I got a request the other day for an interview from a newspaper in Montenegro, a country which—I’m ashamed to say–I would struggle to find on a map. More surprising still than their location was that they wanted to talk to me about The Mask of Atreus, a novel which came out over 6 years ago in the states, and is now pretty hard to find except on e-readers.
The interview got me thinking about the curious persistence of published books, the way they hang around long after things seem to have moved on. They pop up in new countries and new markets, fresh and exciting, oblivious to the fact that their moment in the lime light is supposed to be over. They crop up in second hand book stores, and beach front exchanges, dog-eared and battered, but still legible, still able to do whatever it was they did first for all their wear and tear.
No, this won’t be a hymn to paper, or a Cassandra wail about e-books and the State of the Industry. It’s just a reminder of one of the things that makes books (in whatever form) worth producing.
As a writer I’m acutely aware of my publishing history, how well books have sold, and what I’m trying to steer into the spotlight. But I know as a reader that what authors are currently doing (like what music a band is now producing) isn’t necessarily uppermost in the minds of those who have read and enjoyed my stuff in the past. From time to time I get e-mail from readers about books published years ago, and I sometimes have to fight the slight disappointment that they aren’t writing to enthuse about what I’ve just released. This is, I think, a perfectly normal response on my part: it’s natural that I’m most enthusiastic about the book I just wrote because that’s the one I just poured my self into. But as a reader I know that I don’t always read an author in any coherent order, though I will often start in their back list (if only because those books—if still available—are usually cheaper than the brand honking new hard cover).
It’s all very Shakespearean, this fascination with the timelessness of print, and a I don’t want to oversell it, particularly for a writer like me who isn’t really in the business of peddling eternal verities to be inscribed on the chapel wall. My books are products, and as such they are subject to the whims and trends of the market. For a moment they seem to glitter, but then the light shifts, and readers move on. That’s the nature of the beast, and most of us just hope to get enough time in the light to connect with an audience and maybe make a little money in the process. But there is something remarkable about the way our published work lingers, and that however much it might date, however harder it might be to find, it still has the power to touch, to stimulate, to move when the right person stumbles upon it.
And that’s only part of it. There are books I read years ago, decades even, which are still a part of me in ways their authors cannot possibly know. That I read their work as an undergraduate, say, does not show up in their Book Scan numbers for this week, or in any other record of what is currently happening with their work. Those books, they might think, according to the standards of the industry, are dead. But I—the reader who loved them–live on, and I carry with me their thoughts, their characters, or maybe just a snippet of a phrase; however fragmentary these things I have gleaned from my reading–however long ago it was–have become bound up with who I am and who I will be.
So little truly lasts.
It’s nice that the words we put down with such care might yet outlive us at least in the minds of others. This is a good thing to remember. Lately a friend referred to an episode in one of my books, not an especially significant episode, but one which amused him, one from which he could even quote a few phrases. The fact that he recalled it at all, that it had stayed with him, filled me with a rush of confused and grateful joy. This sense of connection, of giving readers something which stays with them is, after all, why writers write.
Last quarter, I made about a hundred bucks in royalties from the US edition of The Mask of Atreus, and the though the book has been very profitable for me, I discarded the statement with a defeated remark about how that novel was now as ancient as the history which roots its plot. But somewhere in a little central European country, a national newspaper is running a feature on that book as if it’s new, as if it still has things to say, and readers to excite.
You have to admit, that’s pretty cool.
So which books from your past still live with you, and which would you like to see stick around long enough to find a wider readership? Maybe we can promote a little longevity for those stories we think deserve it.