The Understory: A Novel

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Two Women, Two Lives, Two Stories: Together, but Brutally Alone

Pamela Erens’s new novel, Eleven Hours, opens with the push and tug between laboring patient and nurse. Lore, the expectant mother, rigid and stubborn — “No, the girl says, she will not wear the fetal monitoring belt” — and Franckline, her nurse: “These girls with their birth plans…as if much of anything about a birth can be planned.” Orphaned, friendless, and estranged from her baby’s father, Lore is poised to deliver alone. Franckline, by contrast, is more sociable, a seemingly happily married woman from Haiti. Through Franckline and Lore, Erens continues interrogating the core contradiction that threads through two earlier novels: The simultaneity of twinness and aloneness.

In light of this core contradiction, Eleven Hours’s outwardly different protagonists – Lore is white; Franckline is black — share important characteristics. Franckline is herself pregnant. Out of superstition of miscarrying, she has not informed her husband. Just as Lore’s isolation derives from loss and betrayal, it also transpires that Franckline’s past is one of suffering and disruption. Thus Lore and Franckline form a pair, each with private misgivings about her pregnancy and impending birth, each entangled in the other’s present.

Layers of finely wrought details frame these women as matched puzzle pieces. Moving seamlessly between them, Erens renders them singular and affecting, deftly weaving in their backstories while remaining rooted in the novel’s central drama: Lore’s labor. With indulgent pragmatism, Franckline watches her patient fight to control the uncontrollable process of birth. Lore is inflexible; Franckline knows better:

Anything can happen, and often does…Babies twisted up on the umbilical cord, starved for oxygen for a little too long. Birthmarks obliterating a child’s face, absent fingers or toes. Fifty-hour labors, a mother suffering a heart attack while pushing (that one was only thirty-two years old, grossly overweight, yes, but seemingly hale, with an energetic, generous laugh; they saved her, but it was touch and go).

Lore is less than self-aware; Franckline is generous, attuned, and self-aware, to the point of underestimating her own kindness: “The pregnancy has made her mean, made her small, Franckline thinks. On the subway and in the street, she looks away from pregnant women — seven, eight, nine months along — so as not to poison them with her envy.” Lore is a speech teacher at P.S. 30, while Franckline considers her own, hard-earned English: “How supple her speech is now! How she surprised herself at times! She is proud of her English; after eleven years it is almost flawless.”

Eleven years, eleven hours. Duality is literature’s lifeblood; writers frequently quarry opposites. William Shakespeare loves his twins; Mark Twain, his Prince and the Pauper. Contemporary novels embed alternate endings within the same book. Jenny Erpenbeck’s recently translated The End of Days offers two interpretations of the same facts in each of its five segments. Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World splits into divergent paths — the road taken and the other road taken.

Erens makes a fresh contribution. Along with creating original and nuanced characters, she pits duality against intense isolation. Her astonishing debut, The Understory, tells the wrenching story of John Frederick Ronan, who squats in his deceased uncle’s New York apartment, living in his head. He is obsessed with twins, hunting for them around the city, using two personal aliases. Readers wend through his warped reasoning — twisted from either his inability, or his lack of desire, to engage with others. He arrives at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York seeking shelter, having been evicted into homelessness. In the silence of the monastery’s enforced, pre-dawn meditation, Ronan reflects: “I have no family, no home, no friend, no books. Surely they can leave me my thoughts.”

Reading The Understory is itself a meditation. Sublimely paced and rigorously crafted, The Understory investigates not only Ronan’s raw isolation, but also his drift toward coupling; a love that unfolds with disastrous consequences.

Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, centers around two teenage lovers at a tony boarding school. While their classmates imagine steamy sex, Aviva and Seung’s relationship is rife with the unsaid — misunderstandings and misconceptions that ultimately coalesce in tragedy. Aviva and Seung come from different cultural backgrounds, but their disconnection is rooted in something more fundamental; a set of experiences that impedes their ability to trust the people with whom they should be closest.

