Friday, May 13, 2011

Editors on Trial

I was interested in two recent pieces that address the hard choices editors have to make. We are punished at times because some writers feel we are punishing them - for not writing about fuzzy bunnies and cute puppies and pretty flowers.

First, we have Raina Wallace over at The Rumpus writing about the "trend" of grief memoirs, beginning with the publication of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005. Wallace references a post over at The Millions on this topic by Bill Morris, but then refutes the idea that this is a trend. In fact, she feels editors are avoiding grief memoirs - including her own work (though it's actually a novel). At this point, to me, it became clear that this post was similar in tone to the many articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the difficulties of getting a faculty job - by unsuccessful candidates. This isn't to say the point is not valid, but just that the writer is working through rejection in making her or his point.

Wallace explains that, in her experience, book editors believe the public doesn't want too many grief memoirs. The sadness of them scares off the editors. She states,
I deduct this from the experience I’ve been having in trying to sell my novel, which tells the story of a young September 11th widow who discovers a secret involving her late husband and some of their closest friends. While the story is fiction, it is driven by emotional truth–namely, the emotional truth of grief and mourning–and this is the aspect of the novel that most editors have expressed concern with.
She goes on to say that one editor even warned that s/he "couldn’t see myself reading it over and over again throughout the editing process, or presenting it to my sales force without crying, to be honest. The emotional impact, in this case, worked against it for me—which I know must sound ridiculous, but although AFTER [my book] came close to overcoming my general reluctance to work on stories prominently featuring 9/11, I still just don’t feel quite emotionally ready to plunge in wholeheartedly and give this novel the publishing support it deserves.”

I can appreciate the author's frustration. In fact, I'm quite surprised by the brutal honesty of this editor - not against such honesty, just surprised to read it. Wallace then admits that she can understand the mentality, that she saw it in her personal life as friends grew uncomfortable if she spoke about her husband's death too much, even fairly soon after 9/11 where he died suddenly. She sees this as our country's collective avoidance of dealing with death honestly, and directly.

I'm glad that Wallace is able to see the editors not as some rude gatekeepers denying her the right to get her voice heard but instead as symptoms of a larger cultural issue. She's right to place the blame on American culture at large, and not on the shoulders of the editors who sent rejection letters that were honest, and hard, I'm sure, to write.

I remember having to reject someone with a Holocaust memoir. I felt terrible, even as a colleague explained that I'd see more of them, and we just couldn't publish them all. They had to really stand out. This is where self-publishing becomes useful. The story maybe should be told, but it's not necessarily going to sell the number of copies a publisher needs to justify it. Get annoyed at readers in general out there, but don't take it out on the editor or publisher.

In another article, this one by Michael Goldfarb writing at the BBC, the question is raised about why books and films are not reflecting the current economic crisis as such art did during the Great Depression. In fact, I would argue that Goldfarb is asking why more mainstream writers and filmmakers are not grappling with the reality of our times directly. (The Left seems quite rightly obsessed with the struggle.) I'm not sure this is quite as much of an image as he makes it out to be. Is it that novelists and other artists are not addressing the recession, or just that when they do, those books (or films) don't attract fans?

Goldfarb concludes at one point:
I think the primary reason is that Hollywood and the publishing industry have learned just one historical lesson from the Depression: people want entertainment in tough times.
Perhaps this is the case, but I don't know. Look at the National Book Award winner last year, Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule, set at a rundown horse track in West Virginia. A finalist, Lionel Shriver's So Much for That, seems to hinge on the wife needing the man's health insurance (admittedly, I haven't read this one - forgive any misunderstanding). I also think of the characters in Bonnie Jo Campbell's book American Salvage, which was also a National Book Award finalist, and which peopled very much by working class and poor characters. The books are there, simply put.

The question becomes how much more can we take. It might not be that we should publish a ton of material on tragic stories, but only the best. The classics will go into the canon, perhaps, and in 60 years when people are looking at this time period, as Goldfarb looks back at the output of the Great Depression, the best will still be there, reflecting this period in all its heartbreak and frustration.

As editors, we can only try to find the best and not publish anything less, even if the topic is important and the issue at the heart of it - grief, a very real and all too common financial struggle - is true to life and important.

2 comments:

Brian said...

But who says editors are afraid of the depressing? Flavorwire offers "10 Devastatingly Sad Books" here: http://flavorwire.com/177382/required-reading-10-devastatingly-sad-books Enjoy - or not.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with the comparison to academic job candidates "working through rejection." The changing university churns out more Ph.D.'s each year than they open jobs. The deck is stacked. There's economics involved.

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