September 26, 2004
20 Years and 5 Editors Later . . .
ike general contractors, writers are famously optimistic when it comes to estimating how long a project will take. Fortunately, publishers are more forgiving than homeowners; deadlines are routinely extended one, two, even three years. But there is another category of writer, one for whom the laws of space and time seem to disappear altogether. Years bleed into one another as file cabinets bulge with extraneous information. Sentences are committed and retracted. Pages stack up -- or don't. A decade passes, and the end of the tunnel remains dark. Only by scratching away the layers of Liquid Paper on the line of the contract reading ''delivery date,'' as if it were an instant lottery ticket, is it possible to ascertain when exactly the manuscript was first due.
Industry people agree that the endless extension has gone the way of the lavish book party, that it is now a luxury available only to the most bankable authors. Editors tend to blame literary agents for driving up advances to a level where publishers can no longer afford not to turn up the heat when projects drag on. Literary agents tend to blame the bottom-line-obsessed conglomerates that have been gobbling up once empathetic independent publishing houses. But while it may be endangered, the albatross book is by no means extinct.
America's most legendarily blocked writer at present is almost certainly Fran Lebowitz, who -- with the exception of a children's book -- published her last work, ''Social Studies,'' in 1981. (She inherited the mantle from Harold Brodkey, whose eagerly anticipated first novel was so long in coming -- more than three decades, as it turned out -- that he actually became perhaps the first author to become famous for not writing a book.) Last year it looked like the long drought was finally over; among the titles in Knopf's fall catalog was ''Progress,'' Lebowitz's 112-page ''lustily anticipated meditation on the disappearance of progress.'' And then, before it had even reached the shelves, ''Progress'' itself disappeared. A vestige of the book lingers like a ghost limb on Amazon beside a recommendation to would-be buyers to check back occasionally to see if the title has become available. (But wait. There's hope yet. The October issue of Vanity Fair features an excerpt!)
For Diane McWhorter, the problem wasn't producing pages; it was finding the brakes. When she first signed with Simon & Schuster's now-defunct Summit Books imprint to write ''Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution'' in 1982, she couldn't imagine she would need more than a year. McWhorter's editor -- her first editor, that is -- encouraged her to take two. They compromised on a year and a half. ''I really thought I was picking one not very large city, and I had the climax -- the year 1963 -- that the story was building to. It seemed doable,'' she says. ''I don't know how it got so out of hand.''
Her first deadline soon passed. For a while, McWhorter remained in denial, assuring everyone, herself included, that she would be finished in six months. After about five years, Simon & Schuster threatened to cancel her contract. McWhorter submitted everything she had. Her editor told her to forge ahead. Somewhere around the 15-year mark, she ran into Fred Hills, an editor at Simon & Schuster, on Long Island. Hills asked how the book was coming. McWhorter detected a note of concern in his voice. ''What are you hearing?'' she asked warily. ''That it's getting into two-volume, university press range,'' he answered. It was. At this point, McWhorter was busy barbering a 3,400-page manuscript to 1,500. It took her two years, and when she finally stashed her shears and reread the manuscript she realized she had destroyed the narrative. The whole book needed to be restructured. She finally turned it in at the beginning of 2000. It was published in March 2001.
There are two kinds of books: unfinished and finished. When McWhorter finally crossed over from the former to the latter, everything changed. She hadn't been wandering around aimlessly in the woods after all. Nineteen lost years were redeemed overnight: ''Once the book is out you go from 'What a chump she can't finish that book,' to 'Wow, what an incredible journey, ' '' she says.
It didn't hurt that ''Carry Me Home,'' like Neil Sheehan's book ''The Bright Shining Lie,'' was published to great acclaim. Sheehan's classic book on Vietnam, a comparatively brisk 16 years in the making, won both a Pulitzer and the National Book Award after it was published in 1988. ''I think about that book every time I extend an author's delivery date,'' says Tim Duggan, an executive editor at HarperCollins. ''Can you imagine if they had canceled it? That's a healthy fear in every editor's mind, and it's certainly one that breeds patience.'' Sheehan is now testing his editor's patience again. His book about the cold war, which he contracted to write about eight years ago, is already overdue. '' 'The Bright Shining Lie' took longer than anticipated,'' his agent, Robert Lescher, told me, ''and this one will too.''
Is this true of all great books? Shelby Foote certainly believes so. Chiding his friend Walker Percy in early 1952, Foote wrote: ''The thing you don't understand (but will when you work harder and come to it yourself) is the artist's terrific affinity for the difficult, the thing he cannot do.'' Of course, when he wrote that letter, Foote had not yet published the first of his three-volume history of the Civil War, a project that eventually spanned 20 years.
And yet time is not always an ally. Consider the case of Marguerite Young. In 1965, on the heels of the publication of her 1,198-page magnum opus ''Miss MacIntosh, My Darling,'' Young embarked on a short, palette-cleansing book about the Socialist labor leader, Eugene V. Debs. The brief biography had soon become a three-volume epic-in-progress that would, in Young's own immodest words, ''break down the categories of poetry and prose.'' The term biography was now too reductive for her taste; she was painting a canvas of ''the failed millennial continent of America.''
When Young died in 1995, the book -- or books -- remained unpublished, but her editor at Knopf, Victoria Wilson, assured an obituary writer that she was in possession of the manuscript and that it was ''astonishing.'' (Wilson herself is now in year 18 of a long-overdue biography of Barbara Stanwyck.) Four years later, Knopf finally published ''Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs.'' It stopped short before Debs helped found the American Socialist Party or launched the first of his five campaigns for president. Not only had Young covered less than half of Debs's life -- by one reviewer's count, she would have needed another 2,000 pages to get to his most famous declaration: ''While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free'' -- ''Harp Song'' suffered from its author's best intentions. The book had the quality of a piece of meat that had sat in its marinade for too long. (Writing in these pages in 1999, Adam Shatz said that it read like ''an obsessive, oracular 19th-century text discovered in someone's attic.'')
