Books Are Not Products, They Are Bridges: Challenging Linear Ideas of Success in Literary Publishing
by Janice Lee
I want to talk about the struggle of returning home.
That is, I want to talk about the challenges I faced in looking for a publisher for my new novel, Imagine a Death, and how this process forced me to examine my own beliefs and wounds around linear ideas of success and to begin to work towards healing and freedom from a limited imagination.
As a female writer of color working in hybrid forms and across genres, I have always had an intimate relationship with small press publishing. As an editor and small press publisher myself, I have always recognized the importance of community organizing and radical alternatives to the conglomerate machine of mainstream publishing. But also, as the daughter of Korean immigrants, I have had ingrained in me a particular work ethic that is intertwined with both an inherent sense of self-worth and survival.
As a “mid-career author” in my thirties and the author of 5 books, many of my writer friends, with the best of intentions, encouraged me to submit Imagine a Death to their agents, editors at big publishing houses, and much-admired independent presses. What I heard from these friends was: “This next book is going to be your breakout.” “This one’s the big one.” “It’s definitely time to move up and go with someone bigger.” “You earned it.” “You deserve it.” “It’s time.”
This novel wasn’t like anything I had written before: a depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, the novel examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us. Much of my own personal trauma was wrapped up in this book. In fact, it had felt like it had taken the entirety of my body, my heart, and my life experience to write. Because of how much the book meant to me, I wanted to believe that what my friends were telling me was true. I did deserve it. It was time.
So I submitted to numerous agents and publishers (both big houses and large indies) that claimed they were interested in innovative or experimental work. Many indicated that they were especially interested in work by women writers of color. I received many form rejections. Many did not respond at all, even after I followed up. And many of the more substantial responses included versions of the following language:
“I loved the premise of this novel but found it to be too philosophical and lyrical.”
“I’m afraid the writing is a bit too esoteric for my taste.”
“This is a stunning work, and this is not a judgment on your talent or the merit of the work, but we wouldn’t know how to market something like this.”
“We admire the work you do in the literary community but regret that this isn’t the book for us.”
My immediate reactions after receiving these notes, because I am human and capable of being wounded, included: “Cowards.” “You don’t know how to market something like this? Isn’t that your job?” “Fuck you. What good is being a literary citizen if no one will publish my book.”
No one had feedback about the shape of the manuscript, that is, no one indicated that it needed work or revision. In fact, many of the responses were complimentary and commented on how tight and polished the writing was. They simply didn’t think it was the type of book that they could sell, that it wasn’t the right aesthetic for them, or that it wasn’t what they were looking for at this time.
I wasn’t surprised by the rejections, but I was still disappointed and hurt. As much as I believed that I didn’t need to be validated by external forces to know that my writing was “good” or “important,” or to secure the commendations of “the industry” in order to feel like a legitimate writer, it felt impossible to completely shed these ideas. Of course I wanted to be recognized and validated. Of course I silently compared myself to other writers who were getting big book deals, making TV appearances, and had thousands of followers on Twitter. Of course I wanted that too. I deserved that too. This is what I believed, and kept hidden from myself.
But my current healing practice asks me to look for those holes I am trying to fill inside of myself. And so I knew that the fulfillment of any of those desires would never fill the hole I sought to close up because the hole itself was an illusion. It could never be filled. I had to accept that I was already whole without any of those things, and not because of those things. I had to find a belonging in myself that no one else could give me. This is the process of healing from trauma. The trauma of a life of constantly not being good enough, of being Asian-American, of being forced into the identity of “overachiever” just to be seen and accepted, of relying so much on external validation. As a member of what is deemed “the model minority,” it seemed unimaginable to shed the things that had made it possible for me to even get where I was now. The “success” I had encountered so far in my literary career had been possible because, like a good girl, I had followed the rules.
“In my experience, trauma is the creation of a context that does not privilege my deepest desire to return home and inhabit my own agency and body, but instead triggers disembodiment and a loss of awareness of the body and its experiences. Thus, trauma becomes a cyclical experience of continuous unfolding, of continuous movement through places without consent as it perpetuates terror, despair, hopelessness, and disconnection. It is a voyage that never docks at any port, but is suspended, unexamined. When I am feeling my own trauma, I find that I am also seeking some way to find ground, an anchor.”
– Lama Rod Owens
In a shamanic healer’s training class, we learned how to perform an energetic extraction, how to remove the energetic pattern of a belief or wound that has calcified in the body’s energetic field, and has become an impediment to the soul’s liberation. The wound that I uncovered was around my relationship to the linear idea of success. A couple of months weeks before the class, I had been discussing my situation with a good friend and poet. She asked me, “Well if you could pick any small press, who is the most ideal home for your novel?” I answered, with very little hesitation, “The Operating System.” I had long admired The OS and how it actively sought to dismantle the hierarchical structure of publishing, how open it was about matching politics with practice, and its approach to decentralized community organization. The press’s founder, Elæ (Lynne DeSilva-Johnson), recently commented on Facebook about the importance of moving away from prizes “as a validating mechanism and to figure out a way to begin to shift our perception and relationship to worth away from this form of external / top-down legitimizing.” I excitedly submitted my manuscript, and was ecstatic to receive an acceptance. Upon signing the contract, I promptly signed into Submittable to withdraw my manuscript from the few places it was still pending. So, while sitting in the small carpeted room with fellow women healers, I was a bit taken aback to realize that I was still dealing with this wound, that I was still coming to terms with publishing my novel with a “small press” and wanted to believe that I wasn’t simply “settling” because no one better would accept me. These wounds ran deep—they still do—and I was forced to reconcile these competing beliefs in me, that though I believed in the importance of radical alternatives to mainstream publishing, there was still a part of me that longed for a piece of that very shiny symbol of success. I had to accept these truths for myself, to heal from these wounds, and come to know that this had always existed inside of me, I had just needed to uncover it underneath a lifetime of conditioning, a lifetime of living with this deeply held belief that if I if I didn’t achieve the right kind of success, I didn’t have legitimacy as a writer. That if I wasn’t validated by others, I didn’t have legitimacy as a human being.
