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Everybody Get Together Try And Love One Another RIght Now

Dear Betsy Lerner:

Do you ever wonder if there are great books that are not getting published? Name WITHHELD

Whenever people ask that question, it always sounds suspiciously like: is it possible that my great book won’t get published? Or is it possible that the great publishing machine might miss a great book or two? Or is there a great genius out there who does not seek publication? Or who has possibly given up?

There are a lot ways to think about these questions. Emily Dickinson always springs to mind first. Imagine sitting on the equivalent of all that literary dynamite and not seeing any of it published in your lifetime. If she were alive today she would be Lady Gaga. I think about JD Salinger who was one of the world’s great haters and wouldn’t let the likes of us besmirch his later works with our cloddish reviews and insufficient love and understanding of his characters. And then, of course, the Pulitzer Prize winning Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole whose mother got his book published posthumously in the aftermath of his suicide (a book I’ve started a few times and have never finished).  Do I think there are great books not getting published? Well, I know there are a lot crappy books getting published.

What do you think: are great books not finding their way into print? Or does the cream always rise?

109 Responses

  1. Yes, I definitely think there are great books out there not getting published. I imagine it has always happened, but way more so now.

    However, I don’t think writers should use this as an excuse for why their books aren’t getting published, or as a reason to rail against the industry in general. I also think that overall, in the long run, cream will rise. That’s the optimist in me.

    And I loved Confederacy of Dunces.

  2. I think if there are great books not getting, then the authors just gave up too quickly. The last man standing stands for a reason.


    • Damn my iPad! It’s impossible for me to post without making a huge typo. *great books not getting published*

      And I agree with Laura; I mostly just think this because I’m an optimist.

      • The last man standing gets published, but the tallest blade of glass gets chopped first. And while eagles may soar, weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.


  3. Actually, I’ve always suspected there was a confederacy of dunces passing on great books while taking on the last man standing.

  4. I think the definition of “great” comes into play here. One person’s “great” could be another person’s yawn. I agree with part of what Laura says and I disagree with the other part: I, too, believe the cream rises. But I also think that those overlooked “great” books have a better chance today of being discovered by readers thanks to digital publishing (don’t get me wrong — there’s still a lot crap being self-published as well…but also some great finds that have been overlooked by traditional publishers).

  5. Sure. great books don’t get published but I’d like to think that’s because the author, for whatever reason, is refusing an audience. Once they decide to open their door, it is rare a worthwhile piece will be ignored.

  6. Writing well takes one sort of talent and marketing yourself takes another. So probably lots of great work out there never seeing the light of day. Publishing is mainly about marketing not about literature.

  7. Great books exist in a cultural space of greatness. They are a communal occurrence. Part of what makes a great book great is a readership that recognizes its greatness. If there is no readership, it is difficult to imagine in what way a book could be said to be great; likewise if the readership is limited to, say, one’s thesis committee, spouse, and one or two aunts.

    • @Tetman – Perhaps I’m misreading your intention here, and if so, apologies, but I would argue that ‘greatness’ exists not amongst concurring communities, but rather simply between an individual reader and the book. Therefor, just because millions love Twilight doesn’t make it ‘great’ to me, while a novel could be ‘great’ even if only your aunt gets to read it. It would be ‘great’ for her.

      • You seem to be propounding a paradoxically limited and/or solipsistic concept of greatness, combined with, or as a result of, a rejection of the materialistic fallacy of misplaced intrinsic value (which rejection I share).

      • If we both agree that greatness is in the eye of the beholder, and that there is no such thing as ‘intrinsic’ greatness, then perhaps you’re willing to go one step further and say that it needs only one set of eyes to recognize greatness as it occurs in the moment for them.

        This makes greatness limited, true, but also illimitable, in that what was once overlooked (Van Gogh) can find new appreciation decades or centuries down the road once the right set of eyes are able to view it in a context that allows its greatness to shine.

  8. I wonder about this every time I walk into a Borders or a Barnes & Noble and see that front table with all the paid-for marketing space for buku books I’ll never read. But to be fair I’m also just off the plane from AWP and my mind’s aswim with too much advice, and yet no advice at all, and I’m watching the Super Bowl and hoping Rapelisbuger doesn’t win and wondering if I should have that 3rd beer, the last one in the fridge, before my husband gets to it first.


