Of all the things that have changed about America good and bad, one thing certainly hasn’t: if there’s money to be made on something, we will figure out a way to make it. It’s all about seizing the opportunity when you get your fifteen minutes of fame. And lo and behold, one opportunistic man from Ohio has gone forth and seized it, riding his superstardom to a publishing contract. I refer, of course, to Bob the Falafel Seller.
…Sigh. I wish I could keep that up for a whole post, but no–of course I’m referring to Joe the Plumber, that poster child for insta-celebrity who was launched to national prominence on the basis of a simple question to Barack Obama and a whole lot of attention from John McCain. His presence wasn’t quite enough to push McCain over the finish line, but he was certainly a major topic of discussion for the last few weeks of the campaign. And now he’s got his own book coming out, Fighting for the American Dream–currently ranked around 13,000 at Amazon, which is pretty solid for a book which hasn’t even been released yet, despite the difficulty of figuring anything out long term from the sales rank numbers. The reaction from the publishing community to this news has been, predictably, less than positive, and is probably best summed up in Timothy Egan’s New York Times column:
“I have a question for Joe. Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet? I didn’t think so. And I don’t want you writing books. Not when too many good novelists remain unpublished…Joe, a k a Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, was no good as a citizen, having failed to pay his full share of taxes, no good as a plumber, not being fully credentialed, and not even any good as a faux American icon…With a résumé full of failure, he now thinks he can join the profession of Mark Twain, George Orwell and Joan Didion.”
But wait…how do you really feel?
Most of the writing communities I’ve seen have had about the same reaction as (and admiration for, by the way) Egan, and it’s easy to understand why: Joe doesn’t have any particular claim to writing expertise, and this is someone who is going to sell a lot of books (though not as many, I suspect, as Sarah Palin) without having “paid his dues” to do so. (And if you think someone whose name wasn’t Joe, wasn’t a plumber, and wasn’t “undecided” on his election choice as he first claimed isn’t going to be using a ghost writer, I’ve got a bridge somewhere in Alaska to sell you.) So yeah, in one sense it’s pretty frustrating. Writers already have enough trouble not feeling like they’re playing some massive lottery, where the lucky get published and the unlucky get day jobs–neither lucky or unlucky cliche is correct, but there are times when it feels that way–and here some no-name shows up out of the blue ready to join the writers’ club. It’s unfair. Unjust.
As a few dissenting writers in these communities have pointed out, publishing has never been about fairness or justice, though it could probably use more of both. But good writers really do tend to get published in the end, if they can stick it out long enough to do so (not an easy proposition, believe me), and when they do they’re not competing with the “_____ the _____” of the world. Nor would they want to be. How many people wrote books after the first OJ Simpson trial? How many of them do you remember now? Have any of them made it to superstar writer status? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, these insta-celebs show up for a short time and then vanish again, and their overall impact on the industry barely registers. Frankly, I’m far more interested in building a career than having a three month hit, and that means I’m going to need to produce books for longer than the time one winning lottery ticket of fame will get me. Don’t get me wrong: I’d certainly like a nice boost of exposure, and if you happen to own a PR firm looking for some pro bono work, I’d be happy to talk. But waiting for the one shot at stardom, Willy Loman-style, isn’t in the end a smart way to develop one’s brand. Writing good books is, and it’s what I’m trying my best to do.
So I’m not competing against Joe the Plumber, or Bob the Baker or Susie the Salesperson or Julie the Janitor (unless they’re selling a book about a young man with wings called Icarus who falls into an active volcano, in which case we’re going to have to talk). Joe can have his fame and his sales if he likes. I’m working for the long haul here, and I’d humbly suggest that for all of us in the same boat–all of us in the writing profession, not the fame-hunting game–we’d be best served by focusing on that.
Unless, of course, you’d like to call me “Greg the Lord of the Pen” or something. Titles are pretty cool.