mentorThis memoir of the tortured trajectory of the writer’s life was completely fascinating, if not always for the right reasons. Tom Grimes’ brave and excruciatingly honest account of sixteen rollercoaster years of his life is a startling documentation of the craziness, both literal and figurative, that can descend when a person decides to stake his entire life on becoming A Published Author. One small anecdote caught my eye: it’s reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises at community college that inspires Tom to become a writer; he wants to be Jake Barnes, journalist and the novel’s narrator. ‘The only problem was, I’d romanticized Jake’s life so completely that, until my professor pointed out this fact in class, I didn’t realise Jake was impotent.’ Beware all would-be writers with urgent ambitions. Whether he intends it or not, Tom Grimes is a terrible warning rather than an excellent example.

Ostensibly, the memoir is about the relationship between Tom and Frank Conway, author of a classic memoir, Stop-Time (and not much else), when they first meet, but more crucially, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Tom is waiting tables in Key West, Florida, a struggling writer going nowhere, but all that is about to change. Having crudely snubbed him when they first meet, Frank Conway astounds Tom by phoning him after he submits his application to the workshop. ‘”I never call anyone,” he said, “but I’ve read your manuscript.”’ At this point, doors to the Aladdin’s Cave are flung wide, with Frank offering Tom his agent’s services, scholarships, and every other glittering prize he can think of. Tom enters the program at Iowa as teacher’s pet, his arrival heralded in advance on the strength of the early chapters of his literary novel about baseball. Over the next two years, buoyed by such spectacular support, Tom writes his novel with manic intensity. An earlier novel is picked up by a small publisher and put out to encouraging reviews, and a play he has written also finds backers and a theatre.

The speed at which Tom’s star rises overwhelms him somewhat, and this sense of swimming out of his depth culminates in the auction for his novel, not quite the bidding frenzy he had thought it would be, but a painfully drawn-out day of escalating advances that never seem to come from the right people at the right time. Having already overthought this moment too many times, Tom has a whole shopping list of literary ideals – the right house, the right editor, the right price – but ultimately in the confusion of having to make a decision on the spot, he does not go with the house he has always wanted, but takes the larger offer from Little, Brown. In no time at all, the editor he signed with has switched jobs, leaving his novel an orphan. And now Icarus feels the intolerable heat of the sun on his wings. The novel is handled as ‘just another baseball novel’, the reviews are meagre and bad, the book never makes it out of hardback into paperback, and the chapters of the new novel he has recently begun are looked upon from this tainted perspective and roundly rejected.

But Frank’s faith doesn’t waver in his star pupil. He simply exerts himself even more to get teaching positions and grants and awards to sustain Tom while he works on his second novel. Frank doesn’t want to hear the negativity and brushes all the bad stuff off. As he negotiates for Tom, Tom has an unsettling moment of clarity. He knows Frank is genuine in his admiration, but ‘he also wanted to prove he still had the clout to bestow upon me a major literary honor solely on the strength of his name.’ For Frank’s star is currently in the ascendent – the novel he is writing has editors salivating and offering outrageous advances. And meanwhile, Tom Grimes sinks into delusion and paranoia in a mental breakdown from which his creativity never seems fully to recover (until, we suppose, this memoir).

Let us pause here for a moment and consider the impossible equation that is publishing. Tom accepts an advance of $42,000, with which he is a little disappointed, truth to tell, as Frank had thought he’d get $100,000 at least. The novel took him about three years to write, and he could have earned $10,000 a year if he’d stayed waiting tables. However,

A year after Seasons’s End’s publication, its paperback edition was nonexistent. Twenty-two hundred hardcover copies sold. Thirteen thousand were remaindered. And Little, Brown had recouped only forty-four hundred dollars of my forty-two thousand dollar advance.’

Ouch. He does publish his next novel, for a $17,500 advance. It had six reviews, mostly positive, but only sold 4,000 copies and again never made it to paperback. Even Frank Conway’s much-anticipated novel, Body & Soul, although it certainly does recoup its large advance, never makes it to the bestseller list and receives somewhat mixed reviews. What are we to make of all this? Tom Grimes’ memoir never comments upon it, viewing the situation entirely from the perspective of his own humiliation and thwarted longings. But what is going on here? And how is it sustainable for any of the players involved?