In Eleven Hours, the characters are similarly disconnected. Franckline has had to break with her family of origin, imbuing her with a powerful streak of self-reliance. Lore was orphaned young, but it is the ugly betrayals of those around her, including the father of her child, that have convinced her to go it alone. Erens deploys a character named Julia — who introduces Lore to the man who will father her baby — to address the subject of rape and its aftermath. With this subplot, Erens signals what is finally being publicly acknowledged: Rape is endemic to the female experience, far more common that we choose to admit.

Perhaps Lore’s child will splice her loneliness, but during labor, her isolation is stark. Here is a contraction, exquisitely captured:

…the moan this time is not simply a moan of will and pain but a call into the emptiness: Is anyone there? There is a blackness spreading into her vision and she feels herself spinning in an unlit sky. Empty, empty, her moan cries.

And later, as Lore strengthens her resolve that the baby’s father will never be part of her baby’s life: “Now she would be her own fiancé; she would marry herself. She would be both father and mother to this child. It was, really, one of the most ordinary stories in the universe.”

Eleven Hours is, at its most basic, the story of a woman about to mother a daughter (Lore has found out she is carrying a girl). Erens writes thoughtfully on pregnancy and mothering, mining her own challenges with breastfeeding. Mother-daughter pairings appear throughout the book. At Lore’s mother’s funeral:

…she looked down at her mother’s face, relaxed of some of its characteristic lines, and thought that here lay the only person who would every truly understand her, the only person she would ever care to be close to.

Franckline, whose mother’s “soft murmuring patter dried up near Franckline” after a teenage dalliance, is rescued by another mother, the one who would become her mother-in-law. Neither Lore nor Franckline share information about their mothers; instead they engage in a kind of emotional parallel play, in which they give free reign to their thoughts within the confines of a small hospital room, keeping everything to themselves. Between nurse and patient, there is a whiff of the mother-daughter, as if Lore were a cranky toddler continually saying “no” to Franckline’s experienced advice, and Franckline her long suffering parent.

Franckline reaches for Lore’s hand…There is flesh bunched below the wide silver band on the fourth finger, like a thick putty squeezing out…The finger above the ring is paler than the other fingers, with a bluish tinge. Franckline should tell Lore in no uncertain terms, in her practiced nurse’s voice, that the ring must be cut, that she could lose a finger. Franckline should use a word like necrotize, a word that makes young women pale and listen. But Lore would simply repeat ‘no.’

Lore sneaks out of her room, wandering into another part of the hospital like a rebellious teenager escaping an overbearing mother, and realizes she has gone too far: “Come get me, Franckline, she thinks. Come find me. Come help me, come make it all easier.” Contrite, Lore makes it back and shuts the door.

Franckline arrives at the room a couple of minutes later, out of breath, her eyes reproachful. ‘I’m sorry,’ blurts Lore. How she hates that phrase! It’s like trying to move sand around her mouth. But she cannot bear Franckline looking at her like that.

With passages like these, Erens skates perilously close to troubling, clichéd territory: Competent, wise black woman supports white woman in her struggle. Erens seems to recognize the dangers of descending into such a well-worn trope, skirting offense by giving Franckline a complex interior life, and by masterfully filling out each character.

Eleven Hours is crafted with the taut economy of The Understory, and with the same laser focus on human alienation. In fewer than 180 virtuoso pages, Erens knits together two women, two lives, two stories. Each woman has borne serious trials; each is detached from her family of origin, albeit for different reasons. Each has reason to worry about bringing new life into this world. They are together, but brutally alone. And yet for the duration of Lore’s hospital stay, their communion feels both necessary and illuminating. What passes between Franckline and Lore lifts them above despair, thrusting them toward life itself.

Going Places No One Else Goes: The Millions Interviews Pamela Erens

I’ve been following Pamela Erens’s work since her debut in 2007. With each novel, her reputation has grown; I admit that I expected her new book to land on my doorstep with a resounding thud — the sound of a weighty third novel announcing its author has arrived. The actual tone was higher, more like a plonk.

