Writing is a dog’s life, but the only one worth living.
Said the indomitable John Steinbeck after completing The Grapes of Wrath and before receiving the Nobel Prize in 1962: “It is the fashion now in writing to have every man defeated and destroyed. And I do not believe all men are destroyed. I can name a dozen who were not and they are the ones the world lives by.”
Seven years into his career and just prior to his breakthrough with Tortilla Flat in 1935, the great novelist reckoned that he’d made a total of $870. “I am so tired. I have worked for so long against opposition, first of my parents… then of publishers…. Rejection follows rejection.” He finally scored agent, Mavis McIntosh, but even she couldn’t place his To a God Unknown. She told him – as reps do their clients today – that the market for unknown writers was “extremely tight and unpredictable.”
Still, the future Nobel laureate didn’t lose hope. “Eventually I shall be so good that I cannot be ignored,” he decided.1
Steinbeck’s contemporary and fellow Californian, William Saroyan, had his own breakthrough in the mid-thirties too with his semi-autobiographical story “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" about starving writer. By that time the future Pulitzer Prize winner who went on to turn down the Nobel had accumulated more than 7,000 rejections. And, like his colleague, looked on the bright side of the situation. “We get very little wisdom from success, you know,” he pointed out. Then added: “Good people are good because they've come to wisdom through failure.”
Both novelists idolized Herman Melville who at age 27 was celebrated for his first novel, Typee. But, five years later, his magnum opus, Moby Dick, became his Titanic. One editor called it a "tragic-comic bubble and squeak." Another was appalled with its “stilted sentiment and incoherent English.” Even so, the novelist’s mentor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom the whaling saga was dedicated, got it published. In Melville’s lifetime, the novel failed to sell its run of 3,000 copies. His total American edition earnings were $556.37. The Typee cannibals with whom the marooned young author had lived turned out to be more civil than his publishers who blacklisted him. Unlike his admiring successors, Melville was devastated by the rejection. “He’d pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated,” said Hawthorne.2
The novelist’s next three titles proved this. Finally, he penned Bartlebey the Scrivener about an alter-ego copyist who refuses to write anymore because, “I would prefer not to.” But, the year later Melville bounced back with a more upbeat story, “The Happy Failure.” “Failure has made a good old man of me,” declares its protagonist. “It was horrible at first. But I’m glad I failed. Praise be to God for the failure!”
The master’s next novel, The Confidence-Man, belonged, according to his own brother-in-law, “to that horribly uninteresting class of nonsensical books he is given to writing… [filled] with strained & ineffectual attempts to be humorous.” The story, about an April Fools Day grifter on a Mississippi steamboat, showed “all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of joke, especially his misfortunes,” Melville wrote a friend. He spent the next three decades writing poetry while working as a New York City Customs inspector. He died destitute in 1891 leaving behind an unfinished novel, Billy Budd, about the trial and hanging of a Christlike young sailor.
By the time of Melville’s death, a certain 14-year-old oyster pirate was already enthralled with his adventure stories and dreamed of becoming a novelist himself one day. His name was Jack London. After six years and 650 rejections (now on display at the London House in Sonoma County, California) he was about to surrender to annihilation. But then his story, “A Thousand Deaths,” about a drowning sailor resurrected by a mad scientist, was published which he said “literally and literarily saved” him. But the future bestselling storyteller wasn’t out of the woods yet. In his follow-up novel about a struggling writer, Martin Eden, his alter-ego, ME, complained “'there was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another.” Later, Eden hit it big, as did London, but took his life (as some suspect that London also did).3
But for rare exceptions such as Mark Twain, Martha Mitchell, Norman Mailer, Harper Lee, and Truman Capote, nearly every American novelist endured similar professional struggles early on. Most now deified European artists weathered the same purgatory.
