseph McCarthy is a minor character. I'm not finding this as bothersome as the other examples I've given, maybe because McCarthy isn't "on stage," as it were, all that much, and maybe because the way he's portrayed seems pretty consistent with what I know about him. Still, I find myself wondering: Did McCarthy really have a childhood friend whose house he moved into when he was in disgrace? Did he really spend all his time trying to get people to take his phone calls? If he'd merely been presented as a McCarthy-like figure, I suspect I wouldn't be asking myself those distracting questions.

Of course, there's a reason writers like to use real names: it arouses people's interest. We all want to know the intimate details of other people's lives, or most of us do. But the problem is we're not usually getting the real details. Yes, we could look up most of these people on Wikipedia and get the true story, or try to, but I doubt many of us bother. Instead, we just assume that what we've read or seen is true. A number of people have told me how much they despise Mark Zuckerberg, based on the movie. But is Mark Zuckerberg really like the "Mark Zuckerberg" of The Social Network? I've read enough about the divergence between the two to make me doubt it.

I realize this may sound hypocritical coming from someone who wrote a novel based on the lives of real people, using their real names, and is currently working on another one. But I've chosen to write about people who are long-dead and pretty obscure. And I've almost never changed a verifiable fact that I've come across in the historical record. Instead, I've let my imagination play in the many gaps between the facts. Plus, I try not to just make stuff up about my characters in order to create a juicy plot, which (it seems to me) is what the author of City of Light did. I've tried to understand as much as I can about who my characters really were, from the scant evidence available to me, and then extrapolate from there. (And I have to say, I haven't gotten any complaints from descendants--quite the contrary.)

I don't mean to get on a high horse about this. Obviously, there's been some wonderful fiction and drama that has taken liberties with the lives of real people, going back, as Tommasini points out, to Shakespeare. But when an author deliberately alters the facts of someone's life, I think it's only fair to signal that departure by making up a name as well. Yes, readers might lose some of the thrill that comes with getting what they think is an inside story. (And, with the passage of time, that thrill has to dissipate. No one goes to see Hamlet to get the goods on a former Prince of Denmark.) But on the other side of the scale, novelists and dramatists would no longer be distorting the factual record and promulgating misconceptions that can seriously damage people's lives and reputations.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fearing Success

Some months ago, when I was balking at rewriting the manuscript of my second novel for what felt like the 37th time, my agent accused me of suffering from "fear of success." To her mind, this was the only explanation for my reluctance to come up with a new plot and somehow figure out how to insert it into the existing framework of my novel.

To my mind, though, the idea that I was afraid of success was ludicrous. I'd been twisting myself into knots and jumping through hoops for months in order to ACHIEVE success. What I was afraid of was failure. In fact, I find the whole "fear of success" thing no more convincing now than I did when I first heard of it--back in 1972, when I was an undergraduate at Radcliffe, and Matina Horner, who originated the theory, was its president.

But lately I've come across the life stories of some writers that have made me think that maybe we all SHOULD fear success.

One of those is William Styron, whose first novel, published in 1952 when he was 26, was a huge critical and popular success. But, as I'm learning from a fascinating and beautifully written memoir by his daughter Alexandra Styron, Reading My Father, from that time on he was more or less tormented by his own perfectionism--and perhaps by the fear that whatever he wrote next wouldn't equal that first success. Indeed, his second novel was pretty much roundly derided. Although he went on to write two more highly acclaimed novels--The Confessions of Nat Turner, which won the Pulitzer, and his masterpiece, Sophie's Choice--he spent the final 27 years of his life either trying unsuccessfully to write another novel, or in the grips of debilitating depression, or both.

Then there's Ernest Hemingway, the subject of a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by his friend A.E. Hotchner that detailed the final, paranoid year of his life. And a piece by Jonathan Franzen that appeared in The New Yorker on April 18, 2011, about his friend David Foster Wallace, who suffered from chronic depression and, like Hemingway, ultimately committed suicide.

