Tuesday, June 2, 2009


For the past several months, my highly esteemed agent, Philip Spitzer, has been sending my recently finished novel, Montparnasse, to publishers. So far, unfortunately, not luck. He forwards me the rejection emails, and while some are encouraging, and others are shallow and mean-spirited, none have matched the standards of that wonderful urban legend, the Chinese Rejection Letter. It reads: “Dear Writer: We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.

This is timeless, dates from the 1950s or perhaps even earlier, and is known to every writer who has received an unsigned, pre-printed note from an editor who has not read past page five of the author's work. 

I get stuff like this: "I’ve read MONTPARNASSE and was very impressed with all the historical detail. It’s hard to imagine a more colorful setting than Paris just after World War I. Thierry Sagnier’s characters and interweaving plot lines were also very intriguing. Even the horrible serial killer Landru was not without his charms. Despite that, I think making this stand out on our list would be quite a challenge, and I would hate to see your talented author’s work overlooked."  I have no idea what this means other than thanks, but no thanks.

But that's OK. Rejection slips are a part of any writer's life, or, for that fact, anyone who chooses to work in what is laughingly called the creative fields. I have rejection slips dating back 30 years from Playboy, Penthouse, Stars and Stripes, Good Housekeeping, Iron Horse, Smithsonian and a few dozen other magazines. These are my stripes, my medals, my scars. They show that I've tried, failed very often and succeeded just enough times to keep it interesting. And, after all, I only need one acceptance letter.

But here's the rub: most publishing houses no longer have real editors; they have disinterested readers who often seem to think a submitted manuscript is a finished product. It rarely is.

When Philip sold my first novel, the editor assigned to it sent me a 19-page single-space letter asking for clarifications and additional details. She had ideas to make the book more interesting and readable, and I followed almost all of them. She was the pro, I wasn't. I spent the better part of a month rewriting the thing according to her suggestions, and in the end I had a much better piece of work.

I don't think people like that exist anymore. Maybe it's simply that the folks sending the rejection slips today don't have the skills and training the old-time editors had. Or maybe the late, great Adlai Stevenson was right. Editors are men who separate the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff.

Here's installment 92 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 22

They were taking a nap when the commotion broke out. It was a somewhat cloudy day and the winds were gusting. Though the ship was berthed, it’s roll had become more pronounced. The sea was frothed with white. Outside their cabin a man’s outraged voice said, “This is intolerable! I’ll not permit it! This is a gross  infringement of my rights!”

            A calmer voice answered, “Captain’s orders, sir. If you’ll stand aside, this will only take minutes. We’d appreciate your cooperation.”

            Jennifer rose, opened the door, peeked outside, turned to whisper to Clare. “It’s whatsisname, our neighbor, the professor. And there’s a bunch of the crew there, too.”

            More voices, this time more restrained. “But I don’t understand this. Perhaps if I could speak with the captain, I’m sure we could straighten this out. There’s no reason for this intrusion. I’m a passenger--”

            “You’re an employee of the line. Consider this a direct order issued by Roderick Stuart, captain of this ship. Stand aside.”

            Clare rolled off her bed,. “Let’s see what’s going on.”

            In the corridor, the man who’d introduced himself on the first day of the cruise as Earl Thorogood Robinson, formerly Professor of Renaissance Literature at Georgia Southwestern College, was standing in the doorway of his cabin, arms outstretched, looking slightly ridiculous is a pair of jockey shorts and a Rock Til You Puke tee-shirt. Four crewmembers in dress whites faced him. A shapely woman in her 50s was being escorted from the cabin by a fifth crewmember. Her hair was disheveled and the back of her unbuttoned sun dress revealed a tanned spine and two inches of white skin below the waist. She tried unsuccessfully to keep the dress in place as she was hurried away.

            “This is intolerable!” said the professor.

            The crewman in charge of the detail shrugged. “Captain’s orders, Mr. Robinson.”

            “Professor Robinson!”

            “Fine. Professor Robinson. Now stand aside, Professor, so we can do our jobs  and then we’ll be on our way, Professor.”

            The professor stood aside, turned to the two women. “Outrageous behavior! Why, in all my years spent traveling, I’ve never--” Something happening in the cabin caught his eye. “You sonofabitch! Get your hands out of that!” The crew had turned over the mattress,  were rummaging through a worn plaid suitcase. “I said leave that alone!” The professor rushed the crewmen. There was a brief flurry of arms and legs, a chorus of yells. One of the crew kicked the cabin door shut. Down the corridor, more heads appeared. A short, heavy woman shot a furious glance at the retreating female passenger. “What in the world? Ethel? Ethel Rosenberg, is that you? You said you didn’t like him, that he wasn’t good enough for me! Ethel, you bitch!” And burst into tears.

            The professor’s door opened. He stood framed in it, face as pale as the corridor walls, his hands held behind him by two crewmen. He was led out without a word. The last man out carefully closed the cabin door and made a show of locking it. Then he turned, winked at Jennifer and Clare, held a finger against one nostril and snorted loudly.

            The heavy woman gasped. “Drugs! I saw them do that in Pulp Fiction. It means he was doing drugs.” Then, at the top of her voice,  “God damn you, Ethel Rosenberg! I hope you get what you deserve! I hope you get the clap!”

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