There will be two main characters in the story of publishing your novel online, protagonist and antagonist, and just as in life, they’re both you. Call them Author 1 and Author 2.
Author 1 has had some good reviews and has a secret image to uphold about being better than the pack. When people offer him new ideas, like to publish his novel on the Internet, he retells, acidly, the old anecdote about the great but impoverished conductor Nicolas Slonimsky, whose in-laws urged him to apply for a bandleader job at Disneyland (“He’s a musician, isn’t he?”). Then he goes out on the back porch and sulks.
Author 2 looks more like Harlan Ellison, who once wrote a novel in a bookstore window. Or Jamal down the block, who sells his CDs from a gym bag in front of Starbucks. Or my friend Bruce, who, when I couldn’t find an agent for the new book, said, “So publish yourself! That’s what Jamal does.”
That’s when you meet your third main character, the Devil, who says only one thing, over and over: But — you can’t.
The Devil is right. The listings on www.onlinenovels.net all confirm what Author 1 fears: It might really be possible to die of literary illegitimacy:
Redeemer’s Law, by Dan Jolley: Matt steals an armored body suit and uses his powers to take out the anger and frustration of his tragedy-filled life on an unsuspecting public as the masked vigilante known as the Redeemer.
Stolen Warrior, by Wes Platt. Neurojournalist Len Dixon … should be overjoyed at the prospect of exclusive coverage of the conflict, but all he really wants is to get back to his home universe.
But when is your home universe no longer home? I remember a Twilight Zone episode where James Whitmore, revered leader of a colony of shipwrecked space travelers, hides trembling in a cave when the rescue ship arrives rather than give up his post — marooned by the sin of pride. This teleplay has haunted Author 1 through life.
So I ended a kind of dysfunctional, common-law marriage to an agent who’d spent five years not committing to my book. The agent had said, “The problem seems to be that I can’t decide ultimately if this is a great novel or just a novel with great writing in it.” He said everything but No. On the day I broke it off, he wrote that I was more than justified, for he still couldn’t commit to the novel — but that he wasn’t absolutely sure, and, “I might even be talked out of this position.” It freed me. I finally got the joke.
Then came the cosmic avalanche. Out of nowhere, I met Jerry Burgan, co-founder of We Five, the electro-folk ’60s band that recorded my all-time favorite song (“You Were On My Mind”), and we began collaborating on Burgan’s memoir. When I told him I was going to post my full novel online, he offered me an original song to accompany it. I heroically resisted tainting my literary work with a stunt like that.
Except that it just made so much sense. The novel is, after all, about a country rocker.
When I asked more bands for songs, Stanley Wycoff donated a track (with Dave Alvin and Chris Gaffney) and David Stadalnikas donated two. We all began planning live performances at indie record stores. Suddenly, Author 1 was photographed for the cover of the alternative weekly in Long Beach, camera-flash blazing off his glasses, like Milhouse’s dad on The Simpsons.
Someday, when everyone has something like a Kindle-iPod and a pocketful of e-novels with playable clips in the text, the endgame of digital publishing will seem as natural as Al Jolson and the talkies. But it can’t be Author 1 saying this.
Nor has the literary world leapt up to cheer. When I e-mailed news blasts all over the country, baffled agents sent robo-rejections before I’d finished typing their names.
But when I lit a flare for help on Facebook (“Can anyone get these sound clips to play?”), I received nothing but fellowship, encouragement, and that blue-sky Gypsy sense that all of us are together, drawing hearts in invisible ink.
Honestly, I still see Author 1 in the mirror. Onstage, whenever we do our first reading-performance, I’m going to look as odd and émigré, and I hope as gracious, as Leonard Cohen, while not nearly as well dressed. Moreover, Alt. Country is embarrassingly flawed. In many ways unpublishable. A poor pioneer. The dysfunctional agent, I am Author 2 enough to say, is welcome to be right.
And yet — the beauty of publishing your novel online is that the future is ever correctible, the past’s footfall erased. (The reason so few novels have endings worth their beginnings is that the value of a novel lies in what it resurrects in you while it lives — an open-endedness made for the Internet.) I can revise my installments again, watch characters say what they mean, move myself to tears with a once-troubled passage that finally touches truth — be unfinished and finished at once, like the day’s conversations, online and off. And watch God’s hands shape the whole new adventure, past into future, in fresh clay.
The lights dimmed for a blaze of birthday candles and she sang along, gulping beer down during the applause. Some photos were snapped and the ritual of ice cream from spoon to mouth cast a mechanical silence over the children. Tanner said, “Why don’t we talk in the study?”
Inside he tried to back her toward a rolling desk chair, but she surprised him by remaining standing. “Well,” she said, “now you can say any horrible thing, and it won’t count!”
He was making a cheap sarcastic smile through tears and leaning close, which seemed dangerous, as if he had decided there was nothing left to lose by cheapening his feelings. He would kiss her in spite of hurt feelings, if that was what a woman wanted. She wished she were drunk enough to let him. But not so drunk that the drunkenness would insult him. Meanwhile Tanner was aiming toward the very center of folly.
He kissed her forehead, then turned away. The door was standing open. He shut it and came back and began to shake. “Don’t hate me.” He exhaled, then forced himself. “You’ve always been the only one.”
“No one with a heart would hate you for saying that.”
“But I’m stuck in it. And I don’t know how to grow up.” He laughed morosely, “I must want you to feel sorry for me.”
She did feel sorry. And as he moved to kiss her, volunteering himself to this delirious altar call, she didn’t run away, though it was time. She even thought she could see a little phantom of herself capitalize on the opportunity and leave the room.
She sensed that by hesitating she might be choosing to accept a kiss, and she did. It was a real kiss, with the hum of the air conditioner a witness. She felt floppy, almost inanimate. In her hand, the back of his neck seemed to ring like a phone.
The hard thing suddenly was to stop, but she ended the kiss. He stood up slowly with his swim trunks distended. As if this were the whole point of her stopping him, he removed them — blue and risen with a halo of chlorine — an incongruity with kissing that Carrie just watched slide by.
He seemed to be futzing with the hem of her swimsuit. He seemed to be trying to decide whether rushing past the wonderment of being with Carrie again wouldn’t be a wonderment all its own. One more long kiss, and their parts were a confoundment, then the alarm — the first dewy stab that joined past and future, which was when Carrie discovered there are triggers that leave a woman more sober than drunk.
She balked, which confused her body enough to thrash against him more than once, then yielded, a glorious, lawless moment, then balked again and slid him away, incomplete.
They sat shipwrecked before they were ever long together. An awful awareness taking hold.
Almost on cue came his wife’s voice from the hallway.
In a hop he was reassembled, and telling Carrie, “Sorry,” followed by a more serious-eyed “sorry,” still not the sorry she’d have wanted. Then he left. There is no good way to leave such a room, but Tanner had gotten lucky.
Alt. Country can be read in its entirety at www.alanrifkin.com.
Further reading from the Weekly Literary Supplement:
“How Fiction Works: King James and the Battle for the Novel,” by Nathan Ihara
“Geoff in London, Interview in Absentia,” by Tom Christie
“Henry Bay’s America: An Excerpt From The Enthusiast,” by Charlie Haas
“Wet Metal: An Excerpt From Blame,” by Michelle Huneven
“The Calm: An Excerpt From Silver Lake,” by Peter Gadol
“Old World Meets New Age in Thriller Nowhere-Land,” by Judith Freeman