There is an occupational hazard in library work. In short, this hazard may be called Bookish Conversation. (Seems obvious - yet, for some inexplicable reason, I have been surprised by it.)
When you work at the library, you talk about books. You talk about the ones you're shelving (and whether they're in the right order or not, and where might be a better place to put them so that the people who would enjoy them might find them more easily), and you talk about the ones you're checking in or checking out to patrons (and you say things all day like, "Hey! Look at this! Have you seen this before?" or "Wow, the illustrations in this book are gorgeous. Do we own a copy here?"), and you talk about things like funny titles, or titles sitting next to each other on the shelf, or how heavy they are or how skinny and easy to lose they are ... you just talk about books all day long.
When you work at the library, you also work with people who are writers - professionally and otherwise. It goes with the territory. We're all like a bunch of people employed by the symphony hall, and most of us play instruments, some better than others, some more than others. All of us know which instruments go where, how to set the stage, and what to do about the sheets of music. And we all have unreserved admiration for any instrumentalist who can make his living "playing."
(Isn't that the most gloriously aggravating thing to call it? "Playing?" To library folks, writing is play, reading is serious business, and the people who are good at making the music are our rock stars - our objects of envy - our celebrities.)
Among these folks - the groupies - the devotees - the faithful - there are a few who get gigs, but aren't yet employed full time in the business of making literary music. (They've been published. But they're still working at the library. I'm making a metaphor here, folks. Does it makes sense if you're reading a blog, and not shelving books?) At "my" library, there is an employee who does this. His published work is on the shelves of the library - and so is the work of his wife, who also gets gigs but doesn't make a living as a member of the orchestra full time. It's chronic - endemic - and for me ... it's really really cool! This whole situation, with a large component being their frustration, gives me published authors to talk to. Very cool, in my opinion.
So, yesterday we had a conversation that made me slightly dizzy. He's just been to a writer's conference, and he was telling me about it, and he said the word "midlist."
Now, if you're the slightest bit exposed to the world of writing and publishing, you know what The Midlist is. Yesterday, for the life of me, I did not know. I'd heard of it, but suddenly couldn't recall at all what it was. So I asked him, and he reminded me.
The Midlist is the stuff that sells, but doesn't sell huge. It's the backbone of the entire industry, really.
Feel that? Feel the sensation that your insides just fell down a hole?
Just thinking about The Midlist made an old, familiar sensation of slight nausea well up within my depths. Midlist. The books that sell, and then sit on shelves, and then get replaced by more of the same sort of good, dependable, enjoyable, attractive books. Stuff people want to read. Perfectly good books ... that keep getting replaced by more perfectly good books.
UGH! The notion makes me want to throw myself off a cliff. Screaming. (Odd, how many sensations of disequilibrium, imbalance, and general disorientation occur to me at the mere name, Midlist.)
Hours after the first part of this conversation (held, of course, in the intervals between patrons at the desk, phone calls, carts of books to shelve, and other such things - we were supposed to be working, after all), I faced my fear. Like the cartoon character that stops, mid-fall, and looks around to figure out that he's falling, I braced myself for the truth.
And I said my fear.
To another human being.
"This feels," I said, "exactly like trying to find space in an already crammed full box. I mean, look around the room! There are already so many books in here. The lid won't fit on the box already, and it just seems like writing a book that would really get published is like trying to cram one more book into an already full box."
And that's when he said it.
"It's an industry, and they're always looking for more material."
The Midlist isn't dead or dying, and it never really was. Blockbusters get attention, of course. Sometimes there's a blockbuster. But mostly, every day, on all the shelves of all the bookstores and homes and libraries in the world, there are just ordinary, good books. Stuff folks want to read. The beat goes on. Join it or don't, but --- wait. Let me write this the way it really is.
I can join it or not. But I can no longer hold the illusion intact. Being a writer with published work isn't a matter of finding a way to do something permanent in the world. This isn't about becoming immortal. (Damn!) It's not about finding something so perfect to say and saying it so perfectly that it will be treasured forever by anyone. Writing can be about being good enough to do a job. It can be about the fact that in the world there are people who write stuff that other people want to buy and enjoy. It's an industry. It's one kind of entertainment, and it's one kind of information exchange. And there will always be people looking for new material. More of it. There's room for more in The Midlist. There are a lot more cellists in the world than Yo Yo Ma, and some of them even make a living at it! The beat goes on.
It's not sexy, but it's the truth.
So ... where'd I put that file?