Hitchhiking along the Literary Farm-to-Market Road

(this first appeared in Southwestern American Literature)

Many intelligent people mistakenly believe that publishing a book confers celebrity, or even immortality, upon the author. Yet us “published Arthurs” know that the opposite is more often true. With some 50,000 books published annually in the U.S., most of which go unread, there are few ways for writers to break out from the pack. Many hope that an “author tour” will bring their work to a larger audience. Yet these so-called “public” appearances inflict more humiliation than adulation upon the writers, and the industry itself is replete with tales of book tour woes. So why do so many writers willingly subject themselves to this ego-crushing exercise?

Unluckily for me, I had a chance to find out first-hand after my own book was published. Texas Literary Outlaws: Six Writers in the Sixties and Beyond failed to crack the New York Times Bestseller List. In fact, it failed to even crack the shelves at my local library. Perhaps they’re still waiting for me to donate a copy.

My “tour” in support of the book was fairly typical, I suppose. It kicked off with an appearance before some 300 second-graders in the gymnasium of a local elementary school. While the audience was enthusiastic, I didn’t sell a single book. No one, it seems, was willing to sacrifice his or her lunch money for the sake of literature. This pattern would also hold true in the larger world.

That I spoke to young children about a book stuffed full of references to sex and drugs might seem curious to those enamored of such niceties as age-appropriate curriculum. But the educators who corralled me into the event didn’t care. “Most of these kids have never even seen a real author,” one teacher told me. “It doesn’t matter what your book’s about, just having you here is what counts.” 

The relevant fact, apparently, was that a living author—it didn’t matter who—would appear in their midst, conferring some sort of cultural respectability upon them. This turned out to be the guiding principle at many future such appearances. The validation was rarely aimed at me, the author who had painstakingly created the work. Instead it was aimed at the audience, the readers. Or, as I can say now in hindsight, the theoretical readers.

From the local elementary school my “world tour” carried me to what was billed as a “major event” at a Barnes & Noble store in Austin. There I would share a forum with two of the subjects of my book—Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright. This was a coup—I was a complete unknown in the marketplace, but thanks to the generous support of Shrake and Cartwright, both of whom were very well known in Austin, I could count on attracting a large crowd to my first “real” booksigning.

The evening began splendidly. The bookstore’s parking lot was crowded, as was the neighboring Starbucks. Teenagers, mainly. That was cool. A bit younger than the audience I expected, but a welcome development nonetheless. It’s always nice to see young people possessing intellectual curiosity. Yet, as starting time drew near, the Starbucks and bookstore remained crowded, but hardly anyone was coming over to the special area set aside for my “major event.” The store intercom made stabs at drumming up excitement, but customers proved stubborn about avoiding the spectacle.

By the time the forum began, perhaps twenty or so people were scattered around the rows of empty chairs facing us. I was embarrassed, but Shrake and Cartwright were unperturbed—as experienced authors, they were completely familiar with this scenario. After a few remarks, we adjourned to sign books. None of us experienced any hand cramps. The Barnes & Noble customer service representative, the very nice woman who had planned the event, sidled up to me and supplied the official excuse: “With the weather so nice outside, I’m not surprised that so few people came into the bookstore tonight,” she said. The excuse might’ve worked better if the checkout lines at the front hadn’t been backed up when she said it.

As I lay awake in bed later that night, reviewing the events of the evening, I took a mental inventory of each person who came to the event. Once I subtracted bookstore staff, family, friends, co-workers, and those who’d come only because of the two famous authors who’d appeared with me, I was left with a pretty depressing number. One. Me.

Two weeks later, I received exciting news that promised to rescue me from the Barnes & Noble fiasco. Texas’s venerable and beloved western novelist, Elmer Kelton, had taken ill. Normally, I’d feel terrible about such a thing, especially given that Elmer is such a nice guy. But in this case, Elmer was forced to suddenly withdraw from a high class literary event, a special “On the Road” presentation of the Texas Book Festival. Event organizers were unable to find a suitable replacement for him on such short notice. As luck would have it, a friend of mine was on the event committee. She eventually remembered that I had published a book, and thus qualified as a real author. Furthermore, she knew me well enough to know that I sure as hell didn’t have any scheduling conflicts. Within five minutes, the committee reached me by telephone and I agreed on the spot.

Events such as this were normally way beyond my class. The setting was a formal English garden in Lockhart, and the occasion was a fundraiser for the historic city library, built in 1899. A dozen authors were scheduled to appear, and each would have his or her name emblazoned in lights. People paid handsomely for access and were supplied with all the liquor they could handle. Thousands of books would be on hand, and, presumably, those who’d already bought their way into the affair wouldn’t think twice about loading up with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of books in support of such a worthy cause. The Lockhart event, I was told, would be a “gravy train” for any writer. “Hope you feel better soon, Elmer,” I thought. “But in the meantime, thanks a lot.”