  9. Eugene O’Neil was so shy that if his roommate, a member of the Provincetown Players, hadn’t convinced him to let the Players do a reading of one of his plays (or simply swiped one – stories differ), he might have remained a journalist with a locked trunkful of scripts.

    Friends help.

    • Sarah, P-Town is one of my favorite places — I love going there to write and to soak in the Eugene O’Neil and Tennesse Williams karma.

      And you’re right: friends do indeed help! 🙂

      • I’ve never been to Provincetown, but Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook were born in my present neck of the woods.

        The thought of soaking up Jig Cook’s karma boggles my mind. 😀

  10. The cream may mostly rise, but the dreck does not sink often enough.

  11. False premise. There’s no such thing as ‘great books.’

    The whole ‘great books’ thing is a con game writers play on ourselves. We’re _this_ close to greatness, honest and for real, we pinky-promise–we’re hip-deep in Beauty and Life and The Awful Scourge of Truth. We’re such poseurs. Our desperate humiliating self-aggrandizement makes me sick. What it is about writing that drives us to abase ourselves? I’ve been despising myself all day because I agreed to write a crappy book for crappy money, which makes unambiguously clear to me precisely how cheaply I value what little talent I have. But as least I’m abasing myself for Money–abasing myself for Greatness would be even worse. Because money exists. I’m fucking a chimp for pocket change and a little attention, while some wannabe’s getting double-penetrated on the next stage by Greatness for free? You know what they say–greatness is in the eyes of the high school girl with the crush on that English teacher, the one who really made a difference, the only one who really understood. You want ‘great books,’ talk to Glenn Beck; he’s got a little list of them, he’ll sell it you for $9.99/month. And everyone’s who’s got a list of great books has a little Glenn Beck they’re trying to hawk, too. The whole thing’s a conservative circle jerk, with timeless irreproachable quality in the center. Great unpublished books, sure, because your crapass manuscript is a thing of Deathless Truth. And who thinks that ‘believing in your work’ actually means anything? Believing in your work is like believing in your hard-on: when you’ve got one, you don’t need _belief_. We talk about greatness and belief because we suspect that we’re engaged in a desperate struggle with an obsession that doesn’t matter. And we’re right. The last thing the world needs is another writer, another book. Do doctors obsess about great diagnoses? Getting it right isn’t enough for them? Are bus drivers scanning the rear view for a lane change of greatness? The question isn’t ‘are great books not finding their way into print?’ The question is, given that ‘a lot crappy books are getting published,’ exactly how bad is this manuscript I can’t sell? It’s not that I’m competing against Great Books and coming up short. I can’t even clear a pile of crap.

    • Oh, NOW you show up? Nice.

      Great is subjective, to some degree. Hopefully that’s not an incendiary statement.

      I’m one of those girls with the crush-worthy English teacher, except he told me I was doomed to a life of wasted potential and then fucked my mom. Oh, Mr. Shriver. I obsess about making everything great, but that’s just me. I also obsess about killing my enemies and spitting on their rotting flesh, so there you go.

      • @August – so you’ve never read a book that you personally thought was ‘great’ by whatever standards and criteria you might judge such a thing?

      • Have you read Scarlett Thomas?

      • I was hating you for that @ sign, Phil, then clearly needed one. So @Shanna: my question about Scarlett T.

        @Phil – That’s not ‘great,’ that’s ‘a book I really liked.’ Which is my point. We’re so invested in greatness, we stalk and sniff and fondle Greatness, we lay our spavined grandfatherly cocks on Greatness’s trembling palm, but we’re just talking about shit we like. The Great Novel is a story we tell ourselves to distract from the fact that we’re engaged in a pursuit of absolute indifference. If ‘great’ means ‘whatever we like,’ let’s drop the mythologizing and say ‘likable.’ How many of us are sitting down to write the Likable American Novel? We aspire to greatness because we’re so desperately insecure. We actually believe in the Great American Novel; we believe in our work; we believe everything the emptiness tells us to believe. Do audiologists believe in the Great American Hearing Aid? Are weavers trying to produce the Great American Shawl? We’ve sold ourselves a lie–maybe to ourselves a reason hate ourselves for failing to achieve greatness, maybe to excuse our mediocrity as sacrifices on the divine altar, I dunno. Maybe I’m just an @hole.

