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“Once all struggle is grasped, miracles are possible.”
Mao Tse-Tung, after selling 1 billion copies of his poems 

Today, attempting publication with an established house is an assault on Everest. Everybody with a romantic idea of high-altitude adventure is giving it a shot. Armed with ropes, ice axes, oxygen, and the next Sun Also Rises, a million future Hemingways are lined up in five camps, from sea level through Thin Air to the Death Zone to literary immortality.

1. Katmandu: Jumping off point for all “emerging writers,” each with a PowerBar, a short resume, and a sample chap of his or her project. 

2. Base Camp (16,000 feet): Recon and R&R point for bloggers who have scored a sherpa agent, and can compose a coherent query letter with a catchy logline. 

3. Assault Camp One (20,000): Sheltered glacier for novelists with a Manhattan AAR sherpa, an MFA, and/or awards they didn’t invent.

4. Assault Camp Two (25,000): Pre-Death Zone bivouac for those with #3 qualifications, plus related to a Pulitzer recipient, Oprah, or a New Yorker security guard. 

5. Final Assault Camp (28,000): Iron or Spiderman scribes who are not suffering from edema, angina, or altitude psychosis. 

Now, from Camp Five, weather permitting, publication is a 1,029 foot scramble past the frozen bodies of one’s predecessors who cashed it in on the way up or down this homestretch.

If the writer reaches the summit, s/he has a Warhol-15 to behold the view, to plant his or her book cover banner with the others which the gales have not torn down, and for a photo-op just in case s/he is remaindered on the way back down, suddenly or in reacclimation. 

What are the odds of conquering of the literary Everest—Mount Parnassus, the home of the Muses, now with offices in the Random House and Time Warner Towers?


R.R. Bowker reported 316,480 new traditional book titles for 2010. 15%—47,392—were novels. Statistically, about nine of ten novels do not sell out their first printing and are remaindered.

The 4,700 successful titles almost equals the number of times Mt. Everest has been summited (5,104 since the 1953 Sir Hillary ascent). Nearly ten times more competitors (43,000) finish the annual marathon in New York, the capital of publishing.

Today, just as more hardy souls are attempting dizzying peaks and grueling marathons, far more still are attempting debut novel publication, the most demanding of all ascents.

99% are crapping out. 

No thorough census has ever been taken on fiction manuscript submission numbers. Only educated estimates are possible. Eighty years ago, during the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner golden age of American fiction, perhaps a thousand novelists were seriously competing for publication. The numbers today rival the national deficit.

The New York Times reported that, according to a recent survey, 81% of Americans – 200 million – say they have a book they’d like to write some day 

Thankfully, few get around to it. According to a 2002 NEA survey, 2 million Americans published creative writing. 

“Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea,” writes Garrison Keillor. “18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives.” 

New York Times executive editor, Bill Keller, complains that he is losing his staff because like “cliff-bound lemmings… everyone who works for me is either writing [a book] or wants to,” in spite of his strenuous effort to persuade them that the process is “agony.” 

Literary agencies receive hundreds of submissions a week. Their stated rejection rate is 95 to 99%. Three decades ago the U.S. had 50 MFA programs in creative writing; now there are 300. 20,000 apply annually, 95% are rejected. The New Yorker magazine logs in up to a thousand unsolicited stories per week. None have been published in years. 

Responding to the literary population explosion and the long odds of its dark horses, countless self-helpers have been released by industry bookies. Amazon currently lists 1,636 titles in fiction writing reference (up from 668 in 2009). 

How does one improve one’s odds in such a competitive, fickle, not always equal opportunity profession?

By having exceptional talent? 

“I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant,” declared the legendary Gordon Lish, aka Captain Fiction, who edited Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Ford, Don DeLillo, Reynolds Price, and Raymond Carver. “I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.” 

Bestselling author, Stephen King, is on the same page: “Talent in cheaper than table salt,” he told The Paris Review. “What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” 

If, indeed, will and hard work are indispensable to literary success, what specific elements must complement the aspiring writer’s efforts to win publication, if not a Times Top 10 slot or a Pulitzer? 

1. Luck

“The profession of book-writing makes horse racing 
seem like a solid, stable business,” 
John Steinbeck

“Read the racing form. There you have the true art of fiction.”
Ernest Hemingway

When a horse wins the Kentucky Derby – no matter what his training, history, or style – he’s the best on the track. Indisputable. So, too, with competition in most other sports. So, too, with Nobels in science and math. All are objective enterprises. 

Not so with publishing. Editors and agents concede as much in their rejections. “… Not right for us at this time. But this is a very subjective business, and you may well find someone else who…” etc. Signed with the boilerplate “Good luck.” 