After the 28-year-old Gustav Flaubert finished reading his debut novel, The Temptation of St. Anthony, to his own writer friends, they found it so outlandish and fanciful they suggested he burn it. But, like his ascetic hero, the French realist righteously fended off his demons by declaring: “You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies, and the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it.” Still, he abandoned St. Anthony, spent years on Madame Bovary and, at last and with great expectation, submitted it to publishers. The first editorial response: “You have buried your novel underneath a heap of details which are well done but utterly superfluous.” In a 2007 writer’s poll, it was voted the second greatest novel of all time, behind Anna Karenina. The adulterous romance both scandalized and thrilled France, becoming a bestseller after its author was acquitted of obscenity charges.
Just as Flaubert went on to be celebrated as France’s greatest novelist, so Dostoyevsky was later deemed Russia’s literary god, alongside Tolstoy. After barely escaping a firing squad, the anti-czarist enjoyed early success with his Siberia memoir, House of the Dead. But his surreal follow-up, The Double, tanked. In his next novel, Notes from the Underground, the former activist wrote: “If I write as if I were addressing an audience, it is only for show… It is a form, nothing else; I shall never have any readers.” He called himself “a mouse, not even an insect,” a theme that Kafka picked up in “The Metamorphosis,” among the few works published in his lifetime.
Due to his privileged station, Evelyn Waugh felt even worse. His father was a publisher and his older brother, Alec, already a novelist of note. Before sending them his own maiden effort, The Temple at Thatch, he consulted his poet friend, Harold Acton. “It was an airy Firbankian trifle, totally unworthy of Evelyn, and I brutally told him so,” the critic recalled. Waugh burned the manuscript, then tried to drown himself in the sea. Luckily, he had "a sharp return to good sense” after being stung by jellyfish. He clambered to shore to write Brideshead Revisited.
But the experience failed to inspire his empathy. Waugh later told the BBC. “A poor dotty Irishman called James Joyce… thought to be a great influence in my youth… wrote absolute rot.” Most editors agreed with this assessment of the author, now acknowledged as one of the greatest fiction innovators in history.
In his 1913 application to the Royal Literary Fund for a small stipend, Joyce summed up his efforts: “My literary work in the last eleven years has produced nothing.” After Dubliners was rejected by forty publishers, he wrote a friend from the Rome bank where he was working, “My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed ambitions.”4
Five hundred copies of the story collection were finally printed. By1915, only 379 had sold, 120 to Joyce himself. He called the venture “disastrous.” He then destroyed his first novel, Stephen Hero, after a fight with his wife, Nora, who pestered him to write something “people can understand.” He resurrected the project as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This title was rejected by twenty houses, finally to be published by The Egoist Press, but with scarcely more sales than Dubliners.
The dotty Irishman’s masterpiece, Ulysses, was serialized in a French lit mag edited by his friend, Ezra Pound. The run was killed on obscenity charges. The ms. was picked up by a hole-in-the-wall Parisian printer, Shakespeare & Co., only to be banned again, then burned at the New York post office. Though later acknowledged as a genius by Paris’s Lost Generation literati, Joyce died all but penniless and dependent on the support of two patronesses.
But what of the women? For years they had been struggling to break the fiction glass ceiling. Speaking for her sisters, Charlotte Brontë wrote, “We had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” So, she, Emily, and Charlotte became Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; Mary Anne Evans became George Eliot; the Baroness Dudevant, George Sand; Louisa May Alcott, A.M. Barnard. But pseudonyms weren’t enough to damper the chauvinism of their colleagues.
"She is stupid, heavy and garrulous,” said Baudelaire of Sand. “Her ideas on morals have the same depth of judgment and delicacy of feeling as those of janitresses and kept women.... The fact that there are men who could become enamored of this slut is indeed a proof of the abasement of the men of this generation.”
Many attribute the dearth of pre-20th century women writers to the hard-wired bias of otherwise open-minded men such as Baudelaire. But any study of literary history, and of art history generally, shows that true artists compulsively create in spite of any and all obstacles and social barriers. So, one can only conclude that women did indeed write; but few tried to get published knowing the futility of this in a male-dominated society and industry.
