Mark Athitakis Newsletter #7

Oh God, a writers' event.

Front Matter

Writers’ conferences sadden me, a little. Especially their tradeshows. Behold, a hall filled with tables representing great literary bounties, with staffers hawking their wares with great enthusiasm, and yet selling so little of them. The low sales are mainly due to the fact that the people circulating the tables are the underpaid employees of other publishers, taking a break from working their own tables, where nothing also gets sold. Introversion has its virtues, but you wouldn’t want to build an economy around it.

So a couple of weeks ago, when I was invited to have my own a table at an Arizona State University-sponsored event called “Meet Your Literary Community,” my strategy was simple: Bring books, but plan on selling nothing. Happily, the authors at tables on either side of me had similarly relaxed ambitions. To my left was a historian who self-publishes contemporary romances under a pseudonym. She spoke candidly about the endless grind of getting attention for her books, which includes being mindful of various rackets, like having to pay for a booth at another gathering of romance novelists.

American literary culture is so vibrant that there’s always a table for you to sit at and not sell books, if you have the money.

To my right was a young essayist and poet who writes on LGBTQ themes. She’d brought an antique Royal typewriter, to write poems on demand for a handful of people who asked for them. Free labor, but she enjoyed it. She talked about how she’d struggled to get much attention at all for her book, though she had a reputable small press behind her. We talked about the utility of book reviews versus Twitter in terms of getting that attention; I think Twitter won out.

Between the three of us, we sold maybe five books that morning. There was a farmer’s market nearby.

I’d brought a laminated map of the U.S. and encouraged passersby to take part in an exercise I mention in the introduction to my book (which you can buy!): Which states constitute the Midwest? Phoenix, being a haven of sorts for Midwestern expats (for better and for worse), has a lot of people who were game to play along. Interestingly, the couple dozen folks who took part tended to gravitate toward a Great Plains/southern Great Lakes boundary for the region. Iowa was by far the most popular, with a lot of people making the case for Nebraska, Arkansas, and even parts of Texas; as many people identified Oklahoma as a Midwestern state as Minnesota.

After one passerby identified a more southerly concept of the Midwest, I asked why she didn’t include Wisconsin or Minnesota or the Dakotas. “Oh, that’s entirely different.” She said she’d traveled through there a lot once as a yoga coach for the Dixie Chicks.

Two tables over, one author was putting me and my immediate neighbors to shame. She had self-published a handful of novels, she told me; as she was setting up, she told me that traditional publishing didn’t understand her. She used to work in newspapers but wouldn’t have anything to do with reviewers, now; they all had their “noses in the air.” When my neighbor’s sign encroached on hers, just an inch or so, she was gently but firmly nudged to stay in her meet-your-literary-community lane. Oh, also, did I know about the power of newsletters? I did not. Some popular self-published writer has leveraged the power of newsletters to sell many, many books, she told me.

Rather than sitting at a table like the rest of us schlubs, she actively worked the area around hers, hustling down passersby with postcards promoting her books---99 cents if you buy one this weekend, and so on. Everybody she buttonholed seemed to have the kind of look on their face that I get when somebody comes up to me with a petition. Who knows? She might know something the rest of us don’t. She handed out a lot of postcards, anyhow.

What I’m Writing

For USA Today, I wrote about Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Unsheltered, which is pretty good at what she’s best at (parenthood, place, language fit for the historical moment she’s writing about), but is overwhelmed by lots of other things she’s good at but which is no good for fiction: pedagogy, leveraging characters to make political points. Growing up in a Greek family, I have no shortage of relatives who’ll fulminating about America’s shortcomings and lapse into bigotry. But Unsheltered’s Greek-American in-law who’s all-in for Trump is too exasperatingly cartoonish to even qualify as offensive. Better: For the Los Angeles Times, I wrote about a pair of early Charles Bowden books that have been reissued by the University of Arizona Press, and reveal him as a hopeful, intrepid journalist about the U.S.-Mexico border in the 80s; he’d never lost his sense of adventure, but time did do a number on his sense of hope.

What I’m Reading

Larissa MacFarquahar’s report in the New Yorker on the ethical challenges of “memory care”---treating cases of Alzheimer’s and dementia---is an illuminating piece on a troublesome subject in itself, and how it intersects with how we lie and whether we ever should. I don’t think one ever enjoys reading John Gray, exactly; I’ve learned a lot from books like The Silence of Animals. But his high-toned nothin’-matters-and-what-if-did attitude toward the human species leaves a certain hollow feeling; George Scialabba’s take on his latest book, Seven Types of Athiesm, takes Gray seriously while showing where his fatalism goes too far. Jessa Crispin is less patient with the latest crop of books exploiting the current political moment in the name of feminist uplift. The instapoets appear to be just as awful as the instapoems.

End Notes

I’m not sure what the Midwest sounds like, musically. It doesn’t have to sound like any one thing, of course. But if Neil Young grew up in Northern Ohio, I imagine it would sound a little like this.

Thanks for reading. Send correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.