On Politeness (and its Absence) In A Writing Life

Years ago, when I was a recent graduate from the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago, I sent my newly minted thesis out to a small (but not tiny) press. I’d met the managing editor at a conference, and shared a nice conversation with him about books, writers, and the nightlife of Chicago (where the conference was being held.) He encouraged me to send him my manuscript.

♦Sidebar: I was in my twenties and taught aerobics as an avocation. I was wearing a short black skirt, smoky tights, and high heels. Perhaps this combination of things is what really compelled him to invite me to keep in touch.♦

I sent the manuscript with all the high hopes of a new writer. I will be discovered; I will be reviewed well; I will win prizes; I will beat the odds and even make some money here. Someone will buy the rights for the book and make it into a smart, poignant, slightly edgy independent film. The film will be reviewed well, win prizes, etc., etc., etc.

You know what happens next. Months pass without a word. Finally, though, a fat packet of manuscript pages comes back in the mail stuffed in an envelope addressed by my own hand. The dreaded SASE of days gone by: the one we had to pay the extra postage for so our manuscripts could be returned (no electronic submissions in those days, no discs or easy, cheap printing and photocopying. Each manuscript was precious, costly, and re-sent.) In the pages of the manuscript was also this note—not, by the way, written by the publisher who kept glancing at my legs when we met, and held my hand a little longer than was necessary when we shook hands goodbye—“Blah, blah, blah, no thanks, blah blah blah.” (Okay, those quoted words aren’t accurate. The message is, but the words are paraphrased.) What was really said, though, in the note written by someone I am rather certain was a summer intern, a slush pile reader (judging from the snarkiness and odd formatting of the typewritten page) was this: “While it is clear that you care deeply for your character, your audience cares less.”



At a party (no, make that many parties, conferences, literary gatherings) and I am excited about the upcoming (or recent) release of my short story collection, The Temple of Air. I tell friends and anyone who might be interested, and many other folks who probably will not give—as they say—a shit. Still. It is a big deal. These stories have been published in various journals and anthologies, have garnered nominations and won awards and have been collected, sifted, re-sorted, reworked, and rearranged, inserted, excerpted, tweaked, covered in coffee stains and ink, been made into a nest by the cats to sleep on in the sun. A whole lot of work went into this book. And my publisher, Elephant Rock Books, is a new kid on this block, just starting out, trying to take its place and make its mark.

All very exciting stuff, yes?

So when I tell folks, I do get the wide smile, the hearty congratulations. And then I get this:

“Who’s doing it?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Who is the publisher?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Did you (will you) make any money?”

In literary-circle talk, that might mean “Is this somewhere I can send my work?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Is this a big deal?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Have you broken through?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Is this an important book published by an important press?”

The question is the literary equivalent of turning a plate over to look at the hallmark, of checking the label in a fancy dress, of glancing at the price tag inadvertently left on a gift.

The question—“Who’s doing it?”—is, in my opinion, rude. Especially in this day and age when publishers can be found in the most inauspicious places, when book lovers are doing all they can to make books live, when little known presses are making big, important or highly-desired and widely-read books like The Lord of the Misrule, American Salvage, Go the Fuck to Sleep, The Time Traveler’s Wife and so many more titles. Rude especially in this day and age when big publishers—the ones who can make those folks who ask the “Who’s doing it?” question draw breath, smack their lips, bat their eyes and follow you around once they know you have an “important book” coming out