Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A word about Charles Bock

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In January of 2008, the New York Times Magazine ran a profile, by Charles McGrath, that I’ve thought about often over the past three years. The subject was Charles Bock, author of the debut novel Beautiful Children, and his life story was both singular and uncomfortably familiar:

Bock worked for 11 years on Beautiful Children and lived for most of that time in a tiny one-bedroom Gramercy Park-area apartment….For a while Bock, who is now 38, a little old to be a first novelist, charged his groceries on his girlfriend’s credit card, and he rarely bought new clothing, making do with vintage rock T-shirts he collected in college. To pay the rent, he temped, worked as a researcher and a legal proofreader and ghost-edited Shaquille O’Neal’s autobiography, Shaq Talks Back. He also did a very unhappy stint as a rewrite man at a supermarket tabloid. But mostly he avoided steady work whenever he could, much to his parents’ concern.

It isn’t hard for any aspiring novelist to relate to this description, especially the last sentence. I know from experience that it can be tricky to convince one’s parents, or grandparents, that the time spent on a novel, in which even the most productive writer can make no visible progress for years, is a better use of one’s time than a paying job. In my case, it took four long years, with only a handful of publications along the way, before I began to earn anything close to a living wage for my fiction. And eleven years seems almost unimaginable.

In Bock’s case, the story had a happy ending: Beautiful Children was accepted for an advance that was “just into six figures,” and Bock was the subject of the respectful profile mentioned above, earning him more than a little backlash within the New York literary community—which, of course, is the greatest compliment of all. But, as for most writers, the numbers are remorseless: $100,000, split into three installments, after taxes and a 15% agency commission, isn’t a lot for eleven years of work. And it’s unclear if Beautiful Children, although greeted respectfully by critics and readers, ever earned back its advance.

Which brings us to the present moment, which appears to be a difficult one for Bock and his family. Author and blogger Edward Champion has more on their situation here, as well as information about a benefit that the literary community is organizing on their behalf. If you like, you can make a donation via PayPal, or, if you prefer, buy his book, which is worth a look for reasons of its own. Because writers need to look out for one another. Given the nature of this profession, we’re all going to need a little help somewhere along the way.

Written by nevalalee

December 23, 2010 at 9:32 am

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