Excerpts from a 30-year-old diary: Bread Loaf 1977 Part Two

It’s pathetic how little encouragement I need to keep going on. Of course that is also the secret of how modestly-talented writers keep at it in a world where discouragement is far more common. (
Por ejemplo, not three hours ago a certain octogenarian of my acquaintance finished reading A.M. Homes’ recent memoir and felt the need to ask why I could never write a book that good, and I had to bite my tongue rather than attribute my failure to the unfortunate circumstance that I had never been given up for adoption by my birth parents.) Anyway, the concluding part of my 1977 Bread Loaf diary excerpts follows. (For part one, go here.)

First, I want to express deep gratitude to Ed for allowing someone who cannot for the life of him figure out how “more” works in WordPress to post screensful of verbiage on his very impressive piece of digital real estate. Ed, you are the best, and I owe you a ride on the Wonder Wheel in Coney Island.

Thanks so much too, to my fellow guest bloggers; it was really enjoyable to read your posts and I will try to learn something about brevity being the soul of wit.

But not yet:

Sunday, August 21, 1977

11 p.m. I’m a bit paranoid about staying in my room after spotting the mouse last night. I had a hard time falling asleep and now the slightest sound makes me jump. Oh well, I suppose the mice have to live, too.

I’ve been talking in the parlor, by the fire, with Ron Carlson, whose first novel, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was favorably reviewed in the Times the day of the blackout when there were few copies; but it’s actually selling quite well. He talked about teaching at Hotchkiss and how ideal it is from him and how removed it is from the outside world. I think I might like a job like that, teaching brilliant 11th graders. But he found my stories about LIU interesting.

I met with Tim O’Brien this morning. He didn’t really offer any criticism of my work, which was good. He, of course, didn’t like the kinds of things I like and he tried to convince me to join his side, as it were. Tim said I do what I do very well but I’m capable of writing his kind of stories, filled with characters people can identify with and dealing with big themes like courage.

He was glad I wasn’t very dogmatic about experimental fiction (my philosophy is pretty much live and let live) and he thought it was good that I came to Bread Loaf to get the view of the other side.

We talked in general for a while. He’s 30, a Vietnam veteran (his first book, a war story, If I Die in a Combat Zone, is already taught in colleges) and a doctoral student in government at Harvard (he said he’ll never write his dissertation). Tim told me he makes a living from his writing; I told him that was something I never expected to do, and he said that was good, because with my stuff I sure couldn’t do it.

He said I should be over at Treman Cottage all the time, getting to know the big name writers; that’s why I’m here as a Scholar. I like Tim a lot though I’m not sure his work would interest me; I’ll have to get it.

Today was almost warm, and I enjoyed it. I talked with Alice Rogoff, who’s going to S.F. State for her M.A. in Creative Writing; she’s cute and I enjoyed being with her. I lunched and had dinner with several interesting people, including a woman whose next book will be about her travels to the Soviet Union and an older woman who wrote a young adult novel that Gardner told her is publishable.

Every one of the Contributors takes their conferences much more seriously than I. Kevin met with Meredith and was a bit down from that. As I suspected, most of the people here aren’t and will never be very good writers; Tim confirmed this. But he also said that they’re the nicest people that you’ll ever run across, and that’s true.

I went to a nonfiction panel on doing research and heard Geoffrey Wolff read a moving essay about his father, a con man. The Bread Loaf librarian told me there’s a “new spririt” at the Conference; Sandy and Bob and people like Toni Morrison have changed it from a wild circus of sex and drinking to a quiet place where people discuss and share mutual interests.

Monday, August 22, 1977

I’m alone in the house now, sitting by the crackling fire. Charles estimated that this house and property around it would be worth as much as $30,000 on the open market. It’s strange to be here, lying on this sofa, the breeze from the open door startling my leg.

This week at Bread Loaf has been good for me, I think. Perhaps I haven’t exploited the Conference staff and my position as a scholar to “make connections.” I have barely spoken to John Gardner or Stanley Elkin (who’s dying of multiple sclerosis, like the character in his latest novel) or Mark Strand or Charles Simic (who told me he just got a card from Jon Baumbach in England). And my work hasn’t really been critiqued by anyone.

But still, I’ve taken advantage of other things that Bread Loaf has to offer. The multiplicity of writers, good and bad, published and unpublished, young and old, male and female, has made me aware that I’m certainly not alone. That is both a relief and discomfort.