It's hard to say that all three of these highly successful writers suffered from mental illness BECAUSE they were successful writers. But the writing, and the pressure of sustaining their success, was clearly related to their suffering. As Alexandra Styron says in her memoir, when her father died it had been "twenty-seven years since he'd felt good about himself," because it had been twenty-seven years since he'd finished a novel. When Hotchner asked Hemingway why he wanted to kill himself, the reply was, “What do you think happens to a man going on 62 when he realizes that he can never write the books and stories he promised himself?" And Franzen suggests that Wallace's suicide was related to his struggle to finish his final novel: "When his hope for fiction died ... there was no other way out but death."

The knowledge that you have thousands and thousands of readers out there, waiting for your next novel, and that as the years pass their expectations are rising ... that's got to be paralyzing. Maybe even more paralyzing than the fear, known to many less high-profile writers, that you'll spend years pouring your blood, sweat, and tears into a work of fiction, only to find that you have NO readers. In other words, the fear of failure.

It's interesting, but perhaps not significant, that all the writers mentioned above were male writers--and, in the case of Hemingway and Styron, Male writers with a capital M. Maybe there's something about being considered the Great American Novelist (a title that has yet to be bestowed, even putatively, on a female writer, to the best of my knowledge) that makes the head that wears a crown all the more uneasy.

But I don't know that there's anything gender-specific going on here (although I feel compelled to point out that, according to Matina Horner, it's only women who are afflicted with fear of success, associating success with "depression, illness, and sometimes even death"--maybe they know something men don't?). A while ago I heard the author Stephen McCauley speak about writing. He's not quite in the Great Writer category, but he's been highly successful and has a loyal following (myself included). He revealed that he'd been suffering from writer's block, which had been broken only when he received a call from an editor he knew inviting him to write "women's commercial fiction" under a pseudonym. Released from the persona of "Stephen McCauley," he found the words flowed, and he had a blast. (He declined, alas, to reveal the pseudonym under which he had written--but he said the books were available at Costco.)

I could certainly understand that story. I wouldn't presume to place myself in the same category as McCauley, but my first novel garnered a few intensely enthusiastic fans. When these people told me how much they loved A More Obedient Wife, and how they couldn't wait for my next novel, I was of course pleased. No, make that thrilled. But at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder if I could possibly do it again--whatever it was I had done.

My second novel did flow (at least the first draft did -- I'm now about to embark on draft ten, which I hope will be the last). But maybe that's partly because it's so different from my first novel, which is told in the voices of two18th-century women. My second novel, a contemporary comic tale about mother-daughter relationships, might actually be categorized as "women's commercial fiction." I didn't use a pseudonym, but like McCauley, I felt liberated by the idea that I was doing something completely different.

Who knows -- maybe Styron, Hemingway, and Wallace could have benefited from forgetting they were Great Writers and trying their pseudonymous hands at a little lower-brow fiction. After all, just because it's not Great doesn't mean it's not good.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Do Characters Need to Be Likable?

In my last post, I mentioned that I recently appeared on a panel on historical fiction at the AIW annual writers' conference in Washington, D.C., and that I had a couple of thoughts I didn't get a chance to voice at the session. My last post focused on the wisdom of changing facts--historical or geographic or otherwise--when writing fiction.

Now for my second thought, which also relates to both historical and non-historical fiction. While discussing the challenges of writing historical fiction, I mentioned the difficulty of making characters who hold very different beliefs from our own sympathetic to a modern reader. Only I didn't say "sympathetic," I said "likable."

I then got a question from a woman in the audience. "Do you think your characters have to be likable?" she said.

This was a weird moment for me. Here's the back story: my agent and I have gone several rounds now on whether the main character in my second novel needed to be more "likable." Frankly, I thought she was likable enough as originally written. But what I saw as "edge," my agent saw as bitchiness and whininess. My agent was very emphatic about the importance of making the character likable (and making her husband and her daughter likable as well). And--given that my agent's experience in publishing is far greater than mine--I reluctantly went about softening my character's edges and eliminating some of what I thought were her best lines. But I continued to ponder the issue. In fact, about six months ago I went to a panel consisting of some of my favorite writers--Elinor Lipman, Stephen McCauley, and Cathleen Schine--and raised my hand to ask them the very same question the woman in the audience had just posed to me.

