This is the story of getting my novel published by a major New York publisher.
It is a story of triumph over adversity. Followed by defeat at the hands of adversity. Let’s call it a 1-1 tie with adversity.
Really it is quite laugh-inducing – particularly after you have drowned yourself in a vat of wine, inhaled a zeppelin’s worth of nitrous oxide, and lit a bonfire of modern novels.
I will skip quickly through the early rejection letters. Suffice it to say that, in no time at all, I had accumulated a stack that covered the entire spectrum of conceivable reasons for turning down a manuscript – up to and including (this is true), that my writing was, somehow, “too sophisticated.”
What does one say to that? “How dare you! My writing is NOT sophisticated AT ALL!” Interestingly, another agent referred to the very same work as “too slapstick”. It would have been nice to get these agents together for a panel discussion on what was wrong with my manuscript.
For years I worked and reworked a serious novel under the guidance of an agent who expressed an interest in representing it. The novel metamorphosed into a variety of forms: One narrator. Two narrators. Six narrators and a chronicler. I told the story from the point of view of a nearby squirrel. Yet with each draft, so my agent told me, there was something undefinable that was not quite right. Perhaps the issue was not the narration after all. Perhaps it was the story itself. Or the protagonist. Or the font.
I eventually dropped this particular magnum opus and dashed off LISA33, a post-modern sex comedy set entirely on the internet. In a matter of three months, I had completed it and sent it off. I soon got a call back from Bill Clegg, who was then already a big name in literary representation.
Bill was unlike anyone I had previously dealt with. He was suave, brimming with confidence, assured in his opinions. When he declared that a book was brilliant, he was making a statement not just about the work, but about his own extraordinary expertise, his absolute right to confer the label of brilliance.
“I want to represent this,” he told me. “And I will definitely get you a publisher for it. I’ll call you in a few weeks.” At first I was unsure whether to really believe him. Was this just hubris? A sleazy sales story? I had certainly seen, first-hand, that agents could be completely full of crap. Three weeks later he called again. “I’m handing your book out today. I’ll be back to you by next Monday to review the offers.”
The anticipation in the following days was almost unbearable. And the next Monday he called again as promised. His voice was full of excitement. What was more incredible was what he had to say, which was something out of dream or a movie: He’d generated a bidding war for my novel. In the end, Viking had come up with the best offer, which was in six figures, and easily one of the largest advances – perhaps the largest – paid to an unpublished novelist that year. I literally jumped for joy while on the phone (proving, I suppose, that the expression ‘jumping for joy’ is based on something that actually happens). “This is what it’s about!” Bill said. And then, “Get ready for it. You’re going to be famous.”
The next morning I awoke, still in a sort of euphoric haze, made coffee, asked my wife what we should do to celebrate.
“Well,” she said, “the trash definitely needs to get to the dump.”
What the hell! Didn’t celebrated writers like myself have stunt-husbands to do that sort of thing? It would be the first but definitely not the last come-down I would experience in the coming months.
My editor at Viking, Molly Stern, was an enthusiastic advocate for the book, and wanted only a few, small editorial changes. I remember two in particular. One was, “Make it even funnier!” – as though one can wave a wand and do this. I stared despairingly at my pages, wondering how I could squeeze one more droplet of humor out of this or that scene. The other comment I remember was a note across some sex scene that read, “Could a toe really be that dexterous?” This precipitated a painfully awkward conversation where I explained to Molly that I believed that a toe could be that dexterous, and she expressed the view that it could not, and we bravely discussed angles, positions, physiology. I remember thinking how I had theoretically reached the pinnacle of the literary world, and this is our erudite discussion!
It all started to unravel rather quickly. My book was immediately caught up in politics at Viking. While Molly loved it, her boss (who everyone seemed to regard as a moron) evidently hated it to an almost equal degree, and wondered why Molly had spent so much to acquire it. The publication date got pushed out. The printing, the publicity, weren’t going to be that large after all.
Meanwhile my super-agent, Bill Clegg, gradually grew more and more remote. Just when he should have been working to promote the book, or shaking things up at Viking, or withdrawing it from the Viking deal altogether and taking it to another publisher, he flat-out disappeared. Nobody knew what had happened to him. And then Viking pushed the publication date back again. And then a third time.
The book came out in 2003, almost two years after it was first accepted. As near as I can tell, it was deep-sixed – dumped onto the market by this most prestigious of publishers, that has a bevy of Nobel laureates among its authors – with zero publicity, zero marketing and zero sales effort. It was not even pitched to bookstores in Viking’s list of releases. My publisher might as well have put a gold star on the cover inscribed with the words, “Don’t Buy This Book.”
Why would they do this? I cannot really be sure. Perhaps once Molly’s boss (okay, her last name sounds a lot like an Italian sports car) had expressed her opposition to the book, she basically wanted it to fail. Failure validated her opinion. Success would have proven her mistaken. But who knows?
In any case, the book quickly vanished into obscurity. As did I. The beacon of fame swept right over me, illuminated me for a few delirious seconds, and then moved on – to settle, eventually, on who knows who. EL James. Bristol Palin. Having spent through my advance, I went back into software, making less money than I had before I’d left. In time the whole experience faded into memory.
But the coda to this story is surely the best and worst part. A couple of years later, I was sharing my tale of woe with yet another agent, Simon. At first he didn’t quite believe me. But he checked it out with Molly, as he was thinking of representing something of mine. When he found out it was all true he said, “I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about the publishing industry, but I think yours is the very worst.”
There was something oddly comforting in hearing this. At least I was noteworthy in some way.
Then he asked me, “Did you not hear what happened to Bill Clegg?”
“No,” I said. “What happened?”
“You know he disappeared from the publishing world completely, right?”
“Kind of,” I said.
“Everyone was talking about it. Nobody knew what had happened to him. Even if he was still alive. It turned out, he was off on some huge cocaine bender.”
“That’s horrible!” I said.
“Not as bad as you’d think,” Simon said. “He just resurfaced. With a memoir about his experience. Which he just sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars!”
Sure enough, the New York Times was soon writing front page stories about Bill Clegg and his memoir! (Why my former agent’s story was worthy of front-page coverage, there beside the Iraq War news, was never clear.) I did not read Bill’s book, but was fascinated – if that is the word – to read in the Times that it included passages where he described how he had screwed over his writers, had left them dangling, unrepresented, in limbo.
So this was the exclamation point to my experience. I was writing software in some anonymous cubicle, while my former agent, who’d once told me I was going to be famous, was on the front page of the New York Times. And why was he on the front page of The Times? For screwing over people like me and writing about it!
The theme of Bill’s memoir, so I gathered, was that he’d found redemption. But what was the proof of his redemption? Did he reach out to the writers he’d acknowledged screwing over? Did he make amends, express his regrets? Hardly. The proof of his redemption was his big advance for his memoir of redemption.
It is an irony that any self-respecting postmodernist has to love. If he gets a big advance, he has returned triumphantly, and there is a story. And if the New York Times writes about it, it makes the return even more triumphant, and there is even more story. If he doesn’t get a big advance, or media coverage, there is no real triumph. No heartwarming redemption. The real story lies entirely in the fact that the Times is covering the story.
So are you laughing yet? I sure am. Now could you please pass that nice jug of wine?
(Happily, there is a coda to this coda: my new novel, “The Feet Say Run,” is coming out this fall. And though it is with a small publisher, they are committed and enthusiastic and in any case they could not possibly do less for it than Bill and Viking did for LISA33.)
Or this one if you like your literary snark mixed with political snark: “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” – by Donald J Trump.