      • No. Should I? What should I read? She’s a prolific little fucker for 34.

      • Something about her voice reminds me of you. Maybe try ‘The End of Mr. Y.’

        (Thanks for telling me she’s 34. Now I feel much better about myself.)

    • Maybe you’re just full of yourself. Get over it.

      • In my opinion, it contributes nothing to the conversation to bleat out a hit-and-run “You suck,” while cowering under the mantle of anonymity. Even pseudonymity at least assigns you a consistent personality.

      • Not a ‘hit and run’ just an observation. Accept it or not. Guess you didn’t.

      • I dunno, Shanna, it was just a matter of time before my mother found Betsy’s blog.

        (But ‘full of myself?’ Really? That’s the criticism? I’m a self-indulgent wanker who runs for potty words to make a point and spews sophomoric objections with misogynistic tics in the sort of D-list rant you might find in a YouTube comment, and the big insight is that I’m full of myself? Being full of myself is positively charming compared to the rest of me.)

      • There you go, August. I was being nice, actually, but you pretty much get yourself. And that’s good. And leave your mom out of this. Mothers are sacrosanct.

      • Mothers are sacrosanct? Have you ever read a book? Anything from Psychology 101 through Twilight will tell you it’s mom’s fault. However, if you’re military I will forgive you and if you are I don’t have to tell you why.

        But what I’d really like to know is WTH is with everybody? Doesn’t anyone have a sense of humor anymore? For pete’s sake take some vitamin D, get a sun lamp or get laid or something.

      • Deb: That WAS my joke. And a one and a two and a three…

      • Laughing at myself Anon. Flu fogged brain, I guess. Maybe I better take some vitamin D or…

    • @August – Awesome use of ‘spavined’. I’m almost willing to concede your points on word usage alone. However, I stick to my guns! You say that we fail to achieve greatness, thereby seeming to imply that, like Moby Dick, it’s out there. And if I recall correctly, Moby Dick gets royally harpooned at the end of that novel.

      Further, and more seriously, there are indeed novels I like, and then there are novels which are several steps higher up the ladder of impact and that changed the way I see the world. Blood Meridian, Cloud Atlas, Flowers for Algernon, huge tracts of Proust, even that hoary old bastard, Joyce. I liked those novels, but more than that–they were Great because they not only showed me a new way to look at the world, they have managed, through their intrinsic greatness, to change the way countless other people see the world too.

      You might call that extreme likeability, but I’m willing to accord it a higher accolade.

      • I stole ‘spavined’ from Wodehouse. His best stuff is as close to Great as I’m willing to concede exists.

        I dunno. I prefer my words to mean something, and I’ve got no idea what ‘great’ means in this context other than ‘popular among the right sort of reader.’ Which is fair enough, I suppose, but I’m hating myself this week, so I’ve gotta choose between picking at Betsy’s blog and picking at my face.

      • There is no such thing as “intrinsic greatness”. Look it up: the words do not even make sense put together like that, even if you were writing about Faberge or Siberian tigers or the Third Law of Thermodynamics, but especially not about books, ESPECIALLY not about Joyce.

        Individual words matter, Phil. They all mean something specific — it’s not all onopatopoeia.

      • Onomatopoeia.

        Yes, I know. I suck.

      • @Vivian Swift – Thanks for calling my attention to that. You’re right – I was playing fast and loose with the meaning of ‘intrinsic’, and I’m glad for the refresher course that a quick browse through the dictionary provided. Salut!

      • @Vivian Swift – Though, on further reflection, I’m not sure I was that far off the mark. MW gives ‘the intrinsic value of a gem’ as an example of its use. That doesn’t seem too far afield from ‘the intrinsic greatness of a novel’, greatness and value both being attributive qualities.

      • Value is not subjective. Therefore, “intrinsic value” has a specific, market place meaning, like the 18K gold bracelet that has a value of $2200 (meltdown).

