Self-pity is not a good marketing tool. Then again, nobody reads my blog anyway (You see what I did there) so…..
In October of 2015 a novel called City of Fire came out. It got spectacular reviews and the young author was lauded as the next new thing even bigger than any of the Jonathans maybe.
More recently Christadora – A Novel was released. It also got spectacular reviews and its young (white male) author is also being celebrated as the greatest thing to happen to literature since Bob Dylan.
Both of these masterpieces are set in the New York’s East Village. City on Fire takes place in the pregentrified 1970s, and culminates in a shooting and the blackout of 1977. It deals with the punks, anarchists, runaways, junkies and other assorted East Village types. Christadora is set a bit later, that period of time when the East Village started to become gentrified and was made safe for suburbanites and the rich, even while a good number of its native population was dying of AIDS. It’s told from multiple points of view, and touches on the Tompkins Square Park riots.
All this I know from reviews of the works. I’ll never read them. I couldn’t bear to. Why you ask? (You don’t come here often, do you?) You see in 2010, to little fanfare, my novel Loisaida – A New York Story was released to the public. Here’s the blurb:
“The core of this gritty, only in New York-story was inspired by realevents – a beautiful, aspiring dancer slain. The psychotic roommate has confessed, but a dilettante actor-turned-journalist thinks there’s more
to it and investigates. Soon one of his sources mentions he might have better luck gaining trust if he’d shoot dope.
Welcome to New York’s East Village, aka Loisaida, circa 1988. Meet your neighbors – artists, dreamers, hustlers, devil worshipers, anarchists, junkies and yuppies – all competing for breathing space in a city without air. It’s the era of greed, when the poor are objects of scorn not sympathy, and the gentrifiers view themselves as urban pioneers. This is a story about sex and drugs and real estate. This is a story about a murder…”
Not only does Loisaida take place in the East Village, like both of those respectable novels, but it takes place in around the same period as Christadora, and like Christadora it is also told by multiple narrators. Christadora involves the tenants of a particular building, the (real life but fictionalized) Christadora, a one time settlement house that was turned into a fancy condominium in the late 1980s. The Christadora (the building, not the novel) is also referenced in Loisaida, though it’s given a fictional name, and a much less prominent role. Both Christadora – A Novel and Loisaida feature the Tompkins Square Park police riots. City on Fire, which is set years before those events, has a shooting. I don’t know whether or not anybody dies in it. Loisaida, as explained in the blurb, has a murder – a strangulation probably, though there wasn’t enough left of the body for an autopsy.
Here are things I am not claiming: I am not claiming that the authors of either of these illustrious works stole from Loisaida. I am not claiming they read it. It would be doubtful, as only several thousand copies have been sold to date, almost all of them in the Kindle format, and we all know that serious readers (other than Toni Morrison) don’t even read e-books. I realize some readers of my snarky television writing might be wondering if I am being sarcastic when I use the word “not.” I am not! Though given my propensity, I’ll admit it may be difficult to tell.
I am also not claiming that Loisaida is as good as those other novels, in the ballpark, or even the same game. Not having read them, that would be insane. Besides I’m not a reviewer for The New Yorker or The New York Times, so who am I to say? (Okay. That last sentence was sarcasm: We are all entitled to have opinions about the merits or lack thereof of books even if we are wrong. Reviewers for fancy-shmancy publications are just people with opinions, and sometimes the same agent or publisher. )
So what accounts for Loisaida’s failure to climb to bestsellerdom? The obvious answer would be the simplest one. (Think how the phrase, “He’s not that into you,” explained so much.) Loisaida is not as compelling as those other books. That might make sense if readers had had a chance to make that judgement, but it never had a chance. It was never, as Lisa Simpson once put it, “real-published.” I created my own little imprint, and took advantage of the digital revolution. I know, that probably just proves that it couldn’t have been good in the first place. Given that publishers are out to make money, never take bad bets, and are never wrong, it must not have much commercial appeal (despite the two similarly themed recent bestsellers, and yeah that IS sarcasm.)
Strangely, however, there are a few people other than myself to whom I am not related who don’t think Loisaida is terrible. There are some positive reviews on (god forgive me) Amazon. Of course, there are only 20 compared to the hundreds for the previously mentioned real-published books. And I am well aware that most people put as much stock in Amazon reviews as they do in Donald Trump’s denials. (Believe me, I don’t have 20 friends, and I live in New York where the friends I have won’t read my book because they are “too busy reading published books.” And I’ve learned never to talk about my books in front of friends, relatives, or even acquaintances lest they get that look of pity in their eyes and try to change the subject.) But occasionally during those dark nights of the soul (or what we call Sunday thru Monday nights in my house) I will read those Amazon reviews and they will give me strength even though I understand that reviews are not for writers, and I would never go after anyone for writing a terrible review of one of my books, even if the review made me cry, so please don’t swoop down on me like crows in a Hitchcock film. Here are some excerpts, for anyone annoyed by the links:
“Stein has created such multifaceted characters that even as you hate them, you root for them, against your better judgment. This book is a masterpiece in forcing the reader to not only accept, but understand, the grey areas in life. Amazing.”
