Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man: A Memoir

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The Transformation and Legacy of Soho Press

At the Union Square offices of Soho Press, news has circulated that one of their recent titles, Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey, has just been longlisted for The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Senior Publicity Director Meredith Barnes rushes to shoot emails to press, and Editor-in-Chief Bronwen Hruska delivers the news to the author.  Everyone is proud; you can see it on the faces of the now many employees at Soho Press, but it wasn’t always this way.  Today is a good day to talk to Bronwen Hruska about the Soho that once was, the Soho that almost wasn’t and the Soho that’s full of smiles today.

Since its inception, Soho Press has maintained its reputation as a reputable independent publishing house both in the realms of crime/mystery fiction and literary fiction. In recent years, readers have become acquainted with a new incarnation of Soho Press, one born out of loss, perseverance, and respect.

Laura Chapman Hruska.

Soho Press launched in 1986, the brainchild of Laura Chapman Hruska, Alan Hruska, Juris Jurjevics, and his wife, Laurie Colwin. It was a serendipitous grouping of friends — all four had roots firmly planted in the publishing world in different ways. Jurjevics, at the time, was an established editor at Dial Press. Laurie Colwin was a novelist and contributor to The New Yorker and Playboy Magazine. Bronwen’s mother was a successful novelist who wrote under the name Laura Chapman, and her father, Alan Hruska, was a lawyer with a few successful forays into writing. One night over drinks (at a Soho bar, the only real connection between the press and the neighborhood), the group found themselves bemoaning the state of publishing. Chapman had seen success with several published novels at Doubleday, but she also had two historical fiction books for which she’d yet to find a home. The group consensus was that there was a serious plight of new and interesting fiction being overlooked. Between the four of them, they’d seen countless books deserving of a life that went unpublished. Soho Press was to be a solution to that problem.

Bronwen was already a sophomore in college when her parents started Soho. Although she always considered her parents “intimidatingly awesome,” working with them at Soho was never her goal. Bronwen had a successful career as a writer. She was a regular contributor to the LA Times and a staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, the experience of which is fictionalized in her debut novel, Accelerated.

Bronwen never wanted to take the helm at Soho Press. Who would blame her? She’d already done the hard work to establish an identity elsewhere. Indeed, there was a connection between that identity and the company that her parents built, but the idea of letting that company inform who she was made her anxious.

“It was always in the back of my head,” she says. “Should I do this? Should I not? I really didn’t want to do it. I was a writer. That’s what I was trained in. It’s what I was good at.”

She’d succeeded in a difficult industry and that solidified her identity as a writer. Publishing was a related but entirely separate world, a world in which Soho was becoming a recognized name.

The Inception

Bronwen Hruska.

Soho Press had an office in Union Square with a small staff and a strong set of standards and values for doing business. It was considered a constant at Soho that they would always accept unsolicited manuscripts. Not to consider unsolicited manuscripts would go against their original ethos — to create a home for writers who’d been ignored or outcast by mainstream publishing. Another pillar of the Soho mission statement was to make sure that the books they published could be found by potential readers. From the beginning, they worked to make sure they had distribution that surpassed the limited reach of your average independent house, at first by handing it to FSG, until the publisher decided to stop handling client publishers. They then moved their distribution to Consortium. Bronwen feels that in part it was their list and the reputation of the team that helped them to be taken seriously as clients, rather than just some fledgling indie.

Too often, independent is associated with undiscerning, and Soho was determined to prove otherwise. Their standards were high, and their vetting was rigorous albeit not exclusive. According to Bronwen, Soho has always considered slush because it leads to at least one to two Soho literary titles per year.

“It’s a hard time to find an agent,” she says. “It’s a hard time to find a publisher even if you have an agent! So I know there are very talented writers out there who have great novels that deserve to be read by editors.”

However, how the press views slush has evolved. Bronwen stipulates that it’s rigorous, particularly because Soho only publishes 10 to 12 literary titles per year, and for the past couple years, they’ve had to stop considering unsolicited crime manuscripts.

The process first paid off with the discovery of a manuscript entitled Breath, Eyes, Memory by a Haitian-born author named Edwidge Danticat. The novel, a story of a young girl moving from Haiti to New York City, set the tone for Soho’s literary imprint, which would go on to publish many successful novels that dealt with culture clash. Soho would also succeed with early books by celebrities like Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. “There was a lot of discovering authors who would go on to have really big careers,” Bronwen says. Put simply, Soho represented the voices of authors who’d otherwise been ignored while maintaining a high standard. It was a refusal to believe that major houses had snatched up all the high-caliber fiction out there.

