The life of a writer is hard, because money.
There comes a time, usually after you’ve gone four days eating nothing but ramen noodles (and you’ve contemplated selling all of your valuables and subsequently realized that you have none), when you have to literally sober up and assess the facts. With a stack of unpublished short stories and the wreckage of three or four novels somewhere inside my laptop, with a day job as a cook, I was tired of the whole show. Writing, rejection, writing, rejection. Exhaustion, hard drinking, further exhaustion, rejection, the hardest drinking.
How, having worked my entire life writing fiction no one reads, can I make any money with this skill? This one skill I’ve troubled to cultivate? This one skill that I love? This art?
A few weeks ago I turned, pointed by a friend, to the world of Kindle romance/erotica where, I was assured, there was money to be made. Seventy percent of profits from each story sold would be mine, and the price for a single story was set generally at $2.99. This friend who recommended me explained that she made an extra $500 to $700 a month, and others made much more. Some lucky people you’ve heard of have even made millions. Signing up was free and all Amazon required was a little tax information. Following that, all I had to do was be willing to remorselessly pump out paranormal pornography like nobody’s business. Could I accept this challenge?
I read Dostoevsky for pleasure, I read Juvenal, I read Big Billy Shakes: of course, I thought, of course I can write shape-shifter erotica, and I can do it goddamn exceptionally.
I began this life-changing journey with an attempt to define the word erotica, because I’d never read or written anything with that explicit label before. How in depth are we talking? How specific does this genre get? Erotica had always reminded me of the word “pornography” dressed up for a night at the opera. (Though I don’t really mind the word pornography either: the next time you see a porn video, picture James Joyce’s ghost hovering in the background moaning sensually.) I thought I knew what I was dealing with, having heard a lot about 50 Shades of Gray and dinosaur erotica and all that from the zeitgeist and other grotesque corners of the Internet. I thought that erotica could be as explicit as regular pornography, but it also required a more delicate, emotional touch. This turned out not to be true. After doing some important, serious research, I found out that actually erotica could be just regular old smut, and so I was free to ignore romance and focus instead on the repeated use of the phrase “hard as iron” and descriptions of how hot peoples’ breath was.
I first had to choose my hook, my concept. Perusing the available archives on Amazon’s Kindle section, I quickly learned that there were thousands of erotic short stories available written by willing, easily excited amateurs like myself, and I would have to distinguish my work if I wanted any of that sweet, sexy cash. A lot of the stories had a hook, usually involving paranormal creatures, or just regular creatures, creatures that shape-shift into human form and then have amazing sex with other people (that transformation is very important: apparently overt bestiality, or rape, are banned from Kindle short stories, so, you know, there’s a line drawn somewhere). These shape-shifter sex creatures could be anything from dolphins to bears to whales. Moby-Dick joke. Because I had to put in my due diligence, I decided I’d have to read and research some of these stories, to help settle on a concept and structure for my own sex-melee. I ended up investing $2.99 in a shorty story by Olivia J. Rose titled “Dominated by the Dolphins” (I almost couldn’t decide between this one and “Humped by the Humpback“). I read the whole thing and I can honestly tell you that I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore. I’ve definitely never read anything like it. But the main takeaway was: who the hell am I to judge if someone wants to get their rocks off, and nobody’s getting hurt? That’s not such a bad thing. You go for it, Olivia Rose. Not every book needs to be Heart of Darkness, and if you’re story is a BBW shape-shifter erotica called “Dominated by the Dolphins,” I’ll have to insist that it has nothing to do whatsoever with King Leopold’s Congo.
Deciding my hook was by far the worst part. I couldn’t decide. Every nook and cranny of paranormal genre junk was already occupied with hundreds of stories filled with passionate creature-based sex: goblins, werewolves, phantoms, steampunk vampires — I wanted to choose a relatively untapped market, but that wound up being impossible. There are no viable untapped markets in Kindle erotica, pretty much like in regular internet porn except in regular internet porn there are no unviable markets. I basically just settled on a bunch of different genre ideas that I then gracelessly mashed together into the uninviting stew that became my first ever explicitly erotic short story. It involved ghosts, it involved dragons, and it involved a secret underground sex club. I wrote it kind of in a trance, but whatever, it doesn’t matter: sometimes you’ve just got to try all available options to pay your rent, and sometimes that entails making compromises.
Tip to win readers over: describe your erotic short story as an uninviting stew.
