WE HAVE DINNER WITH people. I try not to talk about writing. Talking about writing in almost any context makes you sound like a tool. On the other hand, being caught mid-meal purposely not talking about writing, when you do in fact write for a living, makes you sound coy and untrustworthy. You can’t win. You can only hope the hostess steps on a broken wine bottle and has to be rushed to the hospital for stitches, thereby lessening the awkward stilt of the conversation. And what constitutes a living, anyway? A living is just an algorithm based on how guilty you feel about skimping on brand name peanut butter for your children subtracted by the greatest length of time you can possibly stretch your last advance, added to your partner’s income, multiplied by the need for things like hand-carved wainscoting and waterproof parkas, and then divided by how offended you were by the fifty-dollar honorarium YourLaborOurProfit.com just offered for a ten-thousand word book review.
I often think of myself as a character when I write. Let’s call this character “Mr. Soul.” Unsurprisingly, Mr. Soul has better breath, more hair on his chest, and is nicer to his in-laws than I tend to be. People step out of his way. When he speaks, tough guys, law clerks, and retail managers listen. Mr. Soul also spends an absurd percentage of his life in front of a laptop, to the detriment of his friends and family.
The act of writing is generally bitchy and anti-social. It requires long solitary hours and is a retardant to interactivity. So why are authors expected not only to be great writers, but to transport and amaze us in person, let alone online, to get up in front of rooms of fans and and charm them, to be humble and wry and dashing and have a great signature? I sometimes adopt Mr. Soul’s attitude in public, usually while failing to shine at receptions, events, and cocktail parties. Like when some enfeebled Old Guard editor’s former minx-like assistant and now thoroughly unsatisfied cougar-wife sidles over and whispers “so what do you do?” in my ear:
Beaudoin: “Well, um, last year I had a pretty good run of freelance copyediting gigs. But then one of my molars cracked on a Grape Nut and I had to spend every last dollar getting fitted for a second-hand crown.”
Mr. Soul: (after polishing off his third Campari and then wiping his lips on an passing Armani lapel): “I do whatever pretty girls ask me to. Also, I’m published.”
The bottom line is that I’ve done neither persona a favor by choosing creative expression as a vocation. Being a highly successful, visible, and well-remunerated artist is great. At least for the two hundred people in the United States who fit that description. For everyone else, it’s a mental and emotional suckhole.
I’ve written, to date, seven complete novels. Three are already published. One is a crime fiction black comedy that will almost certainly never be published. Two more are coming out over the next year. And the last is a never-seen-the-light-of-day work of adult literature.
For the most part I write for young adults, which is the last thing anyone who knows me would have ever predicted. When I was in high school people were always saying I should either be a lawyer, a standup, or in jail. Well, torts aren’t really my game, and holding a mic in front of a fake brick wall while making fat girlfriend and missing sock jokes sounds brutal. So aside from an unfortunate three-to-six in Joliet, it’s been fun subverting expectations.
I had talent in college. We all had talent. And those of us who didn’t had a talent for pretending they did. As liberal arts students, we each thought our stuff was the best in every class. Photography, painting, music, theater, dance. We spent most of our time laughing about how everyone else’s work sucked. We’d critique after the crit, demolish after the showing, belittle after the performance. “Oh, my god, does his camerawork blow” or “Did you see how unsophisticated her brushwork is?” or “Um, excuse me, but did he really title that brown piece of crap Treeless Vine In Winter #6?” Our comments were rooted in deep insecurity, as well as the notion that graduation would magically commodify our art. Being one of the best three writers in a workshop felt like a real accomplishment, if not a springboard to notoriety. In actuality, of course, being one of the best three anything in a classroom of twenty sons and daughters of privilege was an ego-booze fairy tale that had zero bearing on an actual career.
A novel is a novel. Due to current sales trends (if you can call the cratering of a once prestigious industry a “trend”) my books are aimed at readers under nineteen. Inexplicably, teenagers have money. And they often spend that money on books. Real, solid, made-of-paper books. Most oldsters either no longer read, only read celebrity shit on the internet, or have come to expect anything they do read to cost nothing.
My books tend to fall on the higher end of the age spectrum, known as the “sophisticated teen,” mainly because I turn in whatever adult novel I intended to write all along, but at the last minute change the main character to a furtive, sweaty masturbator, and hope the marketing people don’t notice the difference. My characters all have outsized vocabularies, make implausible references, and display an unusual grasp of world history. I constantly have to remind myself that your average teenager has little interest in John Coltrane, Aaron Burr, or I Dream of Jeannie. Further, I don’t like my characters to text, listen to Bruno Mars, or have access to computers. It’s a lot harder line to walk than it seems.
I started writing YA for one reason and one reason only: the vast number of editors who gleefully lined up not to buy my short story collection. Which, frankly, was a little mystifying. Each story had already been published. Most in reasonably august literary journals. Two won prizes. One even appeared in Spirit–the inflight magazine of Southwest Airlines. Still, zero interest. It’s conceivable that the title, Kitten Steaks, played a role in dissuading the less adventurous houses.
