Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Updike’s ladder

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In the latest issue of The Atlantic, the author Anjali Enjeti has an article titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you can mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to Enjeti when she writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says drily, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I came across her article while reading the biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” And Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the qualities that we associate with Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being productive. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of waiting for a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially explain the literary world’s fondness for frustration and unresolved narratives.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even you’re transformed by it. I seem to think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

2 Responses

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  1. ‘We were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!’ is the point.

    There are outliers like that. Adam Roberts, the British SF writer, seems to be able to write a novel in six weeks, teach 19th century British lit at university level during the day, and during the evening or at lunchtime knock off erudite 5,000-word analyses of each of H.G. Wells’s books (or of Spencer’s poetry or whatever) in one pass. For most of the rest of us, Thomas Mann’s line applies: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is especially difficult.’

    So one understands Shawn and the NEW YORKER folks reactions to Updike’s submissions — the volume and the quality indicated that here was one of those outliers.

    This said, so much more in a writer’s career depends on pure chance and contingency, the right connection at the right time turning out favorably, than anybody wants to admit. Supposing the NEW YORKER _hadn’t_ picked up Updike and yet his volume production still won him publication, exactly where and how else would he have been able to gain traction in a manner suitable for his talents? Or think of ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE being turned down by thirty-plus publishers and Herbert’s DUNE being turned down by fifteen, before one particular person at one particular publishing house at one particular moment sat down with the MS of one of those books and was in a receptive mood that day, so they then took a chance and went to bat for it.

    And, of course, luck changes, too.

    Samuel Delany, for all his talent, got his first publication at twenty-one at Ace because his then-wife, working there, told Donald Wollheim that she’d found his MS in the slush pile. Later, Fred Pohl, as an editor at Bantam, was willing to go to bat for DHALGREN, a not-quite SF doorstopper whose success nobody — not even Pohl or Delany — has ever been able to account for. And of course there was Delany’s nova-like run with the Hugo and the Nebula prizes in the latter part of the 1960s. Nevertheless, I’ve had to help deal with a Q&A/profile of the man (for a MIT anthology next year), and he’s having very tough times since the end of his teaching career. Being a prodigy has been a poor teacher in terms of preparing him for what’s happening now.

    So much in a writer’s career is pure chance, contingency, randomicity. Most of us don’t want to think about that.

    Mark Pontin

    September 13, 2017 at 2:30 pm

  2. @Mark Pontin: I’d put Campbell buying Heinlein’s first submission in the same category of luck and good timing. If “Life-Line” had been rejected, I suspect that Heinlein might have just given up on writing and tried something else.

    And I’m sorry to hear about Delany. I’ve been meaning to reach out to him for this project, and I’m hoping to do so soon.

    nevalalee

    September 13, 2017 at 8:30 pm


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