Publishing, and the Folly of Adulthood

Note: I wrote this blog post in 2016 after Silent Hall came out, and then it sat in a drafts folder for six years, gathering metaphorical dust. My life changed drastically in 2018, and I am now a stay-at-home dad with the occasional tutoring gig, so in theory the desk at home is a reality these days. And yet, as the pandemic and some ill luck slowed my writing and publishing career to a trickle, I find myself in need of the reminder that my childhood dream wasn’t to publish two books a year and make lots of money, it was to see my books in stores and know that somewhere out there, readers were loving them.

A few weeks ago, a coworker of mine told me a wonderful story. His eight year old daughter was flipping through his copy of Silent Hall and suddenly exclaimed, “N.S. Dolkart signed this for you?”

“Yeah,” my coworker said, amused by the awe in her voice. “Well I work with him.”

Her response was an even more awed, “You work with N.S. Dolkart?”

I’ve been thinking about that response more and more lately, especially when I’m tempted to be self-deprecating about my writing career. To this girl, the knowledge that I worked with her dad at the nursing home didn’t make me lamer. It made her dad cooler.

Like many writers, I grew up idolizing my favorite authors, imagining their distant genius and hoping to someday be like them. I imagined sitting at a desk the way my father did at home (he and my mother were a two-person software migration company for many years), creating beautiful and exciting stories out of the wealth of my imagination. And then some other kids could read my books and go, “Wow, this is so good. This guy is my favorite author.”

That childhood vision included both an assumption and a goal. The assumption: being an author involves sitting at a desk in your home in the middle of the day, writing great books. The goal: having other people read my stories and be as bewitched and inspired by them as I was by my own favorites.

Amazingly, foolishly, tragically, adulthood and the realities of the publishing industry have managed to flip my childhood assumption and goal. Being someone’s favorite author is all well and good, the thinking goes, but people have too glamorous a picture of what happens when your novels get published. You don’t get to sit at a desk in your home being brilliant and creative all day; you go to work like everybody else, come home hungry and exhausted, and have to somehow sneak in your writing time either before bed or way early in the morning. If you’re me, that means getting very little sleep and catching lots of colds. I’ve got one right now, in fact.

So now the desk at home is the goal, and getting people bewitched and inspired is the prerequisite. The adult world says, “Good for you, getting published! Are you making much money?” People don’t ask you to tell them about the cool things that happen in your next book (spoilers and all that, you know) – they ask how your sales are going.

And the reality is that although I hear my sales are pretty decent, that desk at home is still a far off fantasy. And so, despite myself, I fall into adulthood’s trap of judging my artistic career by the money it makes, deeming it a disappointment until some point in the distant future when I’ll be able to support my family merely by writing people’s favorite books.

But my friend’s daughter is right: it’s really freaking cool that I’m a published author, and that’s in no way diminished by the fact that I have an unglamorous day job. Who cares if I don’t write my books during daylight hours – I’m writing books, and people are reading them! I’m living the dream!

I have had total strangers leave reviews on Goodreads thanking me for getting them back into reading again. Does it matter that they only bought one copy? That I likely netted less than a dollar on the transaction? Hell, no. My childhood dream didn’t involve royalty structures.

Thoughts on the 4 Children

Passover is still a couple months away, but I was thinking about the Four Children this morning, and specifically about the Wicked Child and the Wise one. I have spent much of my life identifying the Wise Child with more ritually observant Jews and the Wicked one with a sort of New Atheist arrogant secularism, but this morning it occurred to me that the Wicked Child’s question doesn’t actually imply that he’s less observant than the parent. On the contrary, the Wicked Child’s question represents attitudes of distancing and separation that are universal, whereas in this framework the Wise Child can represent a desire to be fully included.

As most Jews are more than aware, in more ritually observant circles there is a tendency to look at more liberal Jews and their services with contempt and ask, “but if you’re not going to do things the Right way, isn’t your observance essentially meaningless? What does any of this even mean to you?”

A quick reminder: you’re instructed to punch the Wicked Child in the teeth.

After that, you are to make the point that YOU, and not he, have been redeemed. He chooses not to identify as your fellow Jew but as a superior one, a more enlightened one, one who is separate from the community, and so he cannot share in its redemption. To put the message in more forceful and profane terms: either we’re all Jewish together, or he can fuck off.

Compare this to the Wise Child, whose question is not about the inherent worth of the seder but about the how of it all. This child doesn’t ask why you don’t just give up if you’re not doing things up to his standards, he asks, “ok, how do we do this?” He wants to be included in YOUR seder, and to do it right by your standards. You are instructed to include him and teach him your ways.

