The Survival Game
Writing and publishing as the art of not drowning
Hello, friends old and new. 😊 As usual, thank you for offering me the privilege of your inbox! For a reminder of who I am, what this letter is about, and where to start with previous letters, go here.
In this month’s essay & roundup, I talk about selling my first novel because I couldn’t afford airfare. Reading time is 12 minutes.
Over the past month, the anglo authorsphere has been abuzz with various dramas (hello Lightlark, hi Barnes & Noble!). For this letter, I will dip into two of these dramas: (1) the debut American author whose career was hampered by plagiarism before it even began; and (2) the US Department of Justice’s attempts to block Penguin Random House’s acquisition of Simon & Schuster, and prevent a monopsony-within-an-oligopoly. Like most authors in the anglosphere, I’ve followed both stories semi-actively and surmised that, alongside the other dramas, these things often seem to boil down to the one thing most authors do not want to talk about: money.
And yet, all I keep thinking about is money. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about my debut novel, David Mogo, Godhunter, and how I sold it—had to sell it—so I could afford to pay the airfare that would allow me attend the fully-funded Creative Writing MFA program I was admitted to in 2018.
Let me back up here and provide some context. The plagiarized debut author in question, whose name I won’t repeat and the full details of which you may pursue for yourself, specifically discussed her ambition, her desire of the money and access that came with publishing a novel. Author Carmen Maria Machado (who discloses that she was once this author’s professor) penned a piece in her newsletter about this phenomenon in Creative Writing MFA programs and the American authorsphere in general. Machado unpacked capitalism’s jumbling of the priorities of artistic pursuit and practice, particularly highlighting the pressures that cause emerging writers to seek shortcuts such as plagiarism.
I cannot tell you how many people I’ve met who want a ton of advice about publishing even before they’ve finished a single draft of a novel, or even started one. They want to be published more than they want to write, or sit with what they write. Or revise, or research, or return to the page…The sheer number of books that get published and just…aren’t done? And aren’t good? I can’t tell you how many books I pick up and think, “Man, I wish the author had been able to spend another year or two or five with this project.”
Machado is right, and I agree with the significant majority of what's said in the letter. But I also found myself struggling to reconcile two matters often presented as separate: emerging authors from historically marginalized spaces seeking publication, money, access—not simply because they want it, but sometimes because they need it to survive—and how that contradicts the advice to “sit with the work,” advice that points to waiting, a luxury they sometimes cannot afford.
As my good [internet] friend Kiana Nguyen once said, and I paraphrase, “If you’ve never had to take the survival option over the logical one, reconsider your criticism.” This is a sentiment I can get behind, because experience has taught me to.
When I was admitted into the University of Arizona’s grad writing program, I was meant to be overjoyed. I had everything a baby writer wished for: sponsored tuition, a teaching assistantship, a community of writers, three years to do nothing but write. And while the advice from every seasoned MFA-trained author was to focus on the writing—as Machado suggests in her letter—it was impossible to. Because writing was just one part of my life, and other matters were in fierce competition with it.
Prior to the program, I’d lived and worked in Lagos, driving 27-some kilometers each way to a soul-sucking job, leaving at 5AM and returning close to 10PM each day. During this time, I had written and completed a training novel, and then an unwieldy but slightly better second novel. On the side, I’d published a few stories and essays. I was pretty sure that three years of training would significantly improve my writing. But neither that nor the time off to write (nor the promise of community) were the most important reasons I applied.
It was the promise of opportunity that had pushed me in the direction of an MFA. I wanted (no, needed) to exit the hellhole cycle that was this Lagos underclass, to see if there was something—anything—remotely satisfying on the other side. A graduate degree where I could do what I loved, that wouldn’t cost me a fortune, and that would offer me the opportunity of future employment in academia or elsewhere? Win-win. If it didn’t work out, I was still scraping my piggy bank to make annual rent at the moment anyway. It couldn’t be worse than what I had going.
But there was one problem: I couldn’t afford the airfare. Or the visa application charges. Or the vaccinations, the health clearances, the international student fees.
