Getting Published

I tend to think that the difficulty most people encounter when trying to get published is tied to the current state of the literary market. But just lately it’s come to my attention that it was no easier a century ago. Reading The Magnificent Ambersons, I noted in the introduction that it took Pulitzer prize winner Booth Tarkington seven long years of writing at home, submitting plays, stories and novels to publications that remained steadfastly uninterested in them, before he finally got a break. And it wasn’t even as if he received that glorious, life-changing telegram or letter in response to a submission. No, what seems to have happened in the end is that his loyal sister traveled all the way to New York and bullied a publisher into reading one of his manuscripts. How did that scene go, I wonder? I have an image in my head of two determined black button boots striding along the dusty, dappled pavements, ascending a flight of stone steps, the finger of one gloved hand pressed resolutely to a brass bell. Would she have gone for the sentimental appeal (‘Seven years of trying, and you are our last hope!’) or would she have been bold and militant (‘Sir, I shall sit myself in this chair and refuse to budge until you have at least considered my brother’s work!’). I imagine in response a walrus moustache springing to piqued and petulant attention (‘Madam! We are speechless!’). But she must have won them over somehow, made some sort of appeal that broke the crust on their hearts. Maybe the mere fact of turning up that way was enough, back in 1890-whatever.

Booth Tarkington went on to have a stellar career, but many writers, whom we may today think of as canonical authors, limped through writing lives, determined but unsuccessful. Anais Nin is a classic example. Nin began writing her diary, aged 11 and never stopped. Right back at the cusp of adolescence, she committed herself to a career in writing – no, I am inaccurate, she committed herself to becoming a literary legend – and yet it took her until her 60s to achieve this. And it wasn’t for lack of helpers, either. Nin was extraordinarily well connected for an aspiring writer, with a number of mentors who were themselves significant figures in the arts, and yet still success eluded her. She began reasonably well, with a small critical study of D. H. Lawrence, who was one of her biggest influences, in the early 1930s. But it didn’t sell much, nor garner much acclaim. At the time, Nin had just met Henry Miller and was throwing her weight behind his literary career, providing him with housing and food and adoration, which was a pretty fine combination of bare necessities for Miller. For all you can say about Anais Nin’s morals (and a great deal has been said), she certainly didn’t love him as a cynical investment in her writing career, but as the years rolled on and fame proved elusive, Miller never hesitated to use his influence or his contacts for her. He advertised her work in magazines he wrote for, used her prefaces to his novels, tried every which way to get her a deal. In the end, Nin set up her own press and began printing her own books, because no one else would take them.

A kind of pattern seemed to assert itself over Nin’s attempts to take the literary world by storm. She didn’t lack supporters, but that support was always conditional. The admired critic, Edmund Wilson, began to review her self-published work favourably, after noticing her at the Gotham Book Mart and considering her ‘the most exquisite woman I had ever seen’. And eventually an infatuated young editor by the name of Gore Vidal helped her make it into commercial print, with the novel Ladders to Fire coming out in 1946. The results were comically disastrous, for those who didn’t love Nin clearly didn’t love her work, either. Nin painstakingly copied into her diary her worst review, from among many bad reviews, by Elizabeth Hardwick, no less, who declared ‘no writer I can think of has more passionately embraced thin air’ and described her work as ‘vague, dreamy, mercilessly pretentious’. The affair with Wilson died down and his reviews turned sour as well. The commercial deal was soon lost and Nin was back to her self-manned printing press. Vidal, who rapidly fell out of love with Nin, ended up writing a cruel parody of her in one of his novels, an act for which she never forgave him. You might well think that Nin would have been downcast or discouraged by this series of disasters, but it seemed that she had been busy steel-plating her ego. Throughout the forties and fifties she battled with rage and frustration against the indifference of the literary world, but she never considered herself less than a major figure who was being unreasonably thwarted.

And once again, it was Henry Miller who came to the rescue. By now, in the early sixties, Miller was a renowned man of letters. The breakthrough trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had overturned the once-strict American obscenity laws and paved the way for Miller’s books to be published finally in the U.S. In 1961, Tropic of Cancer was a huge bestseller, and it contained, still, the preface by Anais Nin. Interest was once again aroused in her
work, and although they had long since fallen out as lovers, Nin contacted Miller after fifteen years of silence to ask if she could publish their letters. (And how did that conversation go, I wonder?). Miller agreed. The New Yorker pronounced it ‘one of the silliest books of the year’, but undaunted, Nin managed to get another book deal. At last, in 1966, riding on the back of Henry Miller’s fame, the first volume of her diaries was published in which the years of her relationship with him were the primary topic. At the age of 63, Nin finally made it. Four volumes of diaries had come out by 1971, and Nin became one of the most popular speakers on the college circuit. Her work was still occasionally termed gushing or narcissistic, but the world had caught up with her by then, and it wasn’t exactly a harsh criticism, more a new way of life.

