Swapping Stories by Victoria Waddle

To paraphrase bestselling author Jane Smiley, you either love the work or the rewards, and life is a lot easier if you love the work. In her either/or construct, I believe Smiley meant ‘money’ when she said ‘rewards.’ Hers is a truth any author understands because, despite Smiley’s own financial success, there’s not much in the way of monetary rewards in the world of literature.

I’ve always been compelled to write and have found joy in the process. Yet as I make my final edits on a novel, I am questioning the either/or construct of work and rewards as it relates to writers. A delight of having my short stories published in journals has been the thought that, finally, someone will read them. To fabricate a world inhabited by characters of the imagination, to sweat through drafts of refining that world, is to answer to a passion. The ultimate goal of writing fiction is not to be published (with the possibility of its monetary reward)—that’s just the means to the goal. To connect with a reader is the actual reward a writer seeks; to find someone else to inhabit her world and share her passion. Achieved, it makes both life and the work a lot easier.

The problem for the serious writer in making connections with readers is that there are just too many others trying to do the same thing. Full-time promotion of one’s work on social networking sites appears to be a necessity. I’ve noticed when joining any online readers’ group, there’s always a caveat to members: don’t expect to promote your book here unless you’re willing to promote others. I have no issue with promoting the writing of others. I’ve maintained a book review blog for several years; as a teacher librarian, I spend many evening hours reading others’ work. When I feel that a writer has made a connection with me, I buy multiple copies of the book and chat it up to students, hoping to create new fans for the author.

The problem with the culture of author self-promotion is that book groups now appear to be more about trading favors than they are about reading. They remind me of the ‘independent consultants’ that I so often find among friends and colleagues. They invite you to a party—but not really. They want to sell you their products—kitchen gadgets that you’ll never use, fingernail wraps that you won’t bother to apply, candles never to be lit. I think that those who go to such parties are those that expect repayment in purchases when they have their own ‘parties.’ No one actually cares about any of this stuff; they are just trading favors. I imagine that few of the many book trades among authors actually result in novels being enjoyed, worlds mutually inhabited.

Immediately after I joined several reading groups, I began to receive notices from self-published writers that I should buy, read and review their work. Some of these appeared to be from authors who really were trying to connect with the right readers. Other messages were just spam. I also received promises of reviews of my ‘published ebook on Amazon’ which ‘looked like a high quality ebook.’ Lest one wonder why she should pay for such a review, one sender leaves the author to ponder: ‘Do you want a quality ebook reviewer or would you rather settle for a mediocre review from someone who doesn’t even know how to write a book review to begin with?’

I started to wonder how any of us could avoid becoming poet Emily Dickinson’s frog—the dreary “somebody” who publically tells “one’s name–the livelong June–/To an admiring Bog!” However, since I don’t actually have an ebook on Amazon, and the offers of quality reviews were just more spam, the question of a mediocre review didn’t keep me up at night.

No. I slept and dreamt about my real worry: how will I ever make an honest connection with readers? Dreaming, I was among adults who were behaving as exuberant children, jumping through puddles of black ink. I wasn’t interested in joining, but when I looked in the mirror, I saw that I had the telltale sign of my own childhood—a bridge of freckles across my cheeks and nose. Surprised at its reappearance, I wondered how I could cover it up since freckles on a grown woman are considered flaws. Looking closer, I saw that on a microscopic level, every freckle was made up of words—each, in fact, was a story. I was delighted.

I awoke not having any better idea how to avoid the author book-trading game. But I’m hoping to find others who are willing to look closely. And find that they, too, have story written all over them.