As always, we should see ourselves in all four children: in the Simple one’s wonder; the Unable-to-Ask child’s need for someone else to start the conversation; in the Wise child’s desire to be included and up to speed; and in the Wicked one’s urge to dismiss others and their benighted ways. This year, I submit that it doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum of ritual observance when it comes to the lessons of the Four Children, only your approach to the community of the seder. Some of my favorite Wise children have been outsiders who became Jewish later or not at all, who approached our rituals and our culture with interest and respect. Some of my least favorite Wicked children have been me.

Was America Always This Way?

I think what a lot of us have been struggling with recently is the question of how a country that reelected Barack Obama could have come so close to also reelecting Trump — or, conversely, how a country that very nearly reelected Trump in the midst of outright social and economic catastrophe could also have reelected a Black dude with a middling economy not even a decade before. How could a country that was “always this way,” that always had so many people willing to throw away democracy and lives and the economy in order to keep white supremacy in the White House, have also reelected Obama in 2012? It seems impossible for many of us to imagine that Obama’s America and Trump’s America are not only the same place, but also by and large made up of the same people.

Trump’s overt racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and overall vulgarity have proven to be a remarkably effective turnout operation for white voters, even without all the ballyhooed micro targeting that was supposed to be able to sway close elections. This undeniable fact raises many disturbing questions. If we were always this country, if the deep wells of white supremacy that Trump “activated” were always there, does that mean that Romney could have won in 2012 if he’d only been more racist? If he’d only been a brazen, vulgar, Trumpian figure rather than an avatar of the old school genteel white patriarch, would that have won him the White House? Even worse, could Trump himself have beaten Obama if he’d run in 2012? After all, Obama ’12 only beat Clinton ’16 by 60k votes total, whereas Trump ’16 beat Romney ’12 by over 2 million.

The answer, I think, is no. The Trump path to victory in 2016 was not open in 2012, even if you disregard the influence of Comey’s shenanigans, WikiLeaks dumps of Russian espionage, the differences between Obama and Clinton’s relations with the media, and so on. Why? Because in 2012, Shelby County v. Holder hadn’t happened yet.

A person could be forgiven for thinking of voter suppression as a thing the left has always complained about, that has always been with us, and therefore something that has barely changed over the years. Such a person would be wrong. The 2013 Shelby County decision opened the door to a new wave of voter suppression the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the ’60s. Since that decision, states have been free to close hundreds of polling places, often without warning, to impose new voter ID laws even as they close DMVs, and to purge hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls, a policy the court officially condoned in 2018’s Husted ruling. The Republican Party’s brazenness in pursuing a whites-only electoral strategy owes everything to these decisions.

Much ink has been spilled about negative partisanship over the last few years, with commenters right and left agreeing that Donald Trump has had a particularly polarizing effect on the electorate, jazzing up both his base and his opposition, culminating this year in the highest-turnout election in living memory. In 2012, the last time a Democrat won Florida, it was not unreasonable for Republicans like Romney to worry that going full racist would end up turning out more voters against the GOP than for it. The famous “2012 Election Autopsy” urged national Republicans to abandon the politics of white racial grievance, arguing pretty reasonably that a party that went 1 for 6 in the presidential popular vote was not on a sustainable path (it’s now 1 for 8).

But the Court came to the rescue and provided a different path to victory: doubling down on voter suppression. If you can rally and radicalize your own base while keeping half the people you turn off from ever reaching a polling booth, brazen white supremacy stops being such an automatic loser. In 2016, in a perfect storm of Russian interference, sexism in media, meaningless but scary-sounding FBI announcements, and high third-party margins, it was just barely enough to eke out an electoral victory amid yet another popular vote loss, this one a loss by over 2 percentage points and over two and a half million votes. This year, even with record suppression and the unprecedented gutting of the US postal service, it wasn’t enough.

This is not a victory lap. With a 6-3 Supreme Court and no guarantee of a Senate majority, the Suppress Your Way To Victory path remains, and with it, despite all demographic change, the Rally Racist Whites path. If you think demographic change is bound to overcome legalized voter suppression, I’d encourage you to look up the demographics of the antebellum South. It’s not enough to have the majority on your side, you need the law on your side too. Until we can change the structure of our voting systems, or at least guarantee that they won’t get even worse, the Trumpian path to power will remain. If we can return our small-d democratic infrastructure back even to 2012 levels, that path will almost certainly disappear.

To return to the original question, was white America always this open to racism and demagoguery? Yes. Most certainly. Was that always a viable path to conservative victory? No.