“Imagining the human since the rise of capitalism entangles us with ideas of progress and with the spread of techniques of alienation that turn both humans and other beings into resources.”
– Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
In the healer’s training, when my partner “removed” the calcification from my body that represented my linear idea of success, I was also accepting a radical way of being, of overcoming my own subtle and nuanced workings of internalized self-worth, of imagining a different way of being in the world beyond my anger, woundedness, despair, or value. I had to choose to be free, beyond the causes and conditions that I had been complacent to, and to settle into the practice of stretching my imagination into a place that perhaps I was never meant to see, or at least, that I was never able to glimpse until now.
After the extraction, I went into the other room to check my email on my phone, and saw that I had received a rejection from Coffee House Press. I had apparently forgotten to withdraw my manuscript from consideration there, and had not completely let go of the possibility of “something better.” A hidden part of me had secretly held onto that fantasy and hope, and so this final rejection also was a way of communicating to myself that I had finally let go, not of hope or of the idea of something better, but in the illusion of success itself, that, through vulnerability and putting aside my ego, I didn’t have to replicate the system, that I didn’t have to play the game of “being good enough,” and that as an author, I had the power of disrupting the publishing model, of really placing my radical beliefs and politics in tandem with my actual publishing practice.
“I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I’m trying to do is figure out how to put a pig on the tracks.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin
“It is not enough to know we want freedom. We have to practice it.”
– Jasmine Syedullah
How would things be different if we thought of books, not as products or commodities, but as bridges? If instead of agonizing about the limits of the self begins and ends, we moved toward an internal language for shared humanity and interconnectedness? If instead of possession and ownership and separation, we moved towards intimacy, forgiveness, and emancipation?
The difficulty arises in attempting to contradict what social media and a lifetime of indoctrination in the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has taught us. The inquiry that is necessary is in probing where we, as individuals, are also complacent and participate in the system we intellectually seek to work against. It is easy to say one thing, and then, because of ego (which isn’t a sign of weakness, but of wounding), participate in something that contradicts what we hold as truth. It is difficult to embody radical politics in this way. It is difficult to be vulnerable. It is difficult to see how we are restrained by our own internalized oppression, and then, to blame the systems we participate in when we don’t feel supported, understood, heard, seen.
“Without inner change, there can be no outer change, without collective change, no change matters.”
– Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams
How can we all heal from the trauma of a publishing industry that is just another extension of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? How might we move beyond the myths of meritocracy and the capitalist paradigms where legitimacy and success are so closely linked, casting so many of us as undeserving, mediocre, invisible? Publishing “success” often looks like the escape we are looking for, especially when we have trained our entire lives to survive in this system. Everything has taught us that this is how we survive and get ahead, to jump on the train and go along with it, along with everyone else, and so when we get left behind, we feel shame and humiliation, we think that we must have done something wrong, that perhaps someone forgot about us or made a mistake. There has to be another way. We have to be more conscious of the ways in which we have all internalized publishing supremacy, the harm of unconsciously assigning more worth to books or authors that have had more commercial success, of using language that feeds the idea of linear progress and hierarchy.
We need to collectively imagine a framework outside of the one where humans are only identified through progress and capacity.
“If something is being destroyed, is it perhaps forward movement itself?”
– Judith Butler
“Love is the wish for myself and others to be happy. Love transcends our need to control the recipient of love. I love not because I need something in return. I love not because I want to be loved back, but because I see and understand love as being an expression of the spaciousness I experience when I am challenging my egoic fixation by thinking about the welfare of others. I go where I am loved. I go where I am allowed to express love. In loving, I have no expectations.”
– Lama Rod Owens
This is the kind of love that I wish to perpetuate for myself and for my writing , a love without expectations, without the control of others.
If I want to heal, if I truly seek freedom, it means that I have to free myself from the capitalist system of validation that I have been trained all of my life to participate in.
“I have arrived, I am home,” the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us. The home I am returning to isn’t any physical abode in the physical landscape of capitalist America, nor is it an abstract “out there” where I might encounter some epiphany. Home isn’t even in the writing itself or the pages of the book I wrote. Home is within myself, in my own coming to my fullness. Home is right here. It always has been. I just have to keep remembering how to get there.
Imagine a Death is forthcoming from The Operating System in 2021.
* Special thanks to Rosemary Beam & Rising Fire, Leni Zumas, Marie Lo, Eddy Alvarez Jr., Lidia Yuknavitch, & Elæ (Lynne DeSilva-Johnson), without whom this piece would not be possible.
Janice Lee is a Korean-American writer, editor, publisher, and shamanic healer. She is the author of 4 books of fiction: KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), Imagine a Death (The Operating System, 2021), and 2 books of creative nonfiction: Reconsolidation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2015) and The Sky Isn’t Blue (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016). She writes about interspecies communication, plants & personhood, the filmic long take, slowness, the apocalypse, architectural spaces, plant & animal medicine, inherited trauma, and the concept of han in Korean culture, and asks the question, how do we hold space open while maintaining intimacy? She combines shamanic and energetic healing with plant & animal medicine and teaches workshops on inherited trauma, healing, and writing. She is Founder & Executive Editor of Entropy, Co-Publisher at Civil Coping Mechanisms, Contributing Editor at Fanzine, and Co-Founder of The Accomplices LLC. She currently lives in Portland, OR where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Portland State University. She can be found online at http://janicel.com.
Image source: Bradford Van Arnum