Insight into proposing book-length literature is difficult to come by if for no other reason than that modern publishing is a many-headed hydra, and no one, not writers, not agents, not editors, can truly be said to know a great deal about it beyond whatever wisdom their own narrow sliver of experience has afforded them. In the brief essay that J.C. Hallman will deliver at a panel discussion at the 2010 AWP Conference in Denver, Hallman will offer up his own insights as to the nature of this admittedly flawed practice. The essay will be, to some extent, experimental. It will have a self-referential quality, it will aspire to innovation, indeed it will even be accurate to describe it as “meta-,” but of course Hallman will use none of these terms, though he would like to. Book proposals are not places for words like innovation and experimentation. Instead, Hallman’s essay will be “quirky and fun.”
Book proposals are as problematic as they are necessary. Hallman will be sure to note that even though the language of book proposals grates and annoys—that serious writers can feel a certain “whittling away of the soul” when they translate aesthetic goals into the language of car salesmen—but he’ll be anything but overtly discouraging. Far from it! Rather, he’ll describe the state of modern book proposals, flawed as they are, with terms like “savvy” and “pragmatism.” Of course Hallman won’t mention that his second book was about William James, founder of Pragmatism, and because of this he knows that “pragmatism” in the businessy sense of the word has nothing to do with actual pragmatism. But that’s another important—even critical—point Hallman will make. Words in book proposals do not serve the normal function of words. In a sense, they are not “words” at all. They’re more like bullet points. This principle applies broadly. Proposal language is not “language,” and stories in proposals are not “stories.” Hallman’s essay will be absolutely chock full of essential material and hard-to-come-by insights despite the narrow sliver of Hallman’s experience, and not the least among this veritable cornucopia of good thinking will be the suggestion that the language of the modern book proposal is mostly one of exaggeration and euphemism (even as proposals tend to deny this). Hallman’s essay will hammer this point home in a smart, un-alienating, and completely-understandable-to-the-average-reader kind of way: book proposals are not plans, they are utopian dreams. They are dreams in which one suspends all doubt, in which one assumes that all speculation has already translated into reality, and in which, during the course of their production, the proposal writer sublimates all the reasons why he or she wanted to be a writer in the first place, and instead operates under the assumption that the only reason anyone ever writes a book is to make assloads of money. In a totally fun way, Hallman will emphasize that the sad truth of modern publishing is that in order to write the books one wants, good writers have to figure out how to suspend their “voice,” suspend their ambition, and instead channel the insipid prattle of exciting, invigorating, and inspiring corporate seminars.
The absolute necessity of this knowledge in the modern publishing climate will make the panel on which Hallman sits the most absolutely sought-after ticket at this year’s convention.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J.C. Hallman grew up in Southern California, and decided to become a writer at a very young age. He attended two highly-ranked graduate writing programs, though truth be told those rankings were based on the reputations of professors and graduates who were long gone before Hallman arrived, and who can say whether the rankings reveal anything at all about Hallman’s work? More importantly, Hallman is the author of four book proposals—a genre his writing programs completely ignored. (To digress quickly: Hallman is also the author of three books of nonfiction that resulted from these proposals, though by now he knows that one should never clutter proposals with unnecessary information like the fact that his next book, In Utopia, will appear this August from St. Martin’s Press.)
Hallman learned the lessons of book proposals the hard way. His first proposal was for a memoir in which he hoped to find some innovative structure to capture the intricacies of various unusual early life experiences. He suggested an elaborate combination of fiction and nonfiction to achieve this. He believed, he said, that the admittedly experimental blend would satisfy a mysterious inner drive he had as an artist, some vexing compulsion, and even if the proposal appeared to have “holes” in it he was quite sure the “creative process” would solve all that en route, and though to that point he had published only a few stories and essays he was quite sure that a potential editor—any editor worth his salt—would recognize the brilliance of his proposal’s sample material and his career would be on its way.
It wasn’t. The proposal was rejected by every publishing house that saw it, and a couple of months later, Hallman’s agent confronted him with the direst of dire questions.
“Well, do you have any other ideas?”
At that moment, Hallman’s only idea was to get very drunk very quickly, which he did. It was a good idea—even though the recovery was long and difficult. The recovery was soon followed by the idea for Hallman’s second book proposal, which he approached somewhat differently. This time around he did not say that his primary model would be George Orwell. Instead, he operated on the assumption that the person who was going to have the most influence over his proposed venture was a twenty-three year-old first year marketing and/or publicity specialist, a somewhat ditzy recent Smith graduate who had not majored in literature, but had bounced from “Broadcast Journalism” to “Journalism” to “Communication Arts” and finally to “Creative Writing” as certain disappointing realities in her educational tenure slowly but steadily revealed themselves. This young lady became Hallman’s “proposal muse.” As such, he listed as his influences not those writers whom he most cherished and enjoyed—and whom he truly wished to emulate—but instead he cited writers like [insert bestseller here], [insert bestseller here,] and [insert bestseller here], because they were names that his proposal muse was likely to have skimmed in the New York Times Review of Books.