The catalogues of independent publishing houses also tend to reflect the tastes of the individual editors. Laura and Alan Hruska always had a special interest in books that focused on foreign cultures. Laura also had an enduring love of mystery and crime fiction. The Soho Crime imprint was launched in 1991 and took off so quickly that it almost usurped the identity of the Soho literary imprint. “Crime readers are rabid in the best possible way,” Bronwen says. It wasn’t something the press resented. Crime is what gave Soho the means to release and distribute all its literary titles, and it was one of Laura’s passions. At the same time, the company didn’t want to be known exclusively for the crime genre.

The Decision
Laura Hruska was diagnosed with cancer in 2003. For the first time, Bronwen considered joining the team, but only until her mother’s health improved. She came into the office here and there and helped out where she could, but her heart wasn’t in it. She struggled to find a place.

“One day I screwed up really bad,” she says.

Bronwen describes a galley she was working on. She forgot some small detail, like pressing “save.” As result, a bunch of galleys went out without copyediting changes. She felt terrible, guilty, and eventually she quit. Around that time, her mother went into remission. Bronwen went on to sell her first screenplay and begin a novel, and Soho continued to succeed as it had.

In 2006, Bronwen’s mother had a reoccurrence of breast cancer. She finally decided to ask Bronwen to consider coming to work for Soho with an eye for taking it over.

Bronwen knew she didn’t want to accept unless she really meant it. She’d learned from her time at Soho that publishing is hard — especially for anyone who didn’t really feel compelled to do it. She also learned that she knew almost nothing about the publishing industry.

On other hand, Bronwen had found herself a little bit closer to the position her mother was in when she started Soho Press. She was nearly finished with her first novel after working on it for over a year in a small weekly writing workshop. She was surrounded by aspiring novelists there and saw the kind of sweat and pain that can go into writing a novel. She witnessed how a promising new voice could blossom when given a little encouragement but also understood the tragedy of a good novel unpublished.

“I’d been a writer for my entire career up to that point,” she says. “There were a lot of good — really good — books out there and fewer and fewer opportunities for those books to be published. I’ll admit the romantic ideal of being able to help great books have a life — the mandate that gave birth to Soho in the first place — was very appealing to me.”

At lunch with a close friend, Bronwen discussed the truly life-altering decision at hand. She was still unsure. Her friend’s response was unequivocal.

“She said to me, ‘Are you crazy? Your dying mother asks you to take over her publishing company — you say yes!’”

But it wasn’t that easy. She pauses, and her facial expression tightens as she explains that she knew she couldn’t take over Soho unless she was certain it was what she wanted to do. If she wasn’t, her mother would know and wouldn’t allow her to say “yes.” Bronwen laughs, but the weight of her statement lingers. It’s the idea of a parent not allowing her child to do what she herself most wants unless she’s certain it will make her child happy. It’s something one who isn’t a parent probably cannot truly understand. Bronwen adds that up to that point she truly didn’t believe that she was going to accept the offer.

“Then, I decided that I needed to at least give it a serious chance,” she says.

With that decision, Bronwen went from being a grown woman and professional writer who made her own schedule to working nine to five in a small office side by side with her mother.

“I felt like I was 21.”

The Transition
At the time, only five people worked in the Soho Press office, which consisted of one wide-open room. Bronwen quickly found that her past frustrations with the job came from not understanding the logistics of the industry. The more that changed, the more her opinion of the job changed. As time passed, Bronwen became serious about becoming editor-in-chief of Soho Press.

Bronwen’s mother died in 2010. By then, Bronwen had grown to love the job, the publishing world, and Soho Press more than she ever thought she could. Bronwen took the reins at Soho and hoped to bring something new to the table. That was before she realized that keeping the business intact would become the first priority.

Unfortunately, there was a potentially ruinous obstacle at bay — the publishing industry was falling apart. Major book retailers were closing their doors. Second-hand markets and Amazon were eating up a large chunk of publishers’ and retailers’ profits. And people still weren’t sure if there was a future in ebooks.

“I couldn’t believe how bad it was,” Bronwen says. “I wondered how we could possibly even have a business; it was dismal.”

Bronwen credits the company’s survival in part to e-books and to Soho’s head of marketing at the time taking the burgeoning medium seriously when many throughout the industry did not. Soho made a concerted effort to publish and advertise the electronic versions of their titles during a time when most publishing houses weren’t. They also tightened their belts. Bronwen and her mother, when she was there, forwent their salaries until things turned around. With only five employees at the time, that meant only three of them were being paid.