In his “Eight Factors of Literary Success,” Jack London, listed “Vast good luck” first, and ended with: “Because I got started twenty years before the fellows who are trying to start today.” He’d decided to make a fortune from “my brain” in the publishing casino after going bust in the Klondike Gold Rush. He won $40 from Black Cat magazine for “A Thousand Deaths.” “Literally and literarily, I was saved,” he wrote of his debut story about resurrection. 

The self-proclaimed creator of the “nonfiction novel,” Truman Capote told the Paris Review, “You would have to be a glutton indeed to ask for more good luck and fortune than I had at the beginning of my career.” His first break was when his beauty queen teen mother didn’t abort him as she had her next two children, fearing that they would be like Truman. At age ten, his first story, “Old Mr. Busybody,” won the Mobile Press children’s writing contest. At seventeen, he was hired as a copy boy at the New Yorker, but Robert Frost soon got him fired for walking out of his 1944 poetry reading. Soon, however, the young man’s “Miriam” won Mademoiselle’s Best First-Published story, which he parlayed into a stint at Yaddo artists’ colony. 

John Irving told the Paris Review that he was “lucky from the start.” His University of New Hampshire professor, National Book Award winning novelist, Thomas Williams, sent his undergrad short stories to agent, Mavis McIntosh, and Redbook published the first for $1,000. 

Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford described himself to the Paris Review as “anomalous—a rare combination of fear, an affection for language, a reverence for literature, doggedness, and good luck.” “Shit,” he added, “who’s going to fall heir or victim to all those things?” At the beginning of his career he didn’t have much luck at all. His first two novels, A Piece of My Heart and The Ultimate Good Luck, sold poorly, so he went to work for Inside Sports magazine. Four years later, Ford, age 42, released his break-out novel, The Sportswriter, about a failed novelist turned sportswriter. Celebrating his ultimate good luck with this third at-bat, and knowing that few in the profession are so blessed, he told poet Bonnie Lyons, “My first advice to an aspiring writer is to talk yourself out of it if you can possibly do it.” Why? she asked. “Because you’ll probably fail and make yourself miserable doing it,” he replied.

After Alice Sebold was raped in a Syracuse tunnel, the police told her she was lucky because she hadn’t been murdered like another women recently in the same tunnel. Her first book, Lucky, was a memoir about the incident written for her MFA at UC Irvine, Ford’s alma mater. She followed it up with The Lovely Bones, her bestselling novel about another rape and murder. 

Luckily, the lovely 26-year-old Nell Freudenberger didn’t have to suffer the same fate to write her short story, “Lucky Girls,” one of four debut pieces in the New Yorker’s 2001 Fiction edition. But the Harvard grad was lucky enough to be the personal assistant to editor-in-chief, David Remnick. She was soon offered a $500,000 deal from HarperCollins for a short-story collection she had not yet written. Her equally fortunate contemporary, Curtis Sittenfeld, profiled the Publishing Clearinghouse winner in “Too Young, Too Pretty, Too Successful,” for Salon. Though Richard Ford himself called her “a prodigious talent,” Sittenfeld wrote: “Hating Nell Freudenberger is a virtual cottage industry among ambitious literati” because she represented “all that’s unfair and demoralizing about publishing.” 

At age 17, while attending the exclusive Groton School, Sittenfeld herself won the Seventeen fiction contest, went on to attend Vassar, then the Stanford and Iowa writing programs. Finally, at age 29, she published her bestseller, Prep. In her “The Perils of Literary Success,” for The Atlantic, she provided the backstory for her “luck,” which she wrote, “was not good but extraordinary.” Though a debut novel, Random House assigned four publicists to Prep which her editor, Lee Boudreaux, told her only celebrity biographer, Kitty Kelley, rated. “Team Prep” sent to women’s magazine editors pink gift baskets containing the novel, flip-flops, and Fun Flavored Lip Smackers Lip Gloss. Just after the book’s release, Sittenfeld donned designer clothes and draped herself on a Groton Latin teacher’s desk for a Vanity Fair photo shoot. In her Atlantic memoir, she couldn’t disagree with critics who characterized her as a “sell-out” and her novel as a “corporate hype job.’ Even so, thanks to it, when Prep hit the Times bestseller list, she confessed that she, her editors, and Team Prep “squealed profusely.” She then signed a two-book deal with Random House, collecting an advance which, “to put the matter delicately,” she concluded, “was more than $40,000 [her debut advance].”

Speaking for yesterday’s less fortunate, as well as the MFAs today who envy the likes of Freudenberger and Sittenfeld, the surrealist poet and novelist, Jean Cocteau, declared: “We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?” 


