How I (Barely) Survived the Abject Failure of My Much Hyped Debut Novel
David Hollander Tells a Cautionary Tale for Us All
In the fall of 2000—a few months before George W. Bush was elected president and nearly a year before 9/11 irrevocably altered the world I’d grown up knowing—my first novel was released from the great literary maw of the Random House conglomerate with much fanfare, its blue-toned cover splashed across the storefront windows of bookstores throughout the metropolis I called home and, if the rumors were to be believed, across the entirety of our great novel-reading republic.
It was one of the more memorable times in my life. I was in love with the woman I would eventually marry, I was young and in shape and my feeling of invincibility was compounded by a literary success that felt at once sudden and preordained, complete with an eye-popping advance and a veritable chorus of industry hype. It was the culmination of a rags-to-riches story I’d been cultivating for a decade. I was the courageous, iconoclast-child of working-class parents, a kid who’d escaped the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of Long Island housing developments to conquer college, grad school, and now literature itself. The universe didn’t mind that I had exaggerated this story’s most salient plot-points; it was confirming that I was special, and I moved through the rarified air of my ascendancy with a modesty so perfectly false that it convinced even me.
I remember passing through Grand Central one afternoon on my way to record an online interview (at a time when the idea of a digitally recorded online interview was cool, cutting-edge, possibly important) and pausing in front of the now-defunct Posman’s Books, where several dozen copies of my novel were arranged in an impressive window display whose basic orientation suggested an upward-pointing arrowhead, which in that moment—to a bright-eyed 30-year-old certain that his life was about to figuratively blast off from the Ground Zero of his humble, suburban, decidedly non-literary beginnings—seemed like yet another sign from God. I stood in front of that display and felt like Emerson’s transparent eyeball. The tumult of Grand Central—the bodies streaming around me like schools of mackerel, the smell of freshly-baked bread and of the less savory amalgamation of filth-and-decay odors, the pulsing light pouring through windows designed in some far-off place and imposed here upon this station a year prior, or ten years, or a hundred years, the present and the past and the future all converging upon this halcyon point in space-time that was Me—had never seemed so encrypted with meaning.
Random House had decided upon an ambitious first hardcover print run of 25,000 copies and they’d flown me out to Book Expo America (in Chicago that year) to hobnob with industry people who might have the power to bolster my book’s sales, an intervention I did not believe I required but that I was more than happy to pretend to care about from the distance afforded me by my imagined greatness. There were early signs that perhaps my self-appointment to literature’s royalty-class was misguided or premature but I ignored them, relying instead upon the assurances of editors and agents, whose job it was to convince me, the “talent,” that everything was and would always remain Fantastic (which was exactly what I wanted and the last thing I needed to hear).
Advance bookstore orders, for instance, were less impressive than we’d hoped. The 25,000 initial print-run was scaled back to 15,000, then to 10,000. “It’s better this way. There’s less pressure on you.” Early reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly were on the border of lukewarm and derisive. “One finishes L.I.E. both frustrated by its vagueness and, paradoxically, confident that its talented author is capable of better work,” for example. Or, “The novel’s conclusion is deeply, unsatisfyingly ambiguous.” The foreign rights market, which had seemed ripe for exploitation, began to close its doors in response to these omens, each of which I spun (somehow) into a harbinger of future success. The telltale signs that a book was about to slip off the edge of the world and into the obscurity that swallows 99 percent of books was plain for anyone in the industry to see, but invisible to the young author who stuck to his proverbial guns. The ten-city book tour was scaled back to a five-city book tour. Then it was a New York book tour. Then it was a few readings out on Long Island, which—had I not still been blinded by my own starlight—might have registered as a delightful irony, given that my novel was gleefully vicious toward Long Island, calling it (among other things) “a place from which everything good in life had been systematically removed.”I’ve had 20 years to surrender my ego, to learn to move through the world as myself and not as an actor playing the part of Famous Literary Figure Number One.
All I knew was that I arrived at those readings in a black Town Car, that the bookstore reps were assuring me that I was an exciting new voice and they were happy to have me. I typically read to between five and ten senior citizens, and despite the unlikelihood that this demographic would be charmed by the sex-laden passages I had decided upon for these public readings, I did not alter course or do anything that might sacrifice the artistic integrity that I had convinced myself was the one thing that truly mattered (or else was maybe just a central feature of my Brand).
Meanwhile, I had already started work on a second novel, which my agent was attempting to gently dissuade me from, a relentlessly dark, linguistically dense (and, I now realize, largely unreadable) existential drama called No Man Is, which featured three protagonists who were all really the same protagonist, three versions or manifestations of a single soul (or something like that). By the time my sad little first book tour had run its course—and the sales figures of L.I.E. had succeeded in disappointing my happy-faced team of professional advocates—my editor quickly and vigorously exercised his right of first refusal on the second novel, unimpressed by its Kafkaesque dread. He tried really hard to be gentle, even as I was raising my voice in whatever milquetoast midtown eatery he’d taken me to (on the last of Random House’s dime) to insist that this book was far superior to L.I.E. and that he was a fool to turn his back on it (and me). My literary career was less than a year old. I was not yet aware that it was also already over and I would not become aware of it for a long time yet. Life was a vessel that existed primarily to contain my light.
