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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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“I’m only interested in stories that are about the crushing of a human heart.”*

A couple of months ago, a writer queried me with his work. I invited him to send it. Six weeks later, he politely asked if I had had a chance to read it. I had no recollection of his letter or receiving the material. I apologized and asked him to send it again, promising to get back to him in a week.

This morning I read his pages, first read of the day which is always my best and freshest. I was immediately taken with his precise prose. A superb adjective and simile in the first two pages knocked me out. Then some aspects didn’t sit well with me, then I grew restless with the story, even though I recognized his abundant skill.

I wrote him a rejection letter. I was apologetic and gave some notes about the work. Usually, I’m much more general. I knew that no matter what I said, it would ring hollow.

He wrote me back, thanking me for my time, polite again. He referenced Roger Angell’s rejection letters to Richard Yates. I looked them up and they are rich. He allowed that he believed in his work and that if the prose is fine, the rest should follow: plot, characters, setting. etc. It wasn’t like the usual letter I receive after I decline a work. It was poised and sincere and pained but not at all indulgent. And I have been haunted by it all day.

*Richard Yates

12 Responses

  1. Kafka once wrote in a letter to a friend: “The books we need are of the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation — a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.”

    Not exactly chick lit, or “Free”.

  2. Betsy, you need to take two bong hits and move forward. OR, get down to business and rep this dude’s book.

  3. Perhaps it is because I am not a “writer” (note quotes)… I have written mostly ad copy (hate me, don’t care, it bought my first house), and brilliant technical articles (my words) for crappy magazines (my words again)… but, in all of my endeavors, it has never occurred to me to discount the critique of my work from someone I respected, nor to seek it from someone I didn’t. So for me, the math is simple.

  4. As far as I’m concerned fine prose means he can teach ESL to students. It doesn’t mean his fiction has a voice and a soul. Sophistry is the practice of using fine prose and clever-seeming arguments to mislead people. It sounds like this guy should ease up on the fine prose and start worrying whether his heart’s on the page and whether he’s got a good yarn to tell.

  5. […] agent Betsy Lerner was haunted recently by a response she received to a rejection […]

  6. If a writer’s heart is on the page, someone needs to call a cop and an ambulance quick!

  7. A good rejection letter teaches us how to make our work more salable. We need to be open to an honest critique of our work and to carefully consider the advice it gives us. I don’t think you should feel haunted at all. It’s all in a day’s work.

  8. Would you direct me to where I might find the Roger Angell/Richard Yates rejection letters? I am eager to read them. (Internet search didn’t uncover them.)

    Take care, Betsy. This writer is heartened to know you are a publishing professional not hardened by the state of the business and the fact that you’re inundated with manuscripts.

  9. I think the problem is with the writer’s basic premise: that if the prose is good the rest will follow. In my experience, that has been far from true. My writing skills are very strong. However, I still need to build the all important story-telling skills in order to produce works that will sell. Perhaps for some people both sets of skills run together, but for me at least, the story-telling skills are a completely different set of skills from the writing ones,

  10. […] a comment on a blog post written by a literary agent who was haunted by a response to a rejection letter she […]

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