        Worth is subjective. That same bracelet might be worth $100,000 if it were signed by Cartier, but it still has only an intrinsic value of $2200.

        Miind you, that Cartier bracelet wouldn’t be worth $100,000 to everyone; some people might find its worth a total mystery, maybe even a joke — which is why the buying habits of the rich are such a hoot.

    • @August: your vent reminded me of a quote by Spencer Tracy:

      “Why do actors think they`re so G-ddamn important? They`re not. Acting is not an important job in the scheme of things. Plumbing is.”

      “We talk about greatness and belief because we suspect that we’re engaged in a desperate struggle with an obsession that doesn’t matter.”

      Then we should write about what matters. Writing itself doesn’t matter. What matters matters. We should write about that.

      The cream always rises to the top, in its own time. The author might not be around to get the credit, but if what is written satisfies a real human need, even if only for the writer, it will be seen as great, somehow, someday. The more fundamental and profound the need answered, the greater the book. Those are the books, stories, and poems that last, long after the author is gone.

      • Well said.

      • So we should write about plumbing?

        Writing matters because writing pays the bills; I write because my dharma blah blah blah my wife and son, the only two people I love. If I were a plumber, I’d plumb for them. Otherwise, when we start talking about ‘what matters,’ we’re back in the Land of the Teutonic Caps: Truth and Beauty, Greatness and Belief, these things Matter. I guess they exist, too, on some cloudy inhuman plane.

        The cream doesn’t rise to the top, because there is no cream and there is no top. C’mon, you know that. You can say it in Sanskrit.

      • You’re confusing me with a Buddhist, a monist, a voidist. None of the above.

        So, love matters more than writing. You write because you love. You pay the bills because you love. Love matters. You love because you’re a living person and not a machine or a piece of dead flesh. That person matters.

        Greatness, Truth, Beauty, and Love (why didn’t you capitalize that one?) only exist in the context of individuals who have relationships, including the relationship between God and man. What else is there to write about?

      • What else is there to write about? ‘Combat Wombat,’ my new ghostwriting job.

        As for love, bah. I hate losing an argument. If you were a voidist, I would’ve kicked your ass.

      • You didn’t lose. You’re the one who mentioned love, confirming my statement. You just didn’t realize you already agreed with me.

        Carolyn See writes about having been involved with a man who wrote a mediocre novel. One day, she happened to bring along one of his books to her therapy session. When her therapist saw the book, she said, [Paraphrased] “I will forever be grateful to the author of that book. I was laid up in the hospital, in tremendous pain, and that book was the only reading material available. For the four hours I read it I forgot my pain completely.” So even Combat Wombat can have its uses.

      • Your optimism has made my day, Tulasi-Priya.

  12. I think the whole publishing industry does an excellent job of finding the best stuff that fits into any publishing category. Although there might be some books that are overlooked, but I’m not persuaded.

    “Dunces” is not a good example of a great work slipping through the publishers’ fingers. After Toole killed himself, his mom sent it around and, guess what, the book found a publisher.

    If you’re smart enough to write even a reasonably not-crappy book, you’re smart enough to query agents.

    That isn’t to say that there aren’t some pretty good books that don’t make the cut that are of better quality than some of the crappy books that do make the cut. But, hey, we’re talking about great books.

    Also, some people will bring up JK Rowling or some other famous writer who had trouble finding a sympathetic agent or editor, and present that as evidence of a publishing industry that can’t see greatness. (I will avoid the question of whether the Harry books are “great.”) However, her book did get published by major houses in both the UK and the US.

  13. I’ve not yet been published, so case in point.

  14. August, I stopped listening at dp.
    I’ve thought about this a lot, and I believe the short answer to be no, nothing great is getting shelved by agents or editors; they’re too trained to spot it.

  15. Recently I visited a cafe in my neighborhood in San Francisco. Sat near a smallish bookcase stuffed with James Patterson and cat mystery books. I’d brought my laptop, a sketchbook and an intro to Lacan (“Crazy or Just French?”). However coffee dictated I keep looking for something to read, so I checked out a few other nooks and discovered a dog-eared Granta about Work. Dog-eared. Meanwhile, the Patterson and cat mysteries looked as though they’d been dry-cleaned and pressed. Dog-eariness gives me hope. Hey, at least the slackers at Cafe Cafe *read* about work. And it was literary.

