Words of wisdom (sort of)

Sales? Meh. Journals? Not that helpful. Grants? Nice-if you can get 'em. Despite a seemingly simple formula, the factors of literary stardom are not all that clear-cut. Here, seven notable New York writers weigh in on what they think of the benchmarks they're supposed to hit.

The authors


Jonathan Ames
Essayist (I Love You More than You Know) and novelist (Wake Up, Sir!)


Tao Lin
Novelist, poet (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), blogger


Fiona Maazel
Author of Last Last Chance


Ed Park
The Believer coeditor and author of Personal Days


Christopher Sorrentino
Author of Sound on Sound and the NBA-nominated Trance


Amanda Stern
Curator of the Happy Ending Series and author of The Long Haul


Darin Strauss
Novelist (Chang and Eng and More than It Hurts You)





On winning awards

Sorrentino: After I was named a finalist for the National Book Award, I got an e-mail from a friend who wrote, “Congratulations on becoming one of the most hated writers in America.” This is a form of success, I suppose.


Strauss: Of course it helps sales and with the fluffing of one’s ego, and neither of those things are to be underestimated in this often-hard profession. But it can be tough to follow up acclaim; the weight of accolades can pull down on every sentence a novelist writes in his next book. All the same, I’d cut off my pinkie to win the National Book Award. Well—the left pinkie, at least.

Maazel: I imagine getting a big, fancy award is nice and that probably your book sales improve as a result, though for literary fiction, this might mean the difference between having 100 readers and 1,000.

NEXT: GETTING PUBLISHED IN JOURNALS »

On getting published in journals

Stern: When your work is circulated to a subscriber base as large as The New Yorker’s, I think you can safely consider this a benchmark of success.

Strauss: It depends on the journal. The New Yorker is as much a fantasy for young writers as playing for the Yankees would be for a different breed of kid. But there are well-respected journals whose circulation is so low, you’d be shocked.

Ames: If you’re on NPR—This American Life, for example—and you’re published in The New Yorker, then you’re just about guaranteed to make a living as a writer. My fiction has always been a little too depraved for both. My goal is to come up with a caption for one of the cartoons in The New Yorker. I think that’s my best chance for getting in.

Lin: I feel success in some way when I am published in Noon. But I would feel funny being published by The New Yorker—it wouldn’t make sense for the kind of fiction I write.


Park: I’d love to get published in either McSweeney’s or The New Yorker. But I also liked getting published in small journals, some of which—Crowd and 6,500—seemed to fold after my pieces appeared.

NEXT: GRANTS »





The authors


Jonathan Ames
Essayist (I Love You More than You Know) and novelist (Wake Up, Sir!)


Tao Lin
Novelist, poet (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), blogger


Fiona Maazel
Author of Last Last Chance


Ed Park
The Believer coeditor and author of Personal Days


Christopher Sorrentino
Author of Sound on Sound and the NBA-nominated Trance


Amanda Stern
Curator of the Happy Ending Series and author of The Long Haul


Darin Strauss
Novelist (Chang and Eng and More than It Hurts You)

On grants

Maazel: Grants are a godsend. I got a Lannan fellowship and it changed my life. It gave me the one thing a writer wants more than anything, which is the freedom to write.

Sorrentino: Grants can’t be that important, because I’ve never gotten one despite about two dozen applications—yet here I am.


Stern: To me, this type of success is pretty insular. Most people familiar with the recipients of the Guggenheim applied for one. However, winning free money based on talent is no small shakes.

Lin: I wouldn’t feel successful getting a grant, because I would not need money anymore, which would take away the fun and opportunity to do creative things to promote myself.

Ames: They can really help out during lean times, which is most of the time.

Park: I’d love to get a grant sometime. I should try more often. On the other hand, I like the fact that since I moved to New York, I’ve held down a day job and finished four books.

NEXT: BLURBS »





The authors


Jonathan Ames
Essayist (I Love You More than You Know) and novelist (Wake Up, Sir!)


Tao Lin
Novelist, poet (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), blogger


Fiona Maazel
Author of Last Last Chance


Ed Park
The Believer coeditor and author of Personal Days


Christopher Sorrentino
Author of Sound on Sound and the NBA-nominated Trance


Amanda Stern
Curator of the Happy Ending Series and author of The Long Haul


Darin Strauss
Novelist (Chang and Eng and More than It Hurts You)

On blurbs


Sorrentino: That’s a measure of success? I thought that was a measure of access.

Strauss: A lot of it is logrolling. You can trace the genealogy of a number of literary cliques by paying attention to who’s blurbing one another’s books. All the same, when I got a quote for my first novel from Joyce Carol Oates—whom I’d never met—it wasn’t only flattering, it was extremely helpful: not only with the reader, but with my own publishers. They saw it as validation of their faith in me.

Maazel: I think blurbing is a terrible part of the business and I look forward to the day when it gets phased out as a way of generating enthusiasm for a book. It is humiliating trying to solicit blurbs, and I don’t think anyone enjoys writing them, either. It’s true that a sales department armed with praise from Stephen King will have something to package, but also: how dreadful. Because it puts a lot of great books that were unable to attract a fancy blurb at a disadvantage.

NEXT: SELLING LOTS OF BOOKS »





The authors


Jonathan Ames
Essayist (I Love You More than You Know) and novelist (Wake Up, Sir!)


