HOW HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS SAVED THE SHORT NOVEL! Chapter 2

After I sent my novella to Harvard University Press I had several ideas about what to write next, but it seemed like a natural time for a hiatus, a short period of relative leisure.  I was most pleasantly preoccupied; Harvard’s answer would come by mail, so six days of each week were  organized around a pivotal event: the arrival of the mailman.  If I were doing chores at home, he found me often waiting for him on the porch.  When I took the hour– long bus ride to the city to work, part of me always remained back on the other side of the Hudson, waiting, and, on my return I rushed to the mailbox, first thing.  Sunday, of course there was no mail.  I spent Sunday waiting for Monday.

The brief hiatus somehow extended itself as I waited.  I tried to be patient, but it seemed to me that time was moving exceedingly slowly.  Then, unaccountably, a whole year was gone.

I had made false starts on new fiction.  But my head was filled with dreams and fantasies fueled by the magical incantation: Eudora Welty, John Gardner, Irving Howe!  When there was still no word from Harvard University Press after the year, I timidly wrote to Mr. Goodman: “ . . .I do not mean to be unduly importunate, but I wonder what, if anything, has happened.  May I know?”

Mr. Goodman was the soul of affability: “ . . . It is good to hear from you.  You have been beautifully patient.  A PERPETUAL SURPRISE has delighted your readers here at the Press.  It has been sent on to the judges, something that does not happen to many manuscripts.  I should have particular word for you in a month or so  . . ..”

My joy was boundless.  Mr. Goodman was the salt of the earth; Harvard University Press was a benign institution, nothing like the ruthless New York publishing world, and those marvelous writers doing the judging were without peers.  I thought of them constantly.  For years I had taught their work and greatly admired them.  Miss Welty’s short stories, “A Worn Path,” and “Why I Live At The P.O.” were my students’ all-time favorites.  Howe, the editor of DISSENT, in addition to his literary criticism had written the massive WORLD OF OUR FATHERS, which I owned, a fascinating, encyclopedic study of Jewish immigration; Gardner’s novel, GRENDEL, a take on the BEOWULF tale was absolutely brilliant.  Now they were reading my fiction.

The thought that my new novella was good enough for these three great writers’ consideration gave me constant happiness.  How appropriate the title of my new novella was!  It came from the Bengali laureate poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote: “That I exist is a perpetual surprise which is life.”  Indeed, the Harvard Program was part of my personal perpetual surprise.

Time passed.  The silence from Cambridge was profound.  I began to bite my nails to the quick.  Nights, I lay awake long hours wondering.  Still I was hesitant about making inquiries and limited myself to a phone call or a note every three months.  Each time Mr. Goodman reassured me with paeans to my talent and admonitions that I needed to be patient a little longer.

On May 18, 1979, before my daughter Perri’s college graduation, I wrote to him.   “ . . . I shall be in Cambridge soon for the Harvard Commencement, so instead of phoning you – which I know I won’t be able to resist doing – I’m heading myself off by writing.  Any news?  This year I have spent my free time alternately trying to write and lying in wait for the mailman, feeling much like Dickens’ little lunatic lady, Miss Flite, who keeps a daily vigil waiting for judgment at the Chancery Courts in BLEAK HOUSE.  If you have no information for me yet, is there a target date when there will be some?  I’d be grateful to have it . . ..”

Mr. Goodman replied three days later.  “Thank you for your delightful note.  You are the very paragon of patience.  A PERPETUAL SURPRISE deserves far better of the machinery of the world than has so far been delivered.  We are, in short, just where we were the last time you and I talked on the phone.  Waiting, in short, for two further manuscripts that pass professional muster as firmly as yours does.  We are not quite there yet.  It is a great deal to ask, I know, but, do, please, hold on.

I need to tell you that the literary critic, Pearl Bell is replacing me as the editor in charge of the Harvard Program in the Short Novel.  I have been asked to join the Boston publisher David R. Godine, Inc. as Editorial Director, and unable to resist a return to trade publishing full time, have accepted.  You will be hearing from Mrs. Bell.

Let me add that I have an editor’s faith in the work of the author of A PERPETUAL SURPRISE and am confident of her literary future . . ..”

This was not good news.  Every writer knows it is deadly to have an orphaned book, to lose the editor who is parenting it.  But, I consoled myself. Mr. Goodman was not alone in his admiration.  There was that marvelous triumvirate of literary heavyweights: Eudora Welty, Irving Howe, John Gardner.  They were my judges.  Heartsick yet hopeful, I could think of nothing I could do.

On August 2nd, Mrs. Bell tolled.  “ . . . As William Goodman wrote you some time ago, I have temporarily taken over his duties in the Short Novel Program, now that he has left the Press.   I wish I had some firm good news to send you about our publishing plans for the Program, but unhappily the situation is much as it was when he last wrote you.  We are still hoping to find two other short novels that might even partially match the high quality of A PERPETUAL SURPRISE so that the Program could be launched with an impressive trio.  But so far we have yet to see any work that meets the approval of readers and judges as strongly as your delightful novel has done.