    I thought about Patterson and refused to do research because I didn’t think I liked him much. But I did consider writing a thriller once and had picked up an anthology of thriller stories in which P. had had a hand (read these after the much better written Noir series books). Believe P. was a copywriter or ad man or PR person. Believe he knows how to promote the hell out of his stuff. Whereas I’m sure a lot of really good writers probably don’t know or don’t care to…. Okay, just looked him up: “To date, James Patterson has had 19 consecutive #1 New York Times bestselling novels, and holds The New York Times record for most bestselling hardcover fiction titles by a single author, a total of 63, which is also a Guinness World Record.” (Wikipedia)

    I will read stuff if I want to learn from it–sometimes even badly written stuff (as long as it’s short!). What I learned from Patterson the writer: Write in cliches, go heavy on the action, stick with high concept stuff, place very very words on each page.

    Anyone with half a brain could follow this formula, but it’s less than thrilling (really fucking boring actually). Anyone with half a brain could promote the hell out of their own stuff. So what.

    Bottom line is: There are a lot more writers than there are readers. There are shitloads of books out there (as I am reminded every time I pass the wonderful Green Apple Books on Clement Street near 6th Avenue in San Francisco). Everything gets remaindered or left out for free. Anyone who gets published is really damned lucky. And yes good people get passed over, whether it’s because their stuff is viewed as unmarketable or because they don’t already have a track record or because they’re just too afraid to submit their stuff. (And probably unlike Patterson, many of us were taught that self-promotion is unseemly–yes, even if we view it as promoting the work.)

    So blah-blah-blahdy … Angela Carter is one of my favorite writers. Her stuff was not and is not popular, but it is brilliant. And she got published, thank god. Everyone should keep trying, if they care about writing, if they work at it. There is hope–not a lot, but some.

    • “Anyone with half a brain could follow this formula, but it’s less than thrilling (really fucking boring actually). Anyone with half a brain could promote the hell out of their own stuff.”

      Try it.

      • Seriously! If it was so easy, more people would be doing it. And before you knock him, realize he’s the reason his publisher can afford to buy all the “great books” that won’t sell out. And honestly, though I don’t enjoy his books, there is something great about someone who brings so much reading pleasure to massive amounts of people.

      • Ha, you’re right August, I couldn’t do it because it would be too boring.

      • May, Patterson can sustain a mild knock or two, as can anyone who reads him. But I doubt he or anyone really cares. We will all read what we like, so it goes.

  16. Patterson-learning edit: Place very *few* words on each page.

    Very very words would work too.

  17. Three hundred million people in the USA the majority of which seem to be writing a book or want to write a book. Around 150,000 books published annually–not all great. The odds are some great ones have been missed.

  18. Utterly unknowable.

  19. Absolutely. But what concerns me more is the Walmartization of books. As people like me complain about the closing of bookstores, I’m ordering from Amazon. Convenience and time at a premium, as the things that get shelf space are the best sellers, mass market for the most part, along with the same ten popular trade paperbacks, I worry about all the rest of it not being able to stay afloat. I worry that people that have the talent to write what I like to read will instead write what sells. The balance seems to have swung.
    Ignatius Reilly…one of the only books I’ve read multiple times, and my vote for the best comical voice in literature. Betsy, give him another try. He’s just funny, and so sad, and one of the reasons I think none of it matters as long as someone keeps writing those amazing books about unpopular characters.

  20. I’m much more concerned about the great books not getting written.

  21. cream rises to the top. the great ones (okay, even very very good ones) will find the light of day. how do I know that? as betsy says, there are so many bad books published. proof that we still leave no stone unturned in that quest for the wonderful read, the brilliant work that will move us…as readers we search for it and as writers we try to get it on the page. sorry if that sounds over dramatic. but if it’s good even, someone will find it.

  22. Of course. This is true in every artistic medium, that often great art doesn’t get financial/critical recognition. It can happen for many reasons.