What does come across, loud and clear and somewhat mesmerising, is the painful solipcism of the author. Tom never spares himself any harsh criticism, but does he realise his own self-obsession? His sister attempts suicide a couple of times in the book, but having mentioned it and indeed flown back to see her, the narrative focuses exclusively on Tom’s research trip to the local baseball team (I’m sure they’re famous but baseball makes no impression on me and I can’t be bothered to look their name up). What takes his attention is the slighting behaviour he has to endure from a journalist for the New Yorker, who asks about the publisher for his first novel and then seems to dismiss him and ignore him for the rest of the day; ‘his publishing pedigree made me feel more than ever like a literary mutt’ Grimes writes. It’s all so desperate, this hunt for status, this desire to be one of the players. In retrospect, Tom blames his mismanaged first auction on the fact that he had to handle it alone. ‘Frank should have been sitting behind his desk and I should have been sitting across from him in my chair,’ he writes, because nothing is so important as that auction, certainly not Frank’s life. It’s no wonder that when Tom falls ill, it’s paranoia – an anxiety disorder that arises paradoxically out of the fear that one is insignificant – that holds him in his grip.

And what of Frank, the wonderful mentor? Grimes argues that his story’s obvious trajectory, from success to failure, can actually be overwritten by a more important arc: ‘The meaningful story is: I arrived fatherless; I departed a son.’ But you can’t help but think that Frank’s input has been a lot of baseless enthusiasm that might have been swapped for more insightful literary critique.

If I’m making this sound like a bad book, I don’t mean to at all. It’s an excellent book. It is gripping and engrossing and, I fear, all too true to life. Grimes’ straightforward, show-don’t-tell style means that we are left with a lot of questions that a more self-aware and nuanced character portrait might have elucidated. But goodness it’s fascinating trying to come up with answers to those questions. An absolute must-read for anyone who thinks they not only want to write, but publish, too.


28 thoughts on “Mentor

  1. Oh, the perils of patronage. As for the advance, despite many yeas in the books trade I’ve never understood the economics of large advances. In some cases, political and celebrity biographies, for instance, substantial sums can be recouped through newspaper serialisation but with the decline of print media I’m not sure if this is true any more. As a psychological study though, unwitting or otherwise, Mentor sounds fascinating.

    • Oh yes, psychology-wise it was properly fascinating. I really wondered to what extent Tom Grimes was aware of the self he put across in the narrative. But that odd combination of terrible self-esteem and ruthless self-obsession is probably fairly common among authors. I doubt advances made for any healthier outlook!

  2. I don’t think I’d *want* to try and publish in today’s world – the pressures to conform and sell books must be immense. I guess that’s why so many people self-publish!

    • Oh indeed! It is a dreadful world in all sorts of ways. Every time I look at goodreads I shudder on behalf of all published authors – and that’s not even beginning to deal with the rigors of publishing itself!

  3. This is fascinating (and awful) but to me – a practising writer of fiction – it seems Tom Grimes’ solipcism comes from deciding (agreeing?) to serve the wrong gods. If money or personal fame or praise were my writing gods I’d write badly because my work would be bent in the direction of what I hoped would make money/make me famous/be praised rather than what I hoped would touch readers’ hearts and minds. If I kept what I’d written when in the grip of my ego it’d also be bad (as Hemingway said, ‘Put the manuscript away for at least three months and then you’ll be able to read and edit objectively.’ Listening to and acting upon the advice of a good editor works just as well, if not better.) And if I wrote for any other reason than to make sense of the random nature of life (I’m convinced we tell stories to give meaning, or at least to try to give meaning to our lives) then I too would be serving the wrong writing gods.

    In practical terms that means I earn my living in other ways, and in ways that allow me time to write (and now I’m eligible for a pension that’s a wondrous help); I happen upon subject matter and characters that may or may not appeal to others (or be published) but which/who insist I write them; and I’m also lucky enough (this will probably sound entirely mad) to have written for long enough to have discovered that not-writing is a far more painful state than writing.

    I’m not advocating life in a garret or inside a hair-shirt, but I truly believe that what I need to live on (and in) will follow if I follow my heart, and then my mind’s understanding and writing-down of what my heart needs to say. As Joseph Campbell (the wonderful American mythologist, writer and lecturer, now sadly dead) once said, ‘When you follow your bliss [the path you’re meant to follow] doors open where you didn’t even know there were doors.’

