T.C. McCarthy‘s short fiction has appeared in Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas, in Story Quarterly and in Nature. His debut science fiction novel, Germline (Orbit Books) was released in August 2011.
One of the incredible authors running Night Bazaar asked me to do a guest blog and my first remark was (to myself, in my head) “someone sent an email to the wrong address.” But I checked and it was definitely to me, which was extra odd considering I’m obscure. Google “T.C. McCarthy” and you’ll get me plus a hundred other T.C. McCarthys – including some Cormac McCarthy references and a bunch pointing to a part time computer repairman/part time reporter – because McCarthy is almost as common as Smith, the initials “T.C.” not enough to set one apart. But that’s not what makes me obscure.
The truth? What makes me obscure is the fact that when introduced to authors and fans at the World Science Fiction Convention in Reno, I was asked (repeatedly) “Who are you? What book did you write?” and this is, therefore, my working definition of an obscure author. It took luck for my manuscript to wind up on the right editor’s desk at the right time, and for my book to go to press, and to become an “unknown” in the first place; so I am grateful and this is not a whining session. But the subject seemed worth exploring, in part because there are a lot of references that speak to how one writes, how one finds an agent, how one gets published, and what can be done to market a new book, but I found very little on what to expect, psychologically, after that book takes a ballistic trajectory (i.e., it’s in the stores, out of the author’s hands) into the fog of “who?” The following is what I’ve observed in my 1.5 month career as an author.
Realization number one: I am new. Duh. There are an ass-load of books published every month, so why the hell should anyone pick mine over an established author’s? The first time I saw my book in a store it was located right next to Anne McCaffrey’s and the volume of SFF books alone made me realize that mine was a snowflake in the Himalayas. Not only that, but the racks and displays at the door are reserved for better-selling authors as part of an international plot – to force prospective readers through a maze of Jim Butcher and Neil Gaiman displays before they even get near my row, in the back, at about knee-level where McCaffrey’s fans have arranged her books to completely obscure mine.
Realization number two: instant obscurity is probably more common than instant fame. I’m not going to saying anything else because this should have been obvious to me; instead here’s a quote from Dan Kennedy (I don’t know who he is): “I spent a long time writing in obscurity. You’ll spend a long time writing in obscurity. ”
Realization number three: In a way, obscurity isn’t totally a bad thing. It doesn’t mean my book isn’t selling (it is), and it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t gotten some great reviews (it has), but it – in a way – means that I’m still flying below the radar. And that’s not all bad. For example, if my first book had jumped onto the New York Times best seller list it’s almost a certainty that I would have been a basket case; what if my second book didn’t do as well? What if my second book was completely panned by the same critics? Knowing the way I think and work, these thoughts would have snow-balled until they paralyzed me with an irrational fear that I had somehow lost the ability to write and should move to Montana. Not that there’s anything wrong with Montana; it’s just the place I fantasize running to when things go badly. I think this was what Virginia Wolfe meant when she said:
“While fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample, and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded. Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is free; he alone is truthful, he alone is at peace.”
I don’t know about being “at peace,” but it actually isn’t so bad to be in the shadows, as long as I keep my eye on the goal: to one day get out.
What I failed to nail down: being famous or having famous advocates may help with recognition. Some work goes straight to the best-seller list (in hardcover), despite the fact that it’s the author’s first book – first anything – and I did a little research because I just didn’t get why some debuts took-off like bottle rockets while others (often as well written as the “rockets”) simmered but didn’t boil. I don’t know if I have the answer. But more than a few of these take-off debuts had big-hitting friends – authors, politicians, celebrities and/or academics – calling their book the best thing since pistachio butter, and I’ve been to enough conventions to have seen former big-name-reviewers turn into big-name-authors to recognize that “knowing” people helps get good New York Times ink. I doubt this is the only reason, though, for a book’s success compared to its lesser known counterparts. For example, what if my tastes aren’t in line with the kinds of books that make best sellers, and I can’t call them accurately? And is a good review in the NYT really enough to propel one’s book onto the best seller’s list? This one requires more thought than I can give it for now, so take this as a preliminary observation where I freely admit that (a) correlation might not equal causation and (b) there are likely many more variables that go into propelling a book into best-seller territory than I’ve considered here.
Realization number four: So there must be more to obscurity – things that I missed completely about what it means, why some books “pop” while most languish, and how to make it through. Everything I’ve written in this piece is based on my limited personal experience, and there must be people who have studied the issue in more depth, and some of them might be reading this right now. In fact, previous Night Bazaar posts have touched on the issue; there are also good online articles by Ian Irvine and Cory Doctorow that touch on this subject, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb has some scary remarks regarding sheer luck. But what do you think?