Erens’s third novel, Eleven Hours, is 165 pages long. It is a heart-in-your-mouth, hold-your-breath read that uses one of the most familiar, and possibly underused, time constraints to hold tension: labor. A woman named Lore, in the early stages of labor, checks into the hospital alone. She brings with her a detailed birth plan, which her assigned nurse, Franckline, eyes skeptically. The nurse knows all too well that the only certain thing about birth is that it won’t go to plan. As the novel charts the course of the contractions, the relationship between the two women becomes more intense. Their lives and past experiences become briefly intertwined through the deeply intimate process of birth.

Why hasn’t a novel like Eleven Hours been written thousands of times before? Like storming the castle, slaying a serial killer, or saving the world, the story of a labor has all the elements of a classic plot. An inciting incident, conflicting needs, rising action, suspense, a built-in climax, and a kind of resolution that often feels both surprising and true.

Like the structure of Eleven Hours, the outcome of a birth, though often happy, isn’t assured. For with every birth, comes the possibility of death. And it’s this natural tension — as Karen Russell puts it, “the tides of memory, sensation, and emotion” — that Pamela Erens has caught so precisely. On the eve of publication, I wanted to know how Erens came to this point in her writing career. In an email exchange, I asked her about working at Glamour magazine, the hard slog of doing publicity yourself, getting the rights back and the reissue of her first novel, glowing reviews by John Irving, “big” books, and “small” topics.

The Millions: Since your first novel was published in 2007, you have been listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, you were named a contemporary writer to read by Reader’s Digest, your criticism has appeared in many prestigious publications, and your work has been lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. Have you made it?

Pamela Erens: Hmm, what is “making it?” On the one hand, so much more has come my way than I could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. I remember when my second novel, The Virgins, came out, realizing that people I didn’t actually know were reading my novel. That was thrilling! Honestly, I think almost everyone who read my first novel, The Understory, either knew me or knew someone who knew me. Getting to write essays for a place like Virginia Quarterly Review, a journal I’d held in awe for years: that knocks me out.

But one keeps moving the goal posts, right? It’s just human nature. You (I) want more readers, more sales, a prize…Sometimes I hate that the mind works like this.

TM: You were an editor at Glamour magazine. How did you make the transition from magazines to novels?

PE: Actually, the fiction came before any magazine work (I also had stints at Ms., Connecticut Magazine, and a New York City weekly called 7 Days). The magazine work was what I gravitated to after college because I was a huge reader of magazines (still am) and needed to make a living. But I wrote fiction as far back as I can remember. If Glamour shaped my work, it was by training me to be succinct and draw the reader in quickly. In school, you learn to generate a lot of blah-blah in your writing, a lot of what my boss at Glamour called “throat-clearing.” Magazine work cures you of that.

TM: Did the success of The Understory surprise you?

PE: Very much. For one thing, during the editing process I gradually gleaned that my editor and publisher (it was the same man) was no longer really running the press that was supposed to bring out my book. He was traveling a lot, hard to reach, involved in other business ventures. He was shutting down operations, and there were many months where I didn’t think the book was going to come out. In the end he did honor the commitment to publish, thank goodness, but there were long delays, and the press lost its distributor. The book was not in bookstores, period. People rightly criticize some of Amazon’s practices, but if it hadn’t been for Amazon no one would ever have been able to get ahold of the book without coming over to my house to ask for a copy.

There was no publicity for The Understory other than what I did myself. The publisher did print advance reading copies, but I had to figure out where to send them. I ran myself ragged writing notes to newspapers and possible reviewers — but at the time I knew hardly anybody. A couple of things worked out, including a Publishers Weekly review, which was hugely important in legitimizing the novel. Jim Ruland, a wonderful writer I’d gotten to know via the online writers’ site Zoetrope, did an interview with me for the literary blog The Elegant Variation. It was an L.A.-based blog, so perhaps that was how the Los Angeles Times folks, who nominated it for the book prize, got wind of the novel. I sent the book to several prize competitions, cursing at the steep entry fees, but it led to the short list for the William Saroyan Award. So: a combination of stubbornness and a few contacts and some lucky breaks.

TM: Picking up on things working out, Tin House republished The Understory in 2014. How did this come about?

