I was meeting an old friend for coffee on Thursday. She lives 30 miles west of Minneapolis; I live 10 miles east of St. Paul. We needed a spot that cut the driving for both of us. That's how we ended up at a Starbucks/Barnes & Noble in the Galleria, a posh mall in Edina.
Or rather, that's how I ended up there.
I'd had a week of shitty writing days, all related to the fact that I wonder if the work I produce simply has no relevance today. It certainly has no value. I will, for the first time in my life and despite great reviews of my last book, spend more money on writing this year than I make. This is partly due to falling freelance rates but also to the fact that literary folk simply don't, or can't, pay their bills. Other than ELLE Magazine -- which sent me a generous check within 60 days -- I'm still waiting on nearly everyone who's published my work in the past year. The reason I now appear in The Huffington Post is that at least they're up front: They say they aren't going to pay me and they don't.
Meantime, my daughter's college tuition bills keep rolling in...
I'd already had a talk with my husband, a serious one, about how maybe writing is no longer a viable career and I should look for wholesale change. Even my friends who write ad copy tell me the market is contracting. More and more, business people simply gin up their own content -- for websites, for billboards, for direct mail. They can use words functionally and if there's no poetry or wit, well... unless you're Apple, it doesn't really matter. Besides, you can find wit on Facebook. Everyone's a headline writer on Twitter. Technology mainstreamed words the way cheap, mass-manufactured automobiles made everyone a driver. Who, these days, needs a livery cab?
John and I stayed up late the night before my Edina coffee, making a list of possible alternate income-generating careers. But old habits die hard and when I woke up, I had the itch to tell a story -- as I have every morning for the past 15 years. So I showered and dressed and headed to the Starbucks early, thinking I'd get in an hour of decent, uninterrupted writing time.
It took 40 minutes of highway driving to get there, which seemed excessive. There was a bottleneck where I needed to get off, so I bypassed the Galleria and took the next exit. Then I circled around to find the Barnes & Noble parking lot cordoned off with tape and orange cones. There were two security vehicles with flashing lights and a channel 5 news truck pulled up near the front door. I headed for the ramp of the adjoining Westin Hotel, where I drove two miles per hour through a maze of SUV's and little sports cars and -- oddly -- dozens of women in sweatsuits or pajamas, carrying pillows, blankets and fold-up camp chairs.
It looked like the oldest sorority sleepover ever. Middle-aged women in bunny slippers and bandanas, oversize college sleep shirts and metallic polish on their nails. I darted through the crowd, thinking I'd escape them, and opened the door of the Starbucks. Inside, it was like a Who concert. Smashingly loud, every surface covered, people lined up three-wide out the mall door.
I had been on the road 20 minutes longer than I'd anticipated and needed a restroom, so I found a frazzled-looking barista who was trying to clear tables. I asked for directions to the ladies' and she recited them. Then I asked her if it was always like this at 9 o'clock on a Thursday morning and she said, "No, it's because of the book signing tonight."
She pointed out one of the clear picture windows to a Lourdes-like slow-motion parade snaking into the Barnes & Noble. There were those women I'd seen out in the parking ramp, plus hundreds of others. Older, younger, some holding babies. On the tile floor around them was strewn the detritus of a sit-in: nests of quilts and opened packages of food.
"They've been camping out here since last night," the girl told me, her eyes gray with fatigue. "I opened at 5:30 and they were banging on the doors."
"What's the reading?" I asked, recalling my own reading at this very Barnes and Noble where I was THRILLED to see 35 faces in the crowd.
"Have you ever heard of Fifty Shades of Grey?" the girl asked earnestly. Then she whispered. "I think it's porn."
I hurried to the bathroom after this conversation, picking my way through the cluttered mall. Inside it was like a Port-a-Potty had exploded. Unspeakable stains covered every surface. I clenched my bladder and decided I could hold it. Someone handed me a flyer as I turned and left.
"Are you a freak for Fifty Shades?" the headline shouted. Below was an advertisement for a forthcoming book proudly in "the same genre." Barnes & Noble would be hosting that author soon.
Now I would like to tell you that I had a calm response to all this, that I looked at it (as my friend would, once I called her on her cell and changed our location and sat down with her an hour later) in a curious, sociological way. What is happening to the women of America, my wise friend would ask, that they are obsessed in huge numbers with a badly-written book about sexual deviance and abuse? I would merely shake my head and try to calm my anger.
Because that's the truth. That's what I felt standing in that Starbucks: Utter fury that this is the writing our culture assigns value at this point in time.
My objection isn't to the sex. It isn't to the overnight success of the author. I am, in fact, a huge fan of both of those things. My objection is to the reductive message, the "romance" that blossoms between an abuser and his captive. The ugly language. The fact that this is writing -- so far as I know, because I must admit I cannot bring myself to read more than a few pages -- that reinforces ignorance and closes off inquiry into the greater world.
So here I am, howling about this in writing. Which is, of course, is what I do. But I've also had a day to calm myself and decide that fighting this tide is ridiculous. And there is -- whether I can see it or not -- value in a book that speaks to more than 5 million people worldwide. I just don't know where that leaves me, and the other quiet, literary writers I know. Do we operate at a loss, book after book, or give up and become florists?
I haven't decided yet. I'll let you know.