The relief comes from knowing all these wonderful, sensitive people who are struggling, as I am, to express themselves and to perfect their craft. But the fact that my quest is shared by many makes me feel less unique, and invariably, less special. My voice is my own, true, but there are so many here who are just as good or better than I am that I despair of ever gaining any recognition.

So what if I’ve published 30 stories in literary magazines? Tim O’Brien published a novel when he was younger than me, and the novel was reviewed well and made money and is taught. Still, who is Tim O’Brien? I just passed him on a narrow trail in the woods. He was sitting on a plank over a stream making out with that witty divorced teacher from Plymouth.

Tim is not great; even John Gardner isn’t a great writer, and Tim told me he shared my view on that. But I can’t believe that one has to be great or one fails. If I believe that, I will end up being frustrated and bitter. I will settle for little successes and try to be the best writer of whatever it is that I write that I am capable of being. Probably some people’s dreams of literary stardom have been shattered here; I heard that Gardner told some people to just give up writing.

I never expected to be a superstar, though I’ve wished for it, and while it troubled me an hour ago when the agent Richard Marek told his audience that short story collections are impossible to sell, it was no surprise to me, not even when he said that the stories “must have appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers and Playboy and not in places like the Transatlantic Review.” Ha, that’s my most prestigious publication.

Hilma Wolitzer’s lecture was quite useful to me. She started “late,” at 35, and she’s lived a very quiet and ordinary middle-class Jewish life in Brooklyn and Long Island, a life that must be similar to the sedate life I’ve led. But she said one did not have to experience the unusual to write about it; we are all unique and some of us have great imaginations. The important thing, she said, is to be the kind of person whom nothing gets by, on whom nothing is lost.

Maxine Kumin lectured on workshops and exercises in poetry – that was useful to me, too, I think. I feel like I’m storing up psychic energy here that will be released in the stories I write when I get back to Brooklyn and resume my routines.

Tuesday, August 23, 1977

I’m starting to get anxious to get back to New York. I’ve decided to leave on Friday so I can spend just a little time with Elise and Herbert before they go back to Germany. I miss them already, and it will be hard not being able to see them for a long time. I miss people I didn’t think I’d miss. I miss Dad most of all.

Robert Pack read a maxim last night: “When the father dies, the son becomes mortal.” And: “When the father feeds the son, they both laugh. When the son feeds the father, even the sea shudders.” I cried at Pack’s reading, the only one which affected me that way.

I was sitting in front of Tom Nevins, the waiter who’s also from Brooklyn, whom I have a terrible crush on. Because I have a crush on him, it’s harder for me to approach him than anybody else. He’s cute and boyish and has a sensitive slender face. Today I learned that he just graduated from the College of Staten Island, so I asked him if he knew Herb Leibowitz. He said that’s how he got here, that Herb recommended him.

Pack’s reading, as I said, was quite good. He’ll never be a great poet, I think, but he’s sincere and witty and seems to be a happy man. Mark Strand’s poetry, in contrast, is superior in every respect but there is no warmth in it.

This morning, after breakfast, I went to Elkin’s workshop. Elkin is an intelligent man and the workshop was interesting, but I found the stories so palpably amateurish – full not only of weak plots and dull characters but choked by imprecise, sloppy prose – that I really couldn’t get into it.

I’ve read most of the guys’ poetry and most of it is on a very early level. Of course, they are young, but many of the older people here have no conception of sophisticated writing.

Gardner, in his workshop, had us write beginnings, middles and ends to novels and had us read them aloud. I wrote about a guy who can’t stop pissing and will have to stay in the bathroom for years, the end a riff on the end of A Man of Property: “He might piss and piss and never get it – the beauty and the loving in the world.”

Wednesday, August 24, 1977

It’s been raining and bone-chillingly cold, more like the end of November than the end of August. I really would like to get on a bus to New York tomorrow. I’m bored by now, and after today I feel I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to at Bread Loaf.

Yesterday afternoon I fell asleep on the couch downstairs and later Charles came in and we bullshitted for a while. He says he’d like to work on a fashion magazine and he told me that the trouble with Vietnam was that we didn’t go in there to win.

I imagine a lot of young people are pretty conservative today. In 1969, when I was subject to the draft and marching against the war, guys like Charles and Kevin were only 11 or 12, and there’s a big difference between us. I don’t think they perceive me as an older person, though they kid me about it.

Actually, I’m at a peculiar age. I don’t quite have all the trappings of adulthood around me, but I’m far from being a college kid. If I teach again this fall – I hope to – doubtless I’ll find that my students have gotten still younger than they were last year and the year before. But white, upper-middle-class kids like Charles and Kevin are pretty different from my students at LIU.