PE: By the time The Understory came out in 2007, Ironweed was basically no longer operating except to send copies to Amazon once in a while and bring out one other book they had under contract. I figured that if I could get the rights back, maybe eventually another press would be willing to do a reissue. I was afraid of losing track of my publisher (he was often in Asia) and not being able to contact him if an offer came up. So in 2010 I made a request for the reversion of rights. The publisher was very accommodating about it.

Later, when I got an agent for The Virgins I mentioned to her that I owned the rights to The Understory. After Tin House took The Virgins, she sent The Understory to my new editor, who said that he was interested it in, too, but wanted to see what happened with The Virgins first. And luckily that went well, so Tin House brought out a reissue of The Understory about eight months after The Virgins. It was great to see it with a new cover and in bookstores.

TM: The Virgins got a rave review from John Irving in The New York Times. How did you swing that?

PE: I don’t think authors ever get to swing anything when it comes to The Times!

The review was exciting for reasons beyond the obvious. I’d been a John Irving fan since the age of 15, when I read The World According to Garp. My early- to mid-teens was the one time in my life I stopped writing. I’d been a massively scribbling kid. I’d written a novel at the age of 10 — that was published — I really should refer to it as my first novel. It was called Fight for Freedom and it was about a slave girl who escapes to the North before the Civil War with the help of Harriet Tubman. My mom, always an optimist and a booster, sent it out to a few places and it got taken by a small feminist press in California called The Shameless Hussy Press (this was the 1970s, okay?). But once adolescence hit I guess I just got too busy with trying to be popular and attract the interest of boys. Anyway, The World According to Garp blew me away. I couldn’t believe fiction could be written that way. It was so irreverent and joyful and antic and dark and political. Afterwards, I went out and read all of Irving’s earlier books.

They jolted me into writing again (at first very Irving-imitatively), and I haven’t stopped since, other than for a brief period when I couldn’t sell The Understory and thought, crap, I really don’t have what it takes, maybe I would like to be a librarian. Not a joke; I was looking into it. So there was a big kick in being reviewed by one of my first literary heroes.

TM: Big books are having a moment. Of the many virtues of novels like The GoldfinchThe LuminariesA Little Life, and City on Fire, they have also received attention for their high page count. Eleven Hours is 165 pages long, is this a contrarian stance?

PE: You’ve hit a sore spot for me. Some of the novels most dear to me are big and multi-charactered, with wide panoramas. MiddlemarchAnna KareninaHoward’s EndAngle of Repose. Then I have this other passion for slender, intense, highly concentrated novels and collections, such as Wide Sargasso SeaDesperate CharactersThey Came Like SwallowsJesus’ Son. But it’s the longer, more sprawling books that epitomize “The Novel” to me. Why?

I’ve been pressing myself on this one lately. It has nothing to do with artistry, I’m beginning to realize. It has to do with certain longings for status and, believe it or not, with how I want to see myself as a person. Do I not have enough empathy to write more than two or three or four characters a book? Am I lacking in imagination? I just have to get over those probably false equivalences. Jane Austen famously referred to “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work.” Well, we’re still reading Jane Austen today, while Walter Scott, the “big book” writer of her day, not so much.

TM: What is a “big book?”

PE: Usually, for me, it’s a novel that takes on a lot of the “outside” world, that’s sociological and/or historical as well as psychological. Sometimes a book like that truly does offer a “big” experience, and sometimes it’s just kind of, well, journalistic: doing the work of nonfiction rather than fiction.

I think about Kafka, another writer I love. Can you imagine if Kafka sat around saying, “God, why can’t I write a multi-generational novel with lots of sociological color and several gripping subplots?”? You could argue that Kafka is one of the narrowest writers around. He barely does description or character. There’s only sometimes a bit of plot. But in plumbing what he plumbs he brings us some of the most potent experiences in literature. He brings us the unconscious erupting into our lives and the dread at the heart of being human. He goes places no one else goes.

We authors just have to write what we write and not get caught up in these ideas of “big” or “small.”

TM: I agree, but know from experience that it’s not a comfortable feeling to be told your novel is “small.” While there is no set definition of “small,” it can feel diminishing?

