Because of late I’ve been all—look how well my book has been doing! award nominations! foreign sales! good reviews! la la la!—I thought I’d write about the less fabby side of being a writer. You know, so you don’t all think my life is nothing but caviar and champagne and flying foxes at dusk. Time to talk about writer humiliations!
There was a book out a while ago, Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame. Part of me wants to read it; the other part cringes at the very idea of its existence: way too close to the bone! The vast majority of working writers never get anywhere near the level of J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown fame. Every writer I know—no matter how well known in their field—can tell stories of doing signings or readings for an audience of no one but the bookshop staff. We’ve all had conversations like the following.
Typical conversation at a party:
- “So you’re a novelist, huh? That’s cool. Will I have heard of you?”
“Well, so far I only have one novel out—”
“Dan Brown has only one novel.”
“Ah, doesn’t Dan Brown have—”
“So, have I heard of you?”
“Well, what kind of novels do you read?”
“Oh, I don’t read novels.”
“Then, no, you won’t have heard of me.”
Conversation with casual friend while checking out some stuff online:
- “So, your book’s published in America? That is so cool.””Thanks. I’m really excited about it.”
“Hey!” says the casual friend, rapidly typing in a new URL. “I can look up the review in the New York Times!”
“No need, there hasn’t been a review in the New York Times.”
Casual friend continues looking me up in the Times.
“Not many books get reviewed in the Times,” I say.
Casual friend looks at me with incomprehension, presses the find button, and stares at the “no hits” result. “I thought you said your book was published in America?”
“It is,” I say, rapidly typing, pointing to the Amazon listing.
“But no review in the New York Times?”
Conversation with the clerk in charge of kid’s books at a Sydney branch of a chain bookstore which has twelve copies of Magic or Madness prominently displayed face out:
- “Hi, I’m Justine Larbalestier the author of Magic or Madness.”Clerk stares at me blankly.
“Uh, I was told you were in charge of kid’s books?”
“That’s right. Do we have your book?”
“Er, yes, quite a few of them. Just over there.” I point.
“Huh. I haven’t read that one. Are you a local author?”
“Yup that’s right. Sydney born and bred. I’ve been away for a bit, so I was just stopping into bookshops to see how it’s going.”
“Oh, I don’t think we’ve sold any of that one. I can check it for you if you like.”
Heart sinks. “No, no, never mind.”
“So, what’s it about?”
I blurt out an over-detailed and incoherent version of the plot.
“Huh? That sounds complicated. What age group is it aimed at?”
“Twelve years old and up. But the book’s not really that complicated, it’s just about a door in a house in Sydney that opens onto a street in New York City.”
“Your book is about a door? That’s unusual.”
“Um, yeah, I guess.” I leave before I can do any more damage. “Thanks so much for your time.”
If anyone else has some writerly humiliations to share, I’d love to hear ’em. And yes, by all means choose the cloak of anonymity.
Update: Tobias Buckell shares one of his here. For the record, I’m not L. Ron Hubbard either.