After dinner last night I met some old lady from Brooklyn, a retired high school teacher who was once a short story writer – she got honorable mention in a ‘40s Story Magazine contest that Norman Mailer won – and now is working on her poetry, which is probably bad.

She gave me the password “Sholom Alecheim,” and when I responded warmly, she said, “A landsman, eh?” I’m almost ashamed to say how pleased I was to meet another Brooklyn Jew. It shouldn’t be that Jews are sort of a secret club with its own password and special handshake like the Phi Beta Kappa one Prof. Fife taught me, but I like the sound of Yiddish.

And Hilma Wolitzer’s reading – from her novel about middle-class New York Jews – also made me feel good. Hearing about lifestyles and characters familiar to me got me thinking about my parents and grandparents and friends and Brooklyn stuff.

We went to the Barn afterwards, to an Elvis Memorial Pre-‘60s Dance, but I was a little too tired to get into it, though I did get pleasure out of watching Alice and David rock-‘n-roll together.

After French toast this morning, I went to John Irving’s workshop, which was fairly interesting, and then to Geoffrey Wolff’s, a nonfiction one, which also was pretty good. Richard Marek, the literary agent, was leaving for New York, and I had to restrain myself from shouting “Take me with you!” as he got in his car.

Miriam from Texas and I sat outside the Inn and sang, “I wanna go home” and played with Dudley, a cute little boy who assured me that I would not melt in the rain. After lunch, I went back to the Barn with Marie Flagg, another fiction writer, and Leslea Newman, who’s really cool.

So far there’s been only one nervous breakdown here, but he came back and is now rooming with the staff psychologist. This afternoon Tim O’Brien read, as did two other Fellows, and I caught a lift back in Greg’s Jeep. I’m definitely going to leave tomorrow. There’s nothing more for me to do here. I’ve gotten way more than my $135 worth and I’ve enjoyed it, but enough’s enough.

Thursday, August 25, 1977

It’s strange to be back in my room. I miss Bread Loaf, and I didn’t know I would, and if I had known that yesterday, I would have stayed till Sunday. I feel I should be listening to Charles moan, “I’m not a well man,” or watching Kevin go crazy when someone mentions Stanford, or driving fast and crazy down the mountain with David, listening to James Taylor and smoking a joint.

I miss that terrible uphill walk on the dirt road and the stars and the green mountains with the clouds going through them and those terrible meals we would complain about and knowing that the next few hours were scheduled with readings, lectures, and workshops. I loved Bread Loaf and it has changed me in a way I don’t believe I can realize yet.

Sick of the food, Charles drove me, Bob and Kevin to A&W for burgers last night; we ate in the car. I love driving fast on those sharp curves. We got stoned in Charles’ and Kevin’s room and bullshitted for a while and exchanged addresses. I really want to keep in touch with them and hope they’ll visit me in New York.

William Meredith’s reading was pretty good. He’s a fine narrative poet but a bit too formalistic for me. After hanging out in the Barn for an hour afterwards, I got a lift home with Ron Carlson. “It’s winter,” Ron said, and there were actual snow flurries – in August!

I got up early, and not wanting to disturb anyone, I lugged my suitcase the ¾ mile to the Inn. I hate to say goodbye so I didn’t; I just left.

At home, I had a pile of mail, nearly all rejections, but also letters from Michael Lally and George Myers Jr., a magazine called Buckle which contained my poem “The Erosion of the Beaches,” and a letter from an editor at Houghton Mifflin who was very impressed by my Epoch story and wonders if I have a novel. She urges me to respond and send the novel she assumes I’m working on. Of course there is none. All I’ve got are short stories.

Excerpts from a 30-year-old diary: Bread Loaf 1977

I’ve kept a daily diary since the summer of 1969, just before I started college, and I haven’t missed a day in almost 38 years. I thought, to totally humiliate myself, I’d present some excerpts from my diary from about 30 years ago when I went to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I generally wrote 700-1200 words a day, so this is just sections, which hopefully will not be too boring. I’m trying to present material that I think might be of at least minimal interest to others because it mentions some writers of note. It also exhibits my hilarious utter lack of sophisticated reflection on what I experienced.

Thursday, August 16, 1977

The bus left Port Authority at 9:30 a.m. and we made pretty good time up the Thruway, getting to Albany in 3 hours. My phobias didn’t bother me, but I was very tense. I chatted with Barbara Unger, a 35ish poet and teacher at Rockland County Community College.