So, have we seen the last of the Romney/Ryan genteel racist? Considering all the genteel racism even on the other side of the aisle, I doubt it. But I suspect that with another Romney-style presidential candidate, Republicans’ white rural turnout problem would return in full force. After Trump’s loss, future Republican candidates will have to reweigh the risks and rewards of relying purely on white supremacy and grievance politics. Or, as famous Twitter personality dril would put it:

Vegetarian bao tze

I made vegetarian bao tze for dinner last night, and finally got my act together enough to ask my wife to film the steps. This is my own recipe for filling, adapted from techniques taught to us by our erstwhile apartment mate Huiping. I do show how to make the dough, but not until the 9th video. Enjoy!

Some Thoughts on Romance

I have now finished reading my very first romance novel, The Duchess War by Courtney Milan. For those unfamiliar with the controversy currently tearing the Romance Writers of America apart, and Milan’s role in bringing the RWA to task for institutional racism, here’s a primer. There have been many expressions of solidarity and support from the SFF community, which has been contending with its own history (and present) of racism for some time now, and after a tweet from author Casey Blair seemed to call me out personally, I felt it was time to start reading some romance.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from a genre that my own mother describes as trashy and formulaic, but I’ve had to tell enough people that fantasy is more than an endless parade of Conan the Barbarian ripoffs. It was well past time to look beyond the genre’s surface reputation. I’m glad I did.

The Duchess War was the first of Milan’s books to come in at the library, and it’s on the historical fiction rather than SFF side of things; I still thought it was great. The novel was sweet, with many compelling characters, a well-crafted plot, and a lot more to say than I’d ever been led to expect from romance (except on Twitter, which does have a few redemptive qualities). There was a bit more sex than I’m used to, but really only a bit more. I’ve read SFF that was far more obsessed with sex than this romance novel, but without the high character stakes or even character relevance that made this book’s sex scenes worthwhile. Besides which, I’m old enough to recognize the power of fiction to reflect and model social/sexual dynamics, and this book took a LOT more care with its depictions of both good and bad sex than most of the SFF I’ve read.

I’ve written my share of sex scenes (you don’t need to tell me what you think of them), less graphic, for sure, than the ones in The Duchess War, but not otherwise so different in content. I agonized over them. It’s not easier or more frivolous than designing a magic system, and it can have a greater effect on the quality of your book. Rarely has a book or series been panned for the vagaries of its magic system, but a poorly written – or, worse, poorly conceived – sex scene can do readers actual harm. Plenty of well-regarded books have done so.

The attention Milan puts into her characters’ sex lives – not just into the physical acts, but into the relationship dynamics those acts stem from, and the way the sex and the relationship affect each other in a self-reinforcing cycle – yields a product that is far more impressive, far more important, far more interesting than I was ever led to believe.

Which inevitably brings me to the question: why was I led to believe that a huge, billion-dollar industry, encompassing nearly a third of all fiction sales and dominated almost entirely by women writing about sex and relationships in all manner of settings, would be boring? Why did I expect it to be, to quote a character from Fire and Hemlock, sentimental drivel? The more I think about it, the more remarkable it seems that our culture manages to convince young men that romance is simultaneously:

  • All about sex
  • With a female gaze
  • Not worth reading

Point A isn’t entirely true, but let’s set that aside for now and just stare at this list. Young men like sex! Most of us* also care A LOT about being able to give our partners what they want, whether we have a current partner or not, and would be far better served in that regard by reading romance than by reading the works of some Golden Age sexual predator. So while it’s not shocking or surprising that our messed-up culture discourages young men from picking up any genre that is female-coded and dominated, both by telling us that it’s worthless and that we’ll be mocked if we give it a try, it’s still…remarkable. It should be remarked upon.

Mind you, I’m not saying that romance as a genre does a great job of modeling healthy relationships. Again, I’ve read just the one book so far, and I started with this badass author precisely because she has called out racism in her field. I had reason to believe her books wouldn’t horrify me. But whether Milan’s novels are reflective of her field or are in fact its gold standard, it doesn’t do us any favors to teach our young men that the genre’s overwhelmingly female gaze makes it frivolous and trashy, unlike, uh, Hemingway? Fitzgerald? Asimov? I mean, wtf.

Because it’s time to get back to point A: romance is not “all about sex.” The plot of the Duchess War involves a woman with good reason to believe that public attention will cause her permanent harm and likely endanger her life. She’s a master tactician, but caught between the sleuthing of a public official and the courtship of an attractive but clueless duke, her ability to keep out of the spotlight seems doomed, as does her ability to keep her best friend and keep her guardians out of poverty. The duke, in the meantime, is a man with a traumatic upbringing, trying to overcome a poor grasp of tactics to undo his father’s legacy and upend the social order. To call their tension formulaic or their eventual coupling predictable is to miss the masterful use of dramatic irony. The fact that romance readers know these two will end up together, and that they will make excellent partners and allies when they do, is a good part of what makes the reading pleasurable. What’s more, the story does not end with their wedding or the sex that follows, nor does the tension between their needs end there.