You can't really blame Young. Detailed proposals aside, it's virtually impossible to know what shape a book will take when one first embarks on it. In the early 80's, Victor Navasky also set out to write a short book -- a meditation, really -- on the role of opinion journals in the age of mass media. As the editor of one of those journals, The Nation, Navasky figured he'd be able to knock it out in a year. He finally delivered the 550-page manuscript, ''A Matter of Opinion,'' last month. It is no longer a meditation, but rather a memoir of his misadventures in the world of opinion journals. The book followed its acquiring editor, Elisabeth Sifton, from Viking to Knopf to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which will publish it next spring.
Nonfiction writers, at least, have the luxury of tackling a finite subject, massive though it may be. Novelists are prisoners of their own freedom, a paradox that leads to situations like the one so memorably described by Grady Tripp, the narrator of Michael Chabon's ''Wonder Boys'': ''It. . . stood at 2,611 pages, each of them revised and rewritten a half-dozen times. And yet for all of those words expended in charting the eccentric paths of my characters through the violent blue heavens I had set them to cross, they had not even reached their zeniths. I was nowhere near the end.''
The fictional Tripp's previous novels had all been exceedingly minor; it can be that much harder to follow a successful book. Harper Lee, the author of ''To Kill a Mockingbird,'' never did. The burden of anticipation for Brodkey's first novel -- his precocious short stories had earned him comparisons to Proust and Wordsworth -- transformed him into a sad caricature of a blocked writer. ''Either I am truly great, or I am a fraud,'' he uttered to one of the many journalists who profiled him along the way. There's a perverse irony here: The longer it takes to finish a book, the higher expectations rise -- and the harder it becomes to deliver. All of which may explain why we are still waiting for Katherine Dunn to publish a follow-up to ''Geek Love'' (1989). Her novel-in-progress is about a boxing cut man. ''Katherine once told me that writers are like faucets,'' Dunn's agent, Richard Pine, says. ''Some drip and some are on free flow. She drips and she's happy dripping.'' John Berendt is still working on a novel set in Venice, the follow-up to his 1994 nonfiction bestseller, ''Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil''; Jonathan Harr has not written a book since his 1995 hit ''A Civil Action.'' (He is working on a book about a Caravaggio painting.)
Generally speaking, no one drips more slowly than biographers. At around the same time that Elisabeth Sifton signed up Navasky, she also commissioned Richard Parker, who was just leaving his job as editor and publisher of Mother Jones magazine, to write a biography of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Unlike Navasky, who stayed in close touch with his editor, Parker vanished. A senior official at Viking eventually came after him for his modest advance, but Parker was able to strike a deal with him. The publisher had given a far bigger advance to Jesse Jackson for a long-overdue book, and he was failing to return their phone calls altogether. Parker was friends with one of Jackson's top aides. If he could at least get Jackson to call Viking back, he could keep his money.
Parker abandoned the Galbraith project altogether for close to a decade. ''The gun went off and I stood at the starting line,'' he says. But in the early 90's, while he was traveling around a crumbling Soviet Union grappling with the transition to capitalism, his interest in Galbraith was rekindled. Parker was too embarrassed to approach Sifton until he at least had some pages written, so he got to work. A few years later, he tracked her down at a lecture at Harvard and reintroduced himself. Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish the book in January. Since Parker signed his initial contract, Galbraith has written many books of his own.
Megan Marshall, who agreed to write a biography of the Peabody sisters, three 19th-century protofeminists, in 1985, plunged right in, but when her first deadline passed in 1988 she was still doing research. Part of the problem was deciphering the thousands of letters the sisters had written to each other. Eager to save money on postage, the Peabodys often wrote what they called ''cross-written letters'' -- covering every inch of a single, large sheet of paper, then turning it around 90 degrees and writing back across a page that was already full of handwriting. Throughout the process, Marshall was haunted by the knowledge that two previous scholars had wanted to write books about the Peabodys, but it had taken them both so long to track down and assemble the many letters, they died before they had even started writing.
At about the 10-year mark, Marshall had almost finished a first draft when she visited an archive to read what she thought was going to be a brief posthumous tribute to one of the sisters. It was, in fact, an unpublished, 600-page manuscript filled with new information that forced a wholesale rethinking. This past July, Marshall finally finished ''The Peabody Sisters.'' She was 30 when she signed the contract; she will be 50 when Houghton Mifflin publishes the book next May. After submitting her manuscript, Marshall went on vacation to Italy to celebrate. Her editor -- her fifth editor -- told her the book would be ready for copy-editing when she came back. Tears came to Marshall's eyes. ''I thought, even if I don't come back, even if I perish overseas, it will be ready for copy-editing -- it will go on without me,'' she says. ''It made me realize what a force in my life this had been.''
Letting go is not always easy. Working on a book can provide authors with a sense of security. It confers on them the sense -- illusory though it may be -- of being employed, a comforting thing to someone who wakes up every morning without a compelling reason to put on a pair of pants. And a book is more than a job; it's a colleague, too. After writing the final line of ''History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'' in 1787, a book that had taken him 15 years to complete, Edward Gibbon took a moment to describe the feeling: ''I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion.''
Jonathan Mahler is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. His first book, ''Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, the Yankees, and the Battle for the Soul of a City,'' will be published next spring.