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.