That experience convinced me to stop working on my Manhattan-taming beast of a literary novel as well. Which is also called Kitten Steaks. I am now more or less convinced that 96% of modern (or even worse, post-modern) novels have no real reason to exist. Except to give other authors something to disparage between slugs of Merlot. And possibly to fuel America’s economic backbone, the bulk-pulping industry. This belief has likely irreparably hobbled my career, but by drawing a solitary line in the sand and refusing to add yet another mopey, irony-larded roman à clef to the massive heap of remaindered romans à clef, I feel I am making a powerful statement. And that statement is: “While my next book may indeed be about zombies, you can rest assured that I will never pen a scene set at Burning Man, make an inexplicable switch to second person narration, use elaborate and self-indulgent footnotes, have a character who is not Bruce Willis named Bruce Willis, or utilize a subplot involving an invisible talking shark.”
Hey, listen, the world has already leafed unsmilingly through a lifetime’s worth of underworked prose based on overworked subjects: dying grandma, addiction, pride, violence, cancer, adultery, eating, praying, loving. All the good topics have already been plowed down to a dusty fallow soil, then reburied under a metric shit-ton of identical abuse memoirs. At this point all that’s legitimately left in the muse’s quiver are STD’s and the first two Whit Stillman movies. Which means the final legitimately non-derivative book ever written will have to be called The Last Days of Disco, and Also Syphilis. Even Tolstoy would have given up and become a Nissan salesman instead.
But just when I’d been about to put down my pen for good, and was on the verge of applying to an online program in motel management, an agent I’d sent my collection to called to say he really, really loved my stories. Like, really. But, you know, just not enough to get them published. “Selling short stories to hipsters is like selling sand to Arabs,” he said, “except three times harder and without the proximity to a falafel stand.” He did, however, claim to admire the voice (which feels a whole lot like someone complimenting your bra) and suggested I take a crack at YA.
“And that stands for You Asshole?”
“No, Young Adult.”
“You mean like The Outsiders?”
Even from thousands of miles away and over the keening static of a Bluetooth headset, it was immediately clear just how many times he’d been forced to answer that question. Ponyboy may have stayed gold, but as a reference he’d obviously worn thin.
“Yeah, sure, like The Outsiders, but it’s so much more than that. Haven’t you been to a Barnes & Noble lately? One whole wall of the place is YA now. There are dozens of different sub-genres. Hundreds of authors. Genius to crap, just like everything else. Check it out and call me back.”
So I went to a mall. It was true. Hundreds of titles, most of them face-out instead of spine-in. Vampires, zombies, wolfmen, nerds. But also meth, incest, rape, gangs. Funny stuff and dangerous stuff. Fluff about debutantes and really challenging books displayed side by side. It was totally wide open, in a way that no other genre seemed to be.
I was sold.
“I’m in. What do I have to do?”
“Write me four chapters. If the prose is any good, I’ll sell it.”
So Mr. Soul sat down and knocked out four chapters of a character loosely based on Beaudoin’s high school misanthrope self, called it Going Nowhere Faster, and sent it away, expecting to never hear from the dude again. Within two weeks, I heard from the dude again. He loved the chapters. Like, really.
“Yup, I think they’re great.”
A month later, he sold it as part of a two-book deal.
I was an author.
Here’s the great thing about YA: everyone who writes or reads it is locked into the possibilities of this little outlaw lit world that “the cooler kids” aren’t paying attention to. Meanwhile, some guy will knock off a clumsy and half-bogus abuse memoir with footnotes and a ghost-narrator and be lauded just because his target audience happens to be approaching the boner tub.
But I don’t take it too personally. The genres have always been belittled. Sci-fi, horror, westerns, speculative, noir, what have you. The truth is that almost every book is really, really hard to write. Even the weakest, most turgid piece of shit usually requires the mental equivalent of giving birth. It’s easy to hate success, and demean the writing skills of others, but the truth is that almost all of us are lacking. Most books, even fantastic books, are flawed in untold ways. Very few writers are talented enough to produce work that rises above the level of judgment. And even if they do, I’ve been at numerous parties where those exalted few (Nabokov, Bronte, Cheever, Fitzgerald, etc.) have been drunkenly and mercilessly slagged, as if they wrote only mammary allegories and vampire suckups.
The bottom line is that teens are not big dumb mammals that we condescendingly tolerate; they are us, ten or twenty or thirty years ago. I write for them because I still want to speak to that version of myself, and possibly tell him something of value. If I can do that, it might not impress any doctorates at fern parties, but I may have written something of genuine worth. Most of us spend our lives pretending that we’re not still scarred by our adolescence. We make decisions, often subconsciously, based on the slights and pain and triumphs of a time when things were felt so intensely, in a way that we may never feel again. We choose partners, jobs, cars, and mistresses based on our first loves, or who ignored us, or who we want to get revenge on. Why not dive into those feelings? Why not recreate them, exorcise them, examine them, re-animate them? We want so desperately to say we were very different once we went to college. How we remade ourselves, grew up, lived alone, started having regular sex, became new people. Became adult. But we’re really not that much different. And all our elemental stories are still right there.
Literary distinctions are meaningless. I love books, I love reading, I want to immerse myself in other voices. And I hope to contribute my own. Money is nice, love is fleeting, children are smaller soon-to-be-angrier versions of ourselves. But books are forever.
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