Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Dish Best Served with a $5.99 Sticker

While I was in grad school, an editor from a major publishing house came to visit our writing program. His visit was greeted with much excitement by those of us scribbling away at novels and short story collections; we were invited to submit a sample of work that he would read before meeting with each of us.

While we feigned nonchalance, I'm sure each of us secretly hoped to be Discovered by this editor, a writer in his own right whose first novel had been highly praised by critics and whose career seemed poised to scale the heights. Knowing he was unlikely to read everything I sent, I struggled to decide which story to place first in my batch. I chose an atypical piece: it was more frothy and “chick-lit”ish than what I generally wrote—but it had moved a few readers to tears, and had scenes I’d continued to find funny months after writing them.

When we met, it was immediately clear that I had chosen the wrong story. “How old are you?” he asked. I admitted that I was 23. “Good,” he said. “This first story is obviously the work of a very young writer. If you had been older, I would have tried to discourage you from continuing. But you obviously have some years to grow.”

Bummer. But while I felt a bit patronized (and cursed myself for putting that story first), I figured, hey—could’ve been worse.

It wasn’t until a friend told me about his own meeting that I was truly put off. My friend was working on a novel about sharecroppers; it was taut and lean and beautifully written, with real depth and scope and a strange, cut-down prose that served the story well. When he met with the editor, the man praised the writing but told him it was derivative, had already been done by Faulkner, and would never sell.

“If you want to see a Southern novel that doesn’t repeat what’s already been done before, one that’s truly original,” he said without irony, “read my book.”


Soon after grad school, my story, “The Colonization of Helena Capezi,” ended up in Iron Horse Literary Review. I was ecstatic (more so than usual, even) for it to find a home, and later to get calls from an editor and an agent wanting to read more work.

But that visiting editor was right: The damn thing practically has ringlets.

Nonetheless, since then, I’ve seen his first and second novels stacked in the bargain section of at least a dozen bookstores. I’m not gloating—I was 23, after all, and with the perspective of years, I think he was generous. But every time I see his books, I think about him telling my friend to read his own novel as an example (the only example—no suggestions to read Barry Hannah, Tim Gautreaux, Lee Smith, James Lee Burke, Dorothy Allison) of how to do Southern fiction right. And I think about Clive James’ most hilarious poem, which David Orr quoted in a review of James' new selected poems a few Sundays back.

Blessed are those humble in success, for they shall never remind anyone of this poem.

The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered

By Clive James

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one's enemy's book—
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seemingly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler's War Machine,
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyard with a forlorn skyscraper
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,
His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed by others,
His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretense,
Is there with Pertwee's Promenades and Pierrots—
One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment,
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
"My boobs will give everyone hours of fun."

Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error—
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.


Humble Pai said...

i love this poem. but don't you think that a thick skin of arrogance is kind of necessary for the soul-crushing experience of writing and submitting and getting rejected? somewhere deep down, you gotta think you're the best thing out there in order to keep doing this shit.

M. C. Allan said...

I definitely believe in a core commitment/belief in your own work, even though I also think humility is a trait that breeds both empathy and perspective, both necessary qualities for writing. But I think it's possible to believe in your work without touting it as worthy of emulation, but maybe I'm being naive about that! I guess that I think this guy was confusing his role as an editor (finding/encouring/recognizing talent) with his role as a writer (believing in and promoting his own book). I think every writer, on some level, is trying to write the poems/stories they want to read -- but I can't imagine ever getting to a point where I'd tell someone to read my own work as a stellar example of originality, especially in a genre/region so dense with other great examples.

Maggie May said...

what a knob!!! god please keep me unpublished forever before i turn into someone who recommends only my own book as a way to write. blech.

i love this poem- i read it first in Anne Lamott's book where she talks about professional envy.

Anonymous said...

I think the "editor" thought -- naively -- that he might make a sale. I was there, too, and in my encounter with The Tool, I recall that he had the poor tact to disparage another writer -- a much older, much more successful writer and teacher who had been a kind and generous booster to The Tool and his wife (also a writer). The karma lesson out of all this? The Tool's next book was published on or around 9/11/2001 (I remember he had a reading canceled that week), and it died without giving a cry.

Jule Banville said...

I think he is one of the unbudgeable turkeys. And you, you are not.

M. C. Allan said...

maggie may: "knob" is just about the perfect word, I think. plus I love saying it. knob knob knob.

james: I thought you might remember some other juicy details about this one! I had forgotten that book #2 came out around 9/11. it seemed like that guy was going to be a comet across the literary heavens then, and then ... fizzle. wife seems to be doing reasonably well, though.

jule! thanks for dropping by! :) and thanks for the kind words. I have to agree I'm not an unbudgeable turkey, but that's because you have to have a book out in order to be one. If I ever manage to get a book out there, I'm sure it will gobble-gobble with the best of them. But I can swear that I will never be an unbudgeable turkey who refers other turkeys to my own juicy giblets :)

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Enjoyed the James' poem, MC - especially stanza 2. Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

everyone is so civil and intelligent on this site, seldom digressing from the subject at hand. teacher, are we permitted the occasional non sequitur (meaning no disrespect)?

M. C. Allan said...

digress away! since when are blogs about civility and intelligence? :)

Anonymous said...

thanks,carrie. well, i just wanted to say that i think joe the plumber is receiving too much attention. for anyone who lives in p.g.and montgomery county, i would instead recommend mr. burke (240 893 2647 cell). he is inexpensive and reliable. and unlike joe the plumber, he is jamaican and likes reggae.

M. C. Allan said...

Funny you should mention Joe the Plumber, Moose. As luck would have it, a friend just started a dirty campaign-related limerick competition that is now ongoing on Facebook. My contribution was actually related to the now-famous Joe. It may not be suitable for children, but it is below for your non-edification:

Said McCain, his face growing glummer,
“These latest polls are a bummer.
If they don’t turn around,
I’ll be forced to kneel down
for more lip service to Joe the Plummer.”

Anonymous said...

hah! that's funny, carrie.
i once asked mr. burke (yes, he is a real plumber) why he charged $60 just to snake a drain.
he drily replied, 'because you never know what you're going to get.'