    Let’s face it that money is what many most people are after. Masses and masses of people pay for shitty, contrived films, music, and yes–books. Putting out the same pap over and over is quite safe.

    Some cream rises, but it floats around a lot of scum at the top.

  23. I think a lot of nearly-great fiction is going unpubbed these days, because it is “too quiet” and wouldn’t sell sufficiently, while meanwhile a lot of ungreat books are pubbed because they do sell –which helps subsidize the publication of truly great books that don’t necessarily sell, either.

    I would like to point out, in keeping with Betsy’s blog header of the day, that there seems to be a confusion of vowels around here. I am not the “Katherine” whose negative posts on Feb 1 led to the most recent nasty pile-on. Perhaps some of the bile for her was based on the assumption that she was me, but it seems ludicrous that a bunch of writers cannot be bothered to notice that they are attacking two different people with similar names, one of them anonymous and the other known, conflated into one target.

    Where this all began was my posting a long while ago that Betsy had rejected my first novel. I regret that my tone in that post was apparently misleading to some people. My first novel was rejected by seventeen imprints before it found a home. My point was that it all worked out, and that rejections are part of most stories of publication. Believe it or not I wanted to make a point that could offer hope to those whose work has not yet found the right match with an agent or an editor. What happened next — this is simply what it felt like to me — was a response along the lines of this: A publication story with a happy ending, how offensive! Any hint of success is disturbing to us! How dare this person join the conversation which we all know is reserved only for the hopeful or moderately successful circle of people who post every day. Woundlickers are welcome only if their wounds are still bleeding!

    I recognize how my post was taken in a very different spirit from the one I intended. I really had no intention of slamming Betsy, whom I admire, or of somehow claiming something extraordinary for myself. People who know me know that I am generous to unpublished writers and have a lot of karma credit for what I have done to help a lot of people get published. But you all don’t know me, though you think you do.

    I really do apologize for not getting the tone right, at that time, and for not recognizing that I probably just shouldn’t join the conversation because of the dynamics of this group. I also recognize how loyalty to Betsy (as well as god knows what else that is about some of you, not me) has led to all sorts of smug viciousness from then to now.

    My comment on Friday about Reif Larsen’s novel manuscript was a reasonable contribution to the conversation. I get it that for a variety of reasons, many of them confused, anything I say in Betsy’s blog seems likely to provoke a further round of unwarranted nastiness. I wanted to say all this clearly, however, rather than just withdraw. So now the vast number of lurkers who have been confused about the obsessional venom will have some insight about where it comes from, if nothing else.

    • I’ve thought about that since I posted a response in the fray last week. That was the post I took such offense to. I’m glad to hear it was some anonymous tool and not you. Re: the other, that seems to be a personal thing between you and Vivian. I’m guessing your apology isn’t directed at her. For what it’s worth, you’re probably not going to get very far toward global blog peace with sentiments like “ludicrous,” “smug viciousness,” and “obsessional venom.” But you’re a writer, so you already know that.

      • Me, I was quite taken with the “People who know me know that I am generous to unpublished writers and have a lot of karma credit for what I have done to help a lot of people get published” bit.

        Just the right amount of windbaggery, just the right tone of oblivious vanity. Nice.

        I’m sorry that I mistook you for the other Katherine, Katharine. I misjudged the voice, the character — I was totally wrong. But lordy, thank you for that Reif Larsen post — if there are any other “brilliant” writers you’d like to take credit for (see: above) I’m standing by.

      • Sorry — I’m not on my own computer today and I didn’t mean to post this Anonymously. Sorry!

      • You seem to miss her point.

      • No guessing! My apology was certainly directed at Vivian along with everyone else who had such a negative response. And meanwhile, I have NO IDEA what the personal issue is for you, Vivian, about me or my work or my posts. You didn’t answer my email asking, either. The adolescent rudeness thing is boring. (Incidentally, when I went to your blog to find your email address, I saw your post about the artist Mozelle Thompson, whom I knew. He was a man, not a woman. I also found myself thinking about the irony that we might even be related, Swiftwise, plus we have a lot of other things in common…leading me to wonder if your chronic bug is what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. Oh well.)