Before I began writing, though, I knew I had to settle on a pen name. It’s not that I wasn’t inordinately proud of the fact that I was willing to write erotica for hot, iron-hard cash, but I wasn’t exactly interested in advertising it with the name I’d carry for the rest of my life. So I decided to use a pen name, and it would have to be appropriately romantic, because people buy erotic short stories from writers with names like Michelle Cox and Sheena O’Mara, but they definitely don’t buy erotica from writers with names like any male name. There’s a difference between a female and a male writer of erotica, and that difference is porn. So, once again stymied by the brute realities of capitalism, I asked another friend if he had any ideas for a suitable pen name for an author of romantic/erotic fiction. He suggested several: Horatio Mancleever and Orpheus Baccarat being the only I guess printable ones. I tried to ease him into more feminine territory. I can’t tell you what name we eventually settled on, because I don’t want to give away my true identity to my loyal readers, but I will tell you it was a female name and it was slightly less ostentatious than Orpheus Baccarat. A foolproof plot, a totally viable scheme. An extra $500 a month! I was ready. (Meanwhile, it had been almost a year since McSweeney’s received my novella and I’d heard nothing, and the clerk at the corner liquor store now greeted me by name).
The actual writing process was semi-described above. Mainly a fruitless thrusting of words onto the page, a relentlessly sweaty, uncomfortable affair, I wanted to get the whole dumb thing finished as soon as possible. I knew, setting out, that there were a few phrases I definitely wanted to use (“sweltering heat of his animal eyes,” “sturdy as a buffalo,” “a ruined hellscape of exquisite sadness,” etc.) but before writing I had almost nothing in the way of hard beginning-middle-end type stuff. And as soon as I did begin writing the thing, the goddamn thing, I realized that a life spent reading postmodernists and 19th-century Russians had somehow not in the slightest prepared me for the work of generic, workmanlike eroticism. Sure, Gravity’s Rainbow is chock full of weird sex, but to match the right tone, the tone solely focused on sexy time and not acts of eternal recurrence or V-2 mechanics (which needless to say rarely ever come up while I’m, uh…performing sexual functions…I don’t know what language I’m allowed to get away with here) I needed to devolve a little bit, let the writing hang out, forget about descriptions of candlelight or monologues about metaphysics, and instead head straight into the dark heart of bodily fluids and hot breath.
I asked an ex-girlfriend what kind of erotica she’d read if she read erotica and she was confused by the entire scheme, declined eventually to answer. I was on my own, so after an aggressive caffeine binge and a few days spent trying to imagine what this whole thing could possibly mean for my life I bashed out a rough draft of dirty, filthy smut. A couple embarrassing revisions later, and I was done. It was exhausting, but it was also liberating, and not even in a sexual way: if poverty’s a fact, I’m going to game the system any way I can, especially if it’s harmless and entails giving pleasure to other people — in fact, although it was never the kind of pleasure I ever imagined my writing would give people, I felt absolutely terrific, in the end, that I was maybe giving them any kind at all. Weirdly enough a second ambition had twined itself, in stunted form, to the central one of cash: I want to help some people. I want to help some people get off.
Is that how pornographers feel? Am I a pornographer? “Who cares?” as J. Joyce would say. If nobody’s getting hurt I’ll write whatever smut’s required of me when the bills need to get paid.
The last step was designing a cover, by which point I was too exhausted to care. Also, stock photos and photoshop are expensive, so I slapped together a piece of generic art provided by Amazon’s design program. Then I threw the thing up there and tried to forget about it, tried instead to dream about piles of weird voluptuous money, wheelbarrows full of it, and people across the country having a grand old time reading what I’d written.
Somehow, everything went terribly wrong.
In terms of monetary gains, I initially checked my Amazon reports every few days, but had to stop after a while. It was just too depressing. By the end of its first month online, my heartbreaking little story had managed to rope in a grand total of three readers. Which, to be fair, is more readers than I’ve ever had for any other piece of fiction I’ve written in my life. Unfortunately or fortunately, they left no reviews. The only mark to know they’d been there at all was the goddamn blue uptick on the Amazon sales graph. (Blue means that the reader is someone with a Kindle Unlimited account, so they can read your story for free, i.e. no royalties.) It came to me that I might have underestimated the fact that the market is so glutted with stories written by half-assed people like me, nobody’s going to plunk down three bucks for the opportunity to even laugh at it. There was too much. I was one more drop of irrelevant smut in an Atlantic of erotica. I’d thought that just publishing this thing with minimal effort would somehow grant me at least hundreds of paying readers, but now, somewhat removed from the fever that afflicted me while I wrote it, that seems literally insane. What kind of lunatic thinks he’s going to make hundreds or thousands of dollars by self-publishing a 20-page story about a dragon sex club? But when you’re desperate for cash, it’s simpler to believe almost anything. How could I not want to hold onto that? It’s practically un-American to not believe that you can get rich quick with minimal effort and erotic know-how.
