Not so long ago, I reported here, in nearly ecstatic style, that a highly suitable publisher was expressing the kind of interest in my recently-completed book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, that was really promising. Then, instead of going on to give the sequel, I dropped the subject of the promising press. Readers who were tracking the story might have asked themselves, What happened?
It’s a bit like the girl who confides to her friends that a certain boy is showing all the signs of being smitten and she can hear those silver wedding bells and then weeks go by and what they hear is … nothing. Her friends surmise that something happened and it wasn’t good.
When it comes to selling the manuscript of one’s book, one tries to get in sync with the new rhythms. What are the new rhythms? Well, take the editors who work at the presses. They either need a day job or they soon will. Though some reports say that people are beginning to read again – instant gratification is proving less than gratifying – they aren’t reading in the way that they did.
How was that? The default state was silence. When you went to work, your boss spoke about what he needed done and your colleagues about their part in the overall task. When women met for tea to talk about their husbands, they talked about their husbands. Girls talked about the fearsome world of men on the one side and old maids on the other. When men met in taverns, they talked about what men talk about in taverns. You could smoke then, and people did that instead of talking. Children played outside. No one had to watch them. They made up games.
- Teachers broke the silence when they taught.
- Writers broke the silence when they wrote.
- Readers explored the silence when they read.
- Conversation concerned books as much as it concerned people.
Say what you like about that world — I don’t suppose any of us would volunteer to go back — but it’s generally acknowledged to have been less phony and less frequently shattered by aimless noise or kidnapped by images devised to shock.
What is a writer today? A person who tries to find her way back to the default position, the human norm, that pregnant silence – and then to find anew the sounds and images that have the right to break that silence.
So what happened to me at the promising press? The editor there said that my book was “interesting” and fitted a line of books she had already published, whose titles and authors’ names she sent me. She invited me to send the whole manuscript and asked for a c.v. and other materials that, she said, the people in marketing would need. Her emails were signed “warmly” and arrived promptly, even on weekends. Then I heard nothing, only silence (not the good kind) for a couple of months.
When I finally wrote to ask how the process was coming along, she emailed that her computer had crashed, she’d lost “everything” and, on top of that, her boss had pulled the rest of her budget until July! She was, she said, “very sorry.” She did not say, “Stay in touch.” And she did not say: “Buzz off! Take a hint! This is how we editors say ‘bye ‘bye nowadays.”
Not seeing where that left me, I was somewhat paralyzed with regard to submitting the manuscript elsewhere. Meanwhile I turned to other tasks, till I figured it was time to try again, perhaps with her boss this time. I sent a query letter to the boss, with supporting materials, and got an encouraging response. There was no sense of a budget being pulled. The boss had two editors who looked to her like a good fit for this book. The first editor said it “did not fit” her list. (Why can’t they just say, “I’m too small, and my list is too small, for the largeness of your book”?) The second editor was the same one I had dealt with earlier, who’d been so encouraging until she “crashed” and lost her past and her budget.
The second editor emailed to say that I must have forgotten what she had told me earlier: that this book did not ”fit her list”!
Even in today’s world, one tries not to go crazy. By way of response, I cut and pasted our entire previous correspondence, including her assurances that my book fit her list like a glove, up to the “crash” that looked to be the sole barrier between its wonderful “fit” and production.
Her reply included a new explanation. The book had seemed to fit, until she read more deeply into it. It was too much like a memoir and not enough like “auto-theory.” Yeah yeah yeah. Auto-theory and a token will get you a ride on the IRT. She went on to say that the university is very strict about what they allow the press to publish. (If it’s so strict, why did her boss think it was quite allowable?) She wound up by suggesting that I try the “Jewish Line” at two other university presses she named.
There are explicitly Jewish themes in Confessions, but couched in terms from which anyone could profit. Nobody in the book observes the Jewish calendar or cites Jewish sages. Aside from a line or two I quote from my parents, I’m the only Jew in it.
Jerry raised the question of anti-semitism. I hadn’t noticed that possibility myself (Jews go around partly anaesthetized to the phenomenon or we couldn’t live at all) but thought, what the hell, let me follow that down. I wrote back to explain to the editor why Confessions is not what generally counts as a “Jewish book.”
“What,” Jerry said to me, “do you want to accomplish with that letter?”
“If she’s not anti-semitic,” I said, “I want to clarify something that she left rather muddy. And if she is, I want to nail her!”
Her reply came with alacrity, with more detailed clarifications and ramifications plus the names of four or five editors or agents for me to contact. Evidently, I had touched a spring, though what sort of spring was still not quite clear.
When we were in Maine this week, I told the whole story to friends who are writers. Their comment is worth sharing.
A writer deals in the realm of values.
For an editor to respond this way is shabby.
It brought me up short. The editor who decides to publish Confessions of a Young Philosopher will need to be someone whose word is good.