Have Writing Degree, Will Travel

Dispatch from the Literary Writers Conference in New York City.
When a bunch of M.F.A. graduates get together in New York only one thing can happen: panel discussions. From why nobody sells much literary fiction, to what to do when you're trapped living your life as a children's writer, Molly McQuade fills in the details of this very business-oriented gathering.

“I think I think, therefore I think I am.” Ambrose Bierce’s truculent rewrite of Descartes’ logic might tempt another: “I think I think I write, therefore I think I am.” That state of mind warms up my writer friends in winter.

Earlier this month, 300-odd writers descended in search of literary life (and livelihood) at the first Literary Writers Conference, cosponsored by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the New School. Many of us had our M.F.A.s already “in hand,” with pride or disgust. This conference was the sequel.

We came from Washington, San Francisco, Brooklyn. We bought plane tickets and Metrocards to get there. I don’t know if any poems will be written, or published, as a result of the shindig. But let’s keep that in mind as a possibility, shall we? For anyone who has ever kept a file labeled “Poems for Sale,” the idea of meeting and greeting the buyers, sellers, and makers of American literary culture in NYC would seem too good to miss.

So, if you missed it, read on.

The Wounded Healers
“There’s hardly anyone here.” Those first words of a conference attendee as she entered the New School’s cavernous Tishman Auditorium heralded the kickoff discussion that opened the conference. But she came early. What was she expecting, standing room only? Funny thing about writers: We like to scatter ourselves loosely among the vacant seats of a big room, as if shirking the herd instinct.

For an audience of the impecunious and literary, it seemed provocative to match us writers with a panel of mainly corporate chieftains, who appeared fatigued and tousled by a day’s labors. To be fair, the sleek locks of Grove/Atlantic president and publisher Morgan Entrekin disproved my point. Near him onstage sat the tight-lipped, ginger-tufted Brit Jonathan Burnham, a HarperCollins publisher, whose authors include everyone from Queen Noor to Madeleine Albright. Also present was the elegantly diminutive Sonny Mehta (like Burnham an Englishman), editor-in-chief at Knopf, whose poetry backlist is legendary. With them was Jonathan Galassi, the boyishly hopeful publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux—and a poet and translator, too. How did it feel up there to be faced with 75 hungry and innocent writers?

But the panel was all business. “We’re here to talk about literary fiction,” announced moderator Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly. (She was more throaty, though less weary, than her panelists.) “We all talk about literary fiction, publish it, read it. But I would be interested in having somebody here define it.”

To define fiction is to incur a fiction, even if nobody notices. Jonathan Burnham defined literary fiction as follows: “You’re not quite clear what the novelist is after, and you may not be sure when you’re done.” Sonny Mehta offered definition no. 2: “It sets out to make sense of the world.” “Here, here” rippled across the panel. But it fell to Jonathan Galassi to produce the salvo: “Literary fiction is certified by subtraction—it is what everything else is not.”

Yet if they don’t know quite what they’re selling, how can they sell it? Nobody asked that question. The panel did, however, ponder the challenges of book marketing. “American readers are waiting to be told what to read,” Galassi suggested, and “people want to read something that is ‘true.’ I think it’s unfortunate that they think they can’t find truth in fiction. It’s gotten a lot harder to get people to care.” Book publicists are supposed to do that, but Mehta lamented publishing’s inability to market effectively. “It’s pathetic that it’s so inefficient.”

Publishers and writers seem to have something important in common: They love to complain. Yet, the touted theme of the conference was not complaint, but partnership, and as would-be partners of the publishers, we writers had a few frisky queries ready for them.

One writer, maybe unreasonably chagrined to be toiling in the children’s genre, asked her question in a rhyming couplet: “Is it better not to say / That you write Y.A.?” The answer: no.

A savvy Texas bookseller in the audience observed that the panelists actually had more in common with one another in their literary seriousness than they did with their colleagues at the vast, commercial publishing conglomerates where they work. If so, shouldn’t they consider pooling their efforts and resources to sell their books cooperatively, rather than compete with and undermine one another? A novel idea, yet unfriendly to capitalism. Asked Entrekin, with a gleam, of the bookseller, “Would you like to organize it?”

The panel closed with a sterling confession. The serenely composed Alka Bhargava, brown eyes opened wide, raised her hand. “Hi. I got an M.F.A. in fiction-writing, and the experience was so traumatic for me that I found myself unable to write any more fiction after I got my degree.” Pause. Sympathetic audience laughter. “So I became a poet.” Pause. More laughter. “And then I became a licensed healer.” Pause. Still more of the same. “Since then, I’ve written three how-to books about healing, and I wonder if anyone on the panel could tell me how to have them published.”

“Get an agent,” said the ever-helpful Entrekin, with an enabling grin.

Perhaps the wounded healer should consider rubbing down a few publishers. After all, it’s not only writers who need it.

Eating Sand and Finding Success
Alka B.’s question suggested an underlying theme of the officially life-affirming conference: How had the rest of us managed to survive our ordeals as onetime writing students, anyway? How did we make it to this place, and how can we make it to the next place—and where is that? Because the conference was organized to include many simultaneous panels and events, I can’t claim to have heard all the answers given to the latter question. But I can transmit a few of them.

“A Writer’s Publishing Team,” the session that began a full conference day on Friday, Nov. 3, presented Jonathan Lethem, his Doubleday editor, his Doubleday publicist, and his agent, all alleging that an author can, in fact, be happy with his “partners” in the business. In real life, this supposition is so often denied or disputed that it was perversely refreshing to hear Lethem’s fairy tale unfold. Lethem began as a lone writer in a “garret” who, by his own account, felt as if he were “eating sand,” for all that anyone cared about his writing. After some time, he showed a single page of manuscript to an agent, Richard Parks, who “could tell from that one page that it would be a wonderful novel,” as the agent put it. Was Lethem, or his agent, wearing ruby slippers at the time?