My dreams faded. I got up and went to work again, every day. Every day there were no readers, there was no excess money coming in. I worked and went home and worried about rent, groceries, like I’d always done. In the immortal words of Henry Hill, “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
That was basically the end of it.
Throughout this great experiment, I’ve realized a few things. Most importantly I know now, despite Dostoevsky and friends, that I don’t have any of the ambition necessary to become a successful erotic writer. It would require me to continually write and publish a bunch of stuff that at the end of the day I find so boring, I’d prefer getting paid to correct automotive textbooks. I don’t have the drive to just pump this stuff out, build a fanbase, because it doesn’t in the slightest matter to me. That’s, I guess, the difference between the hundreds of pages of fiction I’ve written, for no monetary compensation whatsoever, and the 20-page erotic story which totally exhausted me. Even right now the idea of sitting down and churning out another of these things makes me want to take a nap. Once the story was actually finished, and there was no money to be made, all ambition tied to it evaporated, and now I’m left pretty much where I began. Ruthlessly lazy, without much money, and stuck for the foreseeable future at an annoying day job. Like pretty much every other writer in the world, I imagine. Maybe there are no get-rich quick schemes, if you’re not passionate about what you’re writing. And if you’re writing erotica, you’ve got to be passionate, you’ve got to be sturdy as a buffalo.
But just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean the option isn’t out there for others. Other poor, unlucky writers with superhuman ambition: I’m talking to you. Even if I made no money off this whole charade, what can you do with it, you heroic pornographers? Why not give it a go? Lord knows the world could use more smut. But don’t think of it as smut, think of it as sexual healing. After all, who doesn’t need some excess cash? And who doesn’t need to get off? We’re writers, goddammit, but we’re still human beings. Wants and needs abound everywhere, you can’t avoid them. The hardest drinking one day gives way, hopefully, to opportunity, and maybe you can make some people happy. At the very least they might see the title of your story in the Kindle store, your ridiculous, strange little story, and they might laugh before moving on — and that’s good enough, hell. You’re published. You’re the real deal.
Ain’t nothing wrong with getting off.
Image Credit: Flickr/Fadil Elmansour
On an August 2013 episode of The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, author Donald Antrim read and discussed Denis Johnson’s short story “Work.” Antrim said he remembered the liberation he associated with reading the story when it was published in The New Yorker in 1988: “At the time, I was trying to write stories myself, but they were somewhat dead and I think I felt a little lost…I think reading Denis Johnson had to have something to do with a sense of permission, a sense of freedom to do something that I didn’t understand fully and didn’t know how to imagine or envision.”
Antrim’s revelatory experience of reading the stories in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son – a linked collection that follows the drug-addled wanderings of a narrator known as “Fuckhead” — is far from unique. In 2012, Illustrator Jane Mount compiled My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection in which 100 contemporary cultural figures shared the books that mattered to them most. Jesus’ Son was tied alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses as the third most selected book. They both only trailed behind Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
On The New Yorker podcast, Antrim goes on to describe some of the unusual techniques in Jesus’ Son that have rattled so many readers and writers. Antrim notes the clipped and disoriented structure to many of the stories and scenes. He remarks on the speed of the narrative transitions. He says that there’s “an incoherence in the thought process that actually has a coherence.”
Then, as is the case on each episode of the podcast, Antrim reads the selected story: “I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.” Antrim proceeds through a story in which the narrator and his friend Wayne go to rip copper wire from an abandoned house. Then Wayne visits his wife while Fuckhead waits in the car. Then they go to the bar where they spend all the money they just made scrapping the copper wire. The story ends with Fuckhead gawking at the angelic bartender. “I’ll never forget you,” he thinks. “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”
New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman tells Donald Antrim about how she recently interviewed Denis Johnson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She says, “I asked him about this book, about Jesus’ Son…he’s quite dismissive of it when he talks about it now, and he said it’s just a rip-off of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry…” Antrim says that he’s never read Red Cavalry, and the discussion of Jesus’ Son, on its own terms, continues on.
But what does Denis Johnson mean by calling his most iconic book a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry — a classic of early 20th-century Russian literature? Johnson’s book features a ragtag cast of addicts in rural America, engaged in efforts of drug procurement and petty crime that almost always go wrong. Red Cavalry, on the other hand, features the title army during the Russian-Polish campaign, the Soviets’ first military effort toward spreading Communism to the rest of Europe. In terms of locations and circumstances, the books are radically different. But, on closer look, they actually do share a lot in common.
“The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head,” Babel writes in the opening story of Red Cavalry (as translated by Peter Constantine). “The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill.”