PE: Yes, it can. My other hangup about “writing short” is that long books do often generate more excitement and attention. Though it’s not always the case. The wonderful Dept. of Speculation, a novel you can read in an hour and a half, was one of the most lauded books of 2014. There’s Garth Greenwell’s book What Belongs to You. There are Ben Lerner’s two short novels. These have been among the most justly praised books of recent years.

I’ll also say this: When advance reader’s copies of Eleven Hours were mailed out, I realized one big advantage of a short book: people are much more likely to get around to reading it. It’s not such a huge investment of time.

That’s a long way around to your question of whether writing short is a contrarian stance. No! Both The Understory and The Virgins started out as longer books. Making them into the best books I could resulted in major amputations. I knew from the start that Eleven Hours would be short, because of the time frame and because there were only so many uterine contractions I could describe without losing my shit, but I kept hoping it would magically pass the 200-page mark. It just didn’t want to.

Some authors seem to achieve their best effects through expansion. For me, at least so far, it’s compression that brings out what I want.

TM: What did your editor at Tin House say about the length of the manuscript?

PE: I worried about what both my agent and my editor would say about the length of Eleven Hours.

I was afraid someone was going to use the dread word “novella.” (For the record, as a reader, I love the novella form. I just thought that if Eleven Hours was labelled as a novella it might be tougher to sell or get reviews for.)

Neither said anything. When I expressed my own anxieties, my editor mentioned another novel that Tin House had done, even shorter, and commented that the right layout and presentation can make a short book very appealing. That was nice. Tin House does in fact have a track record of beautifully publishing shorter novels.

TM: Eleven Hours tells the incredibly tense story of a woman’s 11-hour labor. How did it feel to write?

PE: I had a lot of false starts with Eleven Hours. I wrote my first two novels in almost complete isolation. With The Virgins, I submitted the first 15 pages to a workshop once; that was it until it was finished. By Eleven Hours, I had a writers’ group, and I was also having trouble getting it launched. Trying to capture the physical and psychological experience of childbirth was so difficult. Not because I didn’t remember it well or was spooked by the material, but simply because it was hard to find the language to say much about it. What I was able to get down on paper was fragmentary and rather dreamlike. I would bring in these fragments and my group would be encouraging but also kind of lost. I really felt that this book needed to be in third person, unlike my first two novels, and I just couldn’t hear the right voice.

Eventually I had a setup and a reasonably workable narrator and I proceeded. Then I didn’t show anything more to anybody and completed a draft in about a year. Wow, I’m getting really fast! I thought. This is progress!

I sent the manuscript to my agent. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear her trying carefully not to make me feel terrible. She pointed out what she liked and didn’t. She didn’t like that much, but what she did I gained the confidence to build on. I got some good feedback from her then assistant also. I spent two more years on the book and got regular critiques from my group. They were essential in helping me see where there was a live vibe and where things were going dead.

The breakthrough was when some intuition sent me back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, two of my favorite novels. That was the voice I wanted, that mobile, poetic, exalted, wry, empathic voice that is distinct from any of the characters. So then I spent the rest of my time figuring out what of Woolf’s method I could adapt or steal. In short, the novel didn’t get written all in one breath, by any means!

TM: Eleven Hours is published by Tin House tomorrow. How do you feel right now?

PE: A bit strung out, as always before a publication. But pleased. It’s always sort of a miracle when something that started years ago as an idea, a little thread of words in your head, becomes this independent object in the world. And something that is particularly satisfying to me this time is that the content of the novel brings me full circle to some of my earliest concerns and interests.

In college I discovered I was a feminist — that is, someone who is very interested in how gender shapes inner and outer experience. I studied gender via philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, literature. Glamour magazine was a continuation of that. Women’s magazines are where you can routinely find some of the most inquiring and informative journalism about women’s physical and mental health, reproductive rights, sexuality, and so on. The Virgins drew somewhat on that vein of interest, in its attempt to be straightforward about teenage female sexuality, but Eleven Hours does even more so. Why are there so few accurate or in-depth depictions of labor and delivery in literature? It’s just staggering.

TM: That’s a great question. Where is the experience of labor and delivery in our literature?

