I became a writer because I’ve always enjoyed observing more than being observed. So it seemed unfair, a kind of callous cosmic irony, that realizing my Ever-Since-Childhood-Dream—publishing a book—meant I was expected to fight tooth-and-nail to be observed as much as possible. I’d known this would happen, but only in the vaguest terms, and I’d somehow imagined this limelight would be gently foisted upon me: a chattering Publicity Task Force from my publishing house would escort me from packed house to packed house, against my faint protestations—Really? They’re all here to see me? I guess I can’t disappoint them! The force and visibility of overwhelming demand would give me the strength, for once in my life, to be visible.
It happened quite a bit differently. True, I packed the bookstore in the city where I lived, and that was pretty great: a bunch of kids from a local Quaker high school came out; the bakery where I worked made a replica of my book cover from molten chocolate. But most readings were another story entirely. I once read to a crowd of four: my friend, my friend’s wife, my mother’s friend, and my mother. The bookstore clerk sat with them to occupy another seat. When acquaintances asked “How’s the book tour going?” they meant well, but I always flashed straight to that room, those empty chairs, and thought: To answer that question honestly, I’d have to give you an entire history of my hunger to be seen and my shame at that hunger. Hardly a book-biz anecdote.
Publishing, as we all know, is a business on the skids. My house was supportive, especially my editor, but their resources were limited. I started to realize that the real battle for attention isn’t being fought in bookstores anyway, or even in print—it’s happening on the Internet. And this was frightening to me. My worst nightmare had always been walking into a room of strangers and choosing a cluster into which to insinuate myself. This describes the Internet, more or less: a room of strangers bigger than Outer Space. It was a nauseating imperative: Where was I supposed to go? Into which clump was I supposed to insinuate myself?
I passed through the threshold of fear into a phase best described as pleading. I bought a domain name—my own!—and practically vomited in my mouth. I barely had enough money for rent and I paid someone to design my website. This seemed horribly narcissistic, in a kind of self-sabotaging way; my worst nightmare was coming across as self-promotional, and now I was paying money I didn’t have to make total strangers aware I was promoting myself. I pictured ex-boyfriends stumbling across my site, and on good days of daydream, they’d be muttering, hot author photo; on bad days they’d be chuckling, she bought a WEBSITE?
If only my publishing house had paid for it, I thought, I’d feel totally professional and justified. Because publishing industry resources aren’t just resources, they are affirmation and validation—a seal of professionalism that I was quickly realizing I was essentially, horribly, going to have to give myself.
So I “reached out,” as they say. I reached out to book bloggers and online magazines. My publicist helped. My friends helped. I liked the acts of self-publicizing that involved writing something new, something I might not have written otherwise (like this essay!). I wrote a little piece for Three Guys, Three Books about the summer my jaw was wired shut and I read straight through Faulkner’s county of Yoknapatawpha. I wrote a playlist for Largehearted Boy. For Flavorpill, I made a bookshelf full of weird heroines. For NPR, I wrote about the literature of poverty. I made contact with smart and devoted blog reviewers, like Alayne at The Crowed Leaf and Sasha at Sasha and the Silverfish and Rebekah at Mrs. O’Dell Reads, who said surprising and insightful and sometimes-but-not-always-complimentary things about my writing, which was okay. It was still a thrill to think strangers had devoted hours of their lives to my writing.
Great things still happen when I’m least expecting them. Just recently, for example, I was picked up by the wonderful pair who puts out the podcast Late Night Library, a conversation about a different debut book each month—which they created simply because they felt there’s not enough close reading going on outside the Academy. Amen to that. Paul and Erin found things in my book that I hadn’t noticed myself—the focus on dyads, the opacity of certain characters—and other things I’d been aching for someone to notice, like the way it wants to resist a certain sentimentality-phobia endemic to MFA culture.
My salad days on the Web, however, quickly devolved into another, darker stage of Internet Relation—a period of obsession marked by begging for love and then endlessly checking for proof of how much love had been offered: Google-stalking, for starters, then doing a separate self-stalk on Google Blogs, once it was up; checking my Amazon rank, and checking my Amazon rank on certain specialized sublists (e.g., “Domestic Fiction,” “Alcoholism”); checking my Google Analytics page to see how many people visited my website. My Amazon rank was always too high, my Analytics number too low (let’s not mince words, I mean six-digits and single-digits, respectively)—and yet, like any decent addict, dissatisfaction only made me hungrier for even more dissatisfaction, so I kept checking.
This is the part of the essay where I say: there were blessings in the fact that I was forced to self-publicize. And there were. For starters, I had to start owning my desires—my desire to be read, to have my words appreciated, to be in contact with a readership. I’d wanted others to take responsibility for my book’s presence in the world because I couldn’t own these desires wholly; I felt uncomfortable declaring them in the same way I’ve always felt uncomfortable about talking too much or taking up too much space. I wanted someone else to say I was worth the attention.
I realized that in the end it wasn’t about me—it was about a book I’d written, a book that I wanted the world to have. It was only an extension of the nearly tautological but strangely elusive confidence of writing, an implication already inherent in its premise: the belief that someone might want to read something you’ve written.
Here’s something nice that happened once: I got a letter from a real estate agent in Hawaii, named Kawaki. If I could track this man down, I would thank him in person; if only he could see me now, still thinking of him four years after his note. He’d read a story of mine about a girl who gets her heart broken, and he wrote a kind of confession to me:
My friends are annoyed with me because I gushed about it all through lunch yesterday, monopolizing the conversation.
‘Can we not talk about the story?’ my girlfriend says preemptively, as we get into bed.
‘But you do like it, right?’ I say to the back of her head. She doesn’t answer.
Now that I’m out of friends who will listen to me rave about the story, I find myself talking about it to strangers. I have considered paying homeless people to read it.
He went on to say the story’s protagonist reminded him of his younger sister—her “uncertainty” about men, a feeling for which he’d never had much patience or compassion—and he felt he had more sympathy for her (“a little wisp of understanding,” is what he wrote) now that he’d read it.
Moments after starting Kawaki’s note, I knew I’d reached one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—experience of my entire professional life. Would I get reviewed in The New York Times? As it happened, I wouldn’t. But would I shape the life of a real estate agent in Hawaii, however briefly? As it happened, I would. I did.
Leslie Jamison is the author of The Gin Closet (Free Press, 2010).
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011