Attention-seeking, immoral, vain, upfront, confessional, transgressive, Nin might have been an abhorrence to the cultural values of the thirties and forties, but she fit right in to the Woodstock era. I cannot help but feel that one of the great secrets of getting published lies right there: writers who want to be successful need to know what their readers want to hear. The jury may still be out as to whether Nin was actually a good writer or not, but the spirit of her work was perfect for that last decade of her life, and contains a message of extreme self-exposure that interests the media still today. The difficulty for any writer comes when what they wish to say is not in keeping with their times. But there’s also one other point to draw from Nin’s tale. Every writer who advised Nin told her to ditch the diary writing and concentrate on fiction. Nin strongly felt at many times in her life that the diary was just an obsession, a neurosis that she couldn’t control. But the diaries contain her best writing by far, because there was only one subject of real fascination to Nin and that was herself. Her instinct knew this, even if her judgment did not. I’m not sure it’s healthy to believe in yourself quite to the extent that Anais Nin did, but she embodies the qualities of persistence and the dogged determination to keep writing that led her, painfully slowly but inexorably, towards her goals.

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20 thoughts on “Getting Published

  1. Hi Litlove. It strikes me that writing and publishing involve a complicated dance of the ego – negotiating work ethic, self-promotion, skill development and rejection. I have not read Nin so I can’t judge her writing but it seems to me she was more tenacious than many others equally convinced of their greatness. What of her work have you read and would you recommend anything for someone without any prior experience of her?

  2. Fascinating post – that’s a story I knew little of, and I’m grateful for the information. Regarding writers ‘not in keeping with their times’ Philip Larkin once said that an artist has to ‘create the taste by which he’s savoured’. You could almost say that Nin was doing that throughout her life. From my own perspective, I’m not convinced anyone should write anything like that already in existence: if it’s not in some way different, what’s the point? Needless to say, this is not something modern publishers want to hear!

  3. Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) had his first manuscript rejected 27 times. Re “writers who want to be successful need to know what their readers want to hear.” I don’t think that’s possible. There are a lot of people making a living by giving writers advice on how to know that, and on how to convince publishers that they know that. But I think all you can do is write your heart out, and do your best. Nobody can predict how a mass of people are going to respond, neither in literature nor in the stock market. I find even on my blog I’m astonished by the posts that get the most traffic. I’d never have guessed.

  4. I’ve said to my writers’ group on many occasions that writing has to be its own reward, because it is the most thankless and heartbreaking pursuit imaginable; there’s no point to doing it unless one is inevitably compelled to do it, and no point to doing it if a receptive audience is an essential component for the writer. Readers are, I think, a luxury that no writer can count on. So much of success is pure dumb luck and/or being super-hot and/or having an importunate sister, as you have so eloquently described here.

  5. Litlove, a completely fascinating (and timely, from my point of view) post. Reading Rick Gekoski’s Tolkien’s Gown last year – which is great, by the way, for precisely this kind of story (half encouraging, half crushing) – I was especially moved by the sad story of John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces. Utterly disheartened by a string of rejections, Toole committed suicide. His mother – according to sources named by Gekoski – was as narcissistic as Nin, and would not take no for an answer (apparently believing her son’s failure reflected poorly on her), hounding one Walker Percy to lead the charge for the book’s eventual publication, which Percy duly did. Four years later, the book was published, and the following year, it won Toole a posthumous Pulitzer. It’s a mad, mad world.

  6. Verbivore – my knowledge of Nin is limited. But I read Henry and June, which was quite good, and the unexpurgated version of her diaries entitled Incest, which was probably better. But it’s tough reading in places. Not that that would necessarily deter you, I know!

    Tim – thank you! I like that quote from Philip Larkin very much indeed. I don’t think it’s a question of writing like other people, more a sense of being tuned in to the ideology of the times which is a nebulous thing at best. For instance, you’d have to be brilliant to portray a racist character in such a way that people would want to read a book about him or her, and long, slow character development is a bit out of fashion too. but I agree that publishers have a somewhat fixed idea of what they are looking for these days!

