In ‘The Happily Ever After’ and ‘Uncanny Valley,’ writers escape from the dowdy world of literary publishing
Most who have been in the book business come to a point when they ponder a wholesale change in approach, a do-over, a way to both continue in the written word and not feel like they’ve come to a dead end either culturally or financially.
The Thurber Prize nominated one of Avi Steinberg’s books. The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed another a best book of the year. But he still felt some of these same motivations, which he chronicles in his memoir The Happily Ever After. Steinberg’s big switch centers on getting away from the classics and instead writing romance novels:
“As someone who dwelled within the angsty world of “literary” publishing, I have, on more than one occasion, found myself leaning my head around the corner to see what was happening down the hall at the romance end of the industry, a situation akin to being at a funeral and hearing the strains of a party happening next door.”
A fine romance
When Steinberg’s marriage comes to the end, the time seems right for a change that might take him somewhere worth going both personally and professionally. He quickly finds himself immersed in the romance’s reading and writing culture. He joins a romance writers group, interviews experts in the field, and attends romance-themed book conferences. The Romantic Times (RT) conference confirms any of his suspicions about a more optimistic publishing world:
“At that RT in New Orleans, one of the most successful book promoters in the industry told me there were two kinds of people who became romance professionals. The first were lifelong readers of romance, devoted fans of the form. And the second were people who just loved publishing at its most energetic.”
I found myself respecting an aspect of the book trade that felt alive, with interested readers and brisk sales and plenty of success to go around. Why wasn’t I a romance writer? Why wasn’t everyone? Steinberg is right there with me.
As the author pursues the writing of his first Amish Romance novel (yes, it’s a thing), he discovers that many of the rules that govern romance fiction are good grist for any writer to consider. An important one is the Barrier—or the element of a romance novel’s fictional world that prevents the lovers from being together. Steinberg recounts one industry expert’s insight into this aspect of craft:
“[T]he Barrier works best when the author, the person who supposedly holds the power to shape the story, has herself really and truly given up all hope [that the Barrier will be overcome].”
Not only is romance the most vibrant and solvent aspect of the publishing world, Steinberg learned, it also helps clarify the essence of any good reading experience. As a romance editor put it when Steinberg suggests he wants to interview her to reveal “the role of romance within publishing,” she corrects him. “We are publishing.” From Steinberg’s account, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
In Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener makes a more obvious change to achieve 21st century success and fulfillment, but winds up in a decidedly different place.
As a twenty-something assistant at a literary agency in New York in 2013, Wiener drops the dowdiness of traditional publishing and follows the clarion call of money, prestige, and the future to a New York-based internet startup. She soon absconds for the Bay Area, where Silicon Valley promises career advancement and a place in an industry that’s poised for big things. Wiener is adept at writing about the subtle shifts in business cultures, the minor emotional slings and arrows of professional life that only seem minor in retrospect, the jockeying for wealth and respect while striving to retain the special part of herself that hates that stuff.
“Listening to EDM while I worked gave me delusions of grandeur, but it kept me in a rhythm. It was the genre of my generation, the music of video games and computer effects, the music of the twenty-four-hour hustle, the music of proudly selling out. It was decadent and cheaply made, the music of ahistory, or globalization—or maybe nihilism, but fun. It made me feel like I had just railed cocaine, except happy. It made me feel like I was going somewhere.”
For Wiener, going somewhere isn’t as important as belonging to the place where she winds up. For the college-educated, unencumbered, and socially (enough) adept, an American’s twenties offer a first swipe at professionalism that might very well make all of their dreams come true. Why not go for it?
The cracks in her decision to go digital start to show early, in the predominantly male and engineer-friendly startup culture:
“‘She’s too interested in learning, not doing,’ the CEO typed once into the company chat room. This was an accident—he meant it only for the other two cofounders. We huddled in the conference room and he apologized sincerely, while I looped the words over and over in my head.”
Wiener struggles with believing whether the tech biz really knows best—or at least knows enough to keep her happy enough in stock options. When it becomes clear that not only is tech not all knowing, it’s not all good, life staring at a blue screen making support orders disappear becomes not all it’s cracked up to be.
“We didn’t think of ourselves as participating in the surveillance economy. We weren’t thinking about our role in facilitating and normalizing the creation of unregulated, privately held databases on human behavior. We were just allowing product managers to run better A/B tests. We were just helping developers make better apps. It was all so simple: people loved our product and leveraged it to improve their own products, so that people would love them, too.”
Ultimately, Wiener finds elements within herself that she cannot reprogram or hack. How much sweeter such things become when we can keep them to ourselves.
(The Happily Ever After, Doubleday, August 11, 2020)
(Uncanny Valley, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, January 14, 2020)