We really are in the middle of nowhere, especially where they stuck me, in Gilmore, which is ¾ of a mile from the rest of the Bread Loaf buildings. I do have a room all to myself and I suppose I should be grateful for that. I’ve met so many people I’ll never be able to remember all their names.

Dinner was fairly bland but wholesome, and after that we hung around till 8 p.m. when we went into the Little Theater. Bob Pack and Sandy Martin, the directors of the conference, introduced themselves and made short welcoming speeches. Martin said that the average Bread Loafer is 35 and there are many varied people here – kids my age and younger; middle-aged women; even retired septuagenarians.

Maxine Kumin read her poetry, and she was pretty good, and afterwards there was a reception social at the barn…The waiters are all Contributors, and if you miss the first 15 minutes of meals, the doors are slammed in your face.

Wednesday, August 17, 1977

I think I’m getting civilization withdrawal pangs; it was such a shock to see the first page of the New York Times saying Elvis Presley had died. I got a lift this morning with Carl Dennis next door. He teaches at Buffalo, and his poetry books have been published by George Braziller. Several years ago he was a Bread Loaf Fellow and now just comes back to see his old friends.

I went to all 3 morning lectures: Bob Pack, director of the conference, spoke on the importance of words, the particular word in poetry. He used poems by Frost, Robinson, Dickinson and even Paradise Lost to make his points, and he was pretty interesting.

Stanley Elkin came next and he was a disappointment. He played cranky old man and didn’t give a lecture, but just answered questions. I asked him a question that I thought deserved a serious answer, “Does a short story have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and what order should they be in?” and he just laughed and said that of course they did and anyone who changed the order was just “stunting.”

The audience sensed Elkin’s superiority and they were fairly hostile. At the end he said, “I’m sorry,” and hobbled off on his cane. The next lecturer was Mark Strand, who chose to address the subject of “craft,” but his delivery was so pedantic that my mind was wandering before he’d gotten through a third of his text.

I found a letter in my mailbox. As a Scholar (it says in the leaflet that I won the National Arts Club Scholarship in Prose), I’m invited to the cocktails at Treman House for Staff, Scholars, Fellows and Assorted Visitors. There is a lot of drinking going on here—a hell of a lot.

I had lunch with Carl, David, Debbie and an elderly couple who called each other “Mom” and “Dad.”

Thursday, August 18, 1977

After writing yesterday’s entry, I smoked some hash with Bob and Charles, then fell into a sort of restful semi-sleep. At 5 p.m. David came back, and I persuaded him to drive into town. It was a relief to get back to the real world. I hadn’t realized (how did I miss it?) that we are on the top of a mountain.

Vermonters impress me with their courtesy and their progressiveness—there are no roadside billboards and the soda cans have press-ins, not flip-tops, and there’s a 5-cent
refund on the aluminum.

We made it back to the Little Theater just in time for John Irving’s reading of the start of his forthcoming novel The World According to Garp, which sounds like it will be hilarious; I wasn’t bored for a minute. I walked back in the dark with Kevin, Bob and Charles. Traipsing up the road to Gilmore somehow reminded me of that recurring scene in Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” I looked up and was amazed –almost intoxicated – by so many bright stars, something I’d never seen before in my life.

Last night I went down to the study with Rick and Greg and David, and we sat by the fire and read each other’s work. I think it’s neat to be living in a house where 12 guys in their 20s are all reading To the Lighthouse. (Idea for story: A dozen guys, each reading a different Virginia Woolf novel, are living in a house in the woods. Title: “Virginia Woolf Is For Lovers.”)

I attended each lecture today. Toni Morrison spoke about a “useable past” in fiction and read from the new Song of Solomon. Marvin Bell gave a brilliant lecture on receptivity being important to creativity and seemed to stress instinct, readiness, and continuous working – he said the more you do something, the better you get at it.

John Gardner got me appropriately riled with his talk of “Moral Fiction,” attacking post-modernist textured fiction (Gass, Barthelme, Sukenick, Barth) for not having any values or philosophy at bottom.

I had a discussion group with John Gardner from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and he was fascinating; I did my share of talking and got him to admit that he was using overkill, that of course texture is important – but only if it’s “in service” (my words, with which he agreed) to character, plot and values.

Gardner is a strange-looking man with that Veronica Lake-like blond hair but he’s sweet and smart, and he’s leading me to rethink some of my preexisting ideas about fiction. And that’s good.

Friday, August 19, 1977

Noon. Kevin and I just walked back to the house after a fantastic lecture by John Irving which was actually a story he wrote. He and his 13-year-old son Colin read it aloud; the point of it was that made-up stories are always better than the true story, that “but it really happened that way” is the worst excuse for unsatisfactory fiction.