Editor-speak centers around luck: “gamble,” “long shot,” “safe bet,” “dark horse.” In publishing, like at Caesars and MGM Grande, the house almost always wins, and when it loses the losses are passed along to the customers playing the one-arm bandits – Midlisters, Backlisters, and Untouhables or – as they are known in to industry accountants—Sub-Performing Marginal People.

Obsessed with the metaphysics of luck, many masters were as crazy about cards as literary composition. Montaigne, Poe, Twain, Dickens, Pushkin, Saroyan, Graham Greene, to name a few. The track record of their compulsive colleagues at the tables? 

At age 21, Thackeray gambled away his inheritance. After going bust at Whist, Conrad shot himself, but missed his heart. Tolstoy covered his Chinese billiard tab by selling off the rights to his unfinished novel, The Cossacks. After another losing streak, the count unloaded his horses and part of his estate. Belly up again, he borrowed from Turgenev who denounced him for “orgies, gypsy dance halls, and playing cards all night.”

The Russian Roulette posterboy, Dostoyevsky, described his “abominable passion” as “irresistible.” After losing his Crime and Punishment rubles at the Wiesbaden tables, he made a bet with his publisher, F. T. Stellovsky: he would deliver The Gambler within months, or would forfeit royalties on all future novels for nine years. He won. Then he lost his Gambler and Idiot royalties to the Germans, plus his wife’s wedding ring, and his watch and trousers.

Dostoyevsky might have realized he had bad luck after being arrested for attending socialist meetings, thrown in front of a mock firing squad, then sent to Siberia. But Russia’s premiere novelist had the unique ability to find silver-linings in his dark clouds. “Prison saved me,” he wrote his brother. “I became a completely new person … Yes, Siberia and imprisonment became a great joy for me.” His biographer, Gier Kjetsaa, found a parallel masochism in his gambling addiction, calling it “an unconscious desire to lose and punish himself by losing.” 

Voltaire was among the few who cashed in by leaving nothing to chance. He’d seen too many of his friends fleeced, including his mistress, Mme du Chatelet, a writer herself, who lost most of her fortune at the Queen’s gaming tables. “Each player,” he said, “must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.” 

Avoiding royal “card-sharpers,” as he called them, the satirist became independently wealthy by winning the French lottery with a syndicate that bought every ticket. The nest egg allowed him to finish 2,000 books and blogs with little or no royalties until, at age 74, he finally hit the jackpot with Candide. Voltaire’s hero, not unlike himself, suffers one bout of bad luck after another – he is swindled, nearly beaten to death, and barely survives a lynching then an earthquake, in the end to settle down on a scrub farm with a toothless wife. 

The Father of the French Enlightenment subtitled the novel, The Optimist

2. Suck

“Anything they [authors] can do to help us—any contacts they may have, for example—I want to know about them. I want them to say, 
‘You should know that I went to school with so-and-so.’ 
Good, get on the phone with them.”
Algonquin Books editor-in-chief, Chuck Adams

“The author [should be] so well connected that he’s sleeping with a producer at ABC News or something.”
Agent, Jeff Kleinman, on the “ideal” author

Most businesses are based, by necessity, on networking. But publishing makes the mafia look like an equal opportunity employer. 

Industry apologists insist “the cream always rises to the top.” But if the writer hopes to do so in his or her lifetime and without an aqualung, suck is indispensable. Hence the etymology of “success.”

As Elaine Niles points out in Truth #16 of Some Writers Deserve To Starve! 31 Brutal Truths About The Publishing Industry: “Success is 80% who you know….Slow down, Cinderella your pumpkin coach has been temporarily delayed until you learn to kiss ass then you can dance the night away.”

Networking, however, did not come naturally to introverts and sensitive souls like Flaubert, Kafka, Melville, Dickenson, John Kennedy Toole. And they all suffered for it, as do their counterparts today. Dickens, Twain, Fitzgerald, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Jackie Collins and their ilk were more fortunate in their ability to work a room.

Superlative suck is that leavened with luck – college classmate suck, especially in the skull and bone Ivies or MFA programs. F. Scott Fitzgerald was indebted to his Princeton brothers, Max Perkins and Edmund Wilson; Bob Loomis helped launch the career of his Duke friend, William Styron; Gary Fisketjon broke the ice for his Williams’ pal, Jay McInerny; Bret Easton Ellis went to bat for his Bennington classmate, Donna Tartt; and so on. 

Let’s examine the four enablers of literary success. 


The Ptolemies, Caesars, Medici, and Bonapartes have nothing on literary blood dynasties. First there were the Brontes, the Adams family, and James Gang, then on through the Sitwells, the Waughs, the Mitfords, the Tolkeins. 

