Austin Straus 8:30 a.m., April 23
- Community Blog
- Beyond The Big Metal Fence
Facebook, that social networking wunderkind, taunts me when I open the browser, telling me that I can continue to live in Mexico and earn a degree online. Great. I’m sure that’s going to help in this economy. Certainly it increases one’s chances of landing that dream job.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Dodd, but we’ve already filled that position.”
“But you don’t understand! I have a degree in English Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Santee!”
Scott actually recommended one time that I go back and get my teaching credentials. Fat chance. True, the publishing world is on its ass at the moment, but I would rather load tractor-trailers all day than to instruct teenagers that would rather be smoking dope and contemplating their first sexual experience. It has fail written all over it. I’ll take my chances in some factory somewhere until writers are once again a hot commodity.
San Diego has never been an easy place to score a good job. When I grew up in Los Angeles, I literally left a job in the morning and had a better one in the afternoon. Not here. People with Doctorates don’t seem to mind assembling urine bags in order to enjoy this climate. They say things like, “Back in Helena, I ran an entire department of researchers…”
Spare me. You’re welding a plastic tube to a urine bag now. I’m not impressed.
The earthquake that occurred Sunday reminded me of my time living in Los Angeles. I went through some large tremors there, even right on the epicenter of a couple of quakes. This one that just happened in Mexico was more alarming, not simply because of its size, but more because of its duration. When it hit, I sat in my office for a full thirty seconds before I bothered to get up and go out into the living room. My in-laws were on the couch, Rocio on the other couch, and Anna at the computer, so I grabbed Anna and stuck her in a doorway. The earthquake kept on rolling.
“Is it over yet?” she would ask a few times.
When it finally stopped, nothing was broken. Just like when I lived in Los Angeles, life kept on going. We ate dinner and I spent the night giving information to news agencies, a back scratched and one good turn and so on. Having been through Sylmar’s disaster, in the epicenter of the Whittier Narrows quake, a mile from the middle of the Upland jolt and through the big Landers trembler, I had considered myself a veteran. It didn’t work that way. The Goddamned Washington Post even scooped a lot of my information.
A voice in one ear told me, “Spare me. You’re hammering out hack material out of your home office in Tijuana now. I’m not impressed.”
At eleven the next morning I shut off the computer and went to bed.
The publishing world has been on its ass for quite some time, in case no one has been paying attention. Newspapers are folding, giving unpaid furloughs or laying writers off, or else generally downsizing to the point that they are no longer relevant. The San Diego Union-Tribune is no longer relevant. It wasn’t a very good paper five years ago, but now it’s a joke. For seventy-five cents, you get maybe thirty or thirty-five pages. The good journalists are gone, filled with part-timers from the local university who give you the time and location of some event in the first sentence.
The book publishing industry might be even worse off. Electronic publishing is creating a combative process in which publishers fight with the manufacturers of electronic readers to figure who’s going to make the most profit. Writers are lost in this process. Readers, unless they enjoy books about vampires or unicorns or some other damned thing that has nothing to do with good writing, are wasting their money on products that are bound to deliver material that only promises to be made into a movie one day that will be like every other movie. Meanwhile, my stuff will have to sit until everything gets sorted out. It certainly doesn’t look good at the moment.
Good writers, some that I believe even a decade ago could have landed a three-book deal, are relegated to writing articles about pruning roses or window caulking or freight distribution in New Zealand, or whatever will pay to keep them barely surviving in some run-down apartment in a bad section of town. It isn’t that they can’t write, it’s that the entire process is broken and good writing fails far too often because the people grasping for control of the publishing business only know how to read a profit and loss statement.
This is what happens.
I have done a lot of things in my life to earn a dollar or two, most of them legally. I’ve loaded trucks, run entire manufacturing plants, built war machinery for the military, even ran a grill right here in Tijuana for a while. Welding a plastic tube onto a urine bag isn’t my idea of an enjoyable living, but I’ve done it before and I can do it again. One time not too long ago I even worked a week at minimum wage moving the Geology Department at San Diego State University from one side of the campus to the other. I reckon I’m as proud of that as I am of anything else I’ve done.
Eventually, I might be able to hack out a living freelancing as a writer until the fruit of the publishing world is once again ripe to publish a novel that isn’t about child magicians or werewolves or time travelers. Until then, as soon as this economy picks up just a little more, someone will hire a man almost fifty years old to load a truck or enter data into a spreadsheet or whatever else is available. And I’ll do that for a while, and I’ll likely get promoted and promoted again until I reach a point after a few years where I can’t deny that the only thing I really want to do is to write, and nothing else – no matter the money or the lack of it – will fill that void.
And then, considering that ultimately these things tend to work themselves out, the publishing world will right itself. Newspapers may be relevant or may be replaced entirely by something else, but real journalists will return to fill the void of whatever happens. And book publishing will finally figure out that the best road to success is to leave the question of what is or isn’t good literature in the hands of the editors, and the question of distribution and price in the hands of publishing executives. And then, I’ll be able to be that voice in someone’s ear. I will tell them about the time that I worked a week at minimum wage moving the Geology Department at San Diego State University from one side of the campus to the other.
And then I’ll likely say, “Spare me. You’ve wasted ten years of both of our lives only to figure out now what’s relevant. I’m not impressed.”