In an introduction to Red Cavalry, Michael Dirda writes, “Violence and brutality mingle with a surreal, sometimes poetic beauty…This juxtaposition of an elevated literary style with coarse soldier’s talk, of strikingly original analogy with harsh naturalistic observation, lies at the heart of Babel’s achievement. In every way the stories yoke together opposites.”
Jesus’ Son actually works with a similar set of tools. “The sky is blue and the dead are coming back,” Johnson writes. “Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breast.”
Using “elevated literary style” alongside “harsh naturalistic observation,” both writers convey haunting and brutal landscapes. Babel: “Stars slithered out of the cool gut of the sky, and on the horizon abandoned villages flared up. With my saddle on my shoulders, I walked along a torn-up field path…” Johnson: “There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground…”
Both books feature frequent and intense poetic violence. Babel writes of Dolgushov who lies in the mud with his exposed heart beating and his intestines spilling out. “[He] placed his blue palms on the ground and looked at his hands in disbelief.” Johnson writes of McInnes, who’s been shot in the stomach and is dying in the backseat of a car. “[He] was white and sick, holding himself tenderly.”
Both writers seem to be geniuses of metaphors on the sky. Babel: “The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring.” Johnson: “The sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge.”
What gets quickly lost when I put particular sections side-by-side like this is how radically different each book still really is. In a Red Cavalry story, a young Jewish soldier will accost an old woman and murder her goose to prove he’s not an intellectual sissy. In a Jesus’ Son story, a drugged-out hospital orderly will try to save a litter of “bunnies” in the desert to prove he’s not a fuck-up. “It’s a name that’s going to stick,” his friend Georgie tells him after he sits on and kills the rabbits. “‘Fuckhead’ is gonna ride you to your grave.”
Considerable narrative overlaps between the two books also exist, but they tend to be circumstances that are realized in newly distorted ways.
In one Red Cavalry story, the narrator transcribes another soldier’s letter home about, among other things, his brother Fyodorovna being “hacked” to pieces. “I wrote it down without embellishing it,” the narrator says, “and am recording it here word for word.” In Johnson’s “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” the narrator carefully shaves the face of another man in rehab, while that man tells him the story of each of his scars. “Are you going to change any of this for your poem?” he asks. “No,” the narrator says, “It’s going in word for word.”
Babel’s “Ivan and Ivan” and Johnson’s “Two Men” both feature men hitching rides who are perceived-to-be-faking deafness. Kirill Vasilyevich Lyutov shouts, “Are you deaf, Father Deacon, or not?” Fuckhead says, “Look…I know you can talk. Don’t act like we’re stupid.”
“What sort of person is our Cossack?” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Many-layered: looting, reckless daring, professionalism, revolutionary spirit, bestial cruelty.” He stops, and then writes, “Omit the ‘revolutionary spirit.’” The same things might be said of Fuckhead. In “Out On Bail,” he steals and cashes Social Security checks from a dead tenant’s apartment, but he says he’s always believing he should be finding an honest way to make a few dollars, always believing he’s “an honest person who shouldn’t be doing things like that.” In “Dirty Wedding,” he mourns the death of his ex-girlfriend Michelle, who he once abandoned at the abortion clinic for a hooker at the Savoy Hotel: “[Michelle] was a woman, a traitor, and a killer. Males and females wanted her. But I was the only one who ever could have loved her.”
One of the more pronounced elements of both books is their narrative messiness. In The New York Times book review of Jesus’ Son, James McManus wrote, “The narrator’s inability to construct a ‘well-made’ story, or even to keep the facts of his life straight, expressively parallels the rest of his dysfunctional behavior.” McManus is talking about how Jack Hotel dies of a heroin overdose at the end of “Out on Bail,” and how, in the next story, Hotel returns, smokes hashish, and remarks, “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” as McInnis bleeds out in the back of the car. An early story in the collection is titled “Two Men.” Later in the book, in “The Other Man”, the narrator begins: “But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one…”
In “Emergency” — the prescription-pill-loaded narrator — undermining the entire story he had been telling up until that point — stops and reflects, “Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them.” He decides, “It doesn’t matter. What’s important for me to remember is that early the next morning the snow was melted off the windshield and the daylight woke me up.” In the final pages of the story, the narrative logistics turn impossible. Fuckhead and Georgie return to the hospital, possibly the same day they left. Then the narrator remembers how, just hours earlier, they had picked up their AWOL friend, Hardee, and how Georgie swore he’d get him across the border: “I think I know some people,” Georgie said to him. “Don’t worry. You’re on your way to Canada.”
