i know this stranger doesn’t owe me anything but i also sometimes feel like he does

It’s been about five years now (Jesus…) since Mark Z. Danielewski finally released the first book in a series he’d been working on for more than a decade. The series is called The Familiar and it’s supposed to be 27-volumes long, with two titles coming out per year.

            I love it. You’d love it, too. Check it out.

            Thing is this: he’s only got a contract for the first ten volumes. It isn’t guaranteed that he’ll be allowed to finish it.

            If people don’t buy the books, the show gets cancelled.

            And that’s kinda what happened in 2017. Sales hadn’t risen to where they needed to be, despite Danielewski’s feverish productivity and marketing (dude went on city-hoppingbook tours twice a year, promoting each volume), so his publisher, Pantheon, put the series on “pause.”

            The solution, ostensibly, is for Danielewski to build his personal brand, make himself and the book spopular, and then the series’ll get jumpstarted. And he’s done a good job of cultivating a readership. He’s participating in Q&As with his readers on Facebook, hosting group readalongs with the help of his assistant Hazel.

            But then he disappears.

            It’s good, though, cuz he’s working. He finally cooperated with people looking to adapt his first novel, House of Leaves, into a show. Even wrote the pilot himself. But that appears to’ve fallen through. Hard to tell if we’re back at square one. Danielewski won’t say.

            He also just had a kid, his first, and he’s written a children’s book that’s coming out in November and that does exist within the universe of his “paused” series, The Familiar, so at least there’s this one concrete thing to look forward to.

            Otherwise: crickets.


            But now, on Instagram, Danielewski’s building up to the announcement of omething. He’s doing it by posting pictures of black squares. He changed his bio to three dots, a reference to something in The Familiar. He’s winnowing away at the number of people he follows. Probably taking it to zero.

            It’s a good tactic. The community of readers on Facebook is getting slowly riled. Conversations that’ve recently petered off to sleep are stirring again, stretching. Danielewski’s approach to the longform buildup, the purging of followers – it’s got this vibe of discipline, commitment, getting back to work. It’s exciting.

            I’m happy to see it.

            But I also fucking hate this shit so much because I love this series of books and so any kinda veiled suggestion of there being hope for its otherwise doomed-seeming continuation is, for me, a source of admittedly-absurd but no less gut-churning emotional response; and so, apart from just loving the thing, I’ve got this feeling – after a few years of avid reading, of getting word out about the series, of bonding with other readers and even chatting up the writer a couple times – of, like, entitlement to know what’s going on. Or not entitlement, necessarily, but just…don’t twist my nipples, y’know? If you see some light at the end of the tunnel, report back.


            But of course that’s bullshit, and this dude doesn’t owe me anything. I’ve read all five existing volumes repeatedly and have gotten a disproportionate amount of readerly pleasure and book-club camaraderie in exchange for the hundred-odd bucks and hours I put into em. It’s been amazing. Dude’s given me a gift I’ll be going back to forever.

            What comes to mind as Danielewski builds up to his announcement, though, and as I confront my own petulance and impatience as a reader/fan, is this idea of artist and audience having, in the modern internet world, more of a reciprocal relationship than the austere old school style of dropping a new book or album or film every other year, doing a little publicity, and then holing away to work on the next thing. Your star rises, your audience grows and you command more cash for your work that way, but you also become increasingly removed from the audience. Almost by necessity.

Look at this shit. This is his Instagram.

            In the early days of his career Charlie Chaplin would take off his mustache and makeup and, being thereby rendered unrecognizable, would sit in packed theaters to see which scenes of his own films the audience did and didn’t laugh at. James Patterson would go to his local bookstore to count how many of his books were still on the shelf from the day before.

            Young, vulnerable, eager to please.

            It’s a charmingg picture.

            Once their respective talents had been verified, however, they went on to create things on larger scales. Chaplin, in the late 1930s, puts up over a million bucks of his own cash to finance the 500+-day production of The Great Dictator – a phenomenally ballsy move, creatively and politically and financially, that he could never have managed if he were still haunting local theaters for a sense of validation, approval, permission.

You’ll read the whole thing in one feverish month. Of what we’ve got so far, the middle one’s the best.

            James Patterson now produces dozens of volumes each year, with a team of co-authors, for a spectrum of markets. His books generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the publishing industry and it’s probably not a stretch to identify him as one of the major arteries keeping traditional publishing in motion.

            It’s weird: when these artists are new to the game, small-time, you wanna get their name out and celebrate their work. You want them to succeed, to not have to worry about money, to be able to focus on their craft and realize their potential by going ever larger, ever larger.

Young Chaplin, a perfectionist, eager to please and then, with time, his own dude, content to do his own thing, with or without you.

            Sometimes we get lucky and it happens.

            But then there’s a schmohawk like me who wants VIP treatment when they get big because, what, I bought your early work and that means you, the artist, owe me something?

            My parents raised, nurtured, educated me, put me on – do I now accord them any license to dictate what I do with my life? Do I feel they have a right to know everything I’m up to? Of course not.

So why do I feel this way about artists?


            Anyway. Elaborating on that earlier example of an artist’s ascent: Danielewski is in this weird middle ground where he’s been on the literary scene for about twenty years since his 2000 publication of House of Leaves. He’s not new. He’s got an avid following of readers who tattoo themselves with his work. His literary star hangs high and his list of accomplishments is formidable.

            But his work is also challenging (i.e. not popular), and he hasn’t produced very much in terms of quantity, which means that, following that first cult-classic, he didn’t hop on the bullet train to stardom that, say, David Foster Wallace did by releasing a book of essays almost immediately after Infinite Jest, and then a collection of stories a couple years later, and then more stories, and then more essays. Or Bret Easton Ellis chasing Less Than Zero with Rules of Attraction and then American Psycho a few years after that, then a book of stories. Four volumes in the first decade of your career keeps your name on people’s tongues.

            So there’s this vibe with Danielewski like he’s both a towering literary figure, forbiddingly accomplished and dragging a long tail, but there’s also this vibe of possessiveness that you feel with an indie artist, like he’s approachably obscure, beholden to and loudly appreciative of his loyal niche of readers. He shows up to events dressed down in his own line of affordable clothing. He’s friendly. Wears a hat, unironicallly. You can imagine him cooking spaghetti. Human.

            I know it’s dumb and probably lowkey toxic to be speculating out loud about this feeling of possessing a person in any way at all. But here I am.

Anyway. I’m looking forward to whatever he’s gonna reveal, but it’s also driving me up a fucking wall.

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