    • Your way is undoubtedly the healthy way, Angela. You sound like you have a very healthy and resilient approach. Tom Grimes is the other side of the coin, though, and as much as his account made me wince, I have to confess it was mesmerising. He said very little about his family background, but it was clearly dysfunctional and I imagine that his various issues stemmed from there. Having read up a lot on writers’ lives over the past couple of years, he isn’t alone in coming from a difficult background and seeking solace in creativity. It’s intriguing to me why some authors manage so well and some struggle so with similar difficulties – though from reading it’s clear that some very famous and respected authors lived on a knife-edge of sanity. I guess there are no reliable equations – I just find the whole subject highly engrossing!

  4. I can see how a writer can fall into the trap at a program like Iowa, even without the direct praise of someone like Conroy. Some Iowa graduates have become famous, some have even become rich. Why couldn’t the next one be me? One big hurdle, getting into the program, has already been removed. Maybe some of the other will fall away as easily.

    Still, this is a frightening story! Terrific review.

    • Thank you, Tom. I do treasure compliments that come from you. And yes, those big writing programmes have a sort of ‘highway to the stars’ feel about them. That gives me a new perspective on Tom Grimes’ toxic emotions about his own publishing history – he doesn’t actually say what his expectations were (he’s careful to stress only how much hard work he put in), but clearly the disappointment contributed to his pervasive sense of failure.

  5. My daughter, who will graduate from college this May, is applying to MFA programs, one of them Iowa. So I kind of want to read this. And yet I’m not sure that this winter is the right time.

    • Oh I would love to know what you think of it. I imagine your daughter is VERY different in character to Tom Grimes, so in a weird way, it might put your mind at ease!

      • Well, I read it, and I have to agree with your review in almost every particular except one–I love stories about baseball, so I’m looking for a copy of Season’s End so I can see for myself if Grime’s fiction is as pretentious as I suspect.
        Reading this memoir didn’t put my mind at ease, but roiled it, because I have to wonder how good fiction gets written at all, with such self-involved people picking favorites and ignoring the work in favor of the “adopted family” story they want to tell themselves.
        My daughter hasn’t heard from any of the MFA programs she applied to. If she does, she’ll have beaten some long odds–most of the programs only admit 4-5 fiction writers each year, less than one percent of those who apply.

      • Jeanne – it was fascinating to read your comments, and I agree, it did not make me feel good about the process at work selecting the examples of fiction that make it through the publishing filter. DO tell me what the baseball novel is like – I couldn’t read it myself but would love the lowdown on it. I will keep my fingers crossed for your daughter – someone’s got to get on the programs, though if she doesn’t she was beaten only by the numbers, nothing else.

  6. Such a fascinating book that I would never have come across otherwise! It gives me the impression that being published and self managing is no different from any other career or business – more luck is needed I think, because there is so little money in it. But I think a degree of self awareness might have saved him some of his troubles.

    • Talk about wanted to put a man in therapy! I longed to give him a really good analyst (although there’s every chance he has had one!). I did sort of wonder whether he would have been a better writer if his own demons had been cleared from his path. I think you’re quite right about the degree of luck required in the publishing world. You can be in the right time at the right place and with the right book – but most writers don’t manage all three together. It was such an interesting memoir, though, and I’d love to know what you think of it!

  7. Seems like a book like this should be required reading for anyone considering going to an MFA program or just thinking they want a writing career. I don’t want a writing career and your review makes me cringe at the prospect of ever wanting one.

    • It does begin to look like a narcissistic career choice – though that surely can’t be the case for all writers! I completely agree they should hand it out with the application forms. It’s best to head into such things with eyes wide open!

  8. Am I serving the wrong “science gods” because what I do is what will be funded? I cannot believe that I would still be able to pay the mortgage if I had tried to follow only my own passions. I have a box file full of unfunded projects before I realised that following only my heart wasn’t going to get me very far. I don’t see how I could make enough money by other means to fund my research and actually having (fairly) objective people look at what I propose and then decide its likely worth to others is in the long run helpful. Perhaps it is completely different if you write novels, but I’m not entirely sure why that should be.

  9. “Completely,” who knows, “very,” certainly. The artistic vocation is very different than the scientific, or medical, or educational, or priestly, or agricultural vocations.

