Sunday, July 18, 2010

Thoughts On: Publish This Book

(Full disclosure: I know Stephen personally. We're members of the same writer's group. Stephen joined the group around the time he began writing Publish This Book, and I joined last fall, sometime after the book was finished and on it's way through the publisher.)

It's difficult to explain just what Stephen Markley's book Publish This Book is about, so I'll let the author himself do the work. Here's an excerpt from Chapter 1:
Let me try to explain the gist of it: there is no book. This is the book. The book I'm writing right now: that's the book. The entire aim of the book will be to publish the very book where I explain how I published the book.

If I were to trace the plotline of PTB, it would look something like this: Stephen gets the idea to write this book, he joins writer's groups and runs the first chapters through workshops, he sends book proposals to agents, he gets a full-time entry-level writing job writing blog entries for an automobile website and also regular freelance work writing features for the RedEye, he gets interest from and ultimately lands an agent, he receives criticism from two of his college writing professors as well as the other writers in his groups, there are some digressions along the way about his ex-girlfriend and a close friend who is dealing with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy as well as his time as a sex columnist for his college paper and a extensive road trip he took after graduating. There are a LOT of jokes about penises and various bodily fluids and George Bush being stupid. Then the book gets published.

After listening to that synopsis, you're probably thinking one of two things: a) huh, that sounds like an interesting concept, it would be fun to see him pull that off, or b) that has to be the most self-indulgent fucking idea I have ever heard. In either case, you're right. Stephen says so himself at the end of the first chapter: "This book is an awful idea. It's senseless, it's pointless, it's so profoundly self-indulgent you can barely wrap your head around it, and every time you do, you just want to grab me by the shoulders and shake shake shake me."

But it's not an awful idea, and neither is the book awful. You see, this is a trick that Stephen pulls throughout PTB (and in a lot of his other writing as well). He wants you to think that what he's writing is stupid, pointless, and interested only in pleasing your basest desires - the literary version of a joke you wouldn't tell your mother. And just when he's lulled you into this comfortable space, this we're-all-just-here-for-some-dick-jokes space, he blindsides you. A chapter about high school basketball and a "raging, overzealous, red-faced, short-tempered, two-faced head coach" turns into poignant commentary on why we follow any dream - from basketball to writing to modeling clay. A chapter about a few snarky articles he wrote for the student newspaper and how they rattled the university's right-wingers suddenly turns into an account of our collective indifference that is so frustrating it will make you want to walk up to strangers and slap them. The book's penultimate chapter, appropriately titled "Why We Write," starts with a funny, seemingly harmless anecdote about the time one of his best friends met NBA Hall-of-Famer Larry Bird. The chapters ends - well, without giving too much away, let's just say if it doesn't move you, you're a cold-hearted bastard.

In certain ways, this approach gets Stephen into a lot of trouble. Readers with less patience will undoubtedly be turned off by the crude humor that's always sitting up-front. Kinder critics would compare Stephen's style to Dave Eggers or Chuck Klosterman, but many would also throw him on the same heap as Tucker Max. This is a comparison which irritates the living piss out of Stephen. When asked about Max at one of his recent readings, Stephen referred to him as something to the effect of "the stupidest fucking person in human history."

And that comparison should irritate Stephen, because there is a critical difference between the two: when you're reading Max, there is nothing beyond the words on the page. He is a teller of jokes for an audience with a very particular (not to mention limited) sense of humor. On the other hand, Stephen is a storyteller, and a flat-out good one at that. Whether or not you're a fan of his style, or whether you are intrigued or irritated by the overall concept of PTB, what you can't deny is Stephen's ability to craft a good story. PTB is essentially a character-driven book. Of course, Stephen himself is at the center, but a fully-fleshed-out ensemble cast plays alongside him. Combine those characters with Stephen's keen sense of knowing-when-to-drop-the-hammer-on-you, and what you have is a great story.

In the early chapters, Stephen explains that he's really just a fiction writer. He never intended to get into this non-fiction racket. He just wanted to tell good stories. If that is his metric for success, then PTB is a successful book.

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