Saul Bellow’s son, Adam, covered today’s heirs in his In Praise of Nepotism.

He argues that publishing has run smoothly by a DNA Darwinian imperative. 

The emerging writer, however, does not necessarily need a pedigree to cash in on family suck. Just a concerned mother. After Faulkner’s Flags in the Dust was rejected by Boni & Liveright, his mother, Maude, begged them to reconsider. After John Kennedy Toole gassed himself, his mom, Thelma, delivered her boy’s shopworn Confederacy of Dunces ms. to Walker Percy at Loyola State University. The National Book Award winner secured a contract for the novel from LSU Press. It went on to win the Pulitzer and, to date, has sold more than 1.5 million copies.

Fitzgerald’s mom, Mollie, didn’t help him, per se. But he did confess to inheriting her “relentless stubborn quality,” not to mention her “neurotic, half insane with pathological nervous worry.” So he dedicated his Tales of the Jazz Age “Inappropriately, to my mother.” 

Such dedications disgusted his friend, Hemingway. His mom, Grace, had pampered little Ernest, outfitting him in dresses and organdy hats, and calling him “Ernestine.” So he might have thanked her for his no frills, testosterone-driven prose. Instead he told his publisher, Charles Scribner, “I hate her guts and she hates mine.” She and her husband, Clarence, had ordered five copies of his In Our Time debut but had returned them to the publishers as “filth.” Grace also found The Sun Also Rises “one of the filthiest books of the year.” Like any good mother, wanting only what was best for her son, she’d hoped he would become a doctor like his dad.


Hemingway dedicated his debut novel to his first wife, Hadley, eight years his senior, who some called a mother surrogate. Her inheritance allowed him to write and network full-time on the Montparnasse. Her praise—“sometimes when I wake up and see his beautiful face, I think I’m sleeping with Christ”– bolstered his self-confidence. He traded in Hadley on Vogue editor and trust-funder, Pauline Pfeiffer, to whom he dedicated A Farewell to Arms. As a consolation, he gave Hadley his Sun Also Rises royalties. 

Suck is a natural by-product of money, no less than royalty. 

Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance, daughter of the Queen’s Counsel, Horace Lloyd, provided the poet with the comforts he required, as well as the connections to launch The Happy Prince

The Duke of Argyll’s daughter, Lady Jeanne, did the same for her husband, Norman Mailer, when his career was flagging. Heiress Peggy Guggenheim helped launch her lover, Samuel Beckett’s, break-out novel, Murphy. Lit Brat pack icon, Jay McInerny has settled down with publishing heiress, Anne Hearst. Jerzy Kosinski dedicated his first novel, The Painted Bird, to his first wife, Mary Weir, of the Pittsburgh steel fortune, then he traded up to Countess Kiki Fraunhofer who published his collected works. 

Anaïs Nin, the wife of a wealthy Boston banker, bankrolled the vanity printing of her lover, Henry Miller’s, Tropic of Cancer. According to the couple’s mutual friend, Wambly Bald, Miller had “milked her, like he milked everyone he met.” One of the novelist’s other enablers, George Orwell, helped launch his career with his, Orwell’s, 1940 “Inside the Whale” essay: “Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value … an amoral writer, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.”

Like most other businesses, a history of publication could be written based on who was fucking who, literally and/or metaphorically. 

Part I of the Harlequin history would concentrate on the liaisons within literary groups. Part II might focus on the power couples and their influences on everything from the bestseller lists to the Bookers and Pulitzers.

Though these alliances provided mutually beneficial suck at the outset, some couples grew competitive. “I’ll show you, you conceited bitch. They’ll be reading my stuff long after the worms have finished with you,” Hemingway told his third wife, Martha, before their divorce. A war story specialist like himself, Martha refused to be “a footnote in someone’s life.” So she wisely went on to marry the editor-in-chief at Time.

At the other end of the romantic spectrum was the helpmate of Joseph Marie Eugène Sue who, far from objecting to being a footnote, left her skin to the French novelist for a book binding. 


Besides dedications to moms – Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Heller’s Catch-22, Ralph Ellison’ Invisible Man, Ford’s Ultimate Good Luck, McInerny’s Bright Lights, etc. – most other tributes are to later nurturers and helpers.

Tolstoy ensured Dostoyevsky’s Siberian comeback when he called The House of Dead “the finest work in all of Russian literature.” Dostoyevsky’s former roommate, Dmitry Grigorovich, pulled strings to see that Chekhov won the Pushkin Prize for his At Dusk story collection. The 27-year-old doctor wrote his sponsor: “Your letter, my kind, fervently beloved bringer of good tidings, struck me like a flash of lightning. I almost burst into tears, I was overwhelmed, and now I feel it has left a deep trace in my soul.” 