Tao Lin
Novelist, poet (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), blogger


Fiona Maazel
Author of Last Last Chance


Ed Park
The Believer coeditor and author of Personal Days


Christopher Sorrentino
Author of Sound on Sound and the NBA-nominated Trance


Amanda Stern
Curator of the Happy Ending Series and author of The Long Haul


Darin Strauss
Novelist (Chang and Eng and More than It Hurts You)

On selling lots of books

Stern: Uh, yes. But you’d need to brag about that for people to know exact figures, and then you risk being shot by your fellow writers.

Strauss: No downside. To paraphrase Updike, a writer’s fundamental responsibility is to find as many readers as possible.

Sorrentino: It’s not that important to my own notion of success. I’ll bet I could store every copy I’ve ever sold of each of my books in my bedroom closet.


Maazel: Unless you are one of five writers in America, “lots of books” is really not so many books at all. Still, I think publishers set the bar pretty low for sales, so I don’t know how important it is to your career to crest well over it.

Park: I’d love to sell lots of books! But how? Yet another thing that you can’t control.

NEXT: MEDIA COVERAGE »





The authors


Jonathan Ames
Essayist (I Love You More than You Know) and novelist (Wake Up, Sir!)


Tao Lin
Novelist, poet (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), blogger


Fiona Maazel
Author of Last Last Chance


Ed Park
The Believer coeditor and author of Personal Days


Christopher Sorrentino
Author of Sound on Sound and the NBA-nominated Trance


Amanda Stern
Curator of the Happy Ending Series and author of The Long Haul


Darin Strauss
Novelist (Chang and Eng and More than It Hurts You)

On media coverage


Lin: Getting a lot of media coverage is fun and interesting and relieves boredom, but I don’t really think “success” when I think about it.

Strauss: An adage I’ve heard is: The time preceding the release of your book is the calm before the calm. So almost any attention is great—especially for novels. But it depends on the type of press. I’ve been the target of some snarky coverage—inaccurate accounts of my wedding, for example, and a few egregious misquotings—which didn’t help or hurt in the long term. It was just weird.

Stern: This type of success is fleeting and, in my experience, doesn’t add up to more than calls from family. Of course, I am talking about my media coverage, so who knows.

Maazel: Hard to say. Too much media coverage and people start to hate you. Too little and no one knows you are alive enough to hate you for it. In the main, it’s nice to get noticed for what you have done, for better or worse, though it is, of course, painful when it is for the worse.

NEXT: LIVING IN NYC »





The authors


Jonathan Ames
Essayist (I Love You More than You Know) and novelist (Wake Up, Sir!)


Tao Lin
Novelist, poet (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), blogger


Fiona Maazel
Author of Last Last Chance


Ed Park
The Believer coeditor and author of Personal Days


Christopher Sorrentino
Author of Sound on Sound and the NBA-nominated Trance


Amanda Stern
Curator of the Happy Ending Series and author of The Long Haul


Darin Strauss
Novelist (Chang and Eng and More than It Hurts You)

On living in NYC

Park: I like living in New York—a stimulating city, good for writing. I like being busy and being in the thick of things, even though I never go anywhere and only communicate via e-mail. I don’t know if I’d feel like a failure if I left, but I’m going to try not to leave.

Strauss: It’s a mixed bag. There’s so much ambition, it can feel literally stifling. You’re pressed down by the weight of it. At the same time, it can’t hurt to be close to publishers and agents, and it is rewarding to be a part of a writers’ community. Cheesy as that sounds, it’s true.

Sorrentino: Once upon a time, maybe. But, you know, it’s so diffuse now. Today I pledge eternal fealty to New York, tomorrow I’m happily ensconced in a three-year appointment at USC, or something.

Ames: If you’re living here and paying the rent from writing, then you should feel good. Then again, I’ve been paying the rent for several years and I don’t necessarily feel good. I don’t feel bad, either. I’m just kind of holding my breath and waiting for enlightenment. But if you don’t breathe, according to the yogis, then you won’t get enlightenment. So I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

NEXT: DEFINITION OF SUCCESS »





The authors


Jonathan Ames
Essayist (I Love You More than You Know) and novelist (Wake Up, Sir!)


Tao Lin
Novelist, poet (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), blogger


Fiona Maazel
Author of Last Last Chance


Ed Park
The Believer coeditor and author of Personal Days


Christopher Sorrentino
Author of Sound on Sound and the NBA-nominated Trance


Amanda Stern
Curator of the Happy Ending Series and author of The Long Haul


Darin Strauss
Novelist (Chang and Eng and More than It Hurts You)

Your personal definition of success

Strauss: Looking at your book after it’s been out for a year and not cringing when you find yourself scanning it for a reading.

Sorrentino: Not having to send out those damned SASEs with each submission and then wait six months to get rejected.

Maazel: When someone whose aesthetic and sensibility I admire says something kind about my work, and means it.

Park: I’d like to write—and publish—more books. That’s all, really; I couldn’t ask for anything more.


Ames: For me, success would be to not hate myself after doing shameful things. And real success would be to not do shameful things at all or at least not consider things to be shameful. Something like that.

Stern: I consider waking up in the morning an achievement.

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The authors


Jonathan Ames
Essayist (I Love You More than You Know) and novelist (Wake Up, Sir!)


Tao Lin
Novelist, poet (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), blogger


Fiona Maazel
Author of Last Last Chance


Ed Park
The Believer coeditor and author of Personal Days


Christopher Sorrentino
Author of Sound on Sound and the NBA-nominated Trance


Amanda Stern
Curator of the Happy Ending Series and author of The Long Haul


Darin Strauss
Novelist (Chang and Eng and More than It Hurts You)

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