    Emily – sweetie, I had no idea you had had any! Here, you should read this article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/dec/03/publishers-rejection-letters Says it all much better than I can!

    Lilian – it’s true that readers can be hard to predict in some ways. I also agree that you have to write from your heart, as inauthenticity is really easy to spot when reading (and what Nin suffered from in her novel writing, I think). It helps, though, if as a writer your concerns coincide with the social issues and the dominant beliefs of the day.

    David – I do agree! I love your phrase ‘readers are a luxury’ and will bear that in mind. I also like the part about receptive audiences being non-essential. Persistence, however, does seem to bring rewards with it eventually – even if we are talking 40 years or so…..

    Doctordi – what a terrible story, although you tell it beautifully. I hadn’t heard of the book you mention and will have to go and look it up.

  7. I have no true ambitions of being published so my comment here is a grammatical query. Exposing my ignorance to the entire salon. You wrote, in the last paragraph, “but she fit right in to the Woodstock era”. I would have used the past tense “fitted” having seen “fit” used as a past tense incorrectly, to my well-read but uneducated mind, only by those of an American persuasion. Having now seen you use “fit” as a past tense, I am wondering if there is an obscure tense of “fit” which has the root word as one of the past tenses. I have no formal Latin and so many of the tenses are hidden from me when they are a copy of the root word.

  8. This is especially fascinating to read as I am nearing the finish of Sontag’s first of three journals – at one point she meets Nin and has absolutely no use for her whatsoever. I think I am going to pick up Nin’s diaries next – Sontag is so relentlessly hard on herself, so utterly convinced she isn’t worthy, I think some comparison reading will be fascinating!

  9. Archie – ummm, I just think it means you’re right and I made a mistake! :) Let’s put it down to me attempting my jolly colloquial style. ;)

    Courtney – How interesting! And I would never have thought of Sontag as being hard on herself; that is extremely intriguing. We’ll have to swap over, as I can see I must read Sontag’s diaries, too!

  10. This, I have to say, makes me very glad I’m not trying to get published … so many things have to go right! I think it’s unavoidable but still terrible that so many writers never know just how famous they will become, after they are dead, or don’t know that success will finally come, once they are in their 60s. It really does take lots of confidence and hope and stubbornness.

  11. Happily, I stumbled across a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces only last week in my local (and fabulous) secondhand bookstore, Desire (they got that right!). Needless to say, I pounced. But yes, I agree, it’s completely tragic.

    My book club just read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer (didn’t know anything about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands – it was so interesting for that). She did at least KNOW the book was going to be published, but she died before she could see it in print. AWFUL! This is all very maudlin, and I’d quite like to turn my attention to some authors of extraordinary longevity and immediate worldwide acclaim. Litlove, that Guardian piece on rejection letters was great! I have received several. I’ve kept them, but I don’t obsess over them. I take them as a sound indication that my MS wasn’t/isn’t ready yet – which is no crime, and which has spurred on every single rewrite, each of which is responsible for every agonising inch of whatever progress I’ve made.

  12. So would you ever go the self-publishing route if the publishers just weren’t prepared to risk the format or style you wanted? Lovely post by the way and I think it’s the mix of fascinating story (Nin’s) and the reflection on writing and publishing generally that makes it. There seems to be such a delicate balance between writing your heart out (as Lilian suggests) and trying to do so in a style which will be palatable to what people want to read.

  13. Litlove, thanks for that post. With the advent of the 1970s Miller became a magnet for writers like Kate Millet who only saw in him what was termed misogynistic, pornographic, objectifying of women, etc. Nice to see more about the other side – helping Nin, who had helped him. They had also helped each other (and Lawrence Durrell) in the Villa Seurat series of books published by Jack Kahane (Obelisk Press) in the mid- to late-1930s. Erica Jong is another writer who benefitted from Miller’s example, and from his generous words. He did much better with/for women who were writers and weren’t married to him than he did with any of his wives.

