First let me say I’ve been a dedicated writer for half a century. I’ve published twenty-five books, and I’ve even won some prizes. I know a real writer is supposed to write for the art itself, yearning only toward self-expression and the joy of creation, ignoring the fickle heart of the market place. I know all about papering the office walls with rejections. I’m not a quitter, not a cry-baby (though I have cried a few times and once I crept into bed for a few weeks till a certain violent literary shock wore off). Looking back on my writing life, I see that some warning moments stand out. In 1967, when my first novel, An Antique Man, was published, Joyce Carol Oates wrote: “I’ll be reviewing your novel for the Detroit news, and I’ll send you a clipping…” Three months later she wrote again: “…it is a most moving and painful novel, beautifully done, and I will retain certain scenes in my mind for a long time. If the long newspaper strike in Detroit ever comes to an end, I will certainly review the novel.”
I don’t know when the strike came to an end, but there was never a review. There were other hints to me about the nature of the writing life. William Shawn, at the New Yorker, read An Antique Man, and wrote to me that he and his staff had tried hard to find a section to stand on its own but they hadn’t succeeded. Two months later, one of his staff wrote me: “Mr. Shawn can’t get your book out of his mind, so please send it back to us so we can try again to find an excerpt that will work.”
Again, I took the trip to the post office with my mss. Some weeks later Mr. Shawn sent back the novel a second time. He was sorry, he had tried very hard, but he just couldn’t find a section to stand alone. The second rejection was much worse than the first —a kind of brutal blow to the delicate strand of hope that had been fluttering in my mind.
Modern psychology tells us that when a relationship feels wrong, we’d do well to focus on a single issue that’s manageable—not to list all the old insults, failings and faults of the beloved. But the list of the failings of my beloved art continues to grow longer. I feel I can no longer live with them.
Recently, I found a letter from a publisher written to me in 1986. “Thank you for sending me your novel. I think you would have to be dead not to think this manuscript is funny and lively. The only problem with it is a certain lack of discipline…”
For four months I worked to insert certain disciplines the editor felt were essential. Then she wrote again. “I think that your revisions are excellent, and that you have successfully integrated the fantastic and the real. However, difficulties arise after our heroine leaves the hospital. So now what? Can I say to you that I think you have aimed your plot in a misguided direction? I don’t know if I can, but I certainly think so. If these very real difficulties can be resolved we can discuss a book.”
What difficulties did she mean? How was I to guess at them? We had no further discussions and my novel was never published.
In 1989, an editor from Little Brown wrote me about my longest novel, a 650 page family saga called The Victory Gardens of Brooklyn: “I found this novel to be wonderfully engrossing, full of the marvelously realized characters whose personalities propel them into their individual predicaments. But midway though the mss, I felt that the chronological sequence precluded the sort of definable story line that would give each character’s subplot satisfying form and substance. If you decide to rework the novel, I would very much like to read it again.”
Rework 650 pages? On speculation? With no contract? All the while trying to guess what the editor’s vision might be? I wrote, asking if she could be more specific. Well, she could not really point the way for me. I’d have to figure it out for myself. But I had already figured out the way the book should be constructed, that’s what had taken me several years of work. I put the book in the closet where one day I listened in to be sure its heart had stopped beating.
The New Yorker, after publishing two of my stories, returned a story set at a family Thanksgiving dinner and told me the problem with it was that it was told in present tense. I rewrote it in the past tense and sent it back. Apparently they had second thoughts. “It turns out to be one of those common family event stories. We have too many of these in our inventory.”
An editor at Esquire asked me to revise a story three times, then gave up on it saying, “Sorry, but less is more.” An editor at Redbook “loved” a story up to the point where the narrator, who is depressed, decides to consult a therapist. The Redbook editor felt that that therapy might suggest insanity to some of their readers. “What should I have her do, go to Italy instead?” I asked, and the editor said that would be perfect. I made the changes and Redbook published the story.
In the 1990s, I sent my novel King of the World to twenty-five publishers. The letters of response to it showed real visceral distress: “This book is so powerful it reminds me of spoiled meat,” and “This makes me very uncomfortable to read, how do you know how men think?” It was one of the early novels about domestic violence, and all the female editors said of the heroine, “Why doesn’t she just leave him?” Finally, an editor at Atlantic Monthly Press sent me a letter saying he felt the novel was stunning and he wanted to publish it. However, he had to get support from each of five other editors. The process took five months. Each month he would write me that Editor Two loved it and it was now going to Editor Three or Editor Four. I hardly left the house. I kept the phone free for a possible call from the press. Then I learned that Editor Five also loved it. Editor Six now had the mss. I was unable to sleep. I had heart palpitations. I couldn’t eat. And then I got the final letter. Editor Six said it was very impressive but he didn’t see how they could market it.
That was the time I took to my bed. For some weeks I was ill. Cynthia Ozick suggested I send it to Pushcart Press, which did not have six editors, but one man, Bill Henderson, in charge of the decisions. Bill chose to publish the book and gave it the Pushcart’s Editors’ Book Award. The reviews made me hopeful. Publishers Weekly wrote, “A mock coronation opens this brilliant novel about the harrowing but erotically charged 15 year marriage of Ginny and Michael.” Bill Henderson called me and said, “I think it’s going to happen. New American Library wants to do a mass market paperback.” But somehow it didn’t happen. I never learned why. And what does it matter, since we all know “almost” doesn’t count.
I had a number of agents, all of whom worked in my behalf. One finally urged me to “put a little more sunshine in your typewriter,” and another fired me, saying she could earn more money by selling cookbooks.
For twenty-five years I applied for NEA and Guggenheim grants. The Guggenheim turn-down letter always came on my birthday, March 15th. I gave up applying when I realized I had asked four esteemed persons each year to write about my impressive qualities. A hundred letters! And all for naught.
My last six books have been published by university presses, which, once peer reviewers give approval, blessedly leave the author to his vision and his architecture.
What does it all mean? Is the writing life all about luck, or about talent, or about plain accident? Should a writer hope for posthumous comfort? When I told one of my daughters that I was tired of “begging and being bludgeoned,” she said, “Those are violent words, aren’t they?” But when a writer has given away great chunks of her life, and all her understanding of it, and all her knowledge of it, when she has risked losing friendships and the love of family members, when she has typed ten million words (but never had a job as a typist, never had a real income, never will have a pension), when her books are published but often not reviewed and even less read, and when she finds that bitterness is overtaking hopefulness, isn’t it time to stop?
I think I’ve written all I want to say. I did want to write this.
See Also: The Fine Art of Rejection Letters
This essay is a Rumpus Reprint and was originally published in The Sewanee Review. For more information on Rumpus Reprints please see our About page.