On the appointed evening, my wife staged a clothing intervention, and I was forced to agree not to wear short pants after all. We arrived at Lockhart and I met the other authors at the library in downtown Lockhart. Soon thereafter, we met our chaperones for the evening. Mine was a gracious, somewhat prim woman in her early seventies. “Goodness me,” she said upon shaking my hand. “I nearly fainted when I saw the size of your book.” As it turns out, the chaperones were obligated to read the books of the authors they were assigned to. My book is 512 pages long. “Next year,” she told me, “They better give me a children’s book author or I’m not doing this anymore.” 

I couldn’t help but wonder how she felt about a book about the hard-drinking hard-living bad boys of Texas literature. So I asked. “Well, honestly,” she said, looking around to make sure no one else could hear.” I didn’t get to read all of it.” Perhaps noticing my crestfallen look, she quickly added. “Oh, but the little bit I did read, I really, really enjoyed.”

The event itself was a model of southern gentility—of the sort that’s become discredited in the wider world over the past 150 years or so. The guests consisted entirely of white people, while black and brown servants tiptoed about, quietly making certain that everyone’s needs were taken care of. Eleven of the authors were from Texas and so the situation did not strike them as particularly unusual. But the twelfth author, a nice Jewish girl who had just stepped off the plane from New York, was in definite culture shock. “My god,” she said me, taking in the scene with wide eyes, “Is slavery still legal here?”
            The evening in Lockhart not only provided insight into how Texas remains segregated, even among purported book lovers, but it also provided a lesson into how a definite hierarchy exists among the authors, even if they each receive equal billing on the invitation. Included among this group were such best-selling mystery writers as Rick Riordan and Steven Saylor, the very fine children’s book writer David Rice, and Sabina Murray, who had won the 2003 PEN/Faulkner Award. These authors received prime real estate in the garden, whereas I was stuck in the back near some invasive weeds and scattered four o’clocks. But even the presence of these other major literary talents was not enough to take the spotlight away from the real star of the evening, the man who commanded the head table near the antique roses. This was Larry Burrier, who was besieged by crowds of book buyers all evening. Part of Burrier’s success, no doubt, came from the fact that he is a native Lockhardon. But I suspect that his subject matter also had a lot to do with his popularity. You see Burrier is the author of How to Make Your Own Beef Jerky, a subject for which there is apparently great interest in the city.

I ended up selling about three books in Lockhart, which disappointed me, until I later came to realize that such sales were about average at “author events.” One could easily do worse. One could go to Fort Worth.

I was reluctant to make the trip, as Fort Worth would involve an overnight stay, meals, and other such expenses that would probably not be recouped by sales. But the Barnes & Noble customer service representative was persistent.

“The Fort Worth Weekly named your book the best of the year,” she told me—although of course I knew this myself and had already told everyone I know. “And we’re making you our Author of the Month,” she went on. She spoke of special in-store displays, marketing promotions, and the great interest in Fort Worth for my subject matter. “I think we’ll end up selling a lot,” she told me. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t feel very strongly about promoting your book.”

One factor I had to consider about Fort Worth was that it was the home of Dan Jenkins, one of the writers profiled in my book. Jenke did not come out as well as some of the others and took some pretty hard critical shots from me. Jenkins, never a shrinking violet, had made his displeasure known to TCU Press while the book was still in manuscript. And considering that Jenkins is one of TCU’s most famous alums, and a very wealthy supporter of the Horned Frog football team to boot, you can bet that TCU Press had me triple and quadruple-check every single reference to Jenkins in my book. 

Some of my friends entertained fantasies that Dan Jenkins wouldn’t be able to resist the provocation of my appearance. They imagined him barging in on my booksigning, intent on a fight. I hoped for the same thing. You can’t buy publicity like that. Of course, I knew that Jenkins was too smart to do such a thing. But one could always hope.

As it turned out, lots of people, none of them Dan Jenkins, barged in on my booksigning. It was a very busy Saturday at the Barnes & Noble, despite the storm clouds and steady drizzle outside, and people entering the bookstore couldn’t help but notice me, as the booksigning table was strategically stationed near the entrance. The only problem was, none of the customers had ever heard of me or my book. So much for the power of in-store displays. Or glowing newspaper articles.

Adding to my misery were the in-store announcements: “Today we have a real author here in the store with us, Steven L. Davis, author of Texas Literary Outlaws, an engrossing portrait of Texas in the 1960s. Mr. Davis has come all the way from San Marcos and is available to sign books near the front of the store.” Such announcements made me sound like I was so desperate to sell books that I was willing to drive anywhere to do it.  It’s especially humiliating to have people discover that you’ve come 250 miles to be publicly ignored.

