Friday, September 14, 2012

Submitting (and not)

Dear L,

As you well know, a writer wants most of all to feel understood — and among writers novelists seek this more than any, don’t we? Despite our shy, hermetic ways we’re a starved and eager crew. I became extremely cognizant of this during my first stay at an artist’s colony last summer, surrounded every breakfast and supper by fifteen other writers, all of us earnest, awkward, and cagey in our happiness at being thrown together — and somehow mistrustful of togetherness, cautious of our hunger for it.

This secretive, solitary, often isolating art demands the counterweight of comprehension — being comprehended is the novelist’s version of being a part of things. And yet for all but one percent of us this understanding comes so rarely, or reaches us only vaguely, fragmentarily, as echo or suggestion. As I’ve mentioned, I sent you my manuscript because while it has been skimmed and scattered on many a befuddled editor’s desk (or computer screen, God forbid) over these last nine months, I knew you would comprehend it, L. But you’ve done far more: you’ve taken the time and care to show how you’ve comprehended it. Where editors for whatever addled, mercenary, or blindly subjective reasons have failed and disappointed the book, you have bolstered it. This writer feels his readerly faith restored. And his book, much-rejected thing, feels better about itself.

It can only be itself, in the end. Far from personal dejection, this has been the effect of the rejection — I mean submission — process overall: my own redoubled sense of the book’s completeness and selfness, and yet of some injury or indignity repeatedly done to the book by "professionals." In other words, far from feeling cast down (having done my utmost and written to the best of my powers the book that wanted to be written), I feel, in a parental way, worried for this poor, pure-hearted, overlooked, jabbed and bullied manuscript. How will it find its footing in the world? Who (what editor and readers) will befriend it?

How many publishers have seen it, you ask? I have the tally at about 22 so far. Beyond rote rejectionese like “I was not passionate enough about this,” here, for indignant fun, is an exhibit of some things editors have said, plus my own addenda:

-“I’m not sure I’m confident enough Cunningham can sustain the narrative clearly enough over such a long time span to be satisfying.
(It’s obvious this guy didn’t finish it, so he wouldn’t know either way.)

 -“I thoroughly enjoyed the scope of the piece … [but] I didn’t find it varied enough in theme.
(Themes crash-course: clocks/years/generations; telegraph/letters/communication; secrecy/silence/silhouettes/shadows; Manifest Destiny/western movement/American vastness/spiritual vacancy; Civil War/family war/American violence; Old World/New World; technology/personal reinvention; Benjamin as latter-day Hamlet... [but you, of course, saw these, L!] )

-“I felt that he was often forgetting the reader … I had trouble connecting with the characters … I just never felt the narrative taking on momentum and pulling me through … [but] I was fascinated by the details of the camps and the letters from the war!
(How could she like the war letters and not find that they provided momentum?)

-“I found the narrative thread here rather difficult to follow and had a hard time with the letters — they took me away from the characters, and the moment, in a way that I found disruptive.
(Ditto: letters & momentum)

-“The structure of the book often reveals the characters’ fates before we truly become attached to them … and this tends to diminish the drama of the developing plot.
(She didn’t read attentively enough to notice what the main plot really is.)

-“It feels very ‘historical’ to me and sometimes that category comes with a feeling of heaviness.
(Can’t heaviness be good? Isn’t Hardy heavy? James? Toni Morrison?)

I’m not merely crazy or disgruntled, am I, to respond as I do above? Your own response to the book, L, reaffirms that I’m not — that the problem the novel has faced is faulty or distracted reading. A few other editors have — subtly and not-so-subtly — alluded to my “track record” as reason for rejection. And so many of the responses, like the above, contradict one another, that it all comes out a wash. Or, if there is a moral, it’s this: Writer, Follow Thy Own Star, and Be Thee Patient! 

I’ve been reading Lionel Trilling lately, and the other day I was struck by something he wrote in 1947 describing a contemporary deification of “reality” (as opposed to flights of imagination) in literary taste. For Trilling, this wish to narrowly define and enshrine reality showed a cultural mistrust of “the internal” which, eerily, seems to me to hold true in today’s literary marketplace:
“Whenever we detect evidences of style and thought we suspect that reality is being a little betrayed.” 
Then, in an essay by Ozick (love this lady) about Saul Bellow, I find this wonder:
“The art of the novel … is in the mix of idiosyncratic language — language imprinted in the writer, like the whorl of the fingertip — and an unduplicable design inscribed on the mind by character and image.”
The art of the novel, that is, thrives on the ineluctable peculiarities of style. Singularities of vision, we could say. Or, to come back to Trilling, the “internal” stamp. But don’t you get the sense, as I do, that to write like oneself, to show the whorl, is to earn in the current marketplace editorial scorn? — that is, unless you’re an established DeLillo or Ondaatje. Aren’t we fiction-writers made to feel (subliminally through the culture, or overtly via editors) a little ashamed of pliant language or structure, as if we’re making unreasonable demands upon readers? As if the definition of a fine and viable novel is that which meets the reader at face-value, sans subtext, nuance, subtlety of theme, already fully explicated on every page — i.e., ideal for dipping in and out of while text-messaging or downloading a TV show. According to the general sentiment (at least among major publishers), peculiarity of style is a form of lying or of extreme egotism — and we see what they do to liars and egotists nowadays, in this Age of Disgraced Memoirists.

But I, for one, am a reader who likes a novel to make some demands upon me. And demanding novels do see the light — some anyway, even ones authored by obscurer writers.

Goodness, now I’m afraid I must apologize for writing a jeremiad where I meant only to express appreciation. But hopefully this can bring with it, more than idle complaint, a bit of solidarity, because I know your own beautiful work has lately braved the same climate. I do really appreciate you giving your time, L, and treating the manuscript to such a respectful reading. I feel that you’ve seen in it all that I would hope for a reader to see.

While my prospects of earning any decent advance on this one have all but evaporated, the passionate objective remains to simply see the thing into print. A strange position to find myself in, I must say, having felt all along that this is my strongest — and certainly my most plot-driven (and wouldn’t that mean “commercially viable”?) — book.

Oh, but meanwhile there remains only and as ever the work of doing one’s best and holding one’s ground. And of clearing one’s head of all these matters once at the desk. The work itself is what one has. So much else is beyond one’s control.

Meanwhile, too, we have friendship.

In friendship, with great thanks,