What It’s Like to be Unknown

I’ve struggled all my life to get published, to little avail. How do I feel about that? I’ve already spoken about it, though only in bits and pieces and generally considering only the negative aspects. There are times, though, that I’m happy about being unknown, and feel almost lucky to be so.

When one doesn’t have a track record, there’s nothing to live up to (or live down). If one of my books became well known, of course I’d be tempted to read what people were saying about it. With so much at stake, how could I not? If reaction was negative, I’d feel compelled to more clearly explain the work. Not because of ego but simply out of belief that, as I’ve suggested before, the work is important. I might even feel moved to hit the road and interpret the book, but as a steady diet I probably wouldn’t like it—I’m always into the next project and would hate to take much time away from that to wrangle with critics, people who I suspect wouldn’t change their opinion anyway. Still, I might feel like I had to do it.

On the other hand, if reaction to the book was positive, then there’s the excitement of the breakthrough and the pressure to succeed with the next one as well. I think I know what writers must face when their book is a big seller—there has to be strong pressure to repeat the success. I’ve never felt that pressure. When one book is finished, I can get started on the next without feeling like I have to write a salable successor. Nor do I have the hassle of promotion, incessant travel, and all the verbal dueling I’m sure my work—being controversial—would encourage. In other words, my mind can remain clear, my schedule free, my nerves on an even keel. This doesn’t do much for the bank account or the reputation, but it does afford me the luxury of being able to work unhindered. I finish one book without all that anxiety, and start the next one reasonably level-headed. Surely that has to be considered a gift.

In younger years I loved traveling, speaking to audiences large and small, fielding questions, debating critical points and all the rest. I’m a born lecturer and never feel as good as when I’m in front of a group discussing big ideas. And though I wouldn’t shy away from a book tour today, it seems a lot less attractive to me now. I might do it—to get the ideas out there—but more and more I question whether short-term “promotion” is really that crucial to the long-term value of a book. I’m wondering now if it all doesn’t just come down to money. I’m hoping that’s not the case, and that somewhere out on that royal road I might actually touch people, give them hope. But things being as they are, I can never know the answer to that.

A final consideration is that I have a private life that is just that—private. No one cares what I look like, who I go out with, what peccadillos I have. I never need fear having my picture taken, especially when I might not want it to be. It’s a good feeling. I know too much about the private lives of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Kerouac, Mailer, Kesey, even Waller, and what I’ve shown are too often their weak points, their mistakes. In my case, it’s nice to be able to work most days in peace.

So though I might well be seen in these blog posts as lamenting my lack of publication, the truth is, the benefit I’ve received from that very lack has been inestimable. In some ways I guess I really am lucky. Sour grapes? Maybe, but I do think I make a credible point, wouldn’t you say? You can’t put a price on peace of mind. And although life has never been smooth-sailing for me—ever—at least I had no one’s expectations hanging over me and no one looking over my shoulder. I was free to write.

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