Five years ago I wrote a series of intellectually insincere articles with the sole purpose of building a resume. I was a few years out of my MFA and beginning the search for an agent to represent my own fiction, and I wanted to boost my credentials above those of my peers who, like me, had academic accomplishments but few or no publications to their names.
I’d earned my MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, a wonderful program with brilliant teachers who focused on teaching craft over professional development. However, they always implied that the proper stepping-stones into publishing were literary journals. The idea was that we were workshopping our stories each week both to learn skills and to polish the stories themselves to the point where they’d be submittable to the journals we had lying around the department offices. But aside from very rare exceptions, we were all rejected. I certainly was, over and over again. Dozens, then hundreds, of times.
I was eager to believe my more sophisticated and cynical classmates when they told me that the world of literary journals was governed by nepotism. That until I had favors to trade I wouldn’t get published, and that most of these magazines had more people submitting to them than actual readers. The truth was I didn’t know if any of this was accurate. What I knew was, just as when I hadn’t been invited to the party in high school, I was happy to hear stories of how only scumbags had been there, anyway.
So upon graduation I figured the next best thing was to review books for reputable publications. I sent clippings from college everywhere, from the Times to Time Out New York to websites that covered my Brooklyn neighborhood, but, again, nobody responded.
I’d been querying agents at the time, and no one was responding those emails, either, so I was growing desperate. I selected a novel that was receiving a lot of attention—The Art of Fielding—and I wrote a reckless takedown. I emailed the review to a random editor at Salon.com, who attached a click-bait headline that barely had to do with my piece — English teacher: I was wrong about “Hunger Games” — and published within 24 hours. My wife and I celebrated.
But the piece was really, really bad.
In it, I admit to urging a student to read The Art of Fielding before I’d read it, myself. I affect the tone of a moral librarian, instructing readers on what constituted more and less valuable literature. Try to make sense of this sentence: “If the literary establishment wants our teenagers to fall in love with literature, it must stop cynically writing and imprudently reviewing books like ‘The Art of Fielding’ as though they were examples of adult literary fiction.”
What did I mean by any of this? What was this “literary establishment” that was both “cynically writing” and “imprudently reviewing” books for “our” teenagers?
All that stands out to me now is my naked opportunism and, mostly, jealousy. Jealousy of Harbach’s success, of his having accomplished everything I wanted but that seemed so far from my grasp, and of the reviewers who were blessed to be reviewing for the Times or the New Yorker where they could think honestly and wisely about a work of art — and where they could build reputations with which to publish their own novels.
Harbach, of whom I’d always been a fan (I’d circulated his essay on the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry), had never made any of the claims that I was so vainly dispelling. He’d simply written an entertaining novel about baseball, academia, sex, love, and friendship.
Well, my strategy worked. With this piece, I was able to I publish elsewhere. I slowly built a resume.
Today, July 11th, is the publication date my debut novel. Not only do I shudder at the prospect of reciprocity — that someone will use the novel that I’ve spent years writing as a stack of papers to publicly set aflame in order to gather attention — but also, like a job applicant scanning through Facebook at pictures of him or herself making lascivious faces and drinking Jagerbombs in a skimpy bathing suit, I’m horrified not to be able to erase the wanton indiscretion of my needy and vulnerable years.
When I am at my most self-forgiving, I allow that these early essays were a means to an end. That what really mattered was my novel. I did what I had to, and people have done far worse. But I’m not sure. Why does a novel that a few thousand people will read matter so much more than essays that a few thousand people will read? The novel has more cultural cache, but that’s probably just among my friends who spent years earning their MFAs. I’ve worked harder on the novel, but that just means I should have worked harder on the essays. Nowhere did I, even for a moment, elevate any work of art — whether Harbach’s or my own — over my ego or ambition. And even after all this, even as I write these words, I can’t help but still hope that I’ll be noticed.
Brian Platzer has an MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and a BA from Columbia University. His writing has appeared often in The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, as well as in The New York Times, the New Republic, Salon, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and two young sons in Bed-Stuy and teaches middle school English in Manhattan.