Friday, May 2, 2014

Carpe lector

By Art Taylor

A few years ago, traveling back from West Virginia late one evening, several of us stopped in a Perkins restaurant for a late dinner and ended up seated in a side room empty except for our party. The walls were decorated with several bookshelves, and browsing the titles (an unavoidable habit), I was surprised to spot a novel up there by one of my writing professors at the time. This writer was and is a very serious, very accomplished novelist—but unfortunately with an ego to match. So it struck me as funny to see the book end up in a place where no one was likely to pick it up, much less read it—and for a fleeting moment (I'm almost sorry to admit this), I thought about telling this writer about it just as a little joke, a little prick to that sprawling ego.

And then I reached up to take the book down and discovered that it had been glued into place. All the books bound together, never to be read by anyone. And I decided I wouldn't say anything about it after all.

That's the first story that popped into my mind when I read this week's question: When you have a book published, maybe several, what are your thoughts, for the future? Is the book something you hope will be found and read, in 50 years? Or do you know, going in, that you may become out of print, a thing of history...or forgotten? What is your hope?

And the short answer is this: Whatever I write, I hope it never ends up glued to the wall of a chain restaurant, providing dull ambiance for someone's late-night western omelet and home fries.

But the more complex answer is... well, more complex.

As a short story writer, I accept the fact that my work will often be largely ephemeral. It's a tremendous boost, of course, to be published frequently in the pages of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and I'm intensely grateful for the readership that the magazine lets me connect with. But the shelf life of such magazines can be very short—literally so, remaining on the bookstore shelf for just a few quick weeks before the next issue takes its place.

Opportunities do exist to extend that shelf life elsewhere, of course. The rise of online journals and e-books helps to keep stories available, as do anthologies or or the increasingly rare single-author story collection. But even then.... Well, tastes change, interests flag. The New York Times bestseller list from 50 years ago this weekend was topped by John Le CarrĂ©'s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold—a novel that's clearly stood the test of time—but how about number two on the list? How many folks today are flipping the pages of Convention by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II? And would having it republished as an ebook result in any surge of fresh enthusiasm? And what of all the books and anthologies that didn't make the bestseller list at all? What of an individual short story in one issue of a monthly magazine? Will anyone be seeking those out five decades from now?

One way of getting on the historical record is, of course, award recognition, and I'm very fortunate that one of my stories, "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants" from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's March/April 2013 issue, is a finalist for the Agatha Awards which will be presented this weekend at Malice Domestic. I'm in very good company there, alongside Gigi Pandian's "The Hindi Houdini," Barbara Ross's "Bread Baby," and two stories by Barb Goffman: "Evil Little Girl" and "Nightmare." (And if you haven't already read those fine stories, you should—especially now that Short Story Month is officially underway, another effort to celebrate and bring attention to the short story.)

But while being a finalist for a major award is a great honor—and bringing home the teapot would be a thrill!—even that attention seems to not quite describe what I hope for my writing.

Recognizing the brutally ephemeral nature of most published work, I think that what many of us writers are after is equally ephemeral, but in a much more wonderful way. But the important part isn't a week's appearance on the bestseller list (or even several of them) or a moment at the podium to accept an award; and it's not even those several hours that a reader spent reading a particular novel (or the half-hour or so with a short story); instead it's probably those moments—all too fleeting—when a reader has been moved by a piece of writing: made to smile, brought to tears, provoked to re-experience something long forgotten or to see things a new way or to.... 

A second's feeling, a moment's emotion, even the half-hour of reading a story—all these pass in a flash. But making even the briefest mark on a reader before they move on? That's something any writer aspires to.

And I hope that before that book ended up glued to that shelf in that West Virginia Perkins, someone read it and admired it and maybe even remembers it now.

Speaking of ephemeral, if you're going to Malice Domestic, be sure and grab one of my bookmarks this year. Embedded with wildflower seeds and ready for planting, they're only meant to be bookmarks for a short while! 

And be sure and stop by our Saturday 9 a.m. panel "Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Short Story Nominees," including all the finalist above plus our moderator B.K. Stevens, an extraordinary short story writer herself. 


RJ Harlick said...

Have a great time at Malice, Art. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the Agatha win. Good Luck!

Paul D. Marks said...

Love the story about the glued down book, Art. Sort of says it all, doesn't it...

Good luck at Malice!

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Susan C Shea said...

Good luck at Malice - a couple other friends are in the same contest so I want you all to win!

I recently serve as a judge in a short story competition with 137 entries. What I took away was the indelible, intense writing in two of them. I don't think I'll ever forget them, and that's the immortality I wish I could have.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, everyone!