At risk of life and limb, Tolstoy expert, Isaiah Berlin, smuggled Doctor Zhivago to England. But it was Pasternak’s suck with the MI6 and the CIA that brought him the Nobel in ‘58 (which the author had to reject, else be exiled by Khrushchev).

Sherwood Anderson was among the most collegial American authors. Thanks to his introductions, the precocious networker, Hemingway, was soon the darling of the Montparnasse movers and shakers – Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, Ford Maddox Ford. 

Ford’s TransAtlantic accepted Hemingway’s first stories rejected by Redbook and the Saturday Evening Post, but lived to regret this as well as his efforts for others. “I helped Joseph Conrad, I helped Hemingway. I helped a dozen, a score of writers, and many of them have beaten me,” Ford complained. “I’m now an old man and I’ll die without making a name like Hemingway…. He disowns me now that he has become better known than I am.” 

Papa felt Ford’s meager short story runs killed his chances of getting an immediate book deal and, in the meantime, that he would be plagiarized and forgotten. “I will have to quit writing and will never have a book published,” he wrote Pound. “I feel cheerful as hell. Those god damn bastards.” He denounced Ford to Gertrude Stein as “a liar and a crook.” 

Following the TransAtlantic debut, Anderson persuaded his publisher, Boni and Liveright, to release In Our Time. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am for getting myself published,” Ernest wrote Sherwood. His sponsor had given him a “crackerjack” review, though he had trashed his, Anderson’s, own new title, Many Marriages, the year before. Applying full suction, Ernest added, “Besides, all criticism is shit anyway. Nobody knows anything about it except yourself.”

Scott Fitzgerald lined Hemingway up with his Princeton chum, Charles Scribner. But Boni held first-refusal rights for his follow-up title. So, to ensure rejection, freeing him to jump ship to the prestigious Scribners, Hemingway submitted The Torrents of Spring, a hatchet job on the house star, Anderson, his benefactor.

“Wrote it to destroy Sherwood and various others,” he told Pound. “I don’t see how he will ever be able to write again.”

For the backstab, the Montparnasse bete noir was no longer welcome at Gertrude’s salon.

But Ezra rode with Ernest’s punches. As the Lost Generation’s mid-wife of new literary talent, he continued to market him and other expatriates. In gratitude, Hemingway taught Pound to box. Later, he donated $1,500 to his insane asylum release fund (a check Pound never cashed, but framed). 

James Joyce, though not known for graciousness himself, said of Pound: “He took me out of the gutter.” Indeed, he had Ezra to thank for the publications of most everything from Dubliners on. Also indispensable to his success, though mostly posthumous, was his publisher-bookstore owner, Sylvia Beach, and his Egoist Press patroness Miss Harriet Shaw Weaver. “I hope that wretched book someday will repay you even in part for all the trouble it has caused you,” he wrote her of Ulysses.

Though Joyce struggled to the bitter end, he had the backing of an impressive network by the late twenties. His petition against American publisher, Samuel Roth, who pirated Ulysses, bore 167 names. Among them: T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forester, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats, John Galsworthy, Andre Gide, Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf, Thornton Wilder, Albert Einstein.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald also signed. Later, the Irish master gave audience to his young American colleagues. 

The Farewell to Arms author, about to embark on another African Big Five genocide, promised to bring Joyce a “live” lion, but never delivered. “He’s a good writer,” said Joyce after the summit. “He writes as he is… He’s a big, powerful peasant, as strong as a buffalo.” The novelist, now nearly blind, concluded: “But giants of this sort are truly modest.”

F. Scott’s modesty bordered on ingratiating when meeting his idol. “How does it feel to be a genius, Sir?” he asked, kissing his hand. “I am so excited at seeing you, Sir, that I could weep.” He threatened to jump out the window lest Joyce’s wife, Nora, say she loved him.

“I think the young man must be mad,” said the master afterwards. “He’ll do himself an injury some day.” 

3. Pluck 

 “Perseverance is much more important than talent.
Because so many talented people fall by the wayside.” 
James Michener

At age 20, Joyce, poems in hand, started knocking on the doors of Dublin literati. He was still in college and living at home with his parents, six sisters and three brothers. He had written his Aunt Josephine: “I want to be famous while I’m still alive.” 

The young artist cold called W.B. Yeats. “The first spectre of the new generation has appeared. His name is Joyce,” the poet wrote a colleague.” I have suffered from him and I would like you to suffer.” He gave the upstart a hand, though “Such a colossal self-conceit with such a Lilliputian literary genius I never saw combined in one person.” 