I’m not actually going to give spoilers here: it’s a good book, and you should read it. The point is that there is a plot to enjoy and care about, outside of the sexual tension and the descriptions of its release. To say that The Duchess War was “all about sex” would be like saying Game of Thrones was all about dragons. It’s true that there are dragons! A bunch of characters spend a bunch of time thinking and talking about dragons! But that doesn’t really do much to explain the plot of George R.R. Martin’s series or its adaptation to the screen, let alone their cultural power. I learned more from reading Courtney Milan this month than I did from reading Steinbeck or Salinger in high school. We should take romance seriously.


*A centenarian once called me a “nice young man,” and when I asked her at what age I would stop being a nice young man and become simply a nice man, she said 35. By that measure, I still have two and a half years before I have to stop considering myself a young man.

My Readercon Schedule

My Readercon schedule is now official! Here’s what we’ve got:

Reading: N.S. Dolkart
Fri 8:30 PM, Sylvanus Thayer

Kaffeeklatsches: N.S. Dolkart, Gemma Files
Sat 12:00 PM, Concierge Lounge

Hospitable Worlds
Erik Amundsen (mod), N.S. Dolkart, Max Gladstone, Elaine Isaak, Tracy Townsend
Sat 7:00 PM, Salon A
There’s been much analysis of both the technique and the moral legitimacy of making readers feel alienated, disturbed, or unsafe. But in a 2017 keynote speech at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, Amal El-Mohtar said, “We don’t talk a great deal about being hospitable; about being welcoming in our writing, about creating worlds… that—even if they contain fierce creatures or vicious climates—receive the reader as a guest.” Panelists will discuss how, when, and why to make readers feel welcome in the text.

Food at the Corner of Fiction and Community
N.S. Dolkart, Andrea Martinez Corbin (mod), Greer Gilman, Michael Swanwick, Sabrina Vourvoulias
Sat 9:00 PM, Salon A
Food plays a central role in many cultures and accordingly takes center stage in the work of many speculative fiction writers. How does cuisine help define, or build, a community? How can food be used to communicate important information about a people to the reader? What are some particularly noteworthy examples of the way food can be used to set, or subvert, expectations?

Writing Update

What has the great NS Dolkart been up to for the last five-plus months? Well, writing, of course! I’m working on a new, standalone novel, and it’s fantastic. I’m branching out a bit by setting this story in a magical version of our real world at a particular moment in history, so as a consequence I’ve had to spend more time and energy on research than I did with the Godserfs. I’ve been drafting even slower than usual, and even now am only about a third of the way through a first draft.

But it’s good! People who liked the Godserfs for the trilogy’s focus on character relationships will love this one too. Not as much theology this time, but I’m making up for it with historical and culinary detail.

“Wait, did he just say culinary detail?”

Why, yes, gentle reader, I did. This historical fantasy is chock full of cooking! There’s even a heart-pounding dramatic cooking scene with high stakes and sabotage! I can’t wait for you to read it!

Radio show TONIGHT!

In just ONE HOUR, I will be joining my college friend Katharine Duckett and charming host Jim Freund on WBAI New York’s “Hour of the Wolf” radio show! Tune in at 99.5FM if you’re in the NYC area, or at if you’re not, and hear us live! There will be film reviews, story readings, and, around 1am EST (more or less), an interactive reading of The Maltese Pelican.

Interactive how, you say? Well, you can call in and read with us! The number is (347) 335-0818.

For those unfamiliar with the rules of a bad prose reading, they are as follows:

1) When it’s your turn, read the story aloud from wherever your predecessor left off. It’s okay to go back to the beginning of the sentence if you need to.

2) If you laugh, your turn is over.

3) Your turn is also over if you misread the text: for example if it says “terfific” and you read “terrific.” Try to adhere to the punctuation too, when possible, though you are not required to say “quote…end quote” or anything like that.

4) Feel free to interrupt another reader if they have erred in steps 2 or 3.

5) Be a good sport about it. There is no prize for “winning,” and no penalty for “losing.” Your turn is only over temporarily! Stick around…the other readers are bound to mess up sooner or later.


Want to try your luck? Give the studio a call! The story is here. The number is (347) 335-0818. Give it a shot!