Monthly Archives: March 2016

Book Review: “The Engagements,” by J. Courtney Sullivan

“A Diamond is Forever” was one of the most enduring advertising slogans of the 20th Century. The female copywriter who penned that phrase in 1947 is at the center of  J. Courtney Sullivan’s third novel, “The Engagements.” 

Advertisers market the diamond as a symbol of commitment and status for couples seeking to marry. Sullivan explores the many dimensions of commitment and status in a sprawling, multi-generational work that spans nearly 100 years.

Sullivan looks at marriage through four separate couples whose sagas span the decades from the 1930s to 2012. Frances Gerety, the copywriter, is the glue that holds the story together. Gerety came up with the famous line in the middle of the night after a boozy dinner with a female colleague. She wasn’t sure it worked, but her bosses at N.W. Ayer & Son advertising agency decided to use it for their client, diamond behemoth De Beers. 

After she introduces Gerety, Sullivan shifts to Evelyn and Gerald Pearsall, who are living in comfortable retirement in 1972 when their son announces he is leaving his wife and two daughters for another woman. We meet Delphine, a 40-year-old French woman who leaves her loveless marriage with her business partner, Henri, in 2012 to run off to New York City with a much younger American violinist. In 1987, James McKeen and his wife, Sheila, are struggling to make ends meet and provide for their children, while their house is falling apart. And, early in the second decade of the 21st Century, Kate, a “conscientious marriage objector,” and her partner, Dan, are raising a young daughter in the Hudson Valley, but have no intention of marrying.

Sullivan weaves the four stories together, always returning to Gerety, whose story I found compelling. A female in the male dominated advertising industry, Gerety is denied the promotions and perks a man with her achievements would have received. Yet, she soldiers on and gives the reader a sober-eyed account of the struggles of high-achieving women in the middle of the last century.

The other character I like is Kate, who fights for her principles and rails against consumerism. Kate makes her views on marriage clear: “Marriage is a construct. It’s been sold as a way to keep women safe or make their lives better, but for the most part it’s been used to keep them down. In Afghanistan today, a woman might be encouraged to marry her rapist.”

Despite Kate’s views on the institution of marriage, she finds herself helping her gay cousin, Jeff, plan an elaborate wedding to his partner, Toby.  

What the reader ultimately come to learn through Sillivan’s story is that the seduction of the diamond, with its allure and promise of years of happiness, masks what marriage (or any long-term relationship) is all about. Relationships require commitment, love, and hard work and happiness is not assured. 

Having enjoyed Sullivan’s first two novels, “Commencement,” and “Maine,” I believe “The Engagements” shows Sullivan’s growth as a writer and her willingness to tackle more ambitious themes and more complicated stories. 





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Making a Living as a Fiction Writer: Is It the Right Goal?

This blog is usually devoted to essays on the craft of fiction. Rarely do I discuss trends in publishing. I am struck, though, by the number of incredibly talented writing colleagues who can’t eke out a living through their fiction writing. Recent studies bear out the challenges writers face in earning a decent income through publishing, whether traditional or self-publishing.

The Guardian newspaper reported that almost one-third of published authors make less than $500 a year from their writing. Citing a survey by Digital Book World, they reported that traditionally published authors make an annual median income of between $3,000 to $4,999. Hybrid authors, those who publish both independently and traditionally, earned the highest at an average of between $7,500 to $9,999 a year. In other words, even the successful ones make less than $10,000 a year earlier, which are poverty wages. 

It’s a harsh market for writers. Most writers are resigned to the need to have a full-time paying job with benefits to support their writing. When I began writing fiction nearly twenty years ago, I had no illusions. I knew the odds were stacked against me. A number of writers who were better than me struggled to get published and, in the years that ensued, many turned to self-publishing.

The economic realities are daunting. My advice to writers is to forget the notion of measuring success by achieving traditional publication. Sure, that’s an easy thing for me to say, but it’s not likely to make writers feel better. I suggest a different measurement for writers: improvement and development as a writer. That’s a more difficult metric to measure, but it can be done. Here are a few suggestions:

–Find a strong online writing community and actively participate. Make connections with writers at your level or above your level. Volunteer to be a beta reader for other writers and seek out beta readers for your work.

–Join a local writer’s group in which you can bring in your work to be critiqued by others. These groups exist in almost every region of the U.S. 

–Once you get established as a member of a writer’s group, cultivate three to five trusted members of the group and meet separately with that group. The main purpose of these smaller groups is to test out your work when it may not be ready for prime time and to brainstorm about challenges you face in your work in progress.

–Measure your progress by the feedback you receive. A clean page with few edits is real progress. Praise from exacting critics is like gold.

I found the perfect online writing community for me in Writer Unboxed. I have made deep connections with the wonderful people in this group. Just as important to me is the West Hartford Fiction Writer’s Group, which meets monthly at the local library. This group numbers about 25 and we typically get 10-12 at our monthly meetings. Group members are insightful, intelligent and honest critics. A writer’s work must be polished to pass muster with this group. My “safe haven” is an offshoot of this group that meets twice a month at the local Panera Bread. Here, I can bring in work that is not ready for the larger group and bounce ideas off three to five trusted colleagues.

I find fulfillment as a writer not though the pursuit of traditional publication, but through validation of my development by the members of these three writing communities. Most people can’t make a living as a writer, but that’s not why most serious writers do it. There’s nothing wrong with setting a different goal: to be the best writer you can be. 



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