Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lost Masterworks

Having recently finished a rather interesting text for another class, titled Lost Masterworks of Young Adult Literature (ed. By Connie S. Zitlow) I find many contemplative thoughts springing to my mind. The collection featured several essays by writers, teachers, critics, librarians and other literary minded ilk spotlighting works that have either gone out of print, been severely over looked by the literary community, or have miraculously resurfaced. In other words it covered a wide range of topics concerning a genre of literature oh so dear to my heart. Many of the books I have not heard of, for they went out of print before I entered the realm of young adult fiction, others I have read and was shocked to learn they were no longer in print or were in danger of meeting that big paper shredder in the sky. For instance, having read The Changeover, I personally sought out Margaret Mahy’s other works, only to find out her Catalogue of the Universe is now out of print. I also had no idea Sue Townsend’s Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Age 13 ¾ was such a neglected text, since it was one of my personal favorites growing up. However, the most illuminating essay was the very last one, by Margie G. Lee, who penned her thoughts of her first book going out of print.

It is eerie how much her thoughts echo my own even now. She spoke of writing as an author’s vain attempts to escape mortality, how seeing one’s book go out of print was almost like having a family member die. In my early dreams of becoming an author, I had very much the same thoughts, that creating a book, getting published, was a secret ticket to immortality all writers shared. I could be the next Charles Dickens, whose words have lived well beyond his life span.

Truth and disillusionment really didn’t hit till college. I, myself, was a novelty in a small town high school, few people had such grand ambitions, or were willing to stick with them come hell or high water. I wasn’t completely under the veil of cotton candy clouds and pink sugar trails. I understood the livelihood of a writer was difficult, making a living as a writer was extremely rare, and while you hear about the success stories, there are plenty of relatively successful writers who scrape a living in between two jobs and near starvation. I expected to slave over my craft, and persevere through the ugly stack of rejection letters. But none of that mattered, because if I achieved the ultimate prize, if I got published, then I had achieved my slice of immortality, I would live ‘forever’ through my great works.

Terms like “out of print” never even crossed my mind. Really it should have. Did I really think the century Dickens wrote his masterworks produced no other writers? It is staggering to think how many writers have already slipped into obscurity. Dickens is one of the lucky ones, the chosen popular few. How few writers will escape my generation intact? Will they escape based on their merits or perhaps, their girth? Will a writer like James Patterson, who is now nothing more than a name used to sell books by lesser known authors, be someone who is remembered a century from now? Or will J.K. Rowling be one of the historical greats? Harry Potter shall be the new Oliver Twist. Will something I write find enough of a foothold, enough of a fan base, enough prestige to land in the annuls of the literary elite that perhaps I will steal a small slice of immortality after all? Perhaps. Or maybe it will find a few more centuries of readers before it slips into oblivion.

Margie G. Lee also spoke of the great lengths she went to trying to find a new publisher for her first book, going so far as to put the completion of her new work on hold in her quest to breath life back into a dead novel. Truthfully I know in her shoes I would do the same thing. I would weather hell and high water to find a way. Her essay also proved something. Out of Print books have a very nasty and inaccurate stigma to them. Lee’s book was not put out of print because of slumping sales or bad press, but rather by a common business practice; when her publishing house was bought out by a bigger house, they cut the list of books the house had in print, Lee’s included. This is a business practice that happens fairly often, not that any one told Lee this. Still in her search to find another publisher, she found door after door essentially slammed in her face because her book had the out of print stigma hovering over it. “It is out of print therefore it must have sucked”. Considering how fast books flash in and out of stores these days I wonder how many of them are actually labeled with this devastating stigma or how many were just warehoused to make room for the new junk or best sellers. For example I usually find an entire bookcase dedicated to Stephanie Meyer, whose Twilight series is the soap opera of my generation. Heaven help me if I want to find Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series or any of Diana Wynne Jones’s beautifully written young adult novels. I know these books are not out of print, and sometimes I do find them, when they are not overshadowed by the EdwardBellaJacob triangle of love.

But these books are becoming harder and harder for me to find, a fact that depresses me, these are my favorite authors, they have written some of the most meaningful books of my life. Will I see them go out of print in my life time? Very probable. On the other hand, there is always that glimmer of a possibility my books find publication. If that is the case, I know where to point a finger for my readers. You like my stuff, well then meet my predecessors. In fact it would be the highlight of my literary career if a critic ever roped my work into the same league as Jones or Pierce.

While Margie G. Lee’s words are illuminating in their honesty, and reveal a side to the publishing world I actively try to ignore as a writer and a book lover, I still find gleaming of hope in her words. Her story is one of success. While her first book did go out of print, she eventually found the publisher who helped pump life back into it. A publisher who was in fact the same one who rejected the book when she first sought to get it published decades earlier, a fact which really says rejection doesn’t always mean rejected forever.

1 comment:

Karen Romano Young said...

Oh, good Lord. I just wrote an endless response to this which Blogspot obliterated. Must move on with the day, but know that this evoked a great deal of response on an emotional and professional level!

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