I feel that a lot of what’s going on here has been useful to me. Even Stanley Elkin’s bitterness seems justifiable; the man has paid his dues and has been very ill. He looks 20 years older than 47.

John Gardner is more accessible than I thought he would be. He and Bill Gass, he says, like to tramp through the woods and scream at each other, arguing about fiction. I now get the feeling that a lot of what he says is just for effect. For instance, when asked his opinion of Nabokov, Gardner came out with “I think he’s a cheap diabolist,” eliciting shock from the crowd. Right or (probably) wrong, that takes guts.

Mark Strand read from his poetry last evening; the man is icy cold, but as I told Carl Dennis, I guess someone’s got to write poetry for the cold people. And one has to admit he’s good.

I had breakfast in the Barn with Dannye Romine, a fellow Fiction Scholar, a thirtyish woman who’s the book editor of the Charlotte Observer. We missed the first lecture but did go to hear William Meredith’s talk on the uselessness of personal anguish unless it is raised to the universal level; he used Bellow’s Herzog as a starting-off point.

Then came the Irving performance, which was great. I’d better get back to the Inn or I’ll miss lunch.

Saturday, August 20, 1977

After lunch yesterday, I went to a panel discussion on “Getting Started”: Kumin, Bell, Meredith and Irving hit some nerves as they talked about how they write, but I imagine every writer works slightly differently, and the aura, the inspiration, Kumin’s “prickle on the back of the neck” vary with each individual.

We took the jeep back for dinner, and I ended up sitting next to Patti Pack, the director’s wife, who told me that 100 years ago two families owned this inn and operated it as a kind of 19th-century commune. When it was bequeathed to Middlebury College, they thought it was a white elephant and didn’t know what to do with it until Frost came along.

After dinner, Toni Morrison read a beautiful passage from her new novel. She’s a terrific reader and deserved her standing ovation.

Back at the Barn again, I sat with Ron Carlson, who’s 30 and teaches at Hotchkiss and looks it. But he’s incredibly sympathetic. Ron gave me a lift back to the house, where I tried to relax.

At 10 a.m. today, the literary agent Georges Borchardt spoke on first book contracts. I skipped the next two lectures and sat in the Barn (it was freezing outside, the coldest it’s been – and nobody was prepared for it) with Dannye Romine and Raymond Sokolov, the Times food critic and novelist, who’s a Fellow.

I could see John Gardner going over David’s novel with him. David was told that he could be a good writer and have a good novel, but he has to stop thinking about old rules and dig “deeper and deeper and deeper.” I had lunch with Debbie and that nice Gloucester teacher (a blonde divorced poet); we had a long discussion on literary “cuteness,” a big problem for me.

In our discussion group, John Gardner lectured on how to write a novel and he was just so brilliant (even though I disagreed with him) that it was too much for me to take in at once. He believes first in character and that everything stems from that. A good novel should take at least 5 years – work on it till it’s an ecstatic experience, “ex-stasis,” out of yourself, as if God had written it.

But Gardner did say that you can do anything in a short story, so I feel he’s not totally against me. I’ll never be able to write (to sweat out) a novel like Gardner; my temperament makes me basically an artificer, not an artist. I prefer games and play to “serious, big” statements. Maybe that will change, but now I feel I’m so young, I don’t have any big statements to make. However, I do seem to have lots of little statements to make.

I’m going to see Tim O’Brien tomorrow at 11 a.m. for my manuscript conference. I’m not very concerned with what he thinks of my stuff.

The mice are starting to bother me: they got into my cookies. Ugh! At least I didn’t scream like Hilma Wolitzer did the other night (so I heard).

There are about five more entries but this is probably all anyone can stand – if anyone feels otherwise, I’ll post the rest of this moronic diary.

New Authors Guild alert for members on Simon & Schuster power grab

I just got this email from The Authors Guild regarding the Simon & Schuster rights imbroglio:

Simon & Schuster is irked that we went public with our information about their unannounced new contract language. They’ve sent a release (you can read it below) accusing us of “perpetrat[ing] serious misinformation.”

That’s a heavy charge, so we went back and double-checked. We stand by every word of our statement.

Simon & Schuster’s release pretends that the argument concerns “print on demand.” That isn’t the issue. We like print on demand: we encourage publishers to sell books in every permissible way. You wouldn’t know it from reading its release, but Simon & Schuster already has the rights – as they have for years in their standard contract – to take advantage of print on demand and e-book technologies.