    The idea that an artist should do what is funded – there have been periods when and artists for whom this has worked out pretty well, and others where it has been a disaster.

    • Is it? If we need to make our living then probably most of what we will do will be what attracts funds. In what way are artists so fundamentally different other than a more general inclination to work for no money?

      • Anais Nin, whom I believe you mentioned as a writer you liked, ended up having to print her own books because no one would publish them for her, and scarcely made any money at all from her writing until the feminists took her up right at the end of her life. Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer is now a modern classic, struggled for most of his career, because the book was banned for so long. I’m currently reading about James Joyce who took seven years finding anyone who’d publish Dubliners, and it was another decade or so before he made any money (and that was a patron).

        So many books would not exist if the authors hadn’t managed to scrape together a living somehow in order to write them. Their works most certainly did not ‘attract funds’. But those books are works of art that have lasted – often because they were in advance of their times when they were written.

        The books that attract funds are by people like Lee Child and Stephen King. Now they make a very good living, and most authors know that they must write strong commercial genre fiction if they have a hope of earning a living from it – they need a series at the very least, with movie deals if possible. But I’m not sure we’ll be reading Jack Reacher novels twenty years from now. What sells in book form is not always what lasts in book form. Great literary works rarely attract many readers, unless you look at their sales over the decades or even centuries (Moby Dick is a book that sold relatively few copies in Melville’s lifetime), but our culture would be a great deal poorer without them.

        [ETA – I typed this while Tom’s comment came in – don’t bother with mine, it’s just an addendum to his and he came up with a good question!]

    • Many artists – many great artists – have created art as a sideline to whatever they did to earn a living. Many others were willing to live at low levels of comfort in order to maintain the integrity of their art.

      Then there were others who made great art to serve wealthy patrons or as part of their ordinary job.

      I’m just pointing to what happened, to art history, music history, and literary history. I could pick out some examples if you like. I’m not sure what “we” means in this context. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Charles Ives were not “we.” They were really different.

      We could do the same with the history of science. Astronomy still sees significant contributions from amateurs, doesn’t it?

      Hey, why have I allowed the burden of proof to flip? Your argument is that artistic and scientific vocations are not different – what is the evidence for that? The histories of the fields and professions seem so different.

      • Hi thank you both for your illuminating answers. My poorly made point was indeed that in order to fund what you really believe in doing you probably have to do something that isn’t as “pure” (if that’s the right word). Perhaps it is a lot easier for me to work on some science that I can do and is fundable, but doesn’t “turn me on”, than for an artist to write an airport novel in order to allow them to write something that will be regarded as great literature. If, as you suggest, that approach isn’t generally possible for writers (i.e. they have to work in a kitchen or find a patron, or both) then it is interesting to me as to why.

      • It is interesting to me as to why Me too, me too. It is a deeply interesting question. The academic field that works on the problem is called “psychology of creativity.”

        I know of examples like you describe. Henry James wrote the short, punchy Washington Square to provide income for the time it would take to write Portrait of a Lady. Scott Fitzgerald wrote short stories for money and novels for prestige.

        Well, that’s two examples, at least. Part of what makes the study of creativity so interesting, and difficult, is that there are examples of everything.

      • I think it’s quite straightforward: writing is self-expression. You can hone that self-expression to a high level, but you can’t choose the self that you want to express. Science (as far as I understand it) is all about eliminating the subjective element as far as possible. ‘You’ are not a visible part of the work you produce. Art is essentially about the way that all living is filtered through a subjective perspective. If I’m not wired to write airport thrillers then I simply can’t do it – it isn’t the self that comes out in writing.

  10. Ooh, this sounds fascinating – putting in on my ever growing to be read list now that I’ve emerged from the first nine months of Duncan’s life! As the graduate of an MFA program that had its share of rising, and then falling, stars, I find myself glad I’ve ended up where I have – completely in love with writing, while fully understanding I don’t want the pressure of supporting myself or my family as a freelance writer. I have so much more joy and confidence in writing now, than I did in those post-MFA years.

    • I saw your latest facebook photo – what a sweetie he is! I did get the impression that the MFA program is a bit of a cauldron of envy and competition, and being inside it might be exciting and full of potential, but it’s also somewhat toxic. I am very glad you’ve found exactly the place you want to be, too!

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