I am writing this on the train, back to Baltimore, where I will teach my Goucher class – then return to New York so I can do the CBS appearance that was postponed for a day. And then home again to Baltimore. But, today, I’m a teacher. And I’m a teacher who does not allow my students to discuss the commercial potential of anyone’s work. This is true not only in my Goucher class, but also in the week-long course I’ve taught at Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise. I tell my students that, at the last meeting, I will tell them everything I know about finding an agent and getting published, but the rest of the class is about what’s on the page. Last week, at Goucher, a student began: “Stories like this are really popular right now,” and I said, perhaps a little too sharply: “We don’t speak of those things here.”
Does that make me a hypocrite, popular/genre writer that I am? I think I’m just drawing a line between teaching writing and teaching publishing. With most of my students, thoughts of publication are premature, if only because they haven’t finished their books yet.
In New York, I was asked if there were any HarperCollins books I wanted. I immediately asked for The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. Publicist Jane Biern, whom I’ve known since my reporter days (she arranged interviews with Doris Lessing and Oscar Hijuelos, among others) asked if I had been inspired by Michiko Kakutani’s glowing review. The review reminded me that the book was out, I said, but I would have wanted to read whatever Shriver wrote next. I am a huge fan of Shriver, whose work I discovered with WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. I think, in my heart of hearts, I sort of want to be Shriver, but that’s not in the cards. For one thing, she appears to be very, very thin.
Seriously, a day will come when my students, some of them, will make decisions about where they want to go with their writing careers. Will they plunge down the “popular” path, only to learn that it can make then distinctly unpopular with certain readers? Will they have the fortitude that Shriver had to have when KEVIN was rejected thirty times? What if the story doesn’t end as Shriver’s did, with a big award and international recognition?
Last night, at the Black Orchid, a familiar-looking young man stopped by. Of course, my bad memory needed a nudge — Johns Hopkins, 1997 — but then I knew him. He was one of my journalism students and he’s now a sports editor at the New York Times. Probably in spite of, not because of, what he learned from me. Still, I couldn’t be prouder.
(Oh, one small brag — WHAT THE DEAD KNOW reached #5 on BN.com yesterday, thanks to an e-mail assist from Barnes & Noble, which touted the book. I don’t actually know what this means, but it seems pretty good.)
Time to teach.