The tone of Hallman’s proposal changed as well. His idea this time around included a speculative plan to visit an obscure Russian province and interview its president. Bear in mind that at this point Hallman had not left his home country in more than a decade (he had once visited Scotland to play trombone in a youth orchestra), he spoke no Russian, he knew very little about his proposed book’s subject, and he had no idea whether any of what he was suggesting was actually going to come to pass. His proposal, however, acknowledged none of this, and he wrote about all of it not as though he wanted it to happen, or that it might happen, or even that it was likely or probable. Instead, he wrote about it all as though it had already happened, as though it was a foregone conclusion. In the end, Hallman’s proposal was read in its entirety by no twenty-three year-old Smith graduates at all. As far as he could tell, it was read only by a single editor—a nice enough fellow, but soon to quit his job—and the aging, cranky, aloof, annoying former alcoholic who had been his editor’s boss.
Nevertheless, Hallman’s second proposal was never rejected, and his career, such that it was and is, was, in fact, on its way.
Hallman’s 2010 AWP essay will appeal the widest of possible ranges of conference participants. In short, it will be totally kickass. Both serious readers and aspiring writers—the kinds of readers and writers drawn to the work of [insert bestseller here], [insert bestseller here,] and [insert bestseller here], whom Hallman actively imitates so as to recreate their success—will find resonance, enjoyment, and just plain fun in Hallman’s presentation. No one at all will be confused by Hallman’s talk. It will not be confusing or disappointing in any way. Based on past experience, there will be some in the panel discussion audience who will laugh, there will be some who find Hallman’s presentation pretentious and self-indulgent (some of these, by this point, may have actually excused themselves from the talk), and there will be some who will suspect that the essay’s wry ironies are a way of resigning oneself to unfortunate truths about the state of modern publishing. These reactions will all be incorrect, attributable less to the essay itself than to the initial impression that Hallman sometimes makes on people when he meets them in the flesh. Nevertheless, Hallman’s essay will be a smashing success, if only because its funness and its quirkiness will make for great late night hotel room cocktail party conversation material. Indeed, Hallman anticipates greatly increased traffic on JCHallman.com during and in the immediate aftermath of his talk, and so—to take advantage of his essay’s marketing potential—Hallman intends to advise his website hosting company to be sure to boost their server capacity well in advance of his presentation.
Fellow writers, fellow teachers, treasured readers, members of the AWP board, and publishing operatives of all stripes: I stand before you today somewhat humbled by the book proposal process because even though, pragmatically speaking, knowledge of this process is an absolute must for would-be writers in today’s literary climate, and even though possession of this knowledge generates in wordsmiths a savvy air that eases communication with agents and editors, I must admit to a certain degree of concern over the effects that proposal writing seem to be having on the literary endeavor in general, on the use of language for artful purposes. Specifically, my concern is that proposal writing—absolutely essential though it is—tends to create a kind of drag on the way we use words. Indeed, almost anywhere one looks these days one can sense the creeping influence—like a predatory mold—of governmental grant writing, of PowerPoint presentations, and of political speeches and discourse. Indeed, we should be wary, if not terrified, of precisely those uses of language that set out to establish their own necessity through fear. For that’s precisely what all these mediums—book (and presentation!) proposals among them—attempt to do. To wit: a good book proposal, like a good grant proposal, describes its product in such self-laudatory terms that any serious reader of it should conclude not only that the world would be richer with such a book in it, but that the world might actually be imperiled without it. I hardly exaggerate. This creates the drag I described earlier by forcing writers to state their conclusions before they have properly formed their hypotheses. Indeed, the absolutely essential modern book proposal more or less sets out to assassinate the creative process. No more shall writers discover that which they wish to say by consulting a mysterious internal “other.” Instead books will be written, in part, by the half-channeled voice of publishing house marketing departments, without whose blessing no book in today’s overcast publishing climate can hope to see the light of a sunny day.
To which I cry fie! In the talk that will follow [full essay to be delivered at the 2010 AWP conference in Denver] I’ll prove that writers cannot propose the specifics of their genius any more than a hopeful parent can propose the specific traits and mannerisms of the child they long to rear. To do so would be to commit abomination—and such is the case with the absolutely mandatory modern book proposal. Indeed, the vital and inescapable book proposal does not merely inhibit language, it ends the possibility of it. And where will we be, my friends, when language ends? In the pages to follow, I intend to show, with diagrams and images to keep it a bit snazzy, that the end of language leaves us with only irony, with comedy—nay, with tragedy! And who wants that world? Who wants a world where all that remains is the pastiche of complaint and the bite of satire? Who among you, my friends, would propose that that is best world we can make from words?
J.C. Hallman studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. In August St Martin’s Press will publish his book In Utopia, which combines the playful intellectual histories of Alain de Botton with the gritty journalism of Bruce Chatwin to explore, dissect, and interpret a concept and a vision as influential as any in the history of mankind.
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