I read an article on Slate today on writing and money, and it compels me to respond. The point of the article is the fact that so few writers actually make any money at their writing. Just about all writers are supported by doing something else, like teaching, and yet it seems that just about everybody is confused about what confers worth on a book. Do sales confer worth? Do reviews? Publishing advances? Do the people confer worth? The article doesn’t give many answers, but it raises questions any writer—and many of the people who have spoken to me about my writing and publishing history—will already have thought of.
I decided to be a writer when I was seventeen. My parents wanted me to get a profession (by which they meant a steady job), and they said I could write on the weekend. Being a good kid, I did what they wanted me to do, I got a doctorate, and got married, but I never wrote anything, aside from one book of criticism, published by Michigan. The book was well-received, and now, it is still listed in the bibliographies of works on John Donne. But that was not the kind of writing I wanted to do. After divorcing my wife, in 1984 I left academia, with the plan to write fiction. During twenty years in academia (including 5 years in graduate school), I taught Shakespeare on all university levels.
Later on, I considered my academic time and considered the fact that I had not written any fiction while I was teaching, although I had tried. I compared that time with my time after I started writing, and isolated the difference. Almost every time I focussed on a subject on which to do research, the wheels of academia started grinding. Who should I apply to for a grant? How could my idea be couched so as to appeal to this or that university committee? I already knew that one of the utilities of the academics I had met since entering graduate school was that they could help me focus my research, formulate my results, steer me toward a respectable publisher. By the time I wrote the first sentence, the idea was already dead, killed by the specter of all those committees which must be pleased.
I have always been gay and have known I was gay, but in the fifties when I was in high school and college and then in the sixties when I was in graduate school, it really wasn’t possible for me—coming from the world I came from and from the family I came from—to come out. I knew from the beginning that a book about two men in love had a vanishingly small chance of being published anywhere.
After my divorce and my coming out made my living in Maine impossible (I was the only out gay person in the entire faculty at the University of Maine), I decided to quit my tenured position at the university. I moved to Boston. This time I was going to do it right. I was going to write.
My first thoughts about a job followed the path I had taken the last time I had gone on the job market. I wondered what doctorate I was going to have to obtain to get a job. Don’t all jobs require a doctorate? Then I thought, whoa! I’ve been there, done that. I got a job waiting tables, which seems to have freed me up. I painted houses. I did temp work. (I could type very fast.) And I quickly learned that the people who hired me wanted to promote me, and if I got promoted I wouldn’t be able to write. So I rehearsed my response: No, I won’t take on any responsibility for you. I won’t stay late. I won’t edit the Vice-President’s letters. This is not a career opportunity for me. If you fire me, I can get just as good a job as this later today by going down the street. I told everyone I worked for that this is not what I am really doing.
What I was really doing was writing a novel about the aftermath of an anti-gay murder, and it took me five years.
I finished this novel, called Ceremonies, in 1989. I wrote another, Winter Rain, in 1992, which was followed by a long stretch, and then Race Point Light in 2007 and Adam in the Morning in 2010. I never sold any novel to a major publisher. Ceremonies was published in 2002 by Calamus Books, the LGBTQ bookstore here in Boston. Once Ceremonies was published and I started getting feedback from what I had done, my drive to write was revived and I wrote Race Point Light and Adam in the Morning in quick succession. In 2010, I converted all the books except Winter Rain to ebooks and published them myself. Since August 2016 I have been converting Winter Rain to epub, and it has now joined the others for sale on my website, Adriana Books.
It became clear while I was writing my first novel, Ceremonies, that I was not going to make money on my writing. Several people who know something about publishing told me I should shorten the books (the two longest were about 200,000 words each, the other two were half that), others gave me other requirements that publishers would want. One agent famously said, “This is a wonderful book, but no publisher in New York will publish it.” They didn’t think my books were cross-over books, they didn’t think they would sell well. They were downers.
I was writing gay books. My books are not entertainment, unless you are entertained by Macbeth, or Othello, or King Lear. My books answer the question, How is it for you there? How is it to be gay, late forties, an alcoholic, and to have a former lover dying of AIDS? How is it for you there? This is one I have just published, Winter Rain.
My mother, bless her heart, would have hated all my books. She read the first two chapters of Ceremonies and said, “Next time, write something cheerful.” Well, living the way I have the last 35 years, I haven’t had to ask a single academic committee for approval for what I have done. And I made certain I didn’t have to ask my mother, either. I also haven’t had to ask any publisher whether or not they could sell enough of my books to make it worth their while to publish them. Occasionally I did ask some publisher or other if they’d publish my book, but I figured my job as a writer was to decide what to write about and then to write the book—and to be content if the finished product came near the original idea. My books do that. A sufficient number of people—friends, relatives, a browser in a used-bookstore in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and others—have told me I did what I set out to do. In my life (I am now 77, and I don’t think I could write another novel) I have been very lucky to have found out what I wanted to do with my time on this earth and to do it my way. The justification for my writing is that I have attempted to tell the whole truth about the lives of many many LGBTQ.
Literature about gay people has not often focussed on How it is for you there? Most often what it has left out has been the hard parts of the lives of LGBTQ. That is, it has left out the homophobia. I haven’t, and I think that is what has been different about what I have done. I’m satisfied with where I am now, having completed four novels which have attempted to tell how it really has been for gay people.
One of the great debts we owe Barack Obama, who is giving his Farewell Address in a few minutes, is that he paid us the great compliment of telling us the truth. It is a standard worth living up to. And it doesn’t have anything to do with money.