I write this essay from the far shores of 2020, a nightmare-year whose serial calamities included violent political unrest, radical and long overdue outrage over national racial injustice, an election cycle that polished off the zombie-apocalypse screenplay known as the Trump presidency, and a global pandemic that has razed the earth, killing millions and obliterating economies and institutions with the indifference of tides. It seems fitting that it was also the year that I published my second novel, Anthropica, 20 years nearly to the day after L.I.E. hit the shelves, where it remained (i.e., on the shelves) until the bookstores needed to clear space for the next Next Big Thing(s) and started in on their high-volume returns.
The life I thought I was about to lead back in 2000—before the planes brought down those towers, before the internet spread its tendrils deep into every aspect of our lives, before I was a husband or a father or a teacher or, let’s be frank, an adult in any verifiable way—has eluded me the way a locomotive eludes a mosquito. After the failure to publish No Man Is, my stunning and unreadable follow-up to L.I.E., I wrote and failed to publish four more books, each deemed similarly unworthy by the gatekeepers of the literary establishment for reasons that can’t be easily dismissed or argued away. They were linguistically dense, structurally ornate artifacts that made no gesture whatsoever toward profitability (an important metric, it turns out, for anyone trying to sell something). Were they great books? Probably not. But were they bad books? Maybe. Writing them felt like engaging in medieval warfare or a Shakespearian blood-feud; it was a doomed and ongoing effort to inflict my brilliance upon all who had thus far failed to abdicate to my Beautiful Mind. Wait until James Wood reads this, was a thought I’d often had during that brutal stretch of years, before diving back into the depths of another opaque sentence, convinced that its crushing density was an indication that Here, Reader, there be art! I tried too hard and then tried even harder, my rage twisting my ambition into an ornate delusion of grandeur. But still, had L.I.E. been more successful, I think all of these books would have been published. I have been haunted, like so many others before me (and so many yet to come) by the specter of my first novel’s underwhelming sales figures
With each new agent, each foray into the dangerous business of hope and each corresponding bevy of rejections (couched in the exclamation-point strewn, smoke-up-your-ass language of the industry, e.g., “It’s a brilliant book that we unfortunately can’t find a place for on our list!” “We love his work but can’t publish it!”), I found myself shrinking a little bit more, until one day the me I thought I was had completely disappeared. This may be what growing older is like for all of us, but I had thousands of manuscript pages by which to measure the phenomenon. Only when I had finally given up all hope, when the vision I’d had of my name glowing from some imagined marquee, finally evaporated, could I write Anthropica—a big and rangy book written by my smaller, truer self.Were they great books? Probably not. But were they bad books? Maybe. Writing them felt like engaging in medieval warfare or a Shakespearian blood-feud.
I never allowed myself to believe it would be published, and during the years I worked on it I never (or hardly ever) daydreamed about how I would answer all of Terry Gross’s interview questions. It was written with the kind of spontaneous joy that I wrote with as a teenager, but infused with all of the lessons and ideas that have come to define me here in middle age. It’s an apocalypse comedy, a book about human myopia, about how our insatiable desires are destroying everything and creating a system that can only be sustained by more (and more destructive) desire. It’s a book about Artificial Intelligence, about the complexities of free will, about a Hungarian madman who sees the human race as a blemish on God’s otherwise perfect universe and rallies a cadre of fellow misfits and nihilists to his side in an effort to engineer oblivion. It’s a book about the struggle I’ve endured, the struggle inside all of us, between love and cynicism, hope and surrender. Anthropica exposes all the parts of me that my many thousands of unpublished pages sought to conceal behind a veneer of language.
At 30, I’d been a bright-eyed wonder-boy on Random House’s list of possible Next Big Things. At 50, I’m a middle-aged parent of a teenager and an 11-year-old, worried for job security and living through a global pandemic and girding myself for the coming shitstorm of climate-change-related disasters. By all accounts, the 30-year-old being shuttled around in black Town Cars to bookstores in whose front windows his own book was prominently displayed… he should have been the happier of these two novelists. But at 50, it turns out, we know who we are. We see our own patterns and are thus able—at least sometimes—to transcend them. I’m proud of Anthropica, which is dedicated to my wife and two children. But also, I’m here for its publication. I mean that in a New Age sort of way.
I’ve had 20 years to surrender my ego, to learn to move through the world as myself and not as an actor playing the part of Famous Literary Figure Number One, a half-formed character I could only badly mimic and never become. I can feel the presence of the people who love me—my wife, my children, my friends, my former and current students—who are proud of me for having kept writing despite it all, kept writing until I could finally become myself, both on the page and In Real Life. And this feeling of connection and belonging, even during these pandemic-afflicted, pre-apocalyptic times, beats the hell out of the selfish pursuit of a literary stardom that was never real and that I probably didn’t deserve. What will become of any of us? What is left for our species as we destroy each other and the planet? How could I possibly have ever believed that my books ought to be the focal point of human civilization? How could this belief, and the endeavor to make it a reality, have taken up so much of my psychological acreage, caused me so much pain?
Today I’m hiking out to a waterfall with my kids. When you stand at its base and stare into the icy reservoir, the winter sunlight penetrating the canopy to stipple the frost-edged scene in golden ink, the people you love most in the world laughing at the water-spray’s obscene coldness, you do not need to know how you will be remembered, or how everything will end. In fact, you feel like it’s all only just beginning.