Should a Novelist Feel Bitter Losing to Stephen King? Not Really.
(THE NEW YORK TIMES, June 29, 2000. They wanted to know what it felt like to have Stephen King make a fortune on an idea which had originally been mine, and upon which I had famously not made a fortune. This piece ushers in my much-lauded period of faux self-effacement.)
Stephen King, as I’m sure you know, made headlines — and a small fortune — when his e-novella, “Riding the Bullet,” was published online in March.
It was heralded as an innovation, the beginning of a new era in publishing. A vision thing.
People keep asking me, “Are you bitter?” After all, Stephen King has made a vast chunk of cash “pioneering” a concept that I pioneered almost six years ago. No, I am not bitter.
In 1994, I published the opening chapter of my novel Delirium on Time Warner’s Pathfinder site. It was, by a few hours, the first novel ever serialized on the Web. Potentially, it was a decisive moment in the history of publishing.
In my own bashful way, I wanted “Cooper” to be engraved — with the names Caxton and Gutenberg — into the marble pediments of the world’s great libraries.
Short of that, I would have settled for a soupçon of cash. The deal, after all, was brokered by William Morris, my agent at the time; and the publisher was Time Warner, now a minor subdivision of AOL. The agency was properly greedy on my behalf. The deal had taken ages to finesse because the world had never seen a contract of this nature, and William Morris did not wish to be left holding the short end of the precedent.
For a time, I permitted myself to dream. I had some prior success as a novelist. My first book, Amnesia, had been a best seller in Canada (and I truly thank all six people who bought it) but no, I was not a household name. Neither, however, was the Web itself. Mosaic had just been introduced.
Netscape was a dream, a zygote. If you had suggested to anyone that AOL would someday buy my publisher, you would have inspired wild chortling.
And I did receive a modest passel of fame. The book’s release was covered by Rolling Stone, and the precedent was acknowledged by The Wall Street Journal, Japanese Esquire and the inaugural edition of Wired UK.
And, for what it’s worth, the whole business earned me an entry in “alt.culture,” an encyclopedia of the 90’s. It called my novel a “futuristic curio.” (I’ve been waiting for years to return the favor: check out its Web site, www.altculture.com. It’s what you might call a futuristic curio.)
My publication date was not without drama.
A few days earlier, I had received word through my network of spies that Wired magazine was working quickly to post the first installment of a Web novel on Hotwired because it was hoping to beat me to the prize.
I had written for Wired, and it was hoping to thwart my one bid for publishing history. The race was tense, and very close: I beat Wired by mere hours.
It was a nice little victory, and I received a gentlemanly e-mail message from the magazine, a slightly red-faced admission of defeat.
Thus I became, accidentally, one of the world’s first “content providers.” Nobody much read my book, but the academy paid attention. Brown University, home of Robert Coover’s hypertext project, would steer its students toward Delirium. When I finally met Mr. Coover, long a hero to the literary avant-garde, he was extremely kind.
An important cultural theorist, Marshall Blonsky, disapproved of my experiment.
Luckily, he wrote his critique in Italian, a language I do not read.
When the finished novel was released in hardcover, however, the critics championed my work. Critics, unfortunately, never actually buy what they read. Peter Eisenman, an architect whose work is perhaps even less accessible than mine, built a project based on Delirium for the Milan Triennale. An Italian publisher gave me a contract. I felt as though I had arrived.
And indeed I had arrived: six years early, penniless, in a bad suit. Then along comes Stephen King, and the public downloads a half-million copies of his petite novella within days of publication. Whenever he receives press coverage for his groundbreaking venture — acclaim that inevitably fails to mention my precedential shovel work — helpful friends call to ask me whether I am upset. “No,” I say, by which I mean “yes.”
Not that the dollars really matter. It’s honor, not cash, that drives this would-be prophet. Aristotle noted that no man values fame undeserved. And I sincerely doubt that I would enjoy the fame associated with genre fiction.
I simply wanted recognition for having conducted a successful little world-historical experiment.
Let’s face it. I lost the numbers game to Stephen King long ago.
I meant to lose.
You don’t go into this field — opaque, intestinal metafiction — to compete with Stephen King. We might as well be in two entirely different trades: say, hog-tying and extermination. Yes, I know that David Foster Wallace teaches the King oeuvre to his students. I bow to his fashionable gesture, and wish him a pleasant tenure. Nevertheless, art and entertainment rarely coincide.
I have always said that my sole ambition in life is to write from the margins, a spectral presence acknowledged only by the perverse. Recently — it’s true — I have augmented this thing-that-I-have-always-said with, “Be careful what you ask for.” But the truth is, despite my whining, I am happy with the way things worked out. I have my readers, and I’m told that all twelve of them like my work very much indeed.
Nor does it bother me that ten are Bulgakov scholars, and two are feminist nuns.
I consider that a crossover success.
(The New York Times, June 29, 2000)