By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Illustration by Daniel Peacock|
True story: Not too long ago I had lunch at a swank restaurant on Sunset with a woman who runs a publishing house. I think I had been invited because she didn’t know what to make of me, and she wanted to feel secure about not promoting my new novel. She showed me the company’s new catalog for the coming season, pointing out the selling points in her chipper English accent as I flipped through, saw the same sort of dreadful stuff that often gets published, and noticed that I didn’t see one Latino writer. I suggested in my most helpful voice that she might want to take a shot at the Latino audience, that quite a few Latinos live in California, and they might occasionally want to buy a book. She looked at me with perfect seriousness and said, “We would like to, but it’s so difficult getting those things translated.”
Go figure, but I’m sure that was what was said before Terry McMillan sold more books than anybody in publishing had ever imagined black people would ever buy. The publishing world can be a bit slow and almost quaint about growing that multicultural market. I suppose sooner or later the Latino market will flourish soon as publishing houses hire some more Latinos to tell them it’s there.
Lucky for me, publishers recognize the inescapable fact that black folks buy lots of novels. I’ve published four novels at what I guess could be considered reputable houses, and was paid respectably. I have no reason to complain, but I do.
It’s not the money, though more money is always good; in truth I’d write for free.
Odd as it may seem, I want to be respected, and I’m willing to work twice as hard to attract half the attention.
Not too long ago I had a conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a deservedly lauded Nigerian author, about her first novel, Purple Hibiscus. I advised her to chase publicity, grow her audience by any means necessary as any remainder-fearing author should. But Chimamanda had a different idea of the market.
“I really don’t want to. I’m not good or comfortable with doing that kind of thing,” she said.
How un-American, even if I admired her reticence to submerge herself into the depths of modern book marketing. I worry for the fate of my books like they are my misbegotten children. I can’t stand the idea of them being pulped, so promote I must.
I sold my first poem at 13 to Scope/Scholastic Magazine when I was in the eighth grade at Foshay Junior High School, back when Foshay wasn’t ranked in the top 20 schools in the country. No, then it was competing with Gompers and Mount Vernon for the status of the junior high most likely to beat down a half-assed pootbutt who liked to read. Foshay was so deep, young knuckleheads sported colorful butterflies on the back of their Levi’s jackets, but actually, only virgins thought those were butterflies. At the time I was more virgin than Mary and was much better at writing poetry than knocking fools out. How was I supposed to know a psychedelic vagina from a boldly colored butterfly?
My poem wasn’t very good, and even then I couldn’t say I was proud of it, but it made me think that if I didn’t make it as a marine biologist, or an astrophysicist, I could fall back on writing poems, having made $15 on that poem published in Scholastic Magazine.
It worked pretty much like that — I’ve made a living with my writing except that I write novels instead of poems, but it’s about the same thing. Since I graduated from UCI’s MFA program, you’d think I’d have a grasp on it, bust that best-seller, reverse my declining readership, get sexy and shit with my writing, and crack the N.Y. Times best-seller list, do that Zane thing, write slippery Afrocentric but mostly silly soft-core porn, and get paid. I’m happy writing about sexual dysfunction, because like that study alluded to in The Lancet, “Most poets never achieve complete sexual union.” If it’s good enough for poets, it’s good enough for me.
I started writing because of a friend who had a bedside manner so impressive, I wanted to record it for posterity. I was astonished by the fact that Earl would sleep below his girlfriend’s bedroom, in her yard, and when the family retired for the night, he’d crawl in through the open window to spend the night. To a teenage virgin this was fascinating stuff, and I wrote my first story about him: “Staying in Shape.”
I took classes from the late Marvin Mudrick, one of the more controversial professors at UCSB. He thought of himself as some kind of literary entertainer. Other professors hated him because he had strong, unconventional opinions. He shouted and cursed, made fun of Shakespeare, loved Chaucer, Trollope and Richard Pryor. He thought undergraduates were capable of writing first-rate fiction, took us seriously and made me take myself seriously. I came to value my life as material for fiction. He seemed to have an intuitive understanding of what I was trying to get at in my stories set in South-Central L.A.