My good pal and former MFA colleague Katerina Ivanov Prado deftly lays this out this contradiction in “A Fully Funded MFA Doesn’t Mean Financial Security.” This is an everpresent conundrum for many—being financially insecure even while having access to something privileged. Here I was, with access to something many Nigerian writers would bite my fingers off for. But here I also was, about to lose this opportunity, this access, this power, simply because I could not afford it.
So, when Rebellion Publishing, an indie outfit in the UK, came calling for my completed but kind-of-unwieldy-and-could-be-better novel (I was unagented at the time), I had a choice. I could take the logical option, as Machado suggests, and say, “No, I’ll wait, because this book needs more work, more time, more rounds of editing” (which it did). Or I could take the survival option: sell the novel now, and with the funds, pay the costs of attending this program, and gain access to the opportunity to try again, to do better.
The book deal wasn’t particularly the best out there, and the team at Rebellion was splendid, careful and attentive. But there’s little an editorial team with limited resources can do with a book that’s not all the way there. There were times where I was like, “I should give this more time. Find some other way to raise this money.” And perhaps that would’ve been a good call.
But as Kiki posits, sometimes, the logical option simply isn’t available. One of Machado’s proclamations in the newsletter was, and I paraphrase: “You only debut once. Make it count.” Well, too bad. Some people can’t. They’re too busy taking the survival option.
Over the past few weeks, the reading, writing and publishing Twittersphere has been astounded by the declarations of publishing executives and professionals serving as expert witnesses in the DoJ vs PRH trial. The dirty laundry of advances, royalties, budgets, sales, marketing, publicity, etc have been, as they say, aired on main. People, it turns out, have susses out that publishing operates on wacko rules and handwavium strategy. They’ve realized its practices can often be cold-hearted and openly biased, and that it operates like, surprise—the multi-billion-dollar industry that it is. We’ve suddenly realized that publishing, when it all boils down to it, most desires one thing: money.
Why, then, do authors and the literary ecosystem treat money like it’s beneath them? you’ll ask. We can spend eons unpacking that, and we’d still not be done, but let’s just say it comes from two main beliefs: that Real Art™️ is not supposed to be made for money, and that talking about money in general is just, yanno, crass.
I’m sure you’ll look at this and think, “That’s quite a privileged, upper-middle-class lens to view this through,” and you’d be right. If, say, you skimmed the annals of anglo literary history and noted all who cemented the predominant beliefs and rules of what consists good writing, what stories, styles and voices should be rewarded and how, how art must be made, etc, you’ll come up with a near homogenous list. These are not practices designed to cater to those who don’t fit their narrow parameters. And when you consider that these practices have, for years, been baked into the institutions and organizations that gatekeep the publishing industry and steer the writing and storytelling ecosystem, it starts to become clear why these beliefs persist even though we know they don’t always apply.
Return to Katerina's essay, for instance, and you’ll see the different kinds of jobs she had to do to get by as an MFA student, even with a teaching stipend. In the tweet she put out asking people to share the jobs they did, you’ll see all kinds, including mine: I got a job where I had to distribute flyers in teaching halls at 5AM twice to thrice weekly, before classes started. I had to meet a quota to make the $30-$50 wage for the day, before I biked back home to shower and prepare to attend my own classes, and then go teach undergrads after. And this was me, who was debtless and already had a book published! Not to talk about others with debt and no book advance.
$50 doesn’t seem like a lot, but those daily trips were crucial to help meet the monthly amounts I needed to send back home to family in Nigeria. But you know what? I was still supposed to be grateful for this half-life, this semi-poverty, to never mention it amongst my colleagues and classmates, many of whom were struggling just as I was. We were supposed to be Real Artists™️, focusing on nothing but our craft, writing short stories at midnight after a long day of grading, fueled by stale pizza and heartburn and dreams of a New Yorker acceptance. We were supposed to “wait, take time, make the best art” before before desiring access to anything in the big bad world of publishing.
I’d never go as far as plagiarizing, but I swear to you that if I had a half-baked novel in that moment in grad school, and a publisher had offered me a half-decent advance to publish it, I would've bitten their fingers off without thinking twice.
