The Color of Writing: One White Woman's Journey
Updated: Aug 4, 2021
Have you heard the story about the decorative books?!! Oh man, it's a doozy. This is one for the books, so to speak. If we're lucky, it may even end up being published one day, as an actual book, with a binding of a certain color, then later sold by West Elm, along with a matching Mongolian lamb pillowcase and cotton waffle throw blanket.
Like many good stories, this one has a slow start. But you need this character profile to understand the tragic denouement. The main character of our sad little bildungsroman -- let's call her Dr. Big Stuff -- went to a pretty fancy college called Stanford, graduated with Honors, worked for a famous journalist, then slogged through a history PhD program, completed a postdoc, after which she applied for and attained a tenure-track job at a big research university, where one professor called her dissertation 'groundbreaking.' She can't recall his name but the point is, she wrote fine. She was overwhelmed with a new marriage and pregnancy, though. She asked to perform her writing job part-time, for a little while.
The academy said that would be unfair to men.
And I said good day, sir!
Dr. BS's choice to lean out, and raise the human life forms she'd invented in her womb was obviously not as brave as those who were leaning in to do important jobs like ruining democracy. But all the while, she kept her eye on that lifelong dream of writing. When her anthropoids learned to ingest solids and bidet themselves, she started blogging. She submitted pieces as often as she could. Because academia had trained her to mush like a sledge dog for no money or recognition or support, she stuck with it. Dr. Big Stuff eventually got some things published, won some awards, got some positive feedback. Editors thanked her for using good synonyms and hyperbole to entertain their readers. Sometimes, they even paid her for these circus tricks. A few of her blog posts got shared with thousands of people which, in the internet world, isn't many, but she still began to envision what it might feel like to be Jenny Lawson, a blogger so successful that publishers drew cartoon bubbles filled with dollar signs on the section of her book proposal entitled "Platform" (which is publishing world jargon for having an established fan base) or probably something to that effect.
Prospects emerged. An agent who looked a lot like Anne Hathaway once asked to "hear more" about her manuscript. Agent Hathaway never got back to Dr. Big Stuff but she was real pretty, and she had generously given six minutes of her time. In the publishing world, that's not nothing. The book that Agent Hathaway spent six minutes hearing about would eventually be published as a comic memoir called, How to Leave.
Because I want you to stay engaged in this story, I have skipped past the dull parts where the Dr. BS spent months writing and rewriting, pitched to hundreds of agents in the dark of winter, and generally felt gross and sucky --- to the point of almost regretting her departure from academia but not quite -- until one agent returned her phone call. Blah blah nose to the grindstone hard work pays off blah blah blah.
Plot twist! The book was ultimately published by Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury had published Harry Potter, so as far as Dr. BS was concerned, Bloomsbury was a safe and promising space for hardworking middle-aged white women well past their evolutionary prime who still had something to contribute to society. They took a chance and gave her an advance of about 50 thousand dollars, give or take. This advance was well below the six figure bombshells granted to so many storied first-time authors, most of whom, according to Twitter, are mediocre white people. Dr. Big Stuff felt she was a slightly above average white person. But she was still grateful. Whatever! That modest sum of money was still more than the hallowed university paid her, after eight years in a doctoral program. Deathly Hallows indeed.
Fulfilling your dream is a priceless feeling. There's no punch line coming. She was very proud of the book. Although she would probably change many things about it now, including the first sentence and the second sentence, every single time someone approaches her to say they read it, she feels her heart grow two sizes. I mean this in a redeemed Grinch sort of way, not an inflamed Covid way.
FINALLY, we get to the good part.
Doc Big Stuff was not, as it turned out, Bloomsbury's next JK Rowling. She was more like JK Rowling's ex-husband's next of kin, who maybe received a few pieces of stolen jewelry and a used mattress. (Sorry. That got a little dark. But good storytelling needs some racy parts.) The book didn't sell many copies. It definitely didn't earn out. That's publishing world jargon for selling enough books to equal your mediocre advance.
Should Dr. BS have hired a social media company to pad her Goodreads' reviews? Or hired a PR firm to market her book, in the absence of more enthusiastic sales energy from the publisher? Maybe. But none of those ambiguously unethical strategies could really compensate for the fact that it didn't become a bestseller. Was it about relevance or quality or marketing? Who knows. Platforms do drive sales, of course. Seth Rogen sold more copies of his memoir in one day than Doctor Big Stuff did in years and his high-profile cannabis company is probably the only reason. I have no actual data on how many copies Seth Rogen sold. Nonetheless I am 100% certain my comparison is helpful and accurate.
I wish this had a happy ending. Even white women who use the word journey to describe their banal career experiences deserve happy endings. Unfortunately, this ain't it. So strap in and engage your air bags, Dr. Big Stuff's about to go through some things.
A few weeks ago, a childhood friend sent her an image of something from the interwebs. It looked like this.
At first, she couldn't believe Decorative Book Buying was a thing. First of all, you can get used books at thrift shops, some of them in perfect condition, for much less than these sets. Her book -- see it just there, on the right side, next to Colin McAdam's little bound and broken dream? -- was initially sold for 25 dollars, because of the value of its words. It had a really nice cover too! As decor, it's much cheaper. It only costs about ten bucks. Even so: Why would people spend all that money for brand-new, never-sold, uncovered books? Because they don't read? Do they even craft, though? I mean, they could build their own decorative set from individual purchases and mix and match them for kicks. Such a hobby would require them to spend time looking at books, buying them, and sorting them by height and color. Yes, I see now. It's too much to expect.
Or or OR do Decorative Book Buyers read SOME books, just not THESE books? People always tell authors, "don't read the comments." Conventionally, those comments judge story and form and, after spending years working hard on a book, and feeling so much unbridled joy at sharing it with readers, you don't really want your soul to be crushed by a vindictive person who goes to the library because it's air-conditioned and decides your book stinks because the word "fuck" is an affront to baby Jesus. But decorative book comments are not about story or form, so the intrepid author took a peek. Decorate Book Buyers be like:
"These look great in our airbnb cabin. And they're real books!"
"The grays look so pretty against the brick wall next to my fake flower arrangement."
"I'm thinking of buying a set for the doghouse, so our miniature schnauzer has a gray chew toy."
Essentially, this whole story is just about books being commodities, as opposed to creative expression. Publishers used to burn unsold books. Earth needs that extra oxygen now so they've changed it up, and many are stripped or warehoused, or turned to literal pulp fiction, or otherwise recycled. But unsold books being sold for decor: Who saw that coming? It's a steep and long slide down from hoping you might be Bloomsbury's next JK Rowling. Did I just say that out loud?
Perhaps the only good thing we can say about an author's journey from real book writing to decorative book writing is that many other Decorative Book Authors are also real book authors. And genuinely talented creative people. James Patterson, for example, is now an esteemed Yellow Decorative Book Author. Amy Tan in these sets, and James McBride, and Frank McCourt, and Sue Monk Kidd. They're all different colors! So unexpected!
Don't worry about Doctor Big Stuff. Or worry just a little bit. She will not be deterred, though. She got through childbirth and a doctoral program without an epidural, and she'll get through this. If she gets really sad, she can always demand that hotel registration desk people call her "doctor." Because she worked hard for that modicum of respect. And in this world, that's not nothing.