Alas, I didn't get called on when I raised my hand, so I don't know what those writers would have said. I do know, though, that my two fellow panelists at the AIW conference took the view that characters (and I guess we're talking here about protagonists, really) DON'T need to be likable. One of them brought up Satan from Paradise Lost, who of course steals the show. Yeah, but--as I pointed out in passing--no one likes a "perfect" protagonist, like God. Plus, Milton gives Satan a dynamite speech.

It's possible that the rule that your protagonist has to be likable has more force in commercial than literary fiction, although sometimes the line between those two isn't that clear. My second novel, according to my agent, can be categorized as "commercial women's fiction," albeit (I hope) somewhat high-end commercial women's fiction, and maybe that's why my agent was so insistent about the likability issue. There do seem to be different rules in the realm of commercial, and certainly of "genre," fiction. Romance novels, for example, generally follow a prescribed formula. But once you're in the category of "literary," you can pretty much do what you want, as long as you do it well.

But regardless of the type of fiction at issue, I do think readers need to want to spend time with the main character. If they find the main character boring, for example, they'll probably put down the book. What if they find the main character repulsive? Well, someone might say, look at Humbert Humbert in Lolita: an unrepentant pedophile. What could be more unlikable than that? And yet we're happy to spend time with Humbert, because Nabokov managed to make him, through his wit and his peculiar vision, irresistible. That's what I meant when I said at the panel that I thought that the author has to work harder when the protagonist isn't likable, at least in the conventional sense.

What I actually had in mind when I spoke at the panel was the fact that one of the two main characters in my novel A More Obedient Wife was a slave-owner. The challenge for me was to write realistically in the voice of someone who owned another human being, and who thought that was an acceptable thing to do, without alienating 21st-century readers who (like myself) find the concept of slavery to be anathema.

At one point I have my character Hannah Iredell musing about the female slave she owns, Sarah, who--like Hannah herself--desperately misses her absent husband. I have Hannah thinking that it's difficult, sometimes, to remember that Sarah has feelings just as she does. To me, this was an accurate reflection (or what I imagined to be an accurate reflection) of a slave-owner's attitude. After all, how could you justify owning another human being if you attributed to them all the thoughts and feelings that you yourself experience? To acknowledge that Sarah did have these feelings seemed to me a mark of humanity on Hannah's part, a reflection of her underlying ambivalence about slavery. But one of my early readers recoiled when she reached that line, thinking that it made Hannah morally repugnant. Fortunately, other readers don't seem to have had that reaction.

Maybe "likable" wasn't the right word--it probably came into my head because of my recent back-and-forth with my agent. But what IS the right word to describe what we look for in a character, what keeps us reading? One of my fellow panelists suggested "compelling." That's certainly the word that you're likely to see in rejection letters--as in, "I just didn't find the characters compelling." I got a couple of rejection letters like that for my second novel, early on, and I just shrugged. My agent, on the other hand, told me, "It's simple, you just have to do this one thing--you just have to make the characters compelling." But when I asked her how I could do that, she replied that she couldn't possibly tell me. (Ultimately, it turned out to be a matter of changing the plot. Who knew?)

Compelling, likable, sympathetic. None of these words are particularly specific. And, of course, one person's "likable" (or "compelling") is another person's boring or repellent. As with so many things in writing fiction, it's pretty subjective. Bottom line: if you can find one person who thinks your character is compelling--AND who is in a position to publish your book--then maybe you don't have to worry so much about the people who don't.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Changing the Course of the Mississippi River

A few days ago I had the pleasure of appearing on a panel on historical fiction at the American Independent Writers Washington conference, held at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD. My co-panelists were Barbara Esstman, author of The Other Anna and Night Ride Home (and a former instructor of mine, years ago, in a novel-writing workshop at The Writer's Center); and C.M. Mayo, author of the intriguing The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire -- based, like my novel, A More Obedient Wife, on the lives of actual historical figures. I'm grateful to the moderator, author David Taylor, for inviting me to join them.