I know that you must now be very tired of praise for your patience, but I would be grateful if you would bear with us for just a bit longer.  By the end of September or early October, some definite decisions will have to be taken about the Short Novel Program, and I hope that before then some work will turn up that is worthy of accompanying A PERPETUAL SURPRISE.  In any case, I shall be in touch with you again in the autumn, when, I hope, the future of the Program will seem rosier than it does now.”

I answered her immediately:  “Your intimation that the Press is considering closing down the Program comes as crushingly disappointing news.  Until now, the situation as I perceived it, involved nothing more threatening than waiting for revisions on other people’s manuscripts.

I hardly need point out how painful it is to be so close, to have the support and approbation of the editors of Harvard University Press and three distinguished judges, and then to hear that it may all be for nothing.  Please, Mrs. Bell, be of stout heart and find two more novels!  Or might it not be possible to launch the Program with A PERPETUAL SURPRISE, thus encouraging other writers to submit their work?  Programs start slowly I know but then gain momentum.  Dismayed as I am, I await your next letter with hope . . ..”

I flipped after this last exchange of letters.  My mind switched from simply thinking about the Harvard Program to brooding about it fulltime. Nights were particularly hard.  If I fell asleep, I woke and then stayed awake.  My family says of that time that I could talk of nothing else.  And, worst of all for the first time in my life, I could not write.

My head seethed with compelling arguments: If I’d created such a fine book, surely, surely they would publish it. They were out to save the short novel; that was their announced purpose.  I needed only to hold on till they found their way.  It was difficult but I was determined.

On October 27, 1979, I wrote to Mrs. Bell:  “ . . . Do you have any news for me?  I stalk the mailman daily, and am unable to think about anything else.  Please let me hear from you very soon. “

Her answer was waiting in my mailbox when I returned from work one afternoon in mid -November.  There, crammed in unceremoniously, was the manuscript, with a cover letter that was Mrs. Bell’s official delivery of the last rites.  She offered very extreme unction:

“ . . .I had hoped to have some news for you before you wrote again, and apologize for the unexpected delay.  It grieves me more than I can say, that the long, drawn-out indecision has made you unable to work at your own writing for that is surely the most unfortunate effect that I can imagine.  You are a very gifted writer, and I hope that you will soon have the success your talent so richly deserves.

It makes me deeply unhappy to have to tell you now that the Press has decided to terminate The Short Novel Program, and we do not feel we can publish  A PERPETUAL SURPRISE on its own.  As a publishing venture, The Short Novel Program would justify itself only if we’d been able to find three novellas worth bringing out simultaneously, to launch the Program with substance.

I know that this will seem cold comfort to you, but out of the thousands of manuscripts submitted to The Short Novel Program, only one, A PERPETUAL SURPRISE, was judged to have the kind of excellence and vitality we had hoped to find in some abundance.  A dismaying statistic, to put it mildly, but it surely says something important about your value as a writer.

What I now have to suggest will seem like even colder comfort, but it should hold out some promise.  When William Goodman left The Harvard University Press last spring, he moved to the small Boston publisher David Godine; one of his principal duties there is to build up the company’s fiction list.  It seems to us at The Press, that Godine might be very willing, indeed eager, to publish your delightful novella, not only for the intrinsic value but because it would provide them with an option on your future work.  And there is already William Goodman’s enthusiasm for A PERPETUAL SURPRISE in strong support of Robi Schlemeil.

Need I add that having to send you this disappointing news has been very painful for all of us?  And that we thank you once again for your good will and your patience, both of which have been so sorely tried . . .. “

At first, I simply didn’t believe it.  I flung the manuscript on a shelf, resolved not to look at it, but a moment later I was taking it down to shuffle through the pages looking for some magic note I might have missed, some other words.  Then I put it all away again, carefully, higher up out of reach, only to take it down again.  Then I wept.  Then I cursed.

“There’s only one thing for you to do now,” my husband observed.  “Call Goodman now.”

“No.” Paralysis had set in.  “He knows about the book.  If he wanted it, he’d ask for it.”

“What can you lose?”

“I’ve already lost.”

My husband shook his head in despair.

“If she was a mensch she would have taken it to Godine herself.”

“She isn’t and she didn’t.”

So, there I was.  For a month, I did nothing but mourn.  I dropped twelve pounds and looked terrible, and when people asked me why, I was too eager to tell.  Even when they didn’t ask, like the Ancient Mariner I felt compelled to stoppeth them – not one of three but everyone I met.  All had to hear my tale told from the albatross’s point of view.

CHAPTER 3 CONTINUES BELOW….

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About blogginggrandma

I'm 86. Legally blind. But a force to be reckoned with!
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One Response to HOW HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS SAVED THE SHORT NOVEL! Chapter 2

  1. Sheila – this is wonderful! Even though I know only too well how the story unfolded in real life, I am captivated by the telling. I sit on pins and needles waiting for Chapter 2. And I am sending this to Nathan to read RIGHT NOW!

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