Serious literature does not have a monopoly on rejection.
Though Jacqueline Susanne’s The Valley of the Dolls, went on to sell a record-breaking 30 million copies, the first editors to whom she sent the novel were underwhelmed. Said one: "She is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries out for the hands of a pro."
J.K. Rowling received twelve similar rejections for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The sorcery adventure may never have seen the light of day had Alice Newton, the 8-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury’s CEO, not given the ms. a thumbs-up and her father hesitantly advanced £1,500 for the title. Topping any sorcery in the series, Potter turned the welfare mother into history’s first billionaire author and the early rejection taught her an important lesson: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default."5
Stephen King also paid his literary dues before hitting the horror motherlode. He cut his teeth on Steve King’s Garbage Truck, a University of Maine newspaper column. After graduation, he hawked stories to men’s magazines. Then he hit a wall with Carrie, rejected by thirty publishers. Drunk and disgusted, he tossed the thriller in the trash. “My considered opinion was that I had written the world’s all-time loser,” he recalled. His writer wife, Tabitha, fished it out and urged him to give it another shot. While teaching high school English by day, he finished the tale by night on a portable typewriter in his trailer. Doubleday picked it up for $2,500, and the title quickly sold a million copies. His Dedication read: This is for Tabby, who got me into it – and then bailed me out of it. King has gone on to sell more than 350 million copies of his books and is now estimated to be worth $500 million.
Like King and many others, Stieg Larsson, dreamed from an early age of becoming a novelist. After being rejected by the Stockholm School of Journalism, nobody would hire him even as a reporter. He traveled to Africa for fresh material but returned to Sweden penniless and with malaria. He worked at the post office, then as an AP typist. In his spare time, he edited Expo, an anti-Nazi leaflet, and received his first fan mail -- skinhead death threats. In the final two years of his career, he completed his trilogy. After his fatal heart attack at age 50, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made publishing history.
John Grisham has sold 300 million copies of his legal thrillers to date but his own first title was a marketing challenge for him too. A Time to Kill was rejected by 28 publishers, then a small Idaho press printed 5,000 which he sold out of the trunk of his car. After a slew of other bestsellers such The Client and The Pelican Brief were made into movies, the former lawyer and Mississippi congressman confessed: "My success was not planned, but it could only happen in America.” He added, "I'm a famous writer in a country where nobody reads."
Grisham’s bestselling colleague, Peter Benchley, was also surprised by his own success. Though a former LBJ speechwriter and Newsweek editor he too had difficulty launching his literary career. After many rejections, he said he “made one final attempt to stay alive as a writer”: he pitched the idea for Jaws to Doubleday and got $1,000 to see what he could do with it. A year after the novel’s publication in 1974, and after it was turned into the highest grossing movie of all time, the title had sold 5.5 million copies. After two blockbuster sequels and other bestselling titles, Benchley confessed “It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing. But I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
Due to their struggles and the not always fair nature of the competition, many writers become resentful.
“People do not deserve good writing, they are so pleased with the bad,” said Emerson. Steinbeck went further, calling the reader “part moron, part genius and part ogre… and unlikely able to read at all.” Flaubert, too, railed against the mediocrity and stupidity of the general public, but reserved his greatest contempt for the writers who catered to it: “Nothing is more humiliating than to see idiots succeed in enterprises we have failed at,” he fumed.
The bitterness even extended to their more intelligent rivals whom they considered less deserving than themselves of fame and fortune.
“What’s not understood sufficiently about novelists is how competitive we all are. We’re as competitive as star athletes.” Norman Mailer told the Paris Review.
The notoriously prickly Somerset Maugham put it more bluntly: “It’s very hard to be a gentleman and a writer.”