But the intercom did bring a few curiosity seekers and hecklers to my table. One older gentleman, outfitted from head to toe in khaki, seemed intent on confirming that I was indeed from San Marcos. Once he did, he leaned over to and treated me to a round of his breath. “That’s wussy country,” he said.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Cuz,” he said, stepping back to spit on the floor near my shoes, “you all got it so easy down there, it turns you into a bunch of damn wussies.” He gestured towards the city behind him. “Living in a shithole like this makes you tough.” I didn’t press his point.

For the next hour and a half, I entertained a handful of visitors to my table, each of whom expressed great jealousy upon hearing that I didn’t have to live in the Metroplex, and each of whom confided that their own secret dream was to escape to the Texas Hill Country. But none of them bought any books, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that my own secret dream was to make enough money selling books to finance my trip to fucking Fort Worth.

Finally, I gave up and told the CSR I was calling it quits.

“Wait,” she said. “With the weather so rainy outside, I’m not surprised that so many people decided not to come into the bookstore today.” Just as I was trying to figure out where the sense of déjà vu was coming from, she rambled on, “But I’m sure that people know that you’ll be here all day, and so they’ll be coming throughout the day for you to sign their books. If you leave now that will ruin everything.”

I’d lost patience for the bullshit. “As far as I can tell,” I said, “I haven’t seen a single person here who had any idea that I was here in the first place.”

Just then a customer entered the store and walked directly to my table. The CSR turned and, seeing her, beamed and then made a great show of introducing us. “Steven Davis,” she said, “This is Mrs. Timmons. She is a strong supporter of writers and she comes to all of our book signings.” Then the CSR backed away, fast.

Mrs. Timmons nodded at me, picked up a copy of my book from the stack on the table, and begin thumbing through it. “Why outlaws?” she asked.

“Well, you know, because the guys broke a lot of rules.” She looked at me severely. I gulped and continued. “Because they were trying to find their paths as writers. Without any role models, so they made a lot of mistakes…” She remained quiet, and I couldn’t tell if it was because she didn’t understand or she didn’t like what she was hearing. So I added hopefully, “ But they learned from their mistakes.” Still no response. “Anyway,” I continued, “there’s some good lessons in there about writing, about what it’s like to become a writer.”

She looked back at the book. “I believe in literacy. I always support writers. I’m not interested in your book myself, but maybe I’ll buy it as a gift for my nephew. He wants to become a writer. There are good lessons in here you say?”

I nodded my head at the same moment her eye caught something in the book. She slapped it shut and dropped it on the table with a loud thud. “I just saw a dirty word in here, mister,” she said. “Why do you have to write such filth? Why do you have to follow the devil? Why do so many of you writers become corrupt? Can’t you follow the Bible?”

“Woah, woah,” I protested. “I didn’t write it. I’m sure it’s just something I quoted somewhere.”

“Quoted it, wrote it, it’s your book. You put it in there, and I’m not buying such filth. Or supporting anyone who writes it.” She stormed off towards the CSR and began haranguing her, pointing back at me. I looked out through the front windows of the store at the packed parking lot, the strip mall, and the freeway beyond, and the low clouds hanging over everything. “Yep, this place is a hellhole, all right,” I told myself before packing up my shit and getting the hell out of there myself.

The major event on any Texas author’s calendar is the Texas Book Festival, held every Fall at the Texas Capitol. Even as I tried to appear unconcerned about whether or not I would be invited to attend, I secretly checked the TBF website nearly every day, anxious to see if my name would appear among the chosen authors. Things looked bleak. The list had grown to over 100 authors, and Fall was quickly approaching. Finally, in September, just a few weeks before the festival, I received an excited email from my publisher. “Steve, I’ve been in contact with the Texas Book Festival and they are inviting you. Look for a letter to arrive soon.”

Sure enough, on September 18 I received a form letter addressed to “Dear Author.” The letter had been dated July 15, more than two months earlier. It asked me to respond by August. I wasn’t privy to the backroom intrigues of the TBF’s selection committee, but it was easy enough to surmise that my name hadn’t been at the top of their list.

As things turned out, I would’ve been better off had the TBF simply ignored me. After I accepted, someone at the TBF decided that it would be “cute” to put together a panel called “Texas Women vs. Texas Men.” The “women” on the panel would be two fiercely intelligent, deeply experienced, prolific scholars and writers. Despite my protestations that I’d feel like Bobby Riggs playing Billy Jean King, I couldn’t convince the TBF’s chief jerk, Ed Nowatka (who later resigned after just one year with the Book Festival) to reconsider. So, there was only one thing left for me to do: withdraw with honor, which I did.