Later Joyce, still unpublished, started his debut autobiographical novel, Stephen Hero (released posthumously in 1944). Meanwhile, he was competing in opera singing contests (he won a bronze in the 1904 Feis Ceoil); he was wearing a hole in the seat of his pants writing 250 letters a day in an Italian bank; and he was blogging about Ireland for the Il Piccolo della Sera. “I may not be the Jesus Christ I once fondly imagined myself,” the lapsed Catholic wrote a friend, “but I think I must have a talent for journalism.”

Stephen Hero was turned down by everybody. So, too, was its follow-up, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At last, Irish publisher George Roberts agreed to take a gamble on his story collection, Dubliners. But, in the eleventh hour, he backed off. Joyce contacted seven different lawyers about suing Roberts, and complained to 120 different newspapers—all to no avail. At last he wrote King George V himself. But the monarch refused to be interrupted from his stamp collecting and bird hunting. At last Joyce threatened to shoot Roberts. 

Yeats, Pound, and friends petitioned the Royal Literary Fund to rescue “this man of genius.” Though it agreed to pay him a small sum for nine months, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Pound sent a Get-Well card. “Dear Job,” it began. By this time, Joyce called himself “Melancholy Jesus” and “Crooked Jesus.” 

Drinking was his only relief from the cross. He left pubs doing his “spider dance.” Recalled his daughter-in-law: “Liquor went to his feet, not to his head.” Nora Joyce had seen one too many tarantellas. One night when her husband waltzed home, she told him she’d torn up Ulysses. He sobered up long enough to find she was bluffing.

Joyce drank not so much for inspiration, but for pain relief. He met another chronic sufferer, Marcel Proust, for the first and last time in 1922, at the Paris ballet. Neither had condescended to read the other’s work. They spoke only of their health. Joyce complained of his headaches, bad eyes, and ulcers. Proust, who spent the equivalent of $20,000 annually for narcotics and elixirs, wept about his “poor stomach” that was “killing” him. The two agreed to a shared love of truffles. With that, the penurious Ulysses took his leave of the trust-funder Swann without hitting him up for a few francs. 

Months later Proust died of pneumonia in his cork-lined room, leaving behind his unrevised 3,200 page Remembrance which won him immortality. The gay novelist had weathered his share of the storm over the years too. But he had gone on to claim the coveted Goncourt Prize by “actively courting the judges with expensive presents and fine meals,” according to a rival who called him “a talent from beyond the tomb.”

Joyce died two decades later from a perforated ulcer. His mad daughter, Lucia, asked her mother: “What is he doing under the ground, that idiot? When will he decide to come out? He’s watching us all the time.” 

So the master must know that his tenacity paid off posthumously, making him required reading on every syllabus. 

Besides begging already famous writers for endorsement, threatening to shoot a publisher, or petitioning charitable organizations for support, other masters employed even more novel marketing m.o.’s. 

In 1897, W. Somerset Maugham was learning about the razor’s edge and human bondage: his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was dying on the vine because his publisher refused to market it. So he took matters into his own hands. He placed a Personal in several London newspapers: “Young millionaire, lover of sports, cultivated, with good taste in music and a patient and empathetic character wishes to marry any young and beautiful girl that resembles the heroine of W.S. Maugham’s new novel.” The first edition of Liza quickly sold out. Critical praise and serial printings followed.

F. Scott Fitzgerald prevailed upon his own beautiful wife, Zelda, to review his The Beautiful and Damned for the New York Tribune. She entitled her 1922 blurb, “Friend Husband’s Latest,” and urged readers to buy the novel so she could afford a new winter coat. 

Weary of rejection at the hands of Philistine editors, many masters founded their own literary magazines. Balzac had his Chronique de Parisand Revue Parisienne; Twain, his Buffalo Express; Dickens, Daily News; Poe, Messenger, Journal, and Stylus; Dostoyevsky, Citizen, Epoch, and Time; Proust, Le Banquet; Cather, McClure’s; Orwell, the Tribune; Maugham, the Legal Observer; Robert Penn Warren, the Southern Review; Mencken, the Baltimore Herald. The benefits of running one’s own operation were inestimable. The writer-editor became the rejector, not the rejectee. Escaping the slush, he could revive his old miscarriages. He gained suck by running movers-and-shaker’s work, even if substandard. Moreover, he bloodletted with his own reviews and while promoting his own aesthetics.

Dostoyevsky’s editorial assistants called the touchy epileptic “Spitfire” after his reaction when they tampered with his punctuation or modifiers. 