Aside from keeping Soho Press alive, Bronwen’s goal as editor-in-chief was, in part, to breathe new life into the literary fiction division. Crime had been so successful since its launch that it overshadowed the rest of the company. When people thought about the house, Soho Crime was the first thing that came to mind, thanks in part to collections like Massie Dobbs — a series about an English housemaid turned private investigator. The downturn in the publishing industry made things a bit more complicated. Now ramping up both imprints was integral for the company’s survival.

The Transformation
Author Alex Shakar wrote the book that represented a new era for Soho’s literary imprint. The story of Shakar’s pre-Soho career has become something of a cautionary tale in the literary world. Shakar’s second novel, Luminarium, not only meant a new chapter for Soho, but a happy ending for Shakar as well.

When Shakar’s first book was picked up for publication, it had all the indicators of success: a hotshot agent, big name blurbs, and a large advance from HarperCollins. The novel entitled The Savage Girl was a satire of consumer culture with subversive elements, all of which would generally make for a promising first outing — if not for a pub date exactly one week after 9/11. Shakar found himself abandoned. His agent, Bill Clegg, was forced to take time off, a story recounted in Clegg’s memoir Portrait of the Addict As a Young Man, and The Savage Girl flopped. Of all the writers who had it rough during the publishing downturn, writers with a so-called “bad track record” may have had the worst. Shakar recounted the experience in his essay, “Year of Wonders.”

Clegg had just come off a long convalescence period when he had lunch with original Soho co-founder Juri Jujrevics. It was Jurjevics who helped convince Clegg to return, as it was his firm belief that Clegg was one of the brightest and promising agents in the business. As a result, Clegg had a soft spot for Jurjevics and Soho.

Shakar took his time writing his follow-up to The Savage Girl and stuck with Clegg as his agent. However, the Murphy’s Law chain of events surrounding The Savage Girl left Shakar in a tough spot. Fate and proximity put Shakar, Clegg, and Bronwen together at book party in Bronwen’s apartment where the three discussed the book.

“I had the good fortune of coming to Soho at an exciting time,” Shakar says. “The place was bubbling with energy and ambition. Having just stopped by couple weeks ago, I’m happy to say that it still is.”

Luminarium wasn’t just a compelling read — it was a novel that made a statement. It sojourned into realms of fractured reality and of spirituality. It was heady and fresh yet unique. It was exactly the kind of book Soho’s new literary editor Mark Doten had been looking for to set the tone for the future.

Doten had gotten his MFA at Columbia and worked under the likes of Ben Marcus and Sam Lipsyte. According to a 2007 feature in New York Magazine, Doten had distinguished himself as a rising star in the hyper-competitive program. Doten’s debut novel is set to publish in February 2015 by Graywolf, a publisher whom Bronwen admittedly considers friendly competition. The interplay between Bronwen and Doten seems to account for what’s become the strongly realized identity of the new Soho Press. For Bronwen, the driving factor that moves her to want to publish a book is a plot that keeps a reader turning the pages — a big part of what made her own 2013 novel Accelerated a success. Doten, on the other hand, is more focused on the importance of voice.

“I’m looking for a novel that couldn’t have possibly been told by anyone other than that particular storyteller,” he says.

The Restoration
The melding of those priorities is reflected throughout the notable books of Soho’s post-2011 literary catalogue. A few people interviewed for this piece referred to a “Soho feel” or “a quintessential Soho book.” Trying to piece to together what that meant wasn’t easy. It’s not something you’d find in the content or even the style. It would be wrong to use words like “dark” or “edgy,” though those qualities are often present.

Take Paula Bomer’s Soho debut. Nine Months is a dark and honest take on pregnancy that embraces the goriest of details while maintaining the emotional breadth of such a sacred life event. Bomer refers to her experience working with the team at Soho as both “fun” and “life changing.” Her follow-up, Inside Madeline, published this month.

“I think what Soho does is unique in that there really is a family feel. It’s always been a joy for me to do business with everyone, from the publishers to the assistants,” says Bomer, who dedicated her first novel to Doten. During these interviews, multiple authors echo the notion that the process of editing with Doten is responsible for elevating their manuscripts.

Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and The Woods is a recent Soho title that both Doten and Bronwen consider especially important to their timeline. The book was well reviewed in The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, and more, and made The Believer’s top 20 list for fiction. The novel, on its surface, is about a couple who move into a secluded house and have trouble conceiving, but ask someone who’s read the book, and they’re most likely to talk about the giant squids or sentient bear or huge labyrinth underneath the house. As Doten puts it, “It’s a book where the way in which the physical world is presented is heavily influenced by the character’s psychology.” Both Bronwen and Doten consider Bell’s novel “a quintessential Soho Press book.” It’s hard to say what Breath, Eyes, Memory, Lumiarium, and In the House have in common — but the same can be said for recently successful indies like Akashic or Two Dollar Radio; the qualities they look for are more or less intangible.

The Legacy
Fortunately for Bronwen, the publishing industry didn’t fall apart completely and neither did Soho Press. In fact, both Doten and Bronwen echo the sentiment that they’ve seen nothing but growth since coming on board. One of Bronwen’s biggest contributions to Soho is a heightened focus on the importance of marketing. What was once a one-person department now consists of five employees. What was once a company consisting of five employees is now 16. Soho has also recently handed their distribution over to Random House, making their titles especially accessible throughout the country. In doing so, Bronwen and company have realized the dream of their predecessors — to build an indie house with the same reach as the majors. Aside from Doten’s eye for quality work and keen editorial skills, Bronwen credits him for his knowledge of the literary community and for his ability to move confidently throughout it. Doten admits that though it was something he once lamented about the job, he’s gotten good at “going out and drinking with people.”

When she first joined Soho Press, Bronwen’s reservations concerned identity, losing her own, or somehow marring the one that her mother had built. Certainly the latter isn’t a concern. The Soho Crime division is as vibrant as ever, with crime editor Juliet Grames keeping the international flavor favored by the crime division of days past — only now it also focuses on locales that are exotic in different ways. Recent Soho Crime releases include titles taking place in Mormon Utah or the Alaskan wilderness. Crime fans still know what to expect from the imprint. As for the literary division, Soho is as true to the hopes and aspirations of the four people in that downtown bar as they’ve ever been.

“They’re smart and they’re plugged in, and you can really feel when you walk in there that they love what they do,” Shakar says.

The prospect of letting a parent down is scary, perhaps as much for a four year old as it is for a forty year old. Once a parent has passed on, that prospect becomes something entirely different, something far beyond appeasement or resentment. For Bronwen, joining Soho has become a way to keep her mother closer than she ever thought she could. A book will come up that she remembers her mother reading or acquiring. She’ll stumble across books or a note with her mother’s handwriting. She’s surrounded by hundreds of thousands of pages of her mother’s work and passion. She didn’t just keep Soho Press afloat. By giving a voice to all those authors who wouldn’t have had one otherwise, she kept her mother’s voice spirit alive. The new Soho Press isn’t just a crime fiction or YA or even a literary fiction house, it’s a respected publishing house. It’s a home for writers who might not have had one otherwise.

Photos courtesy of Soho Press.

The Sorry State of the Rejection Letter

1.
I started making my living as a writer the day after Jimmy Carter got elected president. Today, more than 30 years later, a novel of mine is going out to publishers in purely digital form for the first time. That is, after writing the book on a manual Royal typewriter, I transcribed and edited it on a laptop and sent a digital copy to my agent, who read it on his Kindle, then forwarded it electronically to editors, who presumably read it (or skimmed it, or didn’t) on their Kindles, Nooks or iPads. So eco-friendly! So fast! So cheap!

Of course the half dozen rejection letters that have come back so far have not been actual letters on publishing house letterheads – who has time for such nonsense anymore? – they’ve all been those curt blunt instruments called e-mails. Three decades ago I received typewritten rejection letters that were thoughtful, insightful, sometimes even beneficial. The electronic burps I’m getting today are, for the most part, shallow, cursory and absolutely useless to me as a writer. Sad but true, the rejection letter, like so many things in book publishing, is a shadow of what it used to be.

2.
For years I’ve kept what I call an Agony File, mostly rejection letters from agents and editors, but also critiques from valued readers. The “agony” is meant ironically. While some of the letters were painful to read, I’ve kept the ones that contain constructive criticism that helped make me a better writer. I’ve also kept a few that are so badly written, so inane, so lacking in insight or comprehension that they serve as a reminder that there are as many idiots in publishing as in any other line of work. A sense of superiority has a magical way of softening the sting of rejection.