    • I’ve already apologized for confusing you with “Katherine,” and I can accept that you didn’t mean any disrespect to Betsy. You’ve apologized for not getting the “tone” right. Fair enough. And nastiness is always unwarranted. But I don’t think most of us have any obsessional venom where you’re concerned (as Humphrey Bogart said to Peter Lorre in Casablanca, in response to Lorre’s, “You despise me, don’t you?” “Well, if I gave you any thought I probably would.” http://www.destinationhollywood.com/movies/casablanca/quickclip_15.shtml).

      I certainly don’t resent your success. I just expressed wonder at the fact that you keep commenting here in the face of so much derision. You took my comment as resentment of your success, but I don’t see how you got that idea, since at the time I didn’t even know you were successful. Sneering at us for our lack of success, assuming we’re disturbed by yours, and couching your derision in an apology is equally cause for wonder. Best wishes to you.

      • I meant Reif Larsen’s success despite his manuscript’s not having conformed to the standards under discussion. I am sorry that was unclear.

        I am certainly not sneering at anyone.

      • I guess I’m a bit in the dark on some of this, but reading Ms. Weber’s response above, I think some of you are being less than graceful in accepting her heartfelt apology. And, for the record, and I have no dog in this fight, I have noticed what I would consider some piling on for rather innocuous comments (again, innocuous is in the eye of the beholder), and some of the peevish comments to Ms. Weber’s apology strike me as misplaced. I also read that Feb. 1 comment that the other Katherine wrote re Betsey’s poem. I came away from it thinking she didn’t really mean it as a slam, etc. against Betsy. I think she was merely trying to curry some sort of a backhanded bonhommie with Betsy. But it backfired big time. That’s my take on the deal. I may be totally wrong. But I keep looking at that post and that’s my take.

      • The thing I cannot figure out is why Katharine Weber is bothering to be so gracious to this really rude and unpleasant handful of negative blog posters. The hostility here is why I never post to this blog, even though my work at a Random imprint gives me insights I would ordinarily share in a non-poisonous discussion about publishing. But I figured out a while ago that this isn’t really a publishing blog, even though Betsy’s posts are mostly really great and interesting prompts. It’s a rather hostile support group for people who haven’t published or have barely published and prefer to wallow in their poor-little-me status. The rudeness seems calculated to drive away successful authors or serious people who work in publishing.

      • That feels true. Ouch.

      • This start when I tried to be funny while snarking at someone who I thought was being rude to Betsy. Someone else assumed it was Katharine Weber, and from there it escalated. I can’t take responsibility for all the nasty comments, but I did roll the snowball down the hill. I apologize to everyone and would plead that we all keep to civility in our future dealings. Except for August.

    • You’re certainly right on that one, Katharine. I’ve gotten the “too quiet” rejection again and again. But…if I’d had more time, and if I was a better writer, I’d likely have made it even quieter.

      • I think we could all create long lists of wonderful books by authors who would be considered “too quiet” today. Would May Sarton make the grade? Hortense Calisher? Would Grace Paley have enough of a platform for a story collection to be worth putting into print? They don’t sell well, you know.

      • Marilynne Robinson? Is she too quiet?

      • Housekeeping would certainly be deemed very, very quiet by today’s standards.

      • William Maxwell? (‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’…writing just doesn’t get much better than that.) James Agee? (‘A Death In The Family’….quiet, quiet, quiet…brilliant, brilliant, brilliant)

      • Some of Marilynne Robinson’s sentences make the hair stand up on my arms, they take my breath away. William Maxwell yes. Wallace Stegner also. One of my favourite quotes is from Stegner on the process of writing Crossing to Safety :

        ‘I had the muleheaded notion that it ought to be possible to make books out of something less than loud sensation. I was trying to make very small noises and to make them thoughtful’

        Robinson is, by all accounts, a fairly ‘quiet’ person writing ‘quiet’ books, and the best observers of the human condition are often listeners not talkers: to spot the undercurrents, it helps to be on the fringes of the conservation.

        The feedback I’ve had is that what I write now is too quiet to be marketable but as another poster said if the writing itself was better, being quiet wouldn’t rule it out, so it’s craft I need to hone not genre.