Poe terrified everybody in his Messenger office. “Even a typographical error threw him into an ecstasy of passion,” his co-editor noted. Though the perfectionist complained of being overworked – “I must do everything!” – he went on to found Literati. In it, the essayist, poet, and short story specialist pilloried every rival including Dickens, Longfellow, Emerson, and Thoreau.

The pluckiest of the masters went yet a step further and founded their own publishing company. At age 50, dissatisfied with middlemen, the financially insatiable Twain launched Webster & Co. Its two debut titles – his own Huck Finn and Ulysses Grant’s Memoirs – were hits. In the next nine years, Webster followed up with Connecticut Yankee, plus some Whitman and Tolstoy. Twain’s enterprise folded after disasters such as a biography of Leo XIII, the poet pope, which sold 200 copies. 

Balzac was even less fortunate with his own publishing house: he went belly-up after a few years, exhausting his mother’s 50,000 franc seed capital. 

Around the same time in Russia, Fyodor and his wife, Anna, founded the Dostoyevsky Publishing Company and The F.M. Dostoyevsky Bookstore. His ‘69 title from Stellovsky, The Idiot, tanked and the fact that Tolstoy earned twice what he did annoyed him. In the first year of business, the couple sold 3,000 units of their debut title, The Possessed

Virginia Woolf started The Hogarth Press for her own work and that of her Bloomsbury friends. 

Then there were the many masters who moonlighted as editors for their own publishers. To name a few: Gide at Gillimard, Michener at Macmillan, Doctorow at Dial, Toni Morrison at Random House and, at Faber & Faber, T.S. Eliot himself who said: “I suppose some editors are failed writers; but so are most writers.”

Finally, the wave of the future: James Frey’s Full Fathom Five writer’s sweatshop. The Million Little Pieces author employs unpublished MFAs in an Andy Warhol-like factory, giving each a few hundred dollars for a manuscript or Hollywood concept, with a promise of participation in backend profits. Among his most promising recent collaborative brainstorms is his animated Fart Squad concept for 8-10 year old boys. Frey characterized his Fathom Five with his customary modesty: “This is the future,” he told Esquire magazine. “Every writer I know is scared of the future,” he added. “I’m making the future. I’m gonna be a part of who determines what the future is ! Same as Henry Miller!”

Oprah’s pick is nothing if not plucky. “I believe in myself almost more than anybody I ever met, which is how I’m able to do things,” he went on. “It’s not because I’m smart. It’s not ‘cause I’m gifted… [or] went to great schools. It’s because I get up every day and I go to work.” 

4. LSP Trifecta

“I came, I saw, I conquered.” 
Julius Caesar, after his The Conquest of Gaul became a #1 bestseller

For those who are too impatient or faint-hearted to weather multiple submissions, one historic way of paying no dues to the muse remains. In short, of avoiding rejection entirely.

Play the LSP Trifecta: conquer your own country, kill all competitors and critics, and make your work mandatory national reading. 

Jack London, HG Wells, Upton Sinclair, James Michener, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Hunter Thompson, among others, all ran for office. But, unfortunately, all lost and returned to the private sector without resorting to arms (except for Mailer and Thompson). 

Only three writers have made the LSP Trifecta a reality in modern times: Mao, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gadhafi. The trio was indebted to a certain rejected German art student for laying the strategic groundwork for such a literary coup—part of his “grandiose” scheme, according to necographer, Mark Seinfelt, to “conquer all the arts.” 

Hitler didn’t pen his autobiographical title from one of his later fuehrer “wolf lairs,” but from his 6 by 9 at Landsburg Prison. Here the once homeless painter served eight months of a five-year stretch for treason. In this time he managed to finish Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice. He had no problem finding a publisher, Max Amann, who inveigled him to change the title to the punchier Mein Kampf (My Struggle) and to cut nearly 500 pages from the original manuscript.

Hitler’s commanding officer in World War I, Amann had had his arm blown off, and later became the publisher of the SS Monthly. Kampf became an instant hit, allowing its author – whose motto was “Words build bridges into unexplored regions” – to buy a Mercedes even before being paroled. His tax tab on the bestseller topped 405,000 Reichsmarks ($8 million in today’s U.S. currency). When the ex-con became chancellor in ‘33 he waived the tax, thus avoiding paying dues to the muse, or to the state. But, later, the patriot compensated Germans by donating a copy of his title to every soldier and newly-wed couple. 

By 1945, Hitler had distributed 10 million copies of the three official editions: The People’s Edition, the Wedding Edition, and the Portable Edition. Not long after its original publication, he dashed out Zweites Buch (Second Book). But Amann persuaded him to shelve the sequel for fear that it would diminish the feeding frenzy on Kampf. Also, Zwietes laid out his plan to overrun the world by 1980, and he decided it would be premature to let that cat out of the bag.