One of the oldest items in my Agony File is a typewritten letter on Franklin Watts, Inc., letterhead dated March 10, 1986. It was written to my agent by Ed Breslin, who was then the publishing house’s Editor-in-Chief. The letter, which consists of four long single-spaced paragraphs that cover two pages, offers a detailed critique of a novel I’d written called Henry Miller Lives!, the story of a Nashville disc jockey named Peter, a frustrated writer who’s visited by the ghost of his literary hero, Henry Miller. Fireworks ensue.

“Greatly did I appreciate the opportunity to read Bill Morris’s Henry Miller Lives!,” Breslin’s letter begins. “The idea for the story is a good one, and a true writing talent is shown developing with every page. Yet, and most unfortunately, a number of people reading the book also saw problems which when corrected, we fear, will take away its magic.”

He then dissects the book’s flaws, including one character who is “a cartoon-like straw man for the Yuppie existence,” another who is “shallow and fickle.” And: “No character presents an attractive alternative requiring a real choice for Peter…forcing a most anti-climactic ending.” As for the ghost of Henry Miller: “Finally, and this is most important, the appeal that Henry Miller has for Peter as a role model is never clear. (Miller) is certainly a lovable character – like a favorite uncle who drinks too much and whores around – but from this description it is unclear who he really was, or how he inspires Peter.”

Breslin’s letter concludes: “Admittedly, it is unusual to try and explain so many of our reservations for a book we are returning. What I hoped to get across to you with all of this detail – and what I hope you will relay to Mr. Morris – is that there is real talent in Henry Miller Lives!…and we are most certainly interested in such talented work in the future.”

This is about as good as agony gets – not only because of Breslin’s encouraging words but because he (and “a number of people” in the publishing house) read the manuscript closely, thought hard about it, discussed it and came up with valid ideas on how to make the book better. This is what rejection letters are supposed to do, what they used to do, and what they almost never do anymore.

Now comes the truly odd part: I wrote Breslin a two-page, single-spaced letter thanking him for taking the time to explain, so eloquently and incisively, why he wasn’t buying my book. “Over the years,” I wrote, “I’ve received my share of rejection letters (this novel is actually the fourth book I’ve written); but never have I received a rejection letter that contained half as much honesty and understanding. Rejection never feels good. Somehow you’ve made it feel less bad.”  After explaining why I agreed with most of Breslin’s criticisms and disagreed with a few, I told him about a new novel I was working on, then closed with: “I’m not trying to sell you anything. I’m just trying to thank you for reading Henry Miller Lives! and for responding so thoughtfully to it. And I’m hoping that when I finish a first draft of this new novel, you and I have another shot at each other.”

As it turned out, Franklin Watts did not publish that new novel, but Knopf did. I’ve often thought that without the encouragement I got from Breslin’s rejection letter I might not have finished that next novel. After writing four unsold books I was close to throwing in the towel. Thanks to Ed Breslin, I didn’t.

3.
The electronic rejection letter didn’t arrive on the publishing scene yesterday, of course. My Agony File reveals that e-mail started supplanting typewritten letters about seven or eight years ago. Looking back, I can honestly say that only one of the e-mails I’ve received in those years contained a fraction of the insight in Ed Breslin’s typewritten letter. Here are three e-examples from 2008, when I was trying – and failing – to sell a novel set in Detroit during the 1967 race riot. An editor at Henry Holt wrote: “I just didn’t entirely connect with these characters, in part, I think, because most of them are pretty masculine guys.” (What do you want, I wondered, more feminine guys?) An editor at Algonquin wrote: “I never quite ‘believed’ the narrator in some three-dimensional way. His voice seemed inauthentic to me in certain ways – too overly polished and rhetorical with every fact and figure at his fingertips.” (The novel is told in the first person by five different narrators, which leads me to believe this editor didn’t get past the first chapter.) And an editor at Bloomsbury who is obviously a big believer in brevity needed just 11 words to diss the manuscript: “As much as I’d like to like this, I don’t. Sorry.” Of all the many cliches in reject-speak, the most maddening surely is this: “I didn’t fall in love.” Of course you didn’t fall in love. It’s a book, for chrissakes, not a super-model!

To be fair, some of the typewritten rejections I’ve received were more than a little superficial and slapdash. In pre-e-mail 2001, an editor at Houghton Mifflin wrote this about a novel I’d set in near-future New York City: “I think this kind of near-future fiction is going to be very difficult to do…until we are more certain of what the near-future might actually look like.” (Say what?) And an editor at Grove/Atlantic must have just returned from a long liquid lunch when she wrote: “I found the action exciting writing skillful.”