        Reading Robinson, I wonder ‘ how did she/ could she know’ what it feels like to be inside my skin, even though I’m a woman in her 30s (an atheist to boot) and her strongest characters are elderly men of faith. Wondering how writers do that is why I’ll read till the end of my days…

        Debates over who gets to say what ‘great’ literature is always bugged me at university. Love what you love. Just keep reading.

      • Her strongest character to me is Ruthie, a far cry from an elderly man. I think anyone who writes like this can be as quiet as they want:

        So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory– there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine.

      • Oh Ruthie, definitely. With Robinson, you’re talking about choosing from an embarrassment of riches.

        Out of interest, did you enjoy Tinkers? I wanted to love it but couldn’t connect. Maybe it’s unfair to compare anyone with Robinson, but… I felt it lacked her light touch.

      • I really wanted to like it too. It was an interesting premise and really well-crafted, I thought, but it just didn’t move me. Certain passages did–like in the field prior to the seizure–but overall, no. I was jealous of Robinson’s blurb though!

  24. Go back and read The Confederacy of Dunces right now.

  25. Sometimes when I’m reading something that was published a few years ago I wonder if it would be published now because it isn’t a “big” book (neither literary hot stuff not genre hot stuff). I worry about this. Things do seem to me shrinking in book publishing–Borders going under, book distributors going backrupt etc. And no, I don’t see epublishing as the silver lining–just the opposite. The cream might rise to the top and the editor might want to acquire it, but won’t be able to.

  26. Interesting post. Most interesting for me was your not finishing Confederacy of Dunces. Me too.

  27. hmm. there’s some shit floating to the top around these parts.

    over and out.

  28. Free psychiatric advice anyone? Everyone?


  29. I love and read Betsy’s posts for the poetry the throwaway snark the knowledge the humor and the occasional and surprising fellow feeling they ignite but most of all I follow her blog because I get the message over and over that books really good books often great books matter to her. And for all the toilet tautology I’ve read here today I still believe that those great books will keep on coming.

  30. I don’t know about individual books but I do think great (or even good) writers eventually rise if they keep at it. You’re always playing the odds; I don’t think anything artistic and subjective can be boiled down to a perfect science.

  31. I wish I knew. There are so many books, I imagine some really good ones get lost. More than anything there are glimpses of greatness in many books, every genre.

    Great discussion today.

  32. This is silly. Of course there are. For every good book published, there are at least I’m sure, 5 or 10 more, just as good or better, unpublished, unread and perhaps not even submitted moldering in desk drawers & closet floors.

  33. Guys: I’m used to this. I’m a middle child. I’m an agent. Getting in the middle of conflict is what these hips are built for. But you’re tearing me apart. I love all of you. I wrote a book about how insane writers are and I post all kinds of shit on my blog, so I really shouldn’t be surprised that we are here. I think I might provoke it. Anyway, this isn’t just a place for the angry, the unpublished, and the disenfranchised. But hell, we have to go somewhere. I truly love it when Philip Roth drops by to go man to man with August, or when Mary Karr tries to set Vivian’s hair on fire, but for right now, maybe we should all just try to love one another right now.

    • Aw Betsy. You’re killing me with this.

      Glasseye once commented how much she appreciated the way you set the crayons out and let us all come in and play. Given the tantrums around here lately, that analogy is looking mighty apt.

      Thanks for the reality check. I’m giving myself a time out.

    • Betsy, right on sister! Kumbaya I say. I am willing to write prescriptions for everyone if you think that might help…


    • From one middle child to another, thank you. I was feeling the urge to pull a Rodney King except I knew I’d end up with a chunk of my hair missing or bruised from a hard pinch.

  34. Everybody’s invited to my place for margueritas.

  35. Whew, I’m exhausted. I think I need to go read a great book. With wine.

  36. […] are you up to? Are you in the fray at Betsy’s place today? Are you sallying forth with your thesaurus in hand, ready to take on August at his […]

  37. Lighten up guys! Find the humor in everything….. go with the flow!

  38. The cream ALWAYS rises to the top. But with so many aspiring writers out there and never-ending ‘slush’ piles, there has to be oodles of great books not finding their way into print.

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