Indeed, the wars of words between many famous novelists -- even some who had once been friends -- were countless: Dickens vs. Thackeray, Conrad vs. Melville, Orwell vs. H.G. Wells, Irving vs. Donleavy, Mary McCarthy vs. Lillian Hellman, Rushdie vs. John Le Carré, Tom Wolfe vs. tag-team Updike & Irving, Poe vs. everybody, Mailer vs. everybody, etc. Some even came to blows: Sinclair Lewis and Dreiser, Hemingway and Wallace Stevens, Marquez and Llosa, Mailer and Gore Vidal, etc.
The alpha pugilist was the very one who rose to the top with the help of colleagues: Hemingway. “Ernest would always give a helping hand to a man on a ledge a little higher up,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, explaining his friend’s idea of camaraderie. Ford Maddox Ford, Papa’s first champions, broke down in tears when confiding to an interviewer: “He disowns me now that he has become better known than I am… I'm now an old man and I'll die without making a name like Hemingway."
Though few writers made more than a subsistence wage until the 19th century, by the 20th the main criterion for literary success -- in a supposedly non-materialist profession devoted to the higher sensibilities -- was wealth. Among its first evangelists was Samuel Johnson: “Sir, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” Later, Truman Capote -- burdened with mortgages in Sag Harbor, Palm Springs, and Switzerland – threw in his two cents: “I am physically incapable or writing anything I don’t think will be paid for!” But, since writing rarely made any practitioner wealthy, one wonders why the self-identified mercenaries chose such a profession unless they were delusional or blockheads themselves.
Though Edgar Allan Poe may have been the first, he certainly wasn’t the second. But, even so, told his fiancée after writing the first mystery novel, The Murders of the Rue Morgue: “I am resolved to get rich. I must get rich – rich! Then all will go well.”
As every serious artist knows, creating is a necessity if not a compulsion, making wealth important only in so far as it is a symptom of success and professional dominance. Conversely, poverty drove many – Poe, Melville, Crane, Fitzgerald, O’Henry, etc. – to feel the shame of failure. On the other hand, the most stinging criticism of and for prosperous authors – especially those who joined the Gold Rush to write for Hollywood -- was that they had abandoned masterpieces for mammon. In short, that they were sell-outs. “Whores.”
After America’s titleholding literary celebrity became a Life and Look magazine posterboy, one of his remaining friends and champions, Ezra Pound, said: “Hemingway sold himself for the God almighty dollar.” A master of deflection, Papa declared:” Publicity, admiration, adulation… are all extremely harmful if one is susceptible to them.” A master of projection, he went on to accuse former friends, such as Dos Passos, as sell-outs: “Have you ever seen the possession of money corrupt a man as it has Dos?” he asked the dean of criticism, Edmund Wilson.
After his own breakthrough, Jack Kerouac, found himself in an even more impossible situation: He felt like a sell-out but had hardly any money to show for it. He told his friend, Ellis Amburn, he wanted to make as much as John le Carré had on the 1963 blockbuster, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. But when Desolation Angels came out in ’65, he confessed to Seymour Krimm, who wrote the Foreword, that he couldn’t afford to travel to New York for the publication launch. “Can you explain to me why a guy with a name as 'famous' as mine and 14 books and translated into 15 languages around the world has to worry about rent?" he demanded.6
Money also tormented Steinbeck: too little of it at first, too much of it later. In 1934, he reported making $870 for his last seven years of writing. While living in a one-room shack, he’d survived on odd jobs, plus $25 monthly from his nearly bankrupt father. When he finally broke through with Tortilla Flat, he wrote: “For the moment the financial burdens have been removed. But it is not permanent. I was not made for success.”7
Five years later, The Grapes of Wrath sold a half million copies. By that time his wife, Carol, had discovered that money costs too much. When a Hollywood studio head called and offered her husband $5,000 a week to write scripts, she screamed into the phone, “What the hell would we do with $5,000 a week. Don’t bother us!”