The question was not asked. But in place of shoes, success was owed, it seemed, to an appealingly old-fashioned organic substitute—Lethem’s sturdiness of character. “Jonathan has an unusual degree of certitude,” reported Bill Thomas, his editor. “Jonathan thinks long-term about his aesthetic goals,” pronounced the same. Said Alison Rich, the executive director of publicity at Doubleday: “He knows more people and makes more friends than anyone. Jonathan is a master of networking.” For those of us awaiting a rosier destiny, underline those tips in red! “We have been united in our faith in Jonathan,” intoned the editor, who remarked of his own calling that “you go into editing because you worship at the altar of literary craft.”

You Have to Have a Thick Skin
Still, not all writers are worshipped by their editors, even when the writers are editors themselves. As the poet Jill Bialosky, soft-spoken and forthright, acknowledged in another panel on Friday afternoon, “You have to have a thick skin, as a writer. It’s tempting sometimes to despair of the publishing industry.”

Bialosky, an executive editor at W.W. Norton, is well placed to give unblinking advice. She warned anyone considering following her example, “I don’t think it’s a plus to say, when you’re applying for an editorial job, that you are an aspiring poet.” She didn’t, and see what happened?

Unlike Bialosky in her job at Norton, the poet Bob Hershon is employed by Bob Hershon the editor at Hanging Loose Press, founded 40 years ago. On Friday night, at a reading and discussion featuring three small-press editors and their authors, Hershon gleefully defined success in publishing as “not sales, and not the attention a book receives in the press.” Then what is it? “To publish a book you love.” The poet Paul Violi, whose books Hershon loves, rejoiced that Hershon had gladly rejected “some very famous writers. It’s wonderful!”

The lesson of this evening: Do only what you think you think you can, and whatever another probably cannot. Don’t buckle. Be yourself.

The publishers, who included editor Joanna Yas of Open City Books, with her author Rachel Sherman (The First Hurt), seemed like what writers are supposed to be: ingenuously unwilling to back down, but always ready to create. The dashing, sorcerer-like Richard Nash, accompanied by Wayne Koestenbaum, natty and heady, remarked of his Soft Skull Press, which will publish Koestenbaum’s Hotel Theory next May, “Soft Skull is a kind of anthology that’s being written—and rewritten—every year.” He noted, sunnily, “My writers are all copublishers with me.”

But usually, advised Nash, “the relationship of book publishing to the creation of literature is purely incidental.” On Saturday, the poet, critic, and editor Craig Teicher harmonized with Nash’s sigh of doom at a panel bent on book reviewing: “Most of what’s published is crap. And those are the books that publishers tend to put most of their money behind, because what most Americans want to read is crap.” Not many giggles at this seminar table, although Parnassus editor Herb Leibowitz made a stirring plea for passion in literary criticism, whether “the passion to debunk or to praise.”

The gloomily observant poet Albert Mobilio, who is an editor at Bookforum, deplored the difficulty of finding honest reviewers, and Leibowitz confirmed that too often he gets turned down when offering review assignments to poets, who decide they’ll “only write positive reviews” because they can’t risk any carping in published pages for fear of reprisals. The weirdness of that self-censorship by poets, the tidy, chary tending of careers, and the lack of “boldly argued” poetry criticism: Leibowitz offered all this as evidence that American poetry is not happy today.

Does Your Lifestyle Change When You Get Published?
If American poetry is not happy, at least conference-goers were as they gathered Saturday to hear literary magazine editors from The Hudson Review, A Public Space, Spinning Jenny, Drunken Boat, and Jubilat entice us with true tales of what the morning’s mail can bring—even though they admitted they reject 95 percent of unsolicited manuscripts.

A warmly welcoming audience gathered back in the auditorium at five o’clock to listen to writers Cole Swensen, Christopher Sorrentino, Monique Truong, and Lynne Tillman confide the ups and downs of their literary lives.

We learned that Sorrentino often gets ready to write by penning “fake” pseudonymous book reviews for “I have 30 or so alter egos. It’s the ideal way to loosen up.” By contrast, Lynne Tillman sometimes gets started by reading the dictionary. Monique Truong told an uproarious story about her run-in with execrable editing. Lynne Tillman discreetly declined to do the same. Tillman did say, with cryptic candor, “I would be more disappointed if I weren’t published.” Even so, “Nothing that’s ever said about the book can ever speak to what led you to write it.”

A clean-cut guy in the audience asked the writers, “Does your lifestyle change when you get published?” Sorrentino wisely replied, “No. I soon realized that the only reason to be a writer is to write every day.”

Sorrentino also urged, sternly, “Everything about publishing needs to be looked at again!” And it will be. Mark your next year’s calendar for the second annual Literary Writers Conference, coming to you on West 12th Street.

Illustration by Tae Won Yu.

Originally Published: December 1st, 2006

Molly McQuade is writing a letter to Edgar Lee Masters as part of her job as a columnist for the American Library Association. Her books include Barbarism, a collection of her poetry; Stealing Glimpses, a collection of her essays about poetry; and By Herself, an edited anthology of essays about...

  1. December 23, 2006
     Mike Guinn

    Please put me on the mailing list for live readings.....

  2. March 1, 2008
     Mimi Schwartz

    I'm trying to reach Molly McQuade. Do you have her phone number?