I don't know how the audience felt (we were the last panel of a day-long event), but I would have been happy to go on talking and listening and answering questions from the audience well past our allotted fifty minutes. I had a few thoughts I didn't get a chance to give voice to. But luckily, I have a blog!

So ... here's one: how much freedom should a writer exercise in playing around with historical fact? One of my fellow panelists, Barbara Esstman, opined that novelists should feel free to make up, or alter, whatever facts they want to, and mentioned that in her novel she had changed the course of the Mississippi River by five miles. It's all in how you present it, she argued. You can make anything believable, if you handle it the right way.

True enough, but personally, I'm loath to fool around with facts, or at least the ones that are fairly well known. Once, years ago, I had the opportunity to hear William Styron speak, and I asked him basically the same question about the interplay between imagination and truth. Styron, whose Confessions of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer Prize, answered that historical novelists should give free rein to their imaginations with one important parameter: they should be careful not to contravene known historical fact.

Why? Because it can be distracting to the reader. At one point during the panel session, Barbara also cited John Gardner's famous dictum that a novelist should create for the reader "a vivid and continuous dream." It seems to me that if your narrative includes a detail many readers know to be untrue, they may suddenly be shaken out of that dream. "Huh?" they'll say. "That's not how it was. What's she (or he) talking about?" And pouf, the spell that you've carefully woven with your words will be broken.

Styron's advice made sense to me, and I tried to abide by it in A More Obedient Wife. I changed some little-known personal details -- for instance, I omitted a few siblings belonging to a couple of characters who came from dauntingly large families -- but I worked within the general framework that history had given me.

It seems to me that geographical fact should generally be treated in much the same way. I once read a novel set in an area I was familiar with, and I was constantly distracted by "mistakes" the author had made about where things were. Maybe she'd made those changes deliberately, although I can't fathom why. I wasn't focusing on what she presumably wanted me to focus on -- the characters, the story -- because I kept calculating distances and drawing mental maps and asking myself what she was talking about.

Of course, as with everything in writing, there's no hard-and-fast rule here. It's always a balancing test. If you feel a fact is sufficiently obscure that no one will really notice if you change it, maybe you'll want to go ahead. Or even if it's not that obscure a fact, you may feel the change is sufficiently important to your story that it's worth risking the distraction. Or maybe, like Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, the whole point of your story is that it's counter-factual. And, as with everything in writing, it's all subjective. Maybe some readers won't mind at all if the Mississippi River isn't where they expect it to be, and maybe some writers don't care if they shake things up a bit.

But speaking just for myself, I try to stick with the facts and let my imagination play around in the gray areas -- of which, in the stories I'm drawn to, there are plenty.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Remembering the Ladies

Just wanted to alert people to a post on another blog -- The CockleBur -- about the difficulty, and the importance, of uncovering the role that women played in the history of the American Revolution and the Early Republic.

Full disclosure: the blog post contains a favorable mention of my novel, A More Obedient Wife -- and it was written by someone I know, Palma Strand. (Fuller disclosure: I hadn't spoken to Palma in years, but she emailed me out of the blue some weeks ago to tell me her book club was reading my book -- how she came across it I'm still not sure!) But the post also discusses other female historical figures and the late sociologist Elise Boulding, who coined the phrase "the underside of history" to describe the general absence of women from the historical record. I highly recommend it -- along with Palma's other posts, especially one called "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Godliness?"

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Further Adventures in Publishing

One of the topics of this blog is "writing," and one aspect of writing -- the most vexing, often -- is getting published. So herewith, my views on the current state of the publishing industry, admittedly offered from my own rather limited vantage point:

You'd never know it from the state of most bookstores, cluttered floor to ceiling with books (this is, of course, assuming that you can still find an actual bookstore in your vicinity), but it's gotten really, really hard to get a book published. Especially a novel. And more especially a first novel, if you're not a celebrity of some sort or at least a close friend or relative of some powerful and/or famous person.

