Monday, June 4, 2012

Frustrations and joys

In 1952, Jack Kerouac was trying to get his second book published. After this book, On the Road, was initially rejected, he wrote a different manuscript but reused the title On the Road. This revised "On the Road" would be published much later under the title Visions of Cody (and I'll call this manuscript OTR/VOC for the remainder of this post, to differentiate it from the more famous and different book that became On the Road).

While living in Mexico, Kerouac asked Allen Ginsberg, who was in New York, to be his agent in trying to get OTR/VOC published. The two were friends and colleagues before entering into this business arrangement.

Ginsberg wrote Kerouac a letter that was blunt, though not malicious. Ginsberg recorded not only his own reactions but those of their colleagues John Holmes and Carl Solomon. The gist of the letter: "I don't know if it would make sense to any publisher." Calling it "great but crazy," Ginsberg told Kerouac what he thought the manuscript would need in order to be publishable.

Kerouac responded with the kind of letter many writers have written (even if only in their heads) and, if they were smart, never actually sent. Here are a few choice phrases: "... why they publish Holmes's book which stinks and don't publish mine ... Do you think I don't realize how jealous you are and how you and Holmes and Solomon all would give your right arm to be able to write like the writing in [OTR/VOC] ...  what right has [Holmes], who knows nothing, to pass any kind of judgment on my book ... You're all a bunch of insignificant literary egos ..." He goes on to say not only "never speak to me again" but pulls out all the stops with "so die. ... and die like men ..."

Well, wow.

Not a month later, Kerouac was writing to Holmes to thank him for sending him $50, and to Ginsberg to continue both their friendship and business relationship (Ginsberg wanted to represent another manuscript of his). Ginsberg must have recognized that letter for what it was, an emotional lashing-out, the frustrated expression of what writers often wonder: Why did that book get published and not mine? Why don't people see what I'm trying to do here?

When one has poured heart and soul into a work, has given it everything, it's easy to feel that the work deserves an audience. That is one of the hardest things to accept about the marketing of artistic works: that hard work does not correlate directly with reward, that effort does not produce a directly proportional outcome. In my experience, those who succeed do indeed work hard, but many of those who don't succeed also work very hard. I think this is the source of much frustration with gatekeepers, with the literary establishment, with everyone who seems to have been placed as an obstacle between the writer and the audience. Writers can ask everything from Why didn't they publish my book? through Why didn't they review my book? to Why won't those stores carry my book? and Why won't they promote my book more aggressively? Or, if self-publishing, Why aren't people buying/reviewing/spreading the word about my book?

As it happens, I've read Visions of Cody, the book Kerouac was defending so passionately. I loved it myself, but I would not call it a mainstream work. It's mostly for Beat aficionados and fans of experimental writing. I think Ginsberg's assessment of it was generally correct: it's esoteric, personal, difficult to follow. It's a challenging read. And I say this as a fan of the work. If I owned a publishing company, and this work came across my desk by an unknown writer, is this the book I would expect to make me a fortune? Or--forget fortunes--just to help my company keep the lights on? I'm not sure.

I won't argue that perfectly good books get overlooked by mainstream publishing--and that some of them become breakout successes through nontraditional channels. I don't claim that gatekeepers are perfect. My point is this: It's hard to accept that the mere fact of writing something doesn't obligate anyone to publish it, or buy it, or read it. When we're wearing our reader hats, we don't feel obligated to read every book we encounter (nor could we if we tried); we are choosy. We want to read what we want to read. We don't care how much sweat went into the book, how much the author loved it, how many hours he spent over it or how deeply in poverty he lived while writing it. (If we love the book, we might become interested in the author to the point of caring about those things--and then even read the author's letters sixty years later--but that's unusual.)

Which is why the best part of writing is the writing itself. Many joys come later, if the work finds an audience. But the writing is the part we can enjoy daily, no matter what anyone else thinks.

source: Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956, edited by Ann Charters.


  1. Well said! Even if it isn't published, one can always work on their writing.

    1. Yes, it isn't as if I have this writing thing mastered yet ... :-)

  2. And most days, writing is pure pleasure. Mostly.

  3. Wonderful post, Jenn! I haven't read any of those books, but I did really enjoy Andrew Blackman's book inspired by On the Road (titled On the Holloway Road). The writing is where it all lies, in the end, published or not.

    1. We're never guaranteed to write a book to anyone else's satisfaction--but we can, at least, write it to our own!