Dear Dirty America


The Novel As Graffiti

May 08
14:00 2012


Years ago in New York I used to write on the subway walls with a magic marker. I’d copy passages out of my novels-in-progress, then I’d lurk nearby and watch to see if I got any readers. One of my favorite tricks was to make derogatory remarks about my wall scribblings in hopes of eliciting comments from readers, who, as often as not, would defend the work as having “redeeming social value,” or better, “a certain lyric quality.” Remarks like these sent me into raptures and spurred me on to write like a house afire.

All this took place back in the 20th Century. Now it’s the 21st Century and I’m in Los Angeles not New York and the doors of the New York publishing houses are closed and locked and double bolted. You really can’t blame them, the publishers, I mean, because they’re in the business of selling books. It’s a big investment, printing and marketing a book, and publishers have to be reasonably sure of a decent return. To do this they have to go with commercially viable mainstream books, preferably by known authors. They have to give the readers what they want.

What this means for writers is that if they expect to get published, they have to write what the publishers want so the publishers can give the readers what the readers want. That’s simple enough, isn’t it? But what about writers who can’t or won’t get in step? What about writers who won’t conform and can’t conform and never will be able to conform if they try for a million years? What about writers who are innovative or original or just plain peculiar? Well, they’re out in the cold, that’s what. And br-r-r-r-r, is it ever chilly out here!

It’s tempting to try and pin the whole stinking business on the reader. She’s the culprit, isn’t she? But that won’t work either. Because it’s not as if the readers all got together and conspired to marginalize writers who don’t fit into the mainstream mold and banish them to edge city. It’s not like that. Let’s face it. The modern reader will read what she’s been trained to read, what she’s learned to expect and want. And what she wants is what is known as “a good read,” an entertaining book she can read on the airplane—or on the toilet.

The bottom line is this, if you’re a non-mainstream writer: the means of production, the printing presses, are sequestered behind impenetrable stone walls. So what’s an edge-city desperado to do? Why, write on the walls, of course. Write on the walls themselves. Back to New York, then? Back to the subway? Nope, no need for that, not in this day and age. Because this is the 21st Century and we’ve got the Internet. And what is the Internet—if not a bigger subway and a bigger wall?

In my case, what I did after going through the motions of shopping my novel, Night Train, with the New York tree publishers, I published the book electronically and my publisher put Night Train up on Amazon Kindle for folks to read if they happened to be passing by that particular section of the cyber subway wall. Big advances? Humongous royalty checks? No, it’s more like the readers are dropping a quarter into my open guitar case. But that quarter is validation. It means that my work resonated with somebody out there. And the good news is, the electronic publishing revolution is just beginning and readership can only increase. Besides, as long as there’s a Walmart or a Taco Bell in town I can come up with a paycheck, can’t I? And, you know, it feels good. It feels right. It feels like I’ve come full circle and I’m back at that old familiar subway entrance down there at West 4th Street—right across from Barnes & Noble—and I’ve got my magic marker in my paw and I’m writing on the subway wall.

And what am I writing? Another novel, of course.

The novel as graffiti.

Donald O’Donovan wrote the first draft of Night Train (Open Books, 2010) on 23 yellow legal pads while homeless in the streets of LA. His other novels include Tarantula Woman, The Sugarhouse and Highway. An optioned screenwriter and voice actor with film and audio book credits, Donald O’Donovan lives mostly in Los Angeles. He can be reached

Find a list of O’Donovan’s books here and here. See O’Donovan’s other pieces on DDA: The Novel As GraffitiCardboard VillagesSimon Rodia, Architect of Dreams, and I Live Under Your Wallpaper

Find O’Donovan’s new novel, Orgasmohere.

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