“So which English major are you?”
I was on the phone with my mom last night when this Buzzfeed article was brought up. Let’s face it, life is better in GIFs.
“Oh god, I don’t know. Which one do you think I am?”
“Definitely the feminist,” she said. Number 17, The One Who’s Always Trying to Dismantle the Literary Patriarchy. I couldn’t argue too hard with that one, proud badge-wearing VIDA and all that.
“I’d have to say the hater of mainstream writers too,” I pointed out. I am the Brooklyn hipster snob of paperbacks, the person who lets out an audible “oh my god, what!? UGGHH!!” as she passes a Target book aisle end cap. You’re no one until no one’s heard of you.
“Oh yes you are,” she instantly agreed. “I see how you check out everyone’s bookshelf. And don’t think I don’t notice the face you make at mine!”
I laughed, but the observation caught me off-guard. I did that? Really? I snooped the libraries of friends and family? I’m the anti-snoop, the person who tries to stay out of other people’s lives so far, I can come off aloof and uninterested. I’m afraid of prying, of making someone uncomfortable. Such behavior sounds like that of a medicine cabinet opener or a fridge detective. I honestly didn’t realize it. I thought my snobbishness was quarantined behind a polite exterior. When would I ever learn that I’m not fooling anyone?
“It’s just funny, that’s all,” she said. I made a crack about Debbie Macomber (stories and knitting patterns IN ONE!), and we moved on.
This morning, as I was getting ready for work, I found myself staring at my own bookshelf. It’s nothing fancy or outstanding; I bought it off of Craigslist while I was still at Pacific, when my pile of books I’d fallen forever in love with was outgrowing the narrow shelves we had, already crammed with photo albums and cookbooks (and our souvenir shot glass collection). “I like that it’s going to a writer,” said the woman who I knew for ten minutes, with an easy laugh and an apartment right off of downtown Portland that I’d always dreamed of having. That was when I was still uncomfortable calling myself that, and whenever other people did so, I was thrilled. It’s wide instead of being to-the-wall tall, which reminds me of the places I went to gaze at paper spines when I was a kid. I like that the wood has held the collection of another, that this is its second life, and that perhaps it has another yet in it somewhere, someday.
There are four shelves, each with my own internal catalog system. The top shelf is for signed copies, and I’m delighted to say it’s full. The second is for books I still need to read, which is perpetually full and spilling out onto the sides and nightstands and couches and kitchen counters. The last two are for books I love too much to sell back for Powell’s credit, arranged alphabetically. This is on its merry way to capacity.
As I stare at the bright jacket pantones and beautiful fonts, it’s not the titles that catch my eye’s focus. I gloss over the writer’s names. All I can see this morning are the publishing house logos, those little stamps on the bottom of the book spine, likely of little notice to the average reader. Who cares where the book came from? But right now, this is all that matters. I’ve done all that I can for the insides. I’ve given my book a title, I’ve even got a couple of those blurbs for the jacket. Shelving depends on this tiny, almost unnoticeable mark.
The swim and swarm in my vision: the perfect olive of Harper-Perennial, Knopf’s leaping hound, Mariner’s ship wheel, the sighing bough of Hawthorne, Simon & Shuster’s Ultimate Frisbee guy. How subtle and elegant they are, like a family crest, the literary legacy that brings you into its fold. Each mark represents all that is unsaid in the stories contained, all of the work and luck and perseverance and karma and retrograde planets converging for that simple, three-letter answer that means everything: yes. These marks represent finding an agent who takes you seriously, and talks you up as proudly as if you were their own child despite having never met you. It represents an editor reading this set of pages out of thousands, standing up to her team and saying: THIS. This will get our resources, our backing, our printing, our seal of approval. The impossibility of it all. The serendipity of it all.
This is where I am in the process. I am waiting for a yes. Some of these marks on my shelf represent a no, and as I see the title that passed through, my heart can’t help but pipe in: why not you? Why? The marks represent doors not yet knocked on, chances still to be had in the New York jungle. I see the name above and I am filled with admiration and respect for what they had to endure to get here, the uncomfortable (okay, pure torture) process of the sale. They crossed over into a relationship with one of these houses, and that isn’t easy. Such a feat has always astounded me, ever since I was young and confounded by how authors ever became authors. Inspiration. Writing. Polishing. Pitching. Publishing. I thought then that it seemed Herculean. I know now that it is.
On the second shelf from the bottom, I stop on one logo. The publisher that my agent has just sent my book and proposal to, the one I am hoping for more than any of the others. The collection contains some of my favorite writers, people I dream of being a colleague of. Someday. I press my fingers against the logo, and rub it like the old Buddha statue that used to sit in my family’s china cabinet. As a writer-in-waiting, you can’t have enough talismans. Maybe you, I think. Maybe me.