The Competition
Written by
Zoe Zolbrod
September 2010
Written by
Zoe Zolbrod
September 2010
This post first appeared on the blog of writer Robin Antalek, who kindly invited me as a guest. I recommend checking out her site for a variety of interesting posts by women writers. In the middle of a conversation we were having about another topic, my friend remembered something. “Oh!” he said. “I read your book!” He said he enjoyed it. He said it was pretty good. He told me he read it in between The Lazarus Stories and As I Lay Dying, and there was a slight pause, which I took to mean: “That’s why I said pretty good.” He said he pities authors. We’re in competition with centuries of writers. We’re in competition with Moby Dick, I think was the one he mentioned. And then we changed the subject. The conversation rattled around in my mind, where it bumped into a similar dialogue I’ve been having with myself and with a book review by Eric B. Martin that appeared in The Rumpus this past May. In it, Martin offers a pessimistic view about fiction’s necessity, saying that nonfiction killed the realist novel and that, with all the other kinds of media entertainment out there, it’s not enough to write a good book anymore. He states that novels must move with the times and go “bigger or smaller,” that they must either hew more closely to genre or to be more experimentally engaged with language if they are to remain relevant. The commenters tended to agree, and one guy posed the same notion as my friend: As writers, we’re not only in competition with The Wire and documentary, but also with centuries of other writers. I’m reluctant to get all gender studies here, but is it a male thing? This idea of competing? Of writing in order to topple the greats, upend the apple cart, rise up the charts? I have honestly never thought in those terms. Of course, on the one hand, I get it. Writers want readers. Readers have limited time and a dazzling number of options. I’m not immune to checking and sighing over my Amazon rating, to gnashing my teeth that it’s many times lower than that of The Beach, another novel about Thailand published when I started writing mine and offering—so says me!—fewer pleasures. But first and foremost, I’m a reader myself. I’m not drawn to genre titles, and I’d be bereft if I only read experimental fiction. My goal was to write a book I would love reading: A page-turner that also explored tough questions; something carefully composed and constructed that also rang true. I don’t care if these kind of books sell only a few thousand copies even if “successful.” My urge to write stems from wanting to converse with the authors and stories I love, not to try to one-up them. I worked on my novel, Currency, for over ten years, and it speaks to issues that fascinate me: money, class, gender, foreignness, America and the cost of dreams. Long before I set pen to paper, I sought out other writers on these topic—or maybe it’s fairer to say that these issues fascinated me in part because of books that came my way during impressionable moments: The House of Mirth, in which economics as well as character is destiny; The Quiet American, with its devastating critique of American culpability and naiveté; Passage to India, brilliant on colonialism and with characterization; The Color Purple, the first book I read showing that nonstandard English can create both poetry and plot. I returned to each of these old favorites repeatedly as I crafted Currency. When I discovered as I was writing some magnificent books set abroad and featuring cross-cultural romance—Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup, Kate Wheeler’s When Mountains Walked—I didn’t despair at being scooped by better authors. I didn't look at these finds with the squinty-eyed glance with which I sized up The Beach. I felt thrilled—stay-up-way-too-late, hold-you-breath-as-you-read thrilled—to turn their pages. If better books are the competition, they're the good kind. The kind that inspire rather than incite. I suspect my friend has not read most or even any of the books on my list, that the themes do not call to him, and that my novel is not one he would have picked up if he hadn’t known the author. But if readers searching for stories set in exotic settings and telling tales of cultural conflict turn to Passage to India instead of Currency, I don’t feel beaten. I understand that choice. But I would hope our common interests might one day lead them to my book, and in the unlikely event that it did, I think Currency could stand up well, a modern take with a twist. I guess my aim has been to sit at a table with the authors who have awed me, if only for the day or two that I am visiting the campus. It could be I lack ambition, and that this lack ensures my remove from greatness. Certainly, I’m a touch defensive, perhaps protesting too much that the literary labor of non-greats is not indulgent. But genuinely, Moby Dick has never been my cup of tea.

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