Newsflash — nobody has a clue

Perhaps these seven sages are searching for the next bestseller.

Perhaps these seven sages are searching for the next bestseller.

Before I published, I had this fantasy that somewhere, perhaps on the top floor of a glittering skyscraper in New York City, at the end of a long corridor lined with books and the portraits of famous writers, was a room in which stood a heavy oak table surrounded by high-backed leather chairs.  In these chairs sat The People Who Knew Literature.  Oh, how I believed in them.  From the fetid pile of manuscripts (some stained with mysterious rusty-red marks, others with tear-blurred ink) these sages picked out sparkling gems, sure to become classics. They discerned the wheat amongst the chaff, the figure inherent in the uncut granite, the gleam of the diamond in the lump of coal.

Snort.  Oh, how naive I was.

Now, I’m not saying that agents and editors and publishers aren’t astute folks who can, and often do, find promising new talent and develop it.  I’m saying they’re not mystical sages; they’re people just like us —  overworked, largely underpaid, nervous about the industry, unsure of themselves, subject to their own neuroses and blind spots, hoping to please their bosses, fumbling along as best they can.

Recently, the New York Times had an article about Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, TINKER.  In what will doubtless become an iconic story, Mr. Harding’s novel was rejected early and often.  He tells us about the rejection letters —

“They would lecture me about the pace of life today…It was, ‘Where are the car chases?’ ” he said, recalling the gist of the letters. “ ‘Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book.’ ”

Well, it seems ‘they’ were wrong.  They often are.  TINKER was finally published by Bellevue, a tiny literary press, and he was reportedly paid $1,000 for it.  Of course, things have changed a bit since the Pulitzer win  –

Within an hour of the Pulitzer announcement, Random House sent out a news release boasting of the two-book deal it had signed with Mr. Harding late in 2009. A few days later the Guggenheim Foundation announced he had received one of its prestigious fellowships.

And that’s wonderful for Mr. Harding, although the truth is that most rejected novels won’t find a home, won’t go on to make best-of-the-year lists, and certainly won’t go on to win Pulitzer Prizes.

But, for me, what’s most important is what  Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of GILEAD,  and Mr. Harding’s teacher at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had to say:

“One of the problems I have is making my students believe that they can write something that satisfies their definition of good, and they don’t have to calculate the market,” Ms. Robinson said. “Now that I have the Paul anecdote, they will believe me more.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my students that they have to forget about “The Market” and concentrate on writing the very best book they can.  Our job as writers is not to be editors or publishers —  it’s to WRITE, and to write to the best of our abilities.  Our job is to listen to the whisper in our ear, urging us to write a particular story, even if it’s not in fashion, even if there aren’t any vampires in it. There’s nothing pleasant about rejection, and although Mr. Harding says his early rejections were, “funny at the time and even funnier now” I don’t know too many writers who find rejection terribly amusing.  It stings, it corrodes, it bruises, but it shouldn’t stop us.

Perhaps you think, “Well, easy for Harding and Robinson to be so cavalier about the market, after all, they’re winning prizes and are bestselling authors.”  Sure.  But they weren’t always.  They were, like all of us, just ink-stained wretches toiling away in a little room surrounded by bits of paper.  They became who they are by writing the books they believed in.  And we can do the same. And even if we aren’t quite so festooned with prizes and praise and cash, can grow to the limits of our potential, which is all anyone can ask.  What will happen to those books once they’re finished?  Who knows…  but in the writing of your soul’s book, your heart’s book, I suggest you will develop your integrity, discover your artistic vision and voice,  as well as deepen your spiritual life and your relationship to the world.  You might also go on and publish a book you’re truly proud of.  Where’s the down side?

Now, stop reading this and get writing!


  1. Lynne Spreen on April 21, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Great post! And I LOVED Gilead – it was one of my favorite books of all time! A friend of mine – a retired English teacher who has sold a couple of books – was about to give up writing. The day after he decided it, he won $500 for a short story! The gods may be cruel, but I refuse to knuckle under. I will have my dreams, dammit! (PS those hallowed halls of literature you describe are more likely cubicles and bad florescent lighting.)

  2. Rusty Hoe on April 21, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    I really like this. I to had the picture of the sages in that room and have always believed that I would never be allowed access. Then I made a decision to write for me and me alone. I write for my sense of humour and my view of the world. I couldn’t write any other way. I’m working on transfering my blog to book, again I have issues regarding the legitimacy of anything that starts as a blog. I look at how I write about my topic (my health journey) and I realise I have missed the traditional touchy feely tone of most books on the topic. I choose to write with black humour and I know that some just don’t get it (some hilarious comments though). I wonder where my book if I should be lucky enough to get published, or even have the guts to seek publication if anyone would read it. I still think it doesn’t ‘fit’ for want of a better word. I will plug on though for me not for markets or publishers. For me it is the act of writing, the process, that is most important. Not to say I would knock back a couple of dollars. I love the reality checks of your blog and the fact that I’m not the only one with these thoughts 🙂

  3. Vivian De Winter on April 24, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Hi Lauren, your topic appears with perfect timing:

    I’ve sent out ten query submissions between October 2009 to February 2010. As of the beginning of April, I’d heard back from six literary agencies. They’d all passed on my manuscript. (Ten might not seem like a lot, but I made up a short-list, targeting only those agencies I thought would be interested.)

    Three months ago, fearing that two of my emails might have gone missing in ‘cyber space,’ I simply asked for a confirmation that they received my query submission. Still nothing back from them. I’ve since come to the conclusion they aren’t interested. I understand that everyone is busy, but if they are not willing to send an auto-reply or a single line response, perhaps they are not someone I would feel comfortable setting up a partnership with.

    As of April 21: eight down, two to go.

    I’d already decided April 30 would be my deadline to find an agent. My Plan B was to try out indie-publishing, in an e-book format, just to see how readers would respond to my writing. I wouldn’t give it away for free, but I wouldn’t charge an exorbitant amount either.

    On April 22, with eight days to spare, I received an email from one of the two remaining literary agencies, stating my manuscript had “strong commercial appeal.” They wanted to represent me!

    I couldn’t believe it! Someone had said “yes!” I realize there is still much to do, and that this does not guarantee that an editor/publisher will wish to acquire my manuscript, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    I didn’t write about vampires, angels, demons, werewolves and the like. My story is about “real” characters (real as they can be in fiction writing), living in a small town. It’s what I know and care about, intimately.

    I’m much more interested in creating ‘classic’ stories: timeless and worthy of reading, years from now.

    Why be a flash in the pan if you can be an enduring cradle-full of glowing embers?

    • Lauren B. Davis on April 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm

      Vivian, I’m so happy to hear of your success!! Getting an agent is A BIG DEAL these days — just as hard as finding a publisher. So enjoy this moment! You’ve popped up on this blog for a while, and I know you’ve been frustrated by the process — we all are — and yet you persevered. Good on you! You must share your story with all those writers who experience rejection and, rather than continuing to plug away, leap into the self-publishing arena, most often with less than satisfying results. Again.. I’m SO happy for you, and hope to hear more of your continued success. I raise my cup of tea in your honor!

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