“The Jimmy Breslin comparisons in other reviews are a good call, except I like Stein better. Her voice is fresher and a little hard to characterize. Tough but not hard boiled, punkish but not punk. Her style is fast-paced and contemporary but she’s not reinventing the literary form. She knows the rules and she abides by them. Just not the same way everyone else does.”
“If Loisaida does not become at least a cult classic, there’s something wrong somewhere.”
“There was a vibrancy to the characters in this novel that, in my opinion, [Hubert] Selby never quite matches… It is truly, truly stunning.”
I know none of this is going to start a stamped of sales. Self-publishing may have brought us Wool, A Naked Singularity, and The Martian, but it also (sort of) brought us Fifty Shades and The Greek Seaman (Look it up. I won’t link to that fiasco.) Loisaida has been out for six years. If someone was going to discover it, they would’ve already. I get that.
I just needed to vent. And I’m sorry if you are a friend or fan of one of the authors of the two works sited at the start of the post, and you think despite my protests that I am somehow putting them down by daring in any way shape or form to compare my lowly work to theirs (despite my protests that that is NOT what I am doing, and I linked to their books, and it’s not like I’m expecting them to return the favor). I understand you may want to tell me how brilliant they are, and how hard they have worked. I don’t doubt it. I’ve worked hard too. But I do occasionally ask myself (out loud and even on the web) “Why not me?”
Which I know is already too much of a presumption for some people, who might want to check why they get so angry at others who ask that question. So if your response is “Here is another person who thinks she was entitled to a piece of pie she didn’t get. Boo-hoo! First world problems. Yadda yadda….” and you’re getting ready to say terrible things, please be aware that there is nothing you can say to me that is any worse than what the voices in my head scream 24/7, and if you felt that reading my personal confession was a waste of your time, I sincerely apologize, and will give you a full refund.
In case you are doubting whether or not I even had any business writing a novel: Yes, yes I did. Went to school for it and everything.
If you are still exasperated, and wondering: “Did she even try to get it published the real way?” because you have that much of a bug up your butt about what a total stranger writes on her blog, I have an answer for that too:
Yes, I did though the version I was mostly sending out back in the late 1990s was flawed, particularly in its depiction of one of the characters. When you’re writing multiple-narrators, they don’t all have to be reliable, but they do have to be believable, and let’s just say I was having trouble with her accent. The two or three agents who pointed out the difficulty never said, “Why don’t you fix that and I’ll look at it again.” Perhaps I should have fixed it back then and resent it anyway. That’s on me. It doesn’t take much discouragement to discourage me, and 80 agent rejections was enough. In 2007, I got inspired, and made the changes I should have. I sent it to a few agents and small publishers, but even though the product was new and improved, the response was even colder. I could hardly get one to ask for a full manuscript.
In 2008ish, I found an online community of writers and readers and got more critique. I had thought the book was in good shape, but I realized it still needed more polishing. Many of the writers in that now defunct site were Brits, including the brilliant Dan Holloway who went on to form The Year Zero Collective (which still exists as an abandoned website), and Larry Harrison who self-published his extraordinary novel, Glimpses of a Floating World. When I saw writers like Dan and Larry beginning to experiment with self-publishing, I saw a world of possibilities.
I don’t write for the money (though money would be nice), but nobody writes fiction for themselves. If you aren’t trying to connect with readers, what else is there? What would be the point of even writing something down if nobody was going to see it, ever? And people do read my “work.” Self-publishing has given me that, at least – an audience, albeit a small one.
So no regrets, but anyone who says there isn’t still a stigma attached to self-publishing, isn’t talking about anything other than romance novels and erotica, and probably doesn’t live in the traditional publishing capital of the universe.
Sometimes there is so much doubt, and even shame, knowing that to most people a writer who publishes him or herself is a dilettente at best, simply deluded at worst, or pathetic in the middle. There are those who feel that by selling my wears cheap on Amazon I am somehow an impostor, trying to cut ahead on a line even though I don’t have a legitimate ticket. There are still readers out there who don’t understand there’s a difference between a vanity press (paying someone to publish you) and publishing yourself (something that might or might not involve expenses, such as editing, formatting, cover art, etc., but which the author controls). I’ve heard what a loser I must be from that group too, plus “vain” and a “narcissist.” That their remarks are coming out of a lack of awareness, doesn’t make them sting any less. (And no, this isn’t just stuff crap someone’s thrown at me online. I’ve got it in person from some surprising sources.)
I’m not trying to convince anyone that self-publishing is either good or bad for fiction or that it has any influence at all. That was so 2011! But I am maybe trying to assert (even if I’m the only one reading this post) that I really am a writer, and that commercial failure isn’t the same as total failure. Anyone who reads Loisaida will at least have to acknowledge the work that went into it, even if they don’t think it’s very good. I might not be a good writer, but at least I am not a dilettante (deluded or pathetic is, however, a matter of opinion).
I guess what I’m trying to do is convince myself that I am entitled to feel bad – not about other people’s success – but about my lack of it. (This shouldn’t be debatable. We all entitled to feel what we feel, but too many people tell us otherwise.) Of course these particular books are a focal point for me. That’s not a slam on anyone else.
Anyway, I put it out there, which means that anyone has the right to judge, and any troll on the internet has the write to publish their response. So judge me all you want. I only ask that if you are going to judge Loisaida, please at least read it first.