Literary Life

A fine bassackwards compliment

The writer meets his publisher

A while back I sent the mss of “And It’s Only Love” to a publisher I know, wondering if she would like to publish it. She sent it to an in-house reader for an opinion. This is how that reader responded —

“And It’s Only Love tells the story of a romance between an American and a Slovakian, set in central Europe. It’s well written and packed with thoughtful and intelligent details. The pacing is slow and subtle, but the reader is brought into scenes through great atmospheric descriptions and good dialogue. 

“However, it doesn’t seem to have a strong enough narrative arc. I think this is the result of two different problems: Danika as a full character on her own, and the story’s lack of parts that make up a whole:

“Danika lacks interiority or her own perspective, and because of this, at times, she seems like merely a sexual/emotional projection of Paul’s desires. This gives the story a distinctly male perspective on the relationship—which is quite interesting in itself—but as a result doesn’t give Danika, or therefore their relationship, enough ambivalence or complexity.

“The story contains a list of the places they go, what they drink, how they have sex, and how they love each other. Merritt often captures a perfect and exemplary gesture of love or insecurity. These details are interesting and well written, but there seems to be a lack of signals or clues for the reader to know what to do with them, or why they should be invested in the couple. It needs more of those parts that make a story engaging—tension, minor conflicts, and build-up—so when she cheats on him, there would be more of an emotional consequence.”

In other words, rejecting it.

Here is the compliment. This is a virtually perfect description of one of the finest novels of the 20th century, written by one of the finest novelists still living — James Salter’s “A Sport and a Pastime.” Had that novel been offered for an evaluation by this in-house reader, it would also have obviously been rejected. There is not a literate writer alive who would not hasten to say that Salter’s novel is one of the finest and most perfect they have ever read (many such writers make this claim on the jacket).

In the first paragraph of the “review,” change Slovakian (which is not a word, actually; it is Slovak) to French; change Central Europe to France. Where Danika, put in Anne-Marie. Where it says Merritt, plug in Salter.

By the way, I have been a writer for 40 years. Can someone explain to me what a “narrative arc” is? Sounds like a workshop rule I must have missed.

When a writer encounters a reader who describes your work in terms that apply almost identically with one of the finest American novels ever written, then rejection has a very sweet taste indeed. (One may assume without hesitation that this reader would have also rejected Salter. Stories like this are legion in publishing.)

I love writing … I hate publishing. Publishing as a process is just not smart enough to understand the writers who depend on them. A dependency that needs to be broken.

But I do thank you publisher reader for the beautiful compliment.


9 replies »

  1. Such a brutal and gut-wrenching business. There’s always one reader in the way–or opening the gate. It’s damned hard to write something to impress that one reader. Damned hard. I’d love to write a novel someday and have it described in those terms, though. Is your agent sending it out?

  2. So it is. I believe in the value of gate-keepers, but that belief is predicated on the assumption (hope?) that those keepers know what they are doing, that they are smart and literate, that they are well-educated in the universal sense, that they know enough to know what they have in front of them, and are not unnaturally dissuaded by accountants or some fading lesson they sort of remember from grad school workshops. If a publisher is going to use in-house readers (the first line gate-keepers) then that publisher has to understand what is going to be lost if a lack of any creative imagination is allowed.

    My agent is not sending it out. I am. Well, I did this once, because I know the publisher. In other words, it languishes. My BookScan numbers (which must pass muster with the bean-counting gate-keepers) are not adequate. My agent leaves me with the self-fulfilling prophecy problem. One is quick to ask, though, who is responsible for poor book sales? The writer? The publisher thought the writer good enough to invest in the first place. If the book is fine, if the reviews are consistently superior (as mine always are), then to whom must the fault for poor sales be given? The only part of this process responsible for sales — the sales and marketing departments. But are they punished? No, it is always the writer who suffers, and suffers from something over which he has virtually no control.

    A serious writer writes the very best book he can. He does his job. The rest is up to the publisher, and if there is a failure, it is not a failure with the writer or the book. Yet … they don’t BookScan publishers, they BookScan writers.