    As to rejection letters, I read the link, and react negatively to it, but maybe for different reasons from Emily. The writer is gilding the process. Most rejection letters are impersonal, not personal. (There may be a handwritten note on the letter, and that is a good sign. Unless, of course, it’s telling you to bugger off the face of the earth.) Edelstein needs to read _Lunar Follies_ by Gilbert Sorrentino (a hilarious work of fiction) to get a measure of the contempt that is felt, and maybe needs to be felt, in the face of rejection letters. By contempt I don’t mean irrational hatred – though, hey, if you feel that, let it flow through and out – but a peculiar form of self-confidence. Some letters are helpful; most are resolutely, decidedly, deliberately not. They are never neutral to the recipient. They become part of a banner of disdain for your writing that flies and flaps over your head as you sit and write. Something strong and fierce and illogical and unrestrained needs to reside in one to continue despite that noise and that horrible pattern.

    Pardon this story, which makes a long post even longer: an agent who rejected me wrote a “Dear Author…” letter saying that not every book could be accepted, choices had to be made, my ms was found wanting, and included in the letter was the offer of a book the agent had written on how to get an agent. The letter was poorly photocopied: gray, and askew. Something I imagine an Edelstein might not want to confess gets sent out often, but it does. I looked at this abomination, and decided my spleen needed venting. I replied: “Dear Writer” and told the anonymous person that a library can only hold so many books, and that, unfortunately, his did not meet my standards and requirements. I photocopied the letter in the lightest of grays, and skewed it on the copier. It gave me great pleasure to send it off. Hopefully it gave the agent a moment of recognition. But it was more for my pleasure than anything else. And really, that was all that counted.

    Just like in writing: never try and predict who will like your book. You need to love it first, or else you’ll never revise it, sell it, and, hopefully, work well with an editor about it.

  14. What a fun post. I’ve read bits and pieces of Nin, a few short stories I was not impressed with, but the parts of her diary I have read are fascinating as is her life. I always think it an unfortunate thing when I hear stories about how long it took excellent writers to get published and how easy it seems to be for people who tend to write fluff and not even very good fluff. The combination of forces that go into the what to publish decision making process are disheartening for readers too becasue we are possibly missing out on magnificent books!

  15. Archie – lol! How could I fail to be seduced by such a delightful explanation? Okay, you’re right! :) Dorothy – quite so! I like this kind of story because it reminds me never to take these things personally (which is my big failing). That’s not to say my work couldn’t be improved, it always could, but that I might one day end up no less of a writer because of the journey it takes to get there. If you can sort the syntax out on that one! Doctordi – think of Goethe, who was acclaimed in his lifetime, lived to a great age and didn’t do too badly after death, either! I think that’s an extremely sane perspective to take on rejection letters, and I fully expect to be reviewing your novel on this blog in years to come. :) Emily – oh dear! I imagine being in the middle of the process is a very tender-making time. Pete – considered answer: I really don’t know. Probably not, but then let’s never say never. I’m certainly intending to write a lot more of this kind of potted biography over the next few months as I need the practice in this area – so readers be warned. JB – There are so many sides to Miller, I find, as I read more about him, so it’s good to be able to bring another one into the light here. Your words about the rejection letters make me want to send you a virtual hug. I have to say that the letters I’ve received (all from agents, rather than publishers, so maybe that’s the difference) have been polite and encouraging and personalised. The unkind ones obviously just stayed silent. But maybe I just got lucky on that last round and the next will be very different. Who knows. I think whenever there is a perceived imbalance of power, as there may be between an editor and an unpublished author, it will be open to abuse by some, and you wouldn’t want to work with those people anyway. I’m very glad you got to have your own back on the foolish and disrespectful agent – it’s nice to think of you savouring the sweetness of that. But don’t worry on my account – I like these kind of stories as it makes me feel in a big fraternity of writers who all go through these rites of passage, and to sell a book I must first write one – and I’m not quite there yet! Oh and I actually think I’m my own harshest critic, so I rather feel that other people’s bile won’t seem all that awful, or indeed, unexpected! Stefanie – I wholly agree that her diary is by far and away her best work. And I also worry about the books that we may miss out on over the next recession, for instance, in favour of the fluff. But I keep my fingers crossed that the internet will do its bit by providing a platform for writers who have yet to make it into print, and by helping to promote their work. We’ll see.

  16. I just remembered to come back and check the follow-up comments on this post (still wanting to know why Emily felt worse, and wondering if there is anything I can say that might help, as a fellow recipient of said rejection slips), and so must say thank you, truly, for the vote of confidence. And if that day ever arrives, Litlove, I can’t tell you how much I hope you like it.

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