I love telling stories. I love walking a story down the route it demands, shaping and reshaping it, emerging with the most beautiful piece of pottery possible from a lump of clay. I love playing with form and taking risks and subverting tropes and reaching for ingenuity and trying to bring something cerebral and poignant and heartfelt to the world. So yes, I understand the value in taking time to make the best story possible.
But you know what I need in order to do that? A roof over my head. Groceries. Power, internet, a keyboard that’s not missing the ‘s’ and ‘a’ keys. Good stories only exist if I do.
Please don’t take this as my support for authors taking shortcuts, especially unethical (or worse, illegal) ones. This is not even to say that you should submit your could-be-better novel for publication (my advice, then and now, is to stick with it for as long as life allows you to, and make it the best possible novel you can). No, this is to help us understand that being a career author is a study in the art of not drowning. At its core, writing and publishing are survival games, and like all things marred by inequity, the rules, the starting positions, the finish lines, the rewards—they are not the same for everyone.
Some people may seem to have made illogical choices in their race, or perhaps erred in thinking about writing and publishing like a race or game at all. But we must understand that not everyone has the luxury of approaching their journey otherwise. Survival does not always respect logic, and that is an understanding I hope more of us possess when we have these discussions.
I was at San Diego Comic-Con last month. It was rad.
Where to find me in the coming weeks
(Visit my events page for future dates.)
I’ll be attending Worldcon virtually this year, and my final schedule has come in. If you’ll be attending, physicllay or virtually, feel free to join any of these panels!
Saturday, September 3, 2022
Toward a Global SFF Canon, 11:30 AM CDT, Michigan 2
The State of Black SFF, 4:00 PM CDT, Airmeet 3
Sunday, September 4, 2022
The Future of Science Fiction Is International, 8:30 AM CDT, Airmeet 1
The Glories of the Tie-In Novel, 4:00 PM CDT, Airmeet 4
Between a bunch of travel and a house move (sooo many boxes yet unpacked!), I’ve hit a slump and haven’t done much reading in the last month. However, I’m looking forward to dipping my toes into Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow next month.
🌐 On the interwebs
Re-upping these gems from Carmen Maria Machado, Katerina Ivanov Prado and the good ol’ trial reporters at Publisher’s Weekly. Also, this essay from science fiction author SL Huang (in which I was quoted) about traditional workshop practices and its links to the Cold War.
⭐ The English Premier League
Listen, the EPL is back, and therefore I must put in the requisite butt-in-seat-eyes-on-screen time. Come on you Spurs!
“Denge Pose,” Teni x Johnny Drille (Baba Fryo cover)
Back in the mid-90s, when Afrobeats was yet to become a global cultural phenomenon, most popular Nigerian artists tended to follow American hip-hop and R&B to the letter. But then came Baba Fryo and his one-eyed-star-patch. “Denge Pose,” his biggest hit single, became a cross-class national anthem (I remember kid me shouting “Dem go dey pose, dem go dey denge, denge” in the street). This song helped usher in the age of Ajegunle-produced ghetto music and its signature dance, galala, a clear departure from other America-centric music. Folks like Daddy Showkey & African Chyna followed, becoming the precursors to turn-of-age Nigerian musicians that mixed local & imported forms (P Square, Olamide, etc), forming the basis of the Afrobeats & Nigerian hip-hop we know and love today.
Last year, Budweiser linked up with a selection of today's artists to cover Nigerian classics. They chose Teni & Johnny Drille for “Denge Pose,” and there has never been a more suitable selection for a cover. What a duo! When I tell you I screamed the first day I heard this song. I've played it off and on for months now, but have had it on repeat this past month. You can watch the full video of the making, or you can find the song itself on any streaming service.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales is my first Spider-Man game, and though I’m late to the Spider-party, it’s up there with the most enjoyable games I’ve played. It’s not too intense, and is dope storytelling-wise. Also a pleasant surprise to see Jasmin Savoy Brown (who plays the young Taissa in the phenomenal Yellowjackets) make an appearance.
Feel free to share this letter with anyone you think may gain something from it.