Treated & Released: Sébastien Doubinsky
Robin: Has publishing Le Zaporogue and les Éditions du Zaporogue, the journal and the books, given you a more balanced perspective and helped you to define success as a writer differently than you might have otherwise?
Sébastien: No, actually, I have created both magazine and press to prove my point, which is the fact that “true” writers won’t care about the financial issue—as you know there is absolutely no money involved in Le Zaporogue, as it is a “profit-free” press—what they’ll care about is support, respect, and presentation of their work. To me, the success of a writer is not based on the number of his readers, but on the quality of his readers. Stendhal had only one reader, basically (he sold less than 10 novels during all his life, and two to himself!), but it was Balzac. Who needs 10,000 faceless readers when you have one Balzac to read and admire you?
The people who download and read the Zaporogue books and magazines are people who are specifically looking for new voices. Among them, some publishers—as Jerry Wilson, D. James Eldon, Myriam Gallot, and Sofiul Azam have discovered. All depends on what you put behind the word “success.” Success is not an objective notion—it is a relative notion. If you sell 20,000 copies, it can be either a success or a failure—if you sold 200,000 copies of your preceding book… It’s all a question of perspective. And of personal attitude towards own ambition—so be careful before you blame anyone…
Robin: What would you say to writers who will argue that it’s much easier for you to remain idealistic, now that your books have been well received?
Sébastien: Well, like I said before, I have been published for about 15 years and the new “success” is still very limited, even though it is heartwarming. But I don’t think I am being idealistic. I think I am actually trying to remain realistic. I remember after publishing my third novel with a rather prestigious French press, my editor at the time wasn’t so wild about my fourth book, which was quite experimental. She wanted me to go back to a more conventional form—and I wouldn’t have any of that. So, one day, she invited me for dinner and she told me, in a rather abrupt way, that it wasn’t because they had published three novels of mine that they would necessarily publish all my novels. And I told her that it didn’t matter if they didn’t publish that book, because it wouldn’t stop me from being a writer. So they didn’t publish the book (which was published a couple years later by another company) and I had expressed a statement I am still faithful to.
I really believe that being a writer is much more than being published. It is a state of mind, a part of your personality no one can take away from you. Sure, you should accept editing advice when it is sound (and it often is). But if you have a feeling that your work is being misunderstood and tilted the wrong way, don’t yield, even if it costs you. I am not saying that you should antagonize your agent or your editor—far from it. I myself have remained on good terms with almost all my editors and publishers, and am still in contact with them. But if you are a “real” writer, then you are yourself. That is the hardest part. To admit and understand that there isn’t another one of you, even if you use a pseudonym. You are whole, your life is whole.
Published, or unpublished.
That is why I also advocate realism. One should know his/her “niche,” his/her specificity. Literature is not one big blurred world. It is, quite in a contrary, more like a pharmacy, with thousands of boxes and thousands of labels. You might regret it (like I do) but that’s the truth. So you have to know your label—and even create it if you need to.
So, to finally answer your question, I actually think that being published makes it more difficult to be optimistic than not being published (yet). Most of the disappointment comes after the book is out. That’s the toughest part. The nonexistent reviews, the small reviews in small papers that no one reads, the bad reviews, the excellent reviews that have absolutely no effect on the sales… That’s where you really have to hang on and believe in yourself, no matter what, even if your own won’t lick your hand anymore… You know. You have to trust yourself 100%, because 1) no one else is going to do it for you, 2) you’re the best judge.
Sébastien Doubinsky’s latest books are a novel based on the legend of Billy the Kid, Quién es? (Joëlle Losfeld, 2010), and a trio of novellas in the new weird vein, The Babylonian Trilogy (PS Publishing, 2009). Doubinsky teaches French and French literature at Aarhus Universitet in Denmark and is the publisher of Le Zaporogue, a nonprofit multilingual press that publishes the work of writers all over the world.