The virtues of not selling yourself

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I recently heard of TE Lawrence’s somewhat playful account of his training in the Royal Air Force, written in the 1920s, titled “The Mint”. Lawrence ordered the book to be published posthumously (he died in 1935), partly to spare the sensibilities of his fellow trainees.

But to protect Lawrence’s American copyright, publisher Doubleday, Doran & Co. printed a limited American edition of 50 copies in 1934, each volume priced at $500,000. As expected, there were no buyers, although you can pick one up now for around $16,000.

Not selling books is a favorite topic for many writers. The narrator of Meg Wolitzer’s 2004 novel “The Wife” recalls an early encounter with a novelist named Elaine Mozell, “a tall, blond, pot-bellied woman.” Mozell reads an excerpt from her new novel and tells her audience, “I know most of you haven’t read it, because it only sold 1,503 copies despite the so-called reviews. laudatory. And most of those 1,503 copies were purchased by my relatives. Who were paid handsomely by me.

In her not-so-flattering Concord book, “Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town,” author Sarah Payne Stuart discusses the squeaky moment when a stranger learns you’re a writer. “Oh, do I know any of your books? asks the well-meaning reader. Prepared response from Stuart: “No, no. Anybody read my books.

Some writers are wary of success. In his 1988 biography of Jean Stafford, my friend David Roberts reported that Stafford fled to a convent on Long Island rather than relish the anticipated good fortune of her 1944 novel, “Boston Adventure.” “I don’t want to be around when this book comes out,” Stafford wrote to his publisher, Harcourt, Brace. “The success of this book is ridiculous and disgusting.”

Geoff Dyer’s early books – a biography of writer John Berger; an essay on the cultural memory of the Battle of the Somme in the First World War — did not sell very well, which came as no surprise. “That’s exactly how you don’t go about establishing a successful literary career, or a brand,” Dyer said at a 2014 talk about his work. He felt no pressure to please an audience, he explained, “Because there was none!”

Mark Leyner’s books, such as “Et Tu, Babe” and “My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist”, sold well in the 1990s. More recently, in 2016, he parodied his own obsolescence in the novel “Gone With the Mind”. According to the Wall Street Journal, the book “depicts the author giving a reading in a mall food court that no one attends except his mother and two fast food workers during their break.”

Leyner’s 2021 novel, “Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit,” “returns its obsolescence again,” writes Journal reviewer Sam Sacks, who called “Last Orgy” “the strangest and surely the most bizarre novel ever.” unsellable of an admirably strange career”.

“I found that comment extremely gratifying,” Leyner said in a phone call. “I pride myself on being consistently adamant about how I’ve written the kinds of books I want to write.”

The “unsellable” “Orgy” has sold a modest 610 copies since its release about a year ago, according to tracking service Nielsen BookScan.

Dear Mark (if you allow me): Welcome to our not-so-exclusive club. — Sincerely, Messrs. Beam, Thoreau, et al.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.

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