Knowing that money and the muse can be oil and water, Sherwood Anderson didn’t want to be bothered either. His New York publisher Horace Liveright, of Boni and Liveright, hadn’t been sending him weekly $75 checks for long before the novelist rushed into his office, begging, “Horace, Horace, please stop these checks. Give me back my poverty!” 8
At age 87 Wallace Stegner told the Paris Review he knew of no American novelist of “advanced age” who was “still writing well,” though he himself had finished his highly acclaimed Crossing to Safety at age 78.
The problem, according to some of his colleagues is that writing, unlike other professions, seems to more difficult with practice, not easier. When the Paris Review asked the aging William Styron if he “enjoyed” writing, he replied, “Certainly not… I thought that by now it would be a snap, but it’s every bit as hard as it was then, if not harder.”
As the old cliché goes for every author: Writing is easy once you wipe the blood from your forehead. As Stephen King pointed out: “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub. Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”
It would seem that the veteran writer, especially the famous one, would be more adept at building and launching the bathtub, but for Styron and more than a few others, this isn’t the case. Why? This may in part be because an author’s greatness is often proportional to his or her ambition: the ambitious are not only forever setting the bar higher for themselves, but trying to create something unexpected and new while not so unexpected and new that they might lose their fans.
The worst fear of every artist is that their best work is behind them – that they are a Has-Been. The fear arises from ruthless self-examination, critical blowback, and/or plummeting sales.
Vonnegut’s albatross was Timequake. Putnam dropped him after the novel tanked in 1997 and he shrugged: “Everybody else writes lousy books, so why shouldn’t I?” The American icon had, by his own estimation, been in decline for nearly thirty years, since Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut graded his novels in Palm Sunday: Cat’s Cradle (1967) A-; Slaughterhouse (1969) A+; Breakfast of Champions (1973) C; Slapstick (1976) D. His critics, too, were becoming less and less charitable: after trashing Palm Sunday, the Times’ Anatole Broyard added, “Contrary to public opinion, a literary reputation is the hardest thing in the world to lose.” Over lunch one day, Vonnegut told Martin Amis “the only way I can regain credit for my early work is – to die.”9 When his essay collection, A Man Without a Country, was later released, the author, then 83, thanked his publisher for “doing for me what Jesus did for Lazarus.”10
Salinger’s swan song was Hapworth 16, 1924. The New Yorker ran the complete novella in ’65, the same year both Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Kerouac’s Desolation Angels were released. Salinger said he considered the work the “high point” of his career.11 Demurring, the Times’ Michiko Kakutani called Hapworth “impenetrable,” “narcissistic,” and “ridiculous.” Janet Maslin wrote that the novel – a camp letter from an impossibly precocious and acerbic 7-year-old Seymour Glass -- “seemed to confirm the growing critical consensus that Salinger was going to hell in a handbasket.” The author’s biographer12 speculated that, in reaction, he stopped publishing. But, in a rare 1974 interview, the self-exiled scribe insisted that he hadn’t published anything since Hapworth because “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.”13 Which of course begged the question of why he got so obsessively involved in the first place.
Jack Kerouac was legendary for the speed and quantity of his “automatic writing,” but his output slowed considerably after the success of On the Road and its two sequels. He complained to his fellow dharma bum, poet Gary Snyder, about all the fan letters “insanely demanding something” and “what a crock of shit it is to have to satisfy every Tom Dick and Harry stranger in the world.” He fantasized about “getting away in the mountains forever” where he could “get back into my mind.”
Harper Lee too felt suffocated by public attention. She abandoned The Long Goodbye in the first trimester – after one hundred pages. The publicity from her firstborn, To Kill a Mockingbird, was taking up all her time, and she wasn’t sure she could deliver another golden child. “When you’re at the top there’s only one way to go,” she told her cousin.
Spared such problems himself, the ever-prolific Gore Vidal said: “First coffee. Then a bowel movement. Then the muse joins me.”