The issue is what happens when a book goes out of print, when the publisher is no longer selling it in meaningful numbers. Traditionally, rights then revert at the request of the author, who often is able to give the book a new life elsewhere. Simon & Schuster is trying to change the rules of the industry so that they never have to admit that a book is out of print.

We meant what we said in our press release and our alert to members…

…Simon & Schuster’s new contract would indeed allow it to retain exclusive rights to a book even if it were no longer in print. Simon & Schuster’s contract says, “The Work shall not be deemed out of print as long as it is available in any U.S. trade edition, including electronic editions.” Having a book available for sale in some database – without the obligation to sell a single copy – is not keeping a book “in print” as common sense and the industry have defined that term.

Simon & Schuster would, under its new contract, be empowered to exclusively control your rights even if your books aren’t available for sale through traditional bookstores. E-book availability (read any good e-books lately?) would be enough to fulfill Simon & Schuster’s contractual commitments under its interpretation of “in print.” Roy Blount is plainly right, this contract would allow Simon & Schuster to squirrel away rights…

Simon & Schuster’s efforts to alter the true core deal of a trade book contract – that a publisher controls the right to sell an author’s book only so long as the publisher effectively exploits that right – demanded exposure. Agents reported to us that Simon & Schuster had slipped the change into its contracts without alerting agents to the alteration, which was quite subtle and easily missed. Agents also reported that when they discovered the change and questioned the publisher about it, Simon & Schuster played hardball, saying the clause was non-negotiable and wouldn’t be discussed. In its release, Simon & Schuster seems miffed that we didn’t discuss their new contractual language with them before exposing it to sunlight. Engaging in discussions with a conglomerate playing hardball while authors may have been unwittingly signing rights away would, in our view, have been irresponsible….

In the meantime, if you have an offer from Simon & Schuster, remember that the publisher has now said it will negotiate this clause on a book-by-book basis. If you’re fortunate, Simon & Schuster will offer you a reasonable out-of-print clause. (Feel free to discuss this with us or talk to your agent about the adequacy of the clause.) If not, it’s in your interest to explore your options – other publishers have reaffirmed that they’re not following Simon & Schuster’s example. If you have a manuscript that may be auctioned, it’s in your strong interest to ask your agent to exclude Simon & Schuster imprints unless they agree before the auction to use industry standard terms.

Here’s Simon & Schuster’s release…which we forward to you at the publisher’s request:


The Authors Guild has recently perpetrated serious misinformation regarding Simon & Schuster, our author contracts and our commitment to making our authors’ books available for sale. Unfortunately, these distortions were released by the Authors Guild without their having undertaken any effort to have a dialogue with Simon & Schuster on this topic.

In recent years, Simon & Schuster has accepted, at the request of some agencies, contract language that specifies a minimum level of activity for print on demand titles. Our experience with the current high quality and accessibility of print on demand titles indicates to us that such minimums are no longer necessary. Our position on reversions for active titles remains unchanged. As always, we are willing to have an open and forthright dialogue on this or any other topic.

When considering this issue, we ask you to please keep in mind these important points:

• Through print on demand technology, publishers now have the ability, for the first time in history, to actually fulfill the promise which is at the core of their contracts with authors – to keep the author’s book available for sale over the term of the license.

• We view this progress as a great opportunity to maximize the sales potential for slow moving titles, and some of the best news for authors and publishers in a long time. The potential benefit for all concerned in incremental income for the publishing partnership far outweighs any imaginary negatives purported by the Authors Guild.

• We and others are investing heavily in digitization so that authors and publishers can reap the maximum benefit of publication over the long term. New technologies including print on demand will extend the life of a book far beyond what has been possible in the past.

• Contrary to the Authors Guild assertion, using technologies like print on demand is not about “squirreling away” rights, nor does it mean that “no copies are available to be ordered by traditional bookstores.” Print on demand is simply a means of manufacturing a book, making it widely available to retailers and consumers….

Most importantly, we hope you know that we view authors and agents as our partners in the publishing process. We have always been open to discussion and negotiated in good faith at every point in the life of a book.

May 21, 2007

Tom McHale, novelist

Here’s how The Literary Encyclopedia’s entry on Tom McHale begins:

In the 1970s, Tom McHale established himself as one of the most promising American novelists of his generation. In a little more than a decade, he produced more than a half-dozen novels that were widely reviewed. Most of those reviews were enthusiastically–sometimes wildly–positive. But even those reviewers who were more guarded in their responses to the individual novels acknowledged the originality of McHale’s darkly comic vision, the engaging energy of his style, and the evidence of a considerable talent in the growing body of his work. Reviewers compared his novels to those of Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., John Updike, Philip Roth, and Bruce Jay Friedman. In 1972, McHale’s second novel, Farragan’s Retreat was named a finalist for the National Book Award, and two years later McHale was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction. A New York Times article on the current literary scene placed McHale with Don DeLillo in the vanguard of those novelists who were most influential in terms of the directions that the American novel would take in the 1980s.