Assisting Amann was Hitler’s lit agent, Joseph Goebbels. After completing his doctorate on romance writer, Wilhalm von Schutz, Goebbels wrote an autobiographical novel, Michael, which he couldn’t get published until he became the Minister of Propaganda in ‘29. Then he started burning most everybody else’s books except his and his boss’s. 

While Germans who valued their lives were universal in their praise for Hitler’s title, an Italian romance novelist took exception, as Italians will. Mien Kampf, he charged, was filled with “little more than commonplace clichés,” rendering it unreadable. The Fuhrer might have had the critic gassed had he not been his ally, Benito Mussolini. 

The dictator, a former newspaperman, had himself burst on literary scene fifteen years before Hitler with his serialized romance, The Cardinal’s Mistress. Though a fascist, Mussolini never made his potboiler required state reading, nor did he release a Wedding Edition. In fact, he later removed the anti-clerical screed from circulation in order to gain the Vatican’s favor during the War. But privately, like most heretics, he remained unrepentant. “The history of saints is mainly the history of insane people,” he wrote.

After Adolf swallowed cyanide, and Benito was meathooked from a gas station roof, Mao pinched a chapter from their playbook. But with a wise alteration. He didn’t try to publish too early. The former librarian waited until he finished executing all the Chinese critics during his Cultural Revolution before releasing his poems and aphorisms. In thinning out the intellectuals and 451ing their books, he was flattered to be compared to Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, who did the same in 210 B.C. but on a more modest scale. “He buried 460 scholars alive, we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive,” the Blessed Leader boasted to the readers who were left. “We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold!”

The Chairman’s titles outsold Potter. Even without Oprah or a Barnes & Noble signing tour, he became the bestselling author of all time, moving 6 billion units in 40 years (second only to the Bible at 6.5 in 2,500 years). The author expected each citizen not only to buy his masterpiece, but to carry it at all times lest his literary agents, The Red Guard, more efficient than even ICM or William Morris, recycle them with the 46,000 critics and the three million other armchair quibblers.

To the regret of Harlequin fans, however, Mao never tried his hand at Romance though he’d had four wives, 3,000 concubines, and --thanks to powdered deer antlers—never needed Viagra to keep them satisfied. Nor did he need to bathe, brush his teeth, or floss. 

Mao’s literary successor, Saddam Hussein—who also had four wives, many mistresses, and never admitted to erectile dysfunction even with his first cousin –- picked up the slack in the genre, taking up where the maudlin Mussolini had left off. While the CIA thought the Middle Eastern Saladin was stockpiling WMD’s, the dictator was actually penning romances, leaving Muammar Qaddafi’s story collection, Escape to Hell, in the Libyan dust though the colonel had, like Mao, made his work required reading.

Saddam’s debut, Zabibah and the King (2000), was about a beautiful but abused Tikrit town girl. The second, The Fortified Castle, was a Romeo and Juliet vehicle involving an Iraqi GI and a Kurdish virgin. 

Following Joe Klein’s lead in Primary Colors, Saddam published both anonymously as “THE Author.” Seeming to suspect who this might be, Iraqis flocked to the bookstores in bulletproof vests.

The Iraqi strongman’s last title, Begone Demons, would surely have topped the Baghdad bestseller list, too, had Bush and the infidels not invaded the very day after the ms. was finished in 2003. 

Three years later, Saddam’s dutiful daughter, Raghad, in gratitude to him for executing her husband, secured a contract for his swansong. After the Butcher of Baghdad was hung, the Jordanian publisher who had promised a first run of 100,000, backed out of the deal. Undiscouraged, Ragdad went viral with queries and SASEs.

But not even Judith Regan would touch Demons. At the time, Murdock’s maverick editor was rounding out her list of Private Parts, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, and O.J.’s If I Did It

So, in the end, only Mao Tse-tung won the Luck Suck & Pluck Trifecta, paying no dues to the muse but still winning an adoring Communist audience. 

Other potentate novelists tried to top the beloved Chairman, but fell far short. Winston Churchill novel, Savrola, bombed, though in ‘53 he got a Nobel A for effort. Jimmy Carter’s revolutionary war novel, The Hornet’s Nest, didn’t make its advance. And four out of five of Newt Gingrich’s 1945 thriller were returned to his publisher. Moreover, according to Simon & Schuster editor, Michael Korda, President Reagan’s 1990 fairy tale autobiography, An American Life, was “probably the largest disaster of modern publishing.”

So, critics agree that Mao’s LSP feat may never again be achieved in the truth-stranger-than-fiction annals of publishing. 

[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/comfort.html]
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