Another celebrity scribe used a more no-nonsense approach to avoid the dreaded Block: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me,” Hunter Thompson said before remaindering himself with his .44 and being shot into space.
The final purgatory for some of the greatest novelists was what they, in their youth, might have expected to be heaven itself: capturing the Holy Grail of their profession – the Nobel Prize.
Of the seven American novelists who won the prize, only Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway seemed unequivocally thrilled. When Hemingway was overlooked by the Academy in 1949 in favor of Faulkner, the fierce competitor said he never had any respect for the institution; but when he was honored five years later, he crowed to his wife: ‘My Kitten, I’ve got that thing.” However, he declined to attend Stockholm ceremony due to near fatal injuries from recent plane crashes in Africa, not to mention his deteriorating mental health. As for Faulkner, never thrilled to leave his hometown of Oxford, he travelled to Sweden only under duress. On return, he turned down President Kennedy’s invitation to a White House dinner in his honor, saying: “Tell them I’m too old at my age to travel that far to eat with strangers.”
Before receiving the Nobel himself, Steinbeck, who already had a Pulitzer and many other prizes under his belt, wrote: “When those old writing boys get to talking about The Artist, meaning themselves, I want to leave the profession. I don’t know whether the Nobel Prize does it or not, but if it does, thank God I have not been so honored.”
Steinbeck was indeed so honored in 1962. But when asked by the press if he thought he deserved the coveted award, he replied, “Frankly, no.” He attended the ceremony anyway and was not so proud of the award itself, as being the first American since Pearl Buck to curtail his drinking for the occasion. Returning stateside, the novelist wrote his editor, Pat Covici, “I consider the body of my work and do not find it good…I’m not the young writer of promise anymore. I’m a worked-over claim.” Many critics agreed. They said he hadn’t done anything noteworthy since The Grapes of Wrath. Toward the end of his life, Steinbeck even distanced himself from the best of his work : “The rows of my books on the shelf are to me are like very well embalmed corpses,” he said. “They are neither alive nor mine… I have forgotten them.”
When Steinbeck confessed that he didn’t feel he deserved the Nobel, he was likely thinking of Tolstoy considered by many the greatest novelist in history. But had Tolstoy won the prize in the last nine years of his life14, he likely would have refused it, as did Sartre, Saroyan, and Pasternak later on. Becoming a Christian ascetic, the Count called his books an “embarrassment.” Even as a young man he had been ambivalent about a literary career. “To write novels that are charming and entertaining to read, at 31 years of age -- I gasp at the thought!”15 At age 49, he recoiled at the public “delirium” his Anna Karenina caused, much as Steinbeck had with what he called the “ballyhoo” over his own work.
Samuel Beckett received the Nobel seven years after Steinbeck. The Academy had voted him down the year before due to his “bottomless contempt for the human condition.” Reversing themselves in 1969, the judges celebrated his writing which “in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.” Put off the sophistry, and cynical about the whole idea of awards, Beckett accepted the prize but refused to attend the gala. His wife, Suzanne, called the award a "catastrophe."
The 2007 laureate, Doris Lessing, felt the same way, in spite of being deemed “the epicist of the female experience.” “All I do is give interviews and spend time being photographed,” she complained. “It’s been a bloody disaster.”
The most recent American novelist to be honored by the Swedish Academy was Toni Morrison in 1993. Though honored, she was ambivalent. “The Nobel Prize is the best thing that can happen to a writer in terms of how it affects your contracts,” she told Time magazine. “And if you let it, it will intimidate you about future projects.”
The moral of these stories was expressed by both George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” America’s most esteemed playwright, Tennessee Williams, put it more succinctly: “Success and failure are equally disastrous.”
The final le mot juste word, however, goes the most universally admired novelist in history outside Tolstoy, Gustav Flaubert. Though he called writing “a dog’s life,” why did he say “it was the only one worth living?” “The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success,” he explained, “but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life, and the promise of future accomplishments.”