Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Percival Everett gets his props

Anybody who knows me (Martha) knows how much I love Percival Everett's novel Erasure. It is a brilliant examination of just how black pathology has been marketed and merchandised by larger industries--and sometimes by ourselves. It shoots directly at at Sapphire's Push (now back in the news because of Precious, the upcoming movie based on the novel) and it scores--big time. It's also hilarious.

I haven't yet read Everett's latest I Am Not Sidney Poitier --out the end of this month--but it's getting great initial word of mouth. And if you haven't read this guy--make a point of it. When you talk about ambitious fiction by a contemporary African-American writer, he's one you should mention. Let's hope this book is his breakout.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Guest Essay: Clifford Thompson on Authors Doing it For Themselves

Friend of Ringshout Cliff Thompson has recently self-published his first novel Signifying Nothing. It's both thoughtful and original--and by no means the first novel he's written. He's been working hard and skillfully at fiction writing for a long time and has had short stories and nonfiction published in numerous fine magazines and journals. But no major publisher would take this book. That was rough--until he got tough. I asked him to share some of his thoughts on the long and sometimes difficult road to self-publishing and he sent me this. In this rapidly changing literary environment, I think what he raises here is something we all need to think about. We'd love to know your thoughts.

In early 2005 I was lucky enough to be able to take a four-month, unpaid leave from my day job. My aim was to finish my novel, which I’d been writing until then at an average rate of a paragraph a day. A father of two, I have a very supportive spouse, or my little adventure would not have been possible. I was also lucky in that the four months went well. I immersed myself in my characters and in the constructing of the story, and I completed the manuscript. Signifying Nothing, as the novel is titled, follows what happens when Lester Hobbs, a developmentally disabled man who has not spoken a word in his nineteen years, begins shouting rhymed observations and memories – raps – of life with his family. The book is really about the family’s other members, who are forced to make life adjustments because of Lester, before and after he begins to rap.
It was when I tried to sell my novel that my luck ran out. I queried fifty literary agents, sending each a synopsis and the first page or so of the book. A handful asked to see the whole novel; of those, a couple thought it was “obviously a quality manuscript” (to quote one) but didn’t think they could sell it in the current publishing climate. I also made, or tried to make, direct contact with editors and publishers – twenty-eight in all. Some didn’t respond at all. One editor just didn’t seem to get what I was doing. A couple of others, like the agents, thought the book was very good but couldn’t see getting it past their marketing departments and didn’t feel up to trying. Still others liked it okay but offered criticism, which might have been helpful, if their comments hadn’t contradicted each other.
After all that, I had what I felt was a fine novel, and . . . well, not much else, except a decision to make. I could just forget the whole thing. I could go on spending $30 a pop to have the book copied and sent to this agent or that editor, hoping that one day, maybe, a publisher would call – and that I wouldn’t be too old and deaf to answer the phone. (I was already in my mid-forties – not old, but not young.) Or, instead of trying to change the publishing world’s collective “No” to a “Yes,” I could say “Yes” to myself. In other words, I could self-publish.
It is not always easy to decide that you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong. (Part of what makes it hard is the knowledge that mental institutions are full of people who have arrived at the very same decision.) But in the end you either believe in what you’re doing or you don’t. I did, and to prove it, I handed $600 to the print-on-demand company iUniverse. Before I knew it, Signifying Nothing was available.

Seth Meyers once said about landing a spot on Saturday Night Live that it’s foolish to view it as a culmination; rather, it’s the start of a lot of work. In a way, and on a much humbler level, the same is true of self-publishing a novel. Signifying Nothing now had a cover, which signified – what? If it was to mean anything, I had to get very busy to put the word out. So far, I have emailed everyone in my address book; started a Facebook account and tried to “friend” everyone I’ve ever said “hello” to in my life; made sure my book gets mentioned in the contributors’ notes for freelance articles I’m publishing; contacted my college alumni magazine; sought out readings; tried to get the book mentioned on literary and other blogs; and, most ambitious of all, started a blog of my own.

Part of the work for a self-published author, too, is readying yourself for the responses you get. Some people you tell about your project will offer a heartfelt, “Hey, that’s great!” Others will give you a blank look, or, worse, a smile oozing with pity or embarrassment. I find it helpful to remember that the content and value of the book do not change with each person’s reaction to hearing about it. And it is the book itself that matters.
Besides: the stigma attached to self-publishing, while not dead, is showing signs of grave illness. Part of it, I think, is that the Internet has blurred the distinction between traditional publishing and the do-it-yourself kind. In the old days, self-published authors (a few of whom went on to success) sold their books out of the trunks of their cars; but with the availability of print-on-demand books through the Internet, a reader purchases my novel the same way she might buy The Da Vinci Code. Gradually, the question becomes not “Did he publish it himself?” but “Is it good?”

I also feel that for black authors, self-publishing fits rather neatly into a tradition. African-Americans as a group are the original do-it-yourself people, making a way where none existed -- from the Underground Railroad, to the invention of jazz (and just about every other kind of American music), to the careers of self-taught and self-styled artists such as Melvin van Peebles, to one career path that led from community organizing to the White House. And until mainstream publishers begin taking more chances on what readers might like – a development that seems to be a ways off – self-publishing may come to seem a more and more viable option, a way for new and different works to make it into the light.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Final panel post--I promise

So if you couldn't make it through the video, here's a little sum-up of the panel that I wrote for the website of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund The Defenders Online, edited by the estimable Stacey Patton. That big, honkin' picture of me? Didn't mean to bogart. That was the art director's call--I sent 'em a few things, not all of which featured me.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Colson makes the cover

A rare event: A black American novelist on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. It happened in 2007 to Michael Thomas. And this week, to Colson Whitehead in a laudatory, thoughtful review by Toure of his newest novel Sag Harbor.

Whitehead's work, in particular, seems to bring out the philosophical in those who write about it, that which considers what it means to be a "black writer," perhaps because of his sturdy unwillingness to be pigeonholed, to apologize and because of his intellectualism. Sag Harbor is being hailed as his most emotional, "sentimental" book. You can see Whitehead talk about the book himself here.

We at Ringshout are also interested in Toure's call for more "post-black" fiction. Can it only be written by folks under 40 (a note from Martha Southgate: as a 48-year-old novelist, I like to think the answer is no)? What does it mean? Do we need to define it? Should we quit worrying about all this and simply write what we like? Thoughts are welcome.

Friday, May 1, 2009

And finally, James Hannaham

Here's James Hannaham speaking--sorry you can't see him. He's a real cutie. But what he has to say is well worth listening to. His new novel God Says No is just coming into stores--it's well worth reading. Again, Emily Bernard and Stanley Crouch precede this post.

Stanley Crouch speaks on Obama

Here's what Stanley Crouch had to say at our panel (Emily Bernard is in the post below this one, James Hannaham will be in the one above).

Day 102: After the Panel

Our panel on Wednesday night was a raging success. About 60 or 65 people were in attendance to hear provocative, innovative, interesting discussion about black writing in the age of Obama, Obama as symbol, Obama as incredibly disciplined guy, Obama as name--all Obama all the time. The event lasted more than an hour so we can't post it as a whole (don't have that streaming capacity yet) But we have posted each of the panelists short presentations both here and on YouTube. (forgive the quality--but hey, at least you can hear it!) We hope to receive audio of the entire event soon and will share that with you as soon as we can. But for now, you can start with Emily Bernard's thoughtful comments about Obama as symbol. And don't forget, you can read our work (on a host of issues) in Best African-American Essays 2009