The very next day I learned that Sarah Bird had signed on as the moderator for the panel. This was a low blow. I absolutely love Sarah, she’s not only the best contemporary Texas novelist, she’s also, to anyone who knows her, a warm, witty, wonderful presence. For me she’s like having a really cool aunt who happens to be a great writer, too. How can one not love Sarah? With her on board, the panel wouldn’t be so grim and stuffy. It might even be fun. And plus, I could retain my claim to be a TBF-approved author. So, I sheepishly called Nowatka back to tell him I’d participate after all.

As the Book Festival drew near, Sarah asked each panelist for a bio. I was kind of busy at the time, and figured it would be easy enough for her to get my bio from the web. So I made a critical mistake. I told Sarah, “Just google me.” Little did I realize just how many “Steve Davises” are out there, and what Sarah would make of them.

The “Texas Men vs. Texas Women” panel was not held in the handsomely-appointed Senate Chamber, or even in the main capitol building. Instead, we were underground, at the far end of the Capitol Annex, past the closed cafeteria, down a corridor where the lights only worked sporadically, behind a graffiti-covered door. Surprisingly, a couple dozen people managed to find us. Sarah, taking her role as moderator very seriously, was outfitted in a black and white referee’s jersey. She introduced the prominent women scholars/writers, and then turned to me. “Steve Davis is an eclectic fellow; a world-class snooker player who's been voted one of Australia's funniest comedians and also hailed as ‘one of today's profound new voices on the trombone.’ Steve played quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners in the 1970s, reviewed porno films for the Austin Chronicle in the 1980s, and covers sports for the Dallas Morning News today. He drummed with Elvis—although not live, and he is running for congress in three states. Steve is a Christian gay activist and also a dentist, podiatrist, and periodontist. In addition to all this, Steve is serving several life sentences in prison with no possibility for parole.”

I was still recovering from the shock when Sarah blew her whistle and hit me with the first question: “So, Steve, just why is it you hate women?” I don’t recall what I said, but I do remember Sarah blowing her whistle again and announcing my violation: “Pandering.”

An hour or so later I stumbled out to the booksigning tent, where I was placed next to my co-panelists. No one approached us to sign any books. Just as Cartwright and Shrake had earlier calmly accepted the lack of attention at Barnes and Noble, so too did these writers. Experience obviously counts for something. I chatted politely with them for a few minutes, and then, seeing that no one required any further services of me, bid farewell to the Texas Book Festival.

I swore to never do another author event, and I was able to keep my promise until I got a call from Granbury. In contrast to other events, these people were actually paying me to come—gas money, meals at fancy restaurants, and a room in a historic B&B. As I made the drive to Granbury, my natural optimism began to resurface. “This might be it, Steve,” I thought to myself. “The reward for all the struggle and sacrifice you’ve endured.” Reflecting on the fact that the author’s luncheon would be held at a local Country Club, I imagined all kinds of special treatment awaiting me. Hot stone massages, free books, souvenir t-shirts, even a “gift basket” in my room at the historic B&B.

I arrived in Granbury, surveyed the town’s charming downtown area and tourist district, and noted with delight that my B&B was within walking distance. I checked in and headed toward my room. As I put the key in the door, I recalled my fantasy of having a gift basket waiting for me. Maybe a bottle of wine, some home-baked cookies, fresh fruit, whole bean coffee, along with flowers on a night table. I opened the door and was nearly floored by the smell of industrial-strength air freshener. I set my luggage down, and almost gagging on the chemical air, went to inspect the bathroom. The lid of the toilet seat was lifted up, and sitting inside the bowl was a giant, steaming mound of clogged human waste, with flies buzzing around. My gift basket.

Contemplating the pile of shit in my B&B, I began to wonder why we authors subject ourselves to such degradations. Is it because we think that the “next time” we’ll actually sell some books? Or is it simply résumé building—having a paper record of a purported “success” to show others despite the fact that the reality speaks otherwise? Those elements undoubtedly do come into play, but I was certain that there must be another, deeper reason.

Writing and then publishing a book is a heady experience. It reinforces the basic hope of all writers and other creative artists—that we are somehow special, even chosen. There is no greater feeling for us, and, yet, our successes inevitably feed our egos, which tend to swell beyond the point of helpfulness.

The book tour, I was beginning to realize, is designed to serve as a spiritual corrective. Rather than expanding an author’s pride of accomplishment, the book tour performs the opposite task—it remind us, painfully, just how few people care about what we’ve written. This is the universe’s way of restoring balance to our world.

Surveying the wretched bathroom in my B&B, I saw that the toilet handle was broken and no plunger was in sight. The air freshener was no match for the marinated waste, and despite feeling overcome by the sights and the smells, I paused to secretly congratulate myself. After all, if this abysmal book tour really was about restoring “balance,” then these disgusting conditions could only mean one thing—that I must’ve done really well with my book in the first place!