I always want to remember Tom McHale as that dashing young guy on the back cover of my much thumbed-through Literary Guild hardcover copy of his second novel Farragan’s Retreat, the one I first read when I was still a teenager. I was blown away by the black humor and Tom’s elegant style.


Here’s how the Time Magazine review from March 1, 1971 begins:

The old motto, “Power perfected becomes grace,” could have been invented to describe Tom McHale’s novels about Irish and Italian Catholics in America. Humor is his forte—not satire but farce. No aberration is too grotesque to be included, no character too minor to be lampooned. McHale’s comedy waves over chaos like luxuriant grass over a grave.

There are many young writers with healthy reserves of rage and chaos, some indeed with little else. What distinguishes McHale is not only the fertility of his invention but the humanity—remarkable in a writer of 28—that penetrates even his crudest caricatures.

After I finished Farragan’s Retreat, I went to the library to find Tom’s first novel, Principato. (Thanks to Matt St. Amand for the review. Matt knows Tom’s work better than just about anyone.) I loved it as well.

Then I read Farragan’s Retreat again. I copied out passages. In the first story I ever wrote for my MFA program, I stole Tom’s description of “the hilltop hulk of the art museum along the Schuykill” for a section where my protagonist, a Penn student, takes her morning jog. (People “jogged” in the 70s.)

Later I’d meet Tom McHale at The Book Group of South Florida, founded in the early 1980s in what was then something of a literary wasteland. I can recall how astonished Tom was when we first met and I could quote his work back to him. I suppose he hadn’t recently encountered people who knew his work.

The last job Tom had before he died was was night assistant at the $1.50 Holiday movie theater in North Miami Beach. He got fired for absenteeism; Tom drank a lot at the end, maybe for years. It never occurred to me that he was an alcoholic, but then I’ve never had a drink im my life and am bad at recognizing drunks.

On Matt St. Amand’s website, he quotes from a rather inartful and self-serving letter from me:

Do you know that after he committed suicide in his sister’s garage about two miles from where I am sitting, I was asked to speak at his memorial service because, the person said, “You were his best friend, weren’t you?” when in reality, I was just an acquaintance of Tom. It was so sad. Tom and I met, I guess around 1981, as part of the Book Group of South Florida. Most of the people there were old ladies who’d been in publishing. Tom was amazed I’d read all his books and could quote lines from Farragan’s Retreat. He’d had a really rough time of it by that time, and he finally had another book coming out. I remember his publication party at the tony Bay Harbor Islands. I always feel uncomfortable at these things, and it was clear to me that most of these people were just society types or people on the make who had no idea who Tom was or his place in American literature. I left early, stopped off for a couple of errands, and then went to a Burger King to get a Whopper. I was shocked to see Tom sitting there alone, just after he’d been the guest of honor at his publication party. I guess at that moment I sensed how lonely he was, and I sat with him, and I guess it was really the only time I really talked to him, and even then, he was pretty stoic and reticent.

He got a horrible review from Ivan Gold, who’d had his own problems with writer’s block and alcohol, in the Sunday NY Times Book Review, and I know that depressed him. But I don’t know what caused him to take his life. His very Catholic family (siblings) were, I suspect, always somewhat uncomfortable with Tom. I never talked to his sister. The newspapers asked me for comments about his death, and I said stupid things. A year later, I had a book reviewed in the NY Times Book Review, also by Ivan Gold, and it was a mostly nice review, but the niceness was spoiled by how Gold’s review had hurt Tom.

We never did have a Book Group memorial service. Tom was 40 when he died, in the garage of his sister’s house in Pembroke Pines.


Here’s how “Portrait of a Writer as a Young Suicide,” a July 4, 1982 Miami Herald article by Cathy Lynn Grossman ends:

Nedda Anders, founder and president of the Book Group and editor-publisher of Andiron Press Inc. in Tamarac, introduced the subject of McHale:

“At the last meeting there was a post-mortem on our lovely party for Tom McHale. Now, this meeting, we have a post-mortem on Tom himself. His sister asked us to do nothing more.”