PE: You and I were just talking about “small” books, and it seems as if childbirth, this absolutely enormous event in the life of billions of people past and present, is seen as a “small” topic. It’s absurd. With Eleven Hours I wanted to write this thing that I wasn’t seeing out there. I wanted to do it as both an artist and a feminist. And now it’s out there, and I feel very satisfied.

Lessons From No: Writers on Their Most Formative Rejections

Rejections bring writers together. We trade stories of abysmally long response times, boilerplate replies addressed Dear writer, and the requisite practice of pinning rejection slips to walls. F. Scott Fitzgerald covered his bedroom with the 122 rejections he received in the spring of 1919 alone. Stephen King “pounded a nail” into the wall to “impale” his rejections. Rebecca Skloot displays her rejections for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as a constant reminder of editorial subjectivity.

The screens of our computers and phones have replaced the archetypal wall of printed rejections. Social media inflames the Cult of Rejection, a melodramatic threnody of authorial frustration. Before I sound too sanctimonious, I admit participation in these public complaints. It is cathartic to scream in electronic silence. Rejection is a reminder that writers are vulnerable and sensitive — and yet still pugilistic. To write is to tempt constant rejection. The statistical inevitability of rejection does not lessen the sting.

Despite these airings of shared failure, when we close the door and sit at our own desks, it easy to think that we are alone in disappointment. I asked writers whose work I admire to share their most formative rejections, whether they came from magazines, publishers, or even professors. I appreciate their candor about those moments when they realized how to fail better.

Because I have asked to air their confessions, I should share one of my own. As a graduate student in theology, I wrote an essay of biblical criticism. I was not new to the world of submissions — I had already published a book of poems and had placed fiction in magazines like Esquire and The Kenyon Review — but my scholarship was literary, not biblical.

I have always been interested in the penitent thief in Luke’s Gospel. In the scene, thieves are crucified on both sides of Jesus. The criminals mock him. Unlike the version of the story in Matthew and Mark, the thief in Luke’s narrative is regretful and contemplative. He believes that Jesus does not deserve this brutal punishment. I submitted my essay to Catholic Biblical Quarterly, a peer-reviewed publication of biblical criticism that has appeared since 1939. A few months later, I received a response. The editor prefaced the publication’s attached decision with a warning: “I wish that they could contain more welcome news.”

Submitters to literary magazines complain about form rejections. We are lucky. Peer reviews replace ambiguity with dissection. The first reviewer considered my work incomplete, but made useful suggestions for improvement. He appreciated the patristic exegesis in the latter half of the essay, but thought I needed to study the original Greek text of Luke, and reference further examinations of the pericope.

The other reviewer was less kind. “The paper is not publishable,” he began. He skewered my essay, reveling in the evisceration. Now that my literary wound has healed, his railing is entertaining and often prescient: he wondered if he was being “too harsh, since I suspect that the author is a student.” He said my essay lacked a thesis. “It is unclear how any of [the essay’s] parts relate to one another,” he wrote; “there is no coherent argument.” The reviewer’s main bone was my usage of critical language. He called it “persistent and irritating,” and produced a litany of moments where I had folded the language of literary criticism into the language of biblical criticism. I could almost feel the exhale of disgust at the end of his review.

While I would later publish a book of literary criticism, I never returned to the biblical side of scholarship. I had tried to stretch myself too wide. Pride blurred my vision. I had assumed that my experiences in one genre translated to competency in another. I had forgotten that the term “writer” is not all-inclusive: there are so many different writers, so many different forms.

Only when I step outside the world of literary magazines do I realize the narrow and fine nature of that world. It took sustained rejection to remind me what I could do well — and what type of writing should remain a hobby. I am now thankful for the rejections that used to frustrate me. I am also thankful for sharing the experiences of others. Pity the writer who thinks or he or she is finished learning from failure.

Here are seven writers on their most formative rejections.

1. Tomás Q. Morin (A Larger Country)
I’ve never received the kind of rejection letter that becomes infamous for its cruelty or the one filled with over-the-top praise in spite of the No waiting at the end. Once a year for nine years, I submitted to Poetry magazine and every year they said no. Rather than be discouraged, I relished the yearly chance to put in front of Chris Wiman (then the editor), Don Share, & Co. a poem they couldn’t turn away. Sometimes the rejection would be a form letter, while other times someone would scribble “send more work.” When the first Yes finally arrived, I had learned that you can develop a relationship with an editorial staff as much through their rejections of your work as you can through their acceptances. This is why I always tell young writers to not give up on a magazine they love just because an editor said no once.