And electronic rejection can be thoughtful, constructive, even wise. After revising that novel set in near-future New York City, I mailed a copy of the manuscript to the agent Bill Clegg at the William Morris (no kin) Agency because he had given a close reading to an earlier manuscript of mine. (At the time I was unaware that Clegg had been wrestling with the crack cocaine demon, which he chronicles in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man.) Soon after I sent my manuscript to Clegg, he wrote me an e-mail – roughly the same length as Ed Breslin’s long-ago letter – that was striking for its detail and the acuity of its insights. After laying out the book’s strengths and weaknesses and suggesting how I might go about making it better, Clegg closed by offering to take a look at a revised manuscript.

So I know it’s possible for agents and editors – for anyone – to write a thoughtful, insightful e-mail. But hard experience has taught me that it almost never happens. Clegg’s e-mail is, sadly, the exception that proves the rule.

4.
The publishing world has embraced e-mail rejections for obvious reasons: speed and convenience. The need for speed is driven by the simple fact that there are too many people writing too much stuff and publishing houses are producing too many books, most of them bad, some of them decent, a few of them truly dreadful, and a tiny handful of them brilliant and destined to last. All of a sudden everyone with a laptop has a novel inside them, or a book of short stories, or at the very least a memoir about incest, anorexia, substance abuse and/or the thrilling world of rehab. More than 4,000 Americans apply to creative writing MFA programs every year. American publishers cranked out about 280,000 “traditional” titles last year, including about 45,000 novels. That’s nearly a thousand novels a week. That’s insane. When you factor in on-demand, self-published and “micro-niche” books marketed almost exclusively on the Internet, the number of new titles surpassed 1 million last year for the first time. Understandably, agents and editors complain that they’re swamped with product, and anything that can hasten the culling process is a godsend. There’s simply no time today for such tweedy niceties as writing thoughtful, constructive rejection letters to some schmuck whose book you’re not going to buy.

But I would argue that American book publishing doesn’t need to speed up; it needs to slow down. Nobody can stop people from writing, of course, but editors can – and should – determine what is truly worthy and then take the necessary time to make it truly great. One way to buy that time would be to publish fewer titles. It’s no secret that most books today are sloppily edited if they’re edited at all, that a disturbing number of memoirs are figments of the writer’s imagination, and that most published novels and short story collections simply do not deserve to exist, either on aesthetic grounds or on the brute reality of what the market will bear. We’ve all had the experience of walking into a bookstore and feeling overwhelmed by the number of titles on the shelves. You may know in your heart that there are only a few gems in those tall cliffs of books – but how do you spot the gems?

I say it’s time for writers, agents, editors and publishers to admit that less would be more. We need fewer books, and better ones; we need more readers, and smarter ones. And I believe the former would lead to the latter.

But wouldn’t a cutback in the number of published titles hurt me and every other writer? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that a reduction of quantity would lead to a rise in quality, and everyone would benefit – editors who actually get to be editors again; writers who get the attention, and possibly even the money, they need and deserve; and, especially, readers, whose eyes will no longer fog over when they walk into a bookstore because they’ll be confronted with fewer choices and they’ll be confident that the quotient of gems is far higher than it used to be. The only losers would be the companies that pulp unsold books.

5.
Ed Breslin is alive and well and still living in New York City. Since retiring as a book editor in 1992 after a 19-year career, he has concentrated on writing, book doctoring and freelance editing. Now 63, he remembers the Henry Miller Lives! manuscript and the letters we exchanged a quarter of a century ago. He regards those letters as relics from a gone world.

“People don’t even write rejection letters anymore,” Breslin said when I reached him by telephone. “Rejection letters were educational and they often were important for the encouragement they gave young writers. People don’t have the time today, and they don’t have the money to spend on amenities like publicity or parties. Book publishing’s not as social or collegial as it used to be. It’s more cut and dried, and it’s not as much fun.”

With the world becoming more digitized by the minute, Breslin doesn’t expect the publishing industry to slow down, or return to its collegial ways, or even stop churning out so many unwanted books.

“It’s not going to stop,” he said. “It’s going to proliferate more and more.”

He’s probably right. I thanked him for taking the time to write that rejection letter on March 10, 1986, a dose of bad news that gave a struggling writer the strength to keep trying.

“You’re very welcome,” he said. We wished each other good luck and then we hung up.

Image credit: Flicker/dvs.

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