It was the group’s regular meeting, complete with sandwiches from the deli. They sat on plastic chairs at fake wood tables in the Community Room of a pillbox branch bank building dropped incongruously into the scrub brush along University Drive in Lauderhill. All that could be seen from the windows were cars shimmering in the heat, transplanted trees and transient commerce.

“I know I told you it was a heart attack,” Anders said. “That’s what his sister said. I guess, for reasons of her Catholicism … she told me that and I told you that it was a heart attack, but anyone who commits suicide has had heart failure so I wasn’t really lying.”

They passed around a copy of the paragraph in Time magazine, mentioning the death of the author “by his own hand” and a short obituary from a newspaper. Everyone said,”tsk-tsk.”

Everyone: A retiree who has established himself in Hollywood as a literary consultant. Some delicate older women writing articles for magazines or the story of Davie. A librarian. Several one-person publishing companies producing books on health, astronomy or local memoirs and history. A short-story writer, Richard Grayson, who succeeded the late McHale as the most famous member of the group, which was then planning a party for Grayson’s second book, Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.

People each said how they met McHale, how little they knew him, adding the few facts they had.

“There seemed to be no barriers in Tom,” Anders said. “He was crisp and charming. … We are trying to cope.”

Literary agent Myra Gross remembered that he had landed “a real plum” of a teaching job for next September at the University of Pennsylvania.

Anders interrupted, saying, “He seemed so perfectly equal to life, so absolutely rational. It’s hard to think that somewhere in him was hidden something irrational. … Myra’s son used to call him a ‘cool guy.’ ”

“Cool dude,” Myra Gross corrected her.

During lunch they talked about Mchale’s funny books on guilt, his angry, anti-religious attitudes and the irony of his Catholic funeral in a faith that denies its rituals to suicides.

“It is so terribly difficult to know what drives people, especially writers,” said the author of romances.

“Gee, I wish he’d talked to me,” said the retired consultant.

“His books were getting increasingly less attention,” Grayson said. “Ten years ago you could write literary books and make money. Not now.

“After Tom’s publication party, when I was driving home, I said that I felt luckier than Tom. I know nothing is going to happen with my book. My book is going to sell 20 or 50 copies, and I accept that.”

They talked about art and the bottom line and youth today. They speculated on whether McHale had a contract for a seventh book. Someone said yes.

Publisher Rosemary Jones looked up impatiently.

“It is awful to have this be reduced to gossip,” she said.

A jocular health book publisher who took photos –later lost — of the publishing party said, “Let’s just remember the smiles.”

Later, Myra Gross recalled quiet times with McHale, funny stories he told while monopolizing the conversation. She didn’t mind. A single woman, a working mother, a writer, she knows something of what McHale faced — something about being alone and afraid, about art and rent. Here in these same suburbs she lives on as best she can.

“Maybe I’m more practical,” she says. “Maybe I learned to compromise along the way.”

Gotham Book Mart Auction

The famed Gotham Book Mart (“Wise Men Fish Here”) has sold off books to pay its landlord.

The line outside the Gotham Book Mart in Midtown snaked down the block yesterday morning. Several dozen eager bargain hunters, book dealers, art collectors and former employees of the storied shop waited to bid on a piece of literary history.

They had each put down a $1,000 deposit for the privilege of attending the auction. Books signed by John Updike. Letters from D. H. Lawrence and Anaïs Nin. Andy Warhol’s wig rack. All were up for sale.

In the end though, all the property that was auctioned went to the building’s landlord for $400,000.

The auction was ordered after a judgment last fall evicting the store’s owner, Andreas Brown, over a claim of more than a half-million dollars in rent owed. Now the landlord plans to sell the property.

Yesterday, Mr. Brown, 74, got teary while removing books from the shelves in his office. He left before the auction began.

“It’s a bit like interviewing me at my own funeral,” said Mr. Brown, who has a penchant for quoting Mark Twain.

The back room of the Gotham was where I used to find the little magazines I submitted to and appeared in during the 1970s and early 1980s. The Gotham’s former owner, Frances Steloff, then in her nineties, used to have a desk back there and we chatted sometimes. She knew everyone, it seemed, from Tennessee Williams to Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy. Miss Steloff is a character in “An Irregular Story” in my book Highly Irregular Stories.

I remember once attending a Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines award ceremony upstairs. We all stood around, listening to the MC, poet and former Senator and Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, announce and hand out the awards. When the poet Siv Cedering (Fox) had to go up to collect her award, she gave me — standing next to her — her handbag to hold, but she forgot to retrieve it so I spent fifteen minutes in a crowded room walking around with a woman’s handbag trying to give it back.