A lot of good books still get published, of course. But what may be harder to discern, from outside the industry, is that a lot of good books never get published. And a lot of not-so-good books do get published (this is something you may have actually noticed!).

When I found an agent for my first novel, about five years ago, things were tough. Now that I'm on my second agent and second novel, things are even tougher. Now, instead of routinely sending out rejections, a number of editors have apparently given up sending out anything. At the moment, four editors have had my novel for over two months; one has had it for three months; and one has had it for five months. We've had no response from any of them, despite my agent's efforts, and there's no indication we ever will. If I thought there was more than an infinitesimal chance that any of them would take it, I might be content to wait. But my agent has had the manuscript for over a year now, and frankly the prospect of being in this limbo indefinitely is beginning to get to me.

In the old days -- a few years ago, that is -- authors really had no alternative but to wait. It was mainstream publishing or pretty much nothing. That's not true anymore. As the mainstream publishing industry has contracted and fossilized, new publishing life forms have been springing up like mushrooms after a heavy rain.

Perhaps the largest, and most obvious, new form is self-publishing. Thanks to low-cost print-on-demand technology, the number of self-published books has far surpassed the number of traditionally published books (according to a New York Times article, the figures for 2009 were 764,448 self-published books to 288,355 traditionally published books, and those figures have no doubt diverged more widely since then).

Most of these books, of course, languish in obscurity -- and in many cases, that obscurity is no doubt well deserved. After all, with self-published books there's no vetting, no cultural gatekeeper letting in the sheep and keeping out the goats (or is it the other way around?). Who's to say that any of these books are worth reading? Some self-published authors -- the ones setting down memories for their grandchildren, for example -- don't really care about reaching a wider audience. But for those who do, the question is how to get your self-published book to stand out from all the others.

When I resorted to self-publishing my first book, A More Obedient Wife, I did so with a heavy heart. I was embarrassed to admit that I'd self-published, but I figured I'd just give the book to friends and family. It was only after I started hearing from a few strangers who told me they'd loved the book that I began to think bigger.

And that's how I began to discover that there actually were some mechanisms falling into place that enabled a self-published author like me to secure some objective seals of approval -- someone other than little old me saying, hey, read this book. I entered it into two contests open to self-published authors, and it won awards in both (had I been more savvy, I could have taken advantage of other similar contests). I put it up on sites like Goodreads, where members list and rate the books they're reading. I urged readers who told me they liked the book to review it on Amazon, where at one point I was up to 11 reviews, all five-star (somehow, that number has mysteriously shrunk to 10).

And I sent it in to a website called Indiereader, which I had read about in the New York Times article mentioned above. Indiereader not only gave the book a favorable review, they included it in a program that funnels selected self-published books to independent bookstores around the country. Indiereader has also started reaching out to book clubs, giving them (in the words of its founder, Amy Edelman) "a dedicated page, the opportunity to do Q&As with authors (when they're able), to share their faves with other book clubs, and the chance to discover something new." And recently a book group in Pennsylvania that found my book through the Indiereader website picked it as one of their selections--thank you, Bad Girls Book Club of Broomall, PA!

I've also noticed that some of the numerous self-publishing companies (or "indie publishing" companies, as they're now beginning to style themselves) have started programs that incorporate this vetting function. Abbott Press, a division of Writer's Digest (which sponsors a self-published book award that my first novel won), will publish any book -- but, for a fee, you can have your book considered for a "Writer's Digest Mark of Quality" that indicates "high literary merit."

Of course, chances are that even a book with the "Writer's Digest Mark of Quality" isn't going to hit the New York Times bestseller list. With a few notable exceptions (mostly fantasy and romance writers), self-published authors are never going to strike it rich. In fact, despite the hype you'll hear from self-publishing companies, we're almost certain to lose money rather than make it. But for me -- and, I suspect, for many others -- it's not about making a killing, or even a living. I just want at least a few people -- okay, maybe a few hundred -- to read what I write. And these days, the mainstream publishing industry, whose denizens are so certain that they know what's deserving of publication and what isn't, can't stop me.