Pursuing literary mastery for the sake of financial gain might be the single most counterintuitive career move ever (yet one made all too often by too many misguided souls). Yet us writers, loath to admit it, do pursue said mastery for the sake of an incorporeal currency—that which spurs the ego’s mercurial economy.
I’m talking about Validation, and its demigod, Glory. While extrinsic motivations—i.e. pursuits of vanity, status, wealth—bring us little lasting happiness compared to intrinsic motives—i.e. pursuits of fun, fulfillment, and flow—none of us Westerners are exempt from the psychological consequences of materialistic culture. In fact, most of us spend most of our time chasing the extrinsic carrot. Worse yet, even when intrinsic and extrinsic motivations merge—e.g. when you love a job for which you’re highly paid and praised—such extrinsic rewards can attenuate your intrinsic motivation, effectively neutralizing the fun and fulfillment formerly earned from that high-paying job for which you’d been showered with praise. Such data aligns with common sense and cliches—melodramatic superband breakups, megalomaniacal athletes, mo’ money mo’ problems.
And yet—I’m putting out this blog post, which lists the blurbs I’ve received thus far for Emerald City. (Blurb: those glowing reviews, written by lionized peers, plastered all over the back of a book; the literary version of Glorified Validation—see what I did there?). Getting a good blurb is kind of like being tagged in a Facebook photo with someone happier and cooler and just all-around better than you, their caption reading, “Had the best night ever with the surprisingly decent Brian Birnbaum! [Insert inside joke spawned from said night of bacchanal]. LOLz.”
Why am I shamelessly promoting validation of Emerald City? Because I worked on it for six years in a room by myself. Because, during those six years, validation came infrequently, in fits and starts, vastly outstripped by long stretches of quiet doubt and barely-useful anxiety. Because, in lieu of validation—the answer to said dearth of validation—I put my ass in the chair, my fingers on the keys, and got to fucking work.
Put simply, no one gave a shit what I was writing, not outside friends and family. But even intimates didn’t really give a shit, not on a quotidian level—not any more shits than I give about how their work days go, else we’d all be texting or calling ten or twenty people a night to make sure everyone’s goals are being pursued properly. It’s true that we all need help. It’s also true that no one can help you do it for you. No one was going to text me every morning with a motivational quote. No one was going to outline my next chapter, resolve a complicated internal contradiction, force me into two-a-days (draft-by-morning; edit-by-night)—no one doesn’t have a life.
I kept writing only because I needed to, and still need to. Far more than fun, fulfillment, and flow, writing’s the only glue that works, the only thing that keeps everything from coming apart, the only reason I’m sitting here in a beautiful apartment on Riverside, rather than in a cell or a clinic
But just because you need something for one reason doesn’t mean you don’t want it for another—the epigraph of my novel introduces the consequences of this very problem: modern America’s inability to understand paradox and antinomy, which are Fitzgerald’s mark of intelligence. Which is to say, while I need writing, I want validation for my writing. So, without further ado, here’s some much-wanted proof that I did a job:
"Some writers excel at plot, always two steps ahead of a reader dying to know what happens next. Others spin mind-jolting sentences that please us whatever their context. Still others create psychologically complex, plausibly damaged characters. Brian Birnbaum does all of this and more; Emerald City is so good a debut that it actually seems unfair."
"Though this nimble and virtuosic novel tracks everything from the long shadow of addiction to the unique pressures of college athletics, Emerald City is, at its heart, an intensely moving story about family. Birnbaum's electric, acutely funny storytelling pulls the wool over your eyes and allows the novel's poignance to sneak up on you, and I finished it beguiled by his trick and thrilled at its execution."
"Birnbaum’s Emerald City is fast-paced and raucous. A contemporary Odysseus-esque journey, where each moment, each conversation, is a fight for one’s life. Time feels like a needless and foreign construction because everything that matters is happening in the now. We like to think of people, place and narrative existing within boxes and boundaries, but this is work that is unafraid to veer. One is left feeling like they’ve been eavesdropping on a conversation they’re not supposed to be listening to. The palpable discomfort from this knowing turns physical, quick. Sometimes the passages themselves feel like a low hanging fog. Tangles of sublime language that work to snare and entrap that are as lush as the Emerald City herself. Moreover, when the fog dissipates, what one is left with is a landscape fraught with conflict and diversion, and choices that aren’t choices at all, a new take on thou mayest, where we keep coming back to the same question: What would you do to survive?"
“Melding basketball, trust funds, drug mules, and good ol’ noirish intrigue, Brian Birnbaum’s Dickensian portrayal of a hypercapitalistic Seattle’s underbelly (and overbelly) must be read and savored to be believed.”
I’m infinitely grateful for the words above. More than their generosity, their acknowledgement of my hard work—the six years of daily, grinding labor—means the world to me. As Kanye once spit, “I don’t do it for my health, man / I do it for the belt.” Indeed, particularly during the last rounds of edits, I worked myself into bad health. Hypoglycemic episodes, panic attacks, severe weight loss, deteriorating mental health—sacrifice.
But I didn’t do it for the belt. Didn’t do it for the validation, the glory. I did it for the love of the craft, the feeling of fulfillment, the flow—and the looks on the faces of family and friends upon heeding my desire to publish a novel I’m proud of. Though said desire stands in contradiction to the extrinsic motivation to be seen—to be seen as supramundane—such are the collateral accomplishments of heeding your truer motives. Such is the consequence of keeping it, as Snoop once spit, “Realer than Real Deal Holyfield.”
To read more about Gabe Habash, check out my review of Stephen Florida and my interview with Gabe, which you can find on my Publications page. Look out for more blurbs from writers such as Sergio De La Pava, whose latest novel, Lost Empress, I reviewed for 3:AM Magazine (also on my Pubs page). And of course be sure to keep tabs on Dead Rabbits news, whether through our website or by subscribing to our newsletter (bottom of the contact page)! You can also sign up for my newsletter here.