Thursday, June 17, 2010

Thursday's Pre-Publication Post: Come On Get Happy!

Earlier this week, the Fiction Writers Review blog spotlighted an essay by author Aryn Kyle. Titled "'This Book Made Me Want To Die' And Other Thoughts From Readers," the essay engages with comments/reviews Kyle has received with a decided point of view: that maybe, she should try to write something a little "happier":

"Mostly," Kyle writes, "what I learned about my book is that it’s depressing. Not just depressing, but 'pointlessly depressing'; 'brutal'; 'disturbing'; 'unrelentingly bleak'; and 'appalling'—just to touch on the tip of the critical iceberg. One reader claimed to be so disturbed by [Kyle's novel] The God of Animals that, upon finishing it, she had to medicate herself with sleeping pills."

But when people tell Kyle to write something "happy," she can't quite understand. "Happy like Anna Karenina? Happy like The Grapes of Wrath? Happy like Lolita or Catch-22 or Revolutionary Road? Happy like Hamlet?"

You get the idea.

Because the publication of my story collection, Quiet Americans, is still several months away, I don't yet have access to a comparable trove of reader reaction. But that doesn't mean that I can't already identify with the essay and the points Kyle has raised.

In fact, while I was reading, I couldn't help but recall one AWP conference, at which I finally met one of the TriQuarterly editors who had helped bring my story, "Matrilineal Descent," to the reading public. I'd gone over to the journal's Bookfair table to introduce myself. "Ah, yes," the editor said. "Your story. It was a laugh a minute." To which I responded—how else?—by laughing. (Attention, lucky readers! You, too, can enjoy the utter comedy that is "Matrilineal Descent" when the story reappears in Quiet Americans this winter.)

But Kyle's essay also sent me straight to the shelf where the Purple Binder (pictured) rests.

The Purple Binder, my friends, contains all the many rejection letters and e-mail messages that I received from agents and publishers who considered my collection, in one variant or another, over a five-year period. (It should not be confused with the far thicker Red Binder, which contains rejections received for individual short stories.)

I was certain that I'd find some echoes of the comments that have come Kyle's way within the Purple Binder's pages. And guess what? My memory was right.
Dear Erika Dreifus,

Thank you for giving us a look at four stories from your collection, Former Title, which [Big-Time Agent] asked me to review. I'm sorry about the delay in getting back to you, and I wish I had better news. I very much admire your writing and found all four stories very strong, but I'm afraid that this collection would be difficult to sell. The cumulative effect of your stories, with themes ranging from the Holocaust, to fetal defects to racism, is too downbeat for the editors we deal with.

Nonetheless, I think you are a talented writer. If you are not too put off by these remarks and you begin a novel, we'd love to see the first 50 pages.

Regretfully,
Associate at Big-Time Agent's Agency

P.S. Let me know if you'd like me to return your pages.

Now, a few comments:
  • I've worked on the collection so long that it's really not surprising that not all of the stories that went out to this agency--supposedly my "best" stories at the time--have ended up in the final book. Among the now-excluded stories is one that was, for a long time, intended to be the title story. Hence, the need for a new title. So if you're thinking that you'll actually find the Holocaust, fetal defects, and racism prominently displayed throughout the book, well, don't get too excited, because not every happy theme I've ever dealt with in fiction has made the cut into the final collection.

  • Similarly, I've been working on these stories so long that this particular correspondence dates from George W. Bush's first term, an era when it was still very common to send work via postal mail. Hence, the offer to return my pages. I guess I hadn't included a SASE.

  • Here's what may be most interesting. I hadn't approached Big-Time Agent. Rather, Big-Time Agent had contacted me, based on a story that had appeared in a literary journal. And frankly, that story didn't exactly present a thousand points of light. Admittedly, it did not feature fetal defects or racism. But, in a mere 2500 words, it did manage to encompass parental death, post-9/11 anthrax attacks, incapacitating depression, divorce, and—I know you're waiting for this one—the Holocaust. Hence, my surprise that "downbeat" might present a problem for this particular agency.
(By the way, that part of the message about welcoming a novel didn't surprise you short-story writers, did it?)

In truth, I'm trying not to think too much just yet about what people will say about Quiet Americans once it has been published (assuming that it receives any attention at all). But if the book is faulted for not being "happy" enough, at least I'll be prepared. And in good company.

4 comments:

bbinjp said...

This reminds me of a piano song I once heard called "Happy in A Major", where the pianist played various "happy" chords in A major while shouting into the grand piano's open lid, "I'm playing in major, because I want to be happy! happy!" Very tounge in cheek.
Congratulations on publication though.

Susan said...

Thanks so much for sharing this story, Erika. It gives me hope. I, too, have faced some brutal rejection from my peers because my (still unpublished) work was viewed as too depressing. Worse were some of the apparent assumptions that those peers made about me as a person as a result. At one point, the rejection was strong enough to make me want to quit and lead a "normal" life. However, I didn't, and now I have work that is about to be published this fall.

Erika D. said...

Thanks very much for the comments. Susan, please tell us more about your to-be-published work, if you can.

Leah said...

I'm glad to read this. My current book of poetry, ESCAPE ROUTE, contains poems that all deal with fear. All kinds of fear. I think it has managed to frighten many contest readers. A couple of people suggested that even this far after 911 we are not ready to talk about fear. Funny, then: what kind of conversation can we have about our fear in relationships, or that we have lost something, or that we might one day die??