Where was I? Oh, yes. Page 2. “Lord Smyth-Smyth will never harm you again, my dear,” young Lieutenant Geoffrey Holcomb-Tarleton, Sixth Duke of Anchovy, said, his muscular chest heaving with desire.
“Don’t say anything, just hold me,” replied Angelia-Mary Westminster-Dowling, her muscular chest heaving with….” This is terrible. So why am I reading it? Because I broke one of my chief rules in the writing biz: I agreed to read a friend’s manuscript which was accompanied by the dreaded command, “Tell me what you really think.” What I really think? As Yogi Berra said, I think I made the wrong mistake, and there is no way out of this predicament. Remember, don’t play cards with a guy named Slim, don’t eat at a diner called Mom’s and don’t agree to read and thereby judge a friend’s writing.
If I tell him the truth, that his efforts are dreadful, I’ll lose a friend for life. If I am an enabler and say it’s a work of art alongside Beowulf, Hamlet and the ingredients list on a Triscuit box, then this poor soul is confident his masterpiece will wind up on the best-seller list. Then he says goodbye to his old job at the pig fat rendering plant and hello to a villa near Nice with days spent writing the next mega-bux winner and nights at the cafe with Grisham, le Carre and Rowling.
My own first brush with book-fate was when a friend was having an operation, and his nurse said she had written her autobiography, “32 Years of Bedpans” or something like that. My friend said he knew someone, me, who wrote – mostly ransom notes — and maybe I could take a look at the book and make a judgment. So I received this brown paper package containing a 400-page typed manuscript. It was dreadful and, silly me, I gently wrote back that particular sentiment. I received a scalding diatribe from the nurse, including, “There must be something wrong with you!”
Yes, there was something wrong with me: I had agreed to judge this person’s life work, her baby. Come to think of it, judging babies and books are much the same. Don’t do it. There are some people who make their wretched living reading and judging books. They are called “editors” or “publishing house underlings” or “masochists.” Each day they come to work and see, piled up on their desk, the next contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The entries come in the aforementioned brown paper packages or boxes or binders with coffee-stained pages that are typed or hand-written in blood. These days we must suppose most author wannabes send in CDs or by iPad or tom-tom. If the work shows promise, the editor can contact the author and nurse him or her along in hopes of giving birth to a baby worth the advance fee. But most are awful and are rejected. Bennett Cerf, editor of Random House publishers, once returned a manuscript to the author with a note saying that Cerf didn’t think the tome would sell.
The author wrote back that he knew Cerf hadn’t read the entire book because the writer had glued two pages together towards the back of the book and, upon its return, the pages were still stuck together.
Cerf replied, “I don’t have to eat the whole egg to know it’s rotten.”
Besides authors in waiting, there are also professional scribes who can make a good living as anonymous ghost writers, giving all honor and credit – but not all the money — to the semi-literate NBA player who makes $4 million a free throw but couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the c and a. And we have the “as told to” or “with” followed by the name of a nobody, which means the famous person whose name and face are on the cover didn’t write a word but sat down in front of a tape recorder and mumbled his life story so an out-of-work English major (is that redundant?) could whip the memoir into shape, leaving out all the profanity, the ya’know’s and drug dealers by name.
If you are working on the great American novel or just spilling the beans on your company’s criminal behavior, there is good news. First, go into any Barnes & Noble and witness aisles of books. Every one of them was written by someone whose work was probably rejected several times. And, two: remember how many authors got insulted, ridiculed and run out of the office before hitting the best-sellers’ list.
One publisher rejected George Orwell’s submission, “Animal Farm” with: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.” After John le Carré submitted his first novel, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” one publisher sent it to a colleague, with this message: “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.” J.K. Rowling, the second richest woman in Britain behind QE II, submitted “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (later Sorcerer’s) Stone” to a dozen publishers, but was rejected by every one. Bloomsbury, a small London publisher, only took it on at the behest of the CEO’s eight-year old daughter, who begged her father to print the book. We might suppose that the daughter is now the third richest woman in Britain.
As we can see, rejections are a way of life for authors. It goes hand in hand with poverty. One of the editors of the San Francisco Examiner rejected a short story with the put-down: “I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” was rejected 38 times before finally finding a publisher. And a publisher sent this sent this rejection letter: “Good God, I can’t publish this!” It went to William Faulkner.
Back to the book. “I’m sorry, Miss Westminster-Dowling, but I can’t publish this junk.”
“Don’t say anything. Just hold me.”
Ashby is rejected at firstname.lastname@example.org