2. Pamela Erens (The Virgins and The Understory)
I once took part in an ongoing creative writing workshop run by an inspired teacher. I learned a great deal from him — to this day my writing process remains highly influenced by him — but he had a very particular pedagogy and very emphatic opinions. When he dismissed a piece of writing, it stayed dismissed.

At a certain point, he had to travel for a few months, and a substitute took over the class, herself a gifted writer and teacher. I started a new short story during that time, and got a lot of encouragement from her and the class through successive revisions. Then the original teacher returned. He completely trashed the story; it was all wrong. No one dared to contradict him, of course. Nor was there was going to be any discussion of what had brought my story to this point or where I hoped to go with it. I was crushed — and also furious. When I finally was able to think calmly, I realized that I needed to break away somewhat from this teacher’s orbit. I applied for my first-ever summer writer’s conference, and there I got to know writers other than those in his classes, as well as teachers who taught in other ways. Later, online, I developed a larger network of writing colleagues, generous people who encouraged my work and supported me emotionally. I stayed in my workshop teacher’s class for a while longer, but I never let myself become so dependent on one person’s opinion or ideas about writing again. Artists are very vulnerable people. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing a lot of the time, and it becomes easy to transform someone else into a guru who has the Word.

3. Justin Taylor (The Gospel of Anarchy and Flings)
When I was in grad school, or maybe just after, I was introduced to an Editor at an Important Magazine and pitched her — within 10 minutes, while sitting at a bar, which itself was deeply uncool — on a few ideas, but mostly on the idea of me doing something — anything — for her magazine. She was gracious about it, and my ideas weren’t awful, so she told me to email her and the next day I sent a detailed pitch to review a new book by an Established American Poet whose work I’d long admired. I hadn’t actually read the new book yet, but I knew enough of his catalog to make the case for the Important Magazine giving him a feature review. She accepted, and I dove into the galley, which it turned out I mostly hated. This was as much a surprise to me as anyone, and mortifying considering how much I’d professed to love the guy, but — and I think this is to my credit — I didn’t pull any punches. I excoriated the book in detail, basically arguing that he’d gone lazy and soft. When the piece was spiked, the Editor was kind enough to share her reasoning: She didn’t question my judgment of the book (though for the record she never said she shared it) and neither did she have anything against so-called “negative reviewing” (that question never even came up), but she simply didn’t see the point of using her platform to hand an ass-kicking to a book of poems most of her readers wouldn’t have heard of in the first place. It struck her as a waste of her publication’s resources and space. This was, more or less, my introduction to the idea that editors and publications have a sense not only of their audience but of themselves: their cultural position and reach, and that they wield whatever “power” they have (or think they have) with deliberation and intent. Put another way: This was the moment I learned that context is a form of content. The universe then saw fit to drive this point even further home for me, so if you’ll bear with a brief P.S. I’ll share what happened next: I took my kill fee from the Important Magazine, licked my wounds, and in the end gave the piece away to an upstart indie book website. Some time later I got an email — from the Established American Poet! It was brief, but exceedingly generous considering the circumstances. He had come across my thrashing of him and had written to say — I’m paraphrasing here — no hard feelings. To be sure, he did not share my view of his book, but he seemed to respect my work, and perhaps my ability to get so worked up over a book of poems; more than anything else, he seemed pleased that this upstart indie book website had been interested in him in the first place. He may have even thanked me for my time.

4. Matthew Salesses (The Hundred-Year Flood and I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying)
In 2011, The Hundred-Year Flood went out to a number of editors, all of who rejected it but several of who asked for revisions. Each time some feedback came in, my agent-at-the-time said I should try it. They all wanted contradictory things. When I sent that agent my revision, she sat on it for months, avoiding my emails. Finally she called and scheduled a meeting in New York. When we met, she said I should either write a different book or find a different agent. We parted ways. It was all very shocking. A month or so later, I found out that she had dropped another writer I know at the same time in an equally mysterious manner.

