I'm fumbling around in a Mississippi bookstore, waiting to do my reading gig . . . tugging on my necktie, sipping bottled water, and trying to decide whether or not I've locked myself out of my hotel room. It's hot outside, the air a little wetter and the land a little flatter than I'm accustomed to.
I look along the walls, take in the spines of a thousand books, and it occurs to me this is about six stops into my book tour that there's a good deal of commerce and lucre bound up in this art. More precisely, it occurs to me that there is a phenomenal amount of competition on the shelves. I'm starting to go through the opiate progression of publishing; in the beginning, you're after just a tiny taste, and when the taste is pleasing, you want that much more. Two years ago, I simply hoped to see my book in print and would've been happy to have sold it out of the trunk of my car. Now I want to throttle Harry Potter. It's like the Springsteen lyric: Poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king, king ain't satisfied till he rules everything.
So I decide to check out the competition's wares, to see what else people can spend their money on. At random, I pull down a book David Gates's The Wonders of the Invisible World. I'd read one of his novels before, and I remember liking it, although I read it for sport and entertainment back in those days, not to see who had the biggest prose. I thumb through a short story and turn miserable. The writing is perfect, the rhythms and tone flawless, the story so good I end up going back to finish it before I leave. David Gates's book is better than mine. I spot check a few more hardbacks all well written, it seems and get this visceral, black surge of disappointment. You know the sensation . . . expectations torn down and razed, that flushed, febrile feeling you get standing in a cafeteria while some guy with sideburns and a job and a Camaro asks your 10th grade crush to homecoming. I decide to jolly myself up by skimming through The Rock Says . . . , the wrestling tome. Thank goodness this one won't be on the short list in Stockholm.
Standing in this store with a best-selling book on professional wrestling in my hands, I've just realized that the book business is much like many other things that are vaguely artistic and subjective. Luck is often a finer muse than skill, and timing, publicity, and the backing of good people are the three Graces of a writer's world in the year 2000. A lot of exceptional writing and music is buried because it didn't arrive in the store with a poster and cardboard display. I mean, is Britney Spears really 12 million CDs better than Robert Earl Keen? I doubt it. Okay, I'm sure of it she's not.
I do my reading and head back to my hotel; I have in fact lost the key to my room, and the clerk at the front desk gives me another one. I go to bed feeling fortunate to be traveling around the country with my writing, grateful that people have plugged my novel and that reviewers have said kind things about it, thankful to a superb publishing house and a bright, diligent publicist, and pricked by a little guilt, a bit like the "B" student who gets into Yale because of his family's deep pockets and good connections.
Also, I'm told there is an interest in such things, so here's my take as a neophyte touring author on some folks and places that deserve high praise: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi; Carytown Books in Richmond, Virginia; Fact and Fiction in Missoula, Montana; Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville; the Mysterious Bookshop in New York; and New Dominion Bookstore and Barnes ∧ Noble in Charlottesville, Virginia. And since I've mentioned him, Robert Earl Keen provides the perfect background for two-hour drives between cities. His CD No. 2 Live Dinner is the finest recording on the planet.
Martin Clark is a Virginia circuit court judge whose first novel, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living, was published in April by Alfred A. Knopf.