    I am old enough now, I have published 8 novels, so this is not all that important to me. I write because I cannot not write. If someone decides to publish what I write and do their job in marketing the book, then why would I object? If they do not, it is not my loss …

  3. Rough stuff. I think it’s telling, too, that it the lack of female perspective is mentioned. This strikes me as purely a market-based comment, since it would seem that women form the vast majority of novel buyers these days. In this case, I’d wager that it’s less the quality of the novel, per se, than the perceived market value, that the reader had in mind.

    This stuck out to me because in my present manuscript I am quite consciously weaving strong women characters into the plot (with some interesting results), for this very reason: readers want this, especially, I think, women readers.

    I have taken your long-ago advice to get skin in the game very much to heart.

    • Every consideration in publishing now is market-based. All of them. (See my comment on Cari Luna’s blog today.) I do not doubt that James Salter could not be commercially published today, and he is easily in the top 5 literary writers of the 20th century.

      I think women have always dominated the readership for novels. But it seems that until recently women had no trouble with a male perspective in a story. Have women changed and become more insular? Have women lately become incapable of finding pleasure in literature itself, and cannot get into it unless it comes via a female perspective?

      But you are right. This in-house reader only had one consideration for his report — do I think this will sell in numbers large enough to go into profit? Period. The end. Only that. The apparent literary objections were offered really as commercial objections; reasons this reader believes the book would be difficult to market.

      The question becomes: are we capable enough to find the market that exists for this book?

      His answer was no.

    • By the way, on this woman thing. I have written a novel entirely from a female POV and focused entirely on her (One Easy Piece), and I have written two novels with fully realized female characters (Possessed by Shadows and The Common Bond). I am not capable, though, of simply plugging in a female POV where it is not the story. The story in Only Love is his, Paul Collins, and as the in-house reader accurately pointed out, she is the romantic and sexual projection of Paul’s desires. This is about Paul, and the entire story is his perspective. So yes, he may have been implying that if I wrote a different story than this one, if I turned the focus away from Paul and more toward Danika, he would find it easier to market. But that is not the story I conceived and wrote. I am not about to start jiggling my stories around in order to make easier a publisher’s responsibility for marketing. I will do my job the best way I can; publishers need to start doing theirs. They used to, it used to be a world where writers wrote, agents placed, and publishers sold. Now writers are expected to write, place, market and sell. Publishers are now mostly cover designers and printers.

  4. What sort of “assessment” is this? “Signals or clues for the readers what to do with [the details]…” and “those parts that make a story interesting … tension, conflicts, build-up” (that form the “narrative arc”, I’d imagine)? Duh. Obviously someone sort of browsed through the manuscript and picked up a few ‘issues’ that they dreamed up while overlooking the real thing…

    • I have to admit that I didn’t understand most of this reader’s objections. It is likely I slept late or might have been sick the day those things were discussed in workshop. But this report is not about that. See my response to Court above. It was about only one thing: are we capable to selling this book into profit numbers. The excuses, essentially bogus, were just that — excuses.

      See my response to Cari’s newest post.

      Your book is not yet on his way, because I got swamped in the bogland of starting a new book, but I promise it will come.

  5. So many great works, be it literature, paintings, movies, etc., have been turned down or neglected due to a lack of understanding. I’m not familiar with the publishing process, however, if it is left up to 1 or 2 people to decide on the fate of a book then it seems a bit like a crap shoot. Who’s to say they are right in their opinion of whether the book would have commercial success? Soooo…. while clearly it is a frustrating process it is also seems apparent that it is not an evaluation (or at least a fair one) of skill. It’s more of a wager for the publisher. Does I makes it the sense?

    • Well, it always has been a crap shoot, with worse odds, all the attempts of art being commercialized, but the only choice is to opt out of the process and make your living selling shoes or teaching other hopeful and doomed artists. It is what it is. And what it is is business, and business has nothing to do with art, it has to do with profit … the glories of capitalism, where money rules and all else be damned.

      Lots .. let’s say most of artistic submissions into the business framework are going to be judged by people totally incapable of making such judgements. If you want to see what they do choose, stop by some airport book rack or a drug store selection, or stop at the book table at Walmart, and you will see the results of their astute judgements.

      So it goes.