Certainly it’s difficult to survive as a writer in America, but it may be more difficult to sustain oneself once having been published than it was in one’s first, frustrated, unpublished silence.
Three summers ago I won a fellowship to one of the oldest summer writing programs in America, Breadloaf. I’d never been to such a thing, so I left the woods of North Carolina for the upland meadows of Vermont, expecting to find young writers seeking help and experienced writers giving it. There were experienced writers giving advice, some quite good advice, and, to be fair, reading a lot of manuscripts by students and commenting on each one. But the students weren’t young. Forty-five seemed the average age. Not that forty-five is old, but I was surprised at the number of people who still clung to the dream of publishing their fiction or poetry despite the rejections twenty years had given them. Nevertheless these people seemed more innocent than heroic.
Seymour Epstein worked at Breadloaf. He’s a published novelist, teacher at Breadloaf, who otherwise lives in Colorado. He must be about fifty years old. He’s a damn fine writer, but he’s no household word even in a literate household. What makes him interesting to me is what he knows of that no man’s land writers experience after their innocence is dispelled by publication. Seymour Epstein’s career illustrates the horrible distance between the creator and the commercial means by which the created work is put into the world. Sy’s novel Looking for Fred Schmidt was brought out by Doubleday in the late fall of 1973.
At least three earlier novels of Sy Epstein had been interesting ones, in particular a novel titled Leah. But Fred Schmidt showed, I felt, one of those breakthroughs that sometimes happens, a burst of energy realized gracefully in the work. Sy had written a forceful novel about a man facing the final part of his life, an ordinary man in the way that the ordinary may be rendered exceptionally. Yet the novel was sent into the world in ugliness. Sy wrote me,
I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. The paper is indeed foul, the printing worse than anything I can remember reading when I was in the army and we had those Armed Forced Special Editions. The jacket design was, at least, pedestrian.
Because of my admiration for the novel I decided to review it for the Greensboro book page which then was edited by Jonathan Yardley and was one of the best book pages in the country. Sy responded to my review with one of the most moving letters I’ve ever received, not for its praise of my reading of the novel, but for the moment of relief a writer finally has when someone far away understands what the writer was doing.
. . . the reviewers . . . make you wonder whether the things you had boiled your brain for had somehow passed off as steam, that none of it was on the pages. Of course, I could see it, but perhaps they were the emperor’s clothes all over again. Reading your words, I experienced that ever-so-rare confirmation.
I replied by asking where were the reviews that sold books. Advertising had appeared in the daily New York Times with praise for the book from people far more important than I was. Each Sunday I sought the review in the Times book section. But the review never came. In late December Sy wrote,
I truly haven’t the vaguest idea why this neglect, I ask myself whether it’s a case of not having anyone — neither publisher nor agent — who feels sufficiently committed to my work to do what is needed to get attention, but somehow I don’t think this is true. My own suspicion is that personal effort doesn’t matter. I also wonder (one does get paranoid after a time) whether I could have unwittingly offended the whole bloody establishment, but that too makes little sense. No, it’s a mystery — particularly since there are any number of novels reviewed negatively in the Times, so it can’t be a matter of their not caring for this particular novel.
Sy wrote the editor of the Times book section, John Leonard, and was told there were “space problems.” Leonard did not mention that his own novel had, as Sy wrote,
escaped the stringencies of space, despite it being so bad that the reviewer (who must surely have felt the hot klieg light of influence on her back as she wrote) could only manage a flaccid word or two of praise among the general disappointment.
Sy concluded his letter by saying he was going back to Breadloaf the next summer. Back to all those others whose innocence he still found attractive, even joyous in a way, perhaps to regain a bit of his own before it was forever too late.