5. Holly LeCraw (The Swimming Pool and The Half Brother)
In August, 1992, when I was 26 years old, I sent out my first story submission ever. I had aggressively small expectations: I knew I’d probably receive a form letter, or more likely a photocopied rejection slip, not even a full sheet of paper. I’d recently started reading the slush at a small literary magazine myself, and knew that words of encouragement, never mind signatures, were doled out very sparingly. I also knew that such magazines took weeks or even months to respond.

I printed out my story on my dot-matrix printer, tore off the edges and separated the pages, filled out my SASE, wrote and printed my (very short) submission letter, weighed the whole thing, put stamps on the manila envelope, and sent it off to The Atlantic, which back then published fiction every month.

Two days later 00 yes, two days — my SASE came back with a letter, which read, in its entirety: “Dear Ms. LeCraw: You write intelligently, but ‘Sailing’ seems to us loosely organized, short of event, mannered in the telling (present tense), and inconclusive. Try us again?” It was on letterhead, and signed from C. Michael Curtis, the fiction editor.

A friend of ours, not a writer, was over for dinner that night and kept saying how sorry he was that I’d gotten a rejection. He couldn’t understand why I was excited about any of it. He was sure I was putting on a brave face, and I couldn’t convince him otherwise.

I never did publish that particular story; it was indeed very short of event, mannered, and inconclusive, and I couldn’t save it, nor many other stories that followed. But that first kind rejection convinced me I wasn’t crazy to try. Eventually, I realized I needed a bigger canvas, and started writing novels. To this day I remain vigilant for work that’s mannered and uneventful. And I’m still astonished by the efficiency of The Atlantic, Mike Curtis, and the U.S. Post Office.

6. Jessica Mesman Griffith (Love & Salt)
You know what I hate almost as much as being rejected? Crickets. There is something so humiliating about just being ignored, as if your work doesn’t even dignify a response.

That being said, I’m fresh off a formal rejection from a publisher for a book I pitched. I was, of course, insulted and embarrassed that the publisher didn’t want what I pitched, especially since said publisher had asked me to pitch this particular book to them and requested revisions to the original proposal. But I was also relieved, and that unexpected feeling of relief made me realize that I really hadn’t wanted to write the book I’d pitched after all. What I wanted to be working on was far riskier, and I’d been avoiding it and sticking to what I thought was safe. In this case, a rejection gave me the time and the guts to pursue the scarier project.

7. Andrew Ervin (Burning Down George Orwell’s House and Extraordinary Renditions)
It took me a long time to understand that every editor who has rejected my fiction has done me a favor. That’s especially true of one man I’ve heard described as “Hungary’s greatest living philosopher.” I’ll get to him in a moment. The first story I ever published, in a now-defunct print journal, required 25 fresh drafts. When it finally appeared, it did so next to some prose by one of my heroes, Andy Kaufman. That made the whole maddening process worth it; those 25 rejections proved invaluable.

The most formative rejection I’ve received to date, however, came in 1995 from Miklós Vajda, then the editor of The Hungarian Review. It said:

“Thank you for sending your story. I am sorry to say, however, I found it crudely written, superficial and much too long for the little it says. It seems your main concern must have been finding expression for the contempt you feel for your colleagues, for modern art, people in general. You have talent but this story does little to prove it.”

That is a tremendous rejection. Over a decade later, I read a subsequent — and published — version of that same story at my MFA graduation. The opportunity to continue improving a story is one I’ve learned to appreciate. To this day, every story I write needs to pass my internal “crude, superficial and too long” test before I send it out.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Little Too Into It

Novels that focus on obsessive characters hinge on persnickety details. The need to depict accurately the mind of an obsessive demands that the novelist overemphasize the trifling and tangential. In The Kenyon Review, Vanessa Blakeslee reviews a new and representative example of the form, The Understory by Pamela Erens. Sample quote: “When the smaller steps of daily life are magnified, does that narrative reach its greatest potential for a unified and powerful resonance?” FYI, Erens has written for us.

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