Thursday, June 19, 2014

Commentary — The Loneliness Of The Lowly Midlist Writer

I’m at that awkward age.  Wait.  There’s nothing awkward about it, except when I try to walk. Tall, old and overweight, I have a kind of Humpty Dumpty gate — with a decided teeter.  The teeter (or totter) was caused by a second brain surgery to fix brain radiation damage caused by lasers after the first surgery to remove a tumor*. The result is continued brain necrosis and, apparently, a scalpel slice a little too close to my motor nerves.

 I am chubby because one of the treatments involves steroids, which does all sorts of things, including the creation of a ravenous appetite. I am chubby because it is difficult to exercise and I hate doing it.  I am chubby because I like to eat. And I’m not visualizing kale or broccolini when I say, “eat.” I’m thinking Pecan pie. 

This is why I'm no longer invisible
So, to get to the point, at 6’2” and 278 pounds, I am not the invisible old man I once was.  As many of you who have gone beyond the half-century mark already know, you may not be waited on in the order of your arrival at retail counters because you’ve become at least partially invisible.  I experienced that before I became larger-than-life in (in a purely physical sense).  A cane, which is necessary most of the time, nonetheless adds to the unintentional drama of my presence.  Children stare. I once wore a hat to prevent additional melanoma from forming on my bald skull, but the hat seemed like gilding the lily. As a writer, I think it is in my nature to prefer to observe than be observed. At the moment, that is difficult. However, I’ve already lost a bit of height.  And it’s quite possible that as I suffer, as we all do, the inevitable dematerialization of old age that eventually I will again be a wisp of my former self. Invisible once again.

But there are other ways to be invisible.  Being a midlist writer is one. I flatter myself a little by defining my achievement level that high, but the process of elimination makes it the only category I can use.  I am not a best selling author or a literary giant, yet I’m not a new, promising, or emerging writer. A big writer, yes, thanks to the pecan pie, but not in the sense of being recognized as a writer. On the other hand, I’m published. I am thankful. The problem for many of us in that category is that, as it is in other fields in these days of corporate rule, we have not become brand names.  We are an unfamiliar box of cereal on the shelf, one that might make you simultaneously curious and wary. Though, as a midlist writer, we might feel lucky to be on the shelf at all.  My point is that if you are a crime fiction fan, the supply of fantastic books is endless. Look a little deeper or farther and you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

I’m not complaining.  Certainly breaking in— getting one’s first book published, let alone reviewed — is tough enough.  And I’m aware there are those who would wish some of these old, midlist fogies just get out of the way. Eventually, we will.  In the meantime, like old character actors, we’re going to work as long as we can because writing is what we do.  And while I will not presume to choose whom, among the living midlist writers you should check out, I am recommending you look for them (us).

Also, I’m not asking you to give up reading NYT best-selling authors.  They’re best selling for a reason. I am an avid fan of many of them.  But maybe, instead of reading James Patterson’s 20th book of the month, you could wander around the bookstore, library, flea market or Internet to check out others who come highly recommended, but haven’t achieved brand-name status, whose books aren’t stacked on a table by the store’s front door or taking up a full page ad in the Times. Some of us have stopped writing but have reissued very worthwhile early works.  Others of us continue to write and have both old and new works available.

There are important discussions about how the changes in the publishing landscape not only affect bookstores and readers and publishers, but how serious it is for midlist writers. This situation is often lost in the loud debate between Amazon and the few remaining major publishers in which Amazon is the one usually demonized.

*P.S. For the medically minded, more on this story can be found here.


Bill Crider said...

Whatever there is below the midlist, that's where I am. Double invisible, if such a thing is possible.

Ronald Tierney said...

Not true at all Bill. Not only do you have a serious reader following for your books and the respect of your peers but a huge following for your blog: I'm jealous on all counts. If you're invisible, I don't exist.. Well, now there's a thought.