The (Un)Romantic Path of Literary Fiction: Alfred A. Knopf (Part III)

The great writer Norman Maclean, whose novella A River Runs Through It is a minor masterpiece, was ruthlessly jerked around by Alfred A. Knopf. When, a few years after his novella was finally published by the University of Chicago Press and became a literary sensation, he was contacted by an editor at Knopf, inquiring about his next book, he couldn't contain his venom toward them. Here's his powerful, sardonically funny, letter. Thirty years later I can feel the man's pain, from a personal, experiential level.

After waiting nearly half a year (!) for notes from Jordan Pavlin, the senior editor at Knopf who had bought my proposal for a novel titled The Road Back based on a screenplay I had written, I finally got a 2 ½ page letter from her. Not a phone call, not an attached e-mail, but an actual letter. The notes were discursive, rambling... trust me, wholly unhelpful. A week later we talked on the phone for the first time ever. The conversation, though friendly, lasted no more than 20 minutes -- I once spoke to an agent on my first, unpublished novel, for over three hours about changes. We spoke about the need to the cut the book down, and that was pretty much the gist of the conversation. It was patently obvious to me that she was distancing herself from the book, that she couldn't have cared less about it.

With no feedback of any value, and now with getting paid on the second half of the contract sadly foremost on my mind, I went back inside the manuscript and cut the book down to a more manageable 135,000 words. It's a big novel, it's a tragi-comic epic road novel, if you will, but 135,000 words would translate to a 400-page published novel, long by today's standards, but certainly not in the Franzen or Foster Wallace category. The reason I had signed on to write a book for Knopf, when there was more money on the table in dispiriting screenplay assignments after the meteoric success of Sideways, was because I was truly hoping, in my heart of hearts, to have the chance to work, after the debacle with Elizabeth Beier of St. Martin's Press on Sideways, with a skilled editor from one of the great literary houses in all of New York publishing. As I was waiting for response on my second draft, with every passing day my joy of saying I was writing a book for Knopf devolved into anger, then depression, then suicidal despair.

So, to repeat myself, after waiting nearly a half a year for response on my first draft we were four months into waiting on Jordan's response on the second draft when I was speaking with my agent Dan Strone of Trident Media Group. I was openly expressing my frustration, openly venting my wounded soul over having gone down this romantic path of literary fiction and having been burned. Like all agents, when a writer complains -- which I rarely do -- he clammed up. At one point he said: "What do you really want to do?" I said, "I want to write the Sideways sequel." I want to take the mother/son story of The Road Back and morph it into the sequel. I need the material from The Road Back, and I need their permission to do this. He said he would get back to me.

Strone, I learned later, either never made that phone call or, if he did, he never communicated to me what was really going on behind my back. He told me to go ahead, but I always thought there was something funny about the fact that I never saw a revised contract giving me the legal go-ahead. I reasoned that I was doing them all a favor by writing the Sideways sequel because it had a built-in audience that was colossal. With money running out, and galvanized by getting the unofficial go-ahead from Strone, I started writing the Sideways sequel with renewed hope; hell, renewed fervor. Little did I know that Pavlin/Knopf were apparently already plotting behind my back to exercise the clause in the contract that fatalistically read: "Upon acceptance of manuscript." Strone was playing a high-stakes game. If Knopf canceled the contract he would surely sell it somewhere else. He didn't tell me that. Nor did he tell me that Knopf was planning to cancel the contract.

What happened next with Pavlin/Knopf, puppeteered by Strone, in my opinion, may have constituted fraud. I didn't know what was going on behind my back. Liberated from The Road Back -- a book I just assumed Jordan loathed -- I marched forward with what would become Vertical, the Sideways sequel. And once again my life would get worse before it got better. When I say that I hope traditional publishing is destroyed by Amazon, or whomever, that's coming from someone who has long held these publishers in jaw-dropping awe, as though they were the Mount Olympus that every writer strove to summit. And when I finally did summit that mountain, it was like I had found a party of mountebanks and cold capitalists who couldn't have cared less about the suffering of a writer who only wanted to be treated with dignity and respect. I felt as though the family I had finally earned the right to be a member of was now nefariously gearing up to institutionalize me, as if I were a mentally disabled child that they didn't want to show to their literary society friends.

In the final part I finish Vertical, only to learn that behind my back Knopf never had any intention of publishing it, that my agent deliberately hid information from Knopf from me, and that Pavlin never even read the novel that she ultimately turned down for publication.