Red Cavalry — in oftentimes strange and beautiful ways — is also haphazardly constructed. In “The Story Of A Horse,” Khlebnikov, a self-proclaimed white-stallion enthusiast, fails to reclaim his horse from Savitsky. Khlebnikov spends several days crying and writing a petition for his horse on a tree stump. At the end of the story, he’s discharged from the army as an “invalid” for his poor health and battle wounds. Ten stories later, in “The Continuation of the Story of a Horse,” the narrator reminds the reader of the disagreement between Khlebnikov and Savitsky, then transcribes a pair of no-hard-feelings correspondences between them; the horse only receives a brief and fairly inconsequential mention. “Thirty days I have been fighting in the rear guard, covering the retreat of the invincible First Red Cavalry and facing powerful gunfire from airplanes and artillery,” Savitsky writes to Khlebnikov. “Tardy was killed, Likhmanikov was killed, Gulevoy was killed, Trunov was killed, and the white stallion is no longer under me, so with the changes in our fortunes of warm Comrade Khlebnikov, do not expect to see your beloved Division Commander Savitsky ever again.”
In another story, the same vivid and incredibly specific metaphor shows up twice: “Trunov had already been wounded in the head that morning. His head was bandaged with a rag, and blood trickled from it like rain from a haystack,” the narrator reports early in the tale. Later he says, “At that moment I saw Trunov creeping out from behind a mound. Blood was trickling from his head like rain from a haystack and the dirty rag had come undone and was hanging down.”
Babel was an active soldier in the Red Cavalry army while he was writing many of his stories. The dangerous and dismal conditions under which the material was gained likely made smooth story construction quite difficult, even if that ever was an ambition. “Under machine gun fire, bullets shriek, a dreadful sensation, we creep along through the trenches,” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Some Red Army fighter is panicking, and, of course, we are surrounded.” Similar to what McManus describes in his review of Jesus’ Son, in Red Cavalry it’s also fitting that tales are so surreal and fractured. Johnson, meanwhile, was originally writing Jesus’ Son as a piece of memoir. He said, “Originally, in fact, I wasn’t even going to publish it. But then I added a lot of things that never happened to me, though almost everything in there actually happened to someone I know or heard about.”
The conditions under which the books were written share another important similarity: both were written with a sort of wild-eyed desperation. Babel joined the army, on the advice of his mentor, Maxim Gorky, to find material for his writing in the hopes of getting published. “My birthday,” Babel wrote in one of his early journal entries, “Twenty-six years old. I think of home, of my work, my life is flying past. No manuscripts. Dull misery.” In 1990, Johnson after a rough stretch and a rocky conclusion to his second marriage, owed $10,000 in taxes. He called his editor at FSG: “I told him, ‘I’ll make you a book of short stories; all you have to do is pay off the IRS.’”
Jesus’ Son vaulted to a cult popularity among contemporary readers and writers that’s hard for many other individual story collections to measure up against. Maybe Flannery O’Connor achieves a similar level of cultural cachet with A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Maybe Ernest Hemingway does with In Our Time. Jesus’ Son, though, was the collection chosen more frequently than any other in Jane Mount’s My Ideal Bookshelf. Similarly, on The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, Denis Johnson has been the most selected writer — three times with all three stories from Jesus’ Son. On a 2009 episode, before Tobias Wolff read “Emergency,” Deborah Treisman laughed and said, “I’ve had three other writers ask to do this very story while I put it on hold for you.”
Is what Denis Johnson said true, though? Is Jesus’ Son just a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry? “Rip-off” seems to be the wrong word. It borrows heavily, yes, but it seems to me Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than West Side Story is a “rip-off” of Romeo and Juliet. Or, in keeping with the Johnson-Babel theme of stark and brutal poetry, Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than Apocalypse Now is of Heart of Darkness. With any of these works, even adaptation or re-creation seem to not entirely be the right words; in each case, the follow-up deviates wildly from what might be considered its source material. In Jesus’ Son, the stories and execution certainly have a lot in common with Red Cavalry and — in considering them closely — it seems right for Johnson to acknowledge his debt. But do the similarities diminish any of the virtues of either book? Even more than in the case of the most liberal of re-creations, adaptations, or “rip-offs,” it seems to me that each book is still its own radical thing.
After Treisman tells Antrim, on the 2013 podcast, that today Johnson is dismissive of the stories in Jesus’ Son, Antrim says, “Well, he has his own attitude about what he did a long time ago. I have a tendency to write things off after 20 years, too. I’m not a particularly good judge of what I do. Maybe he’s not a particularly good judge, over time, of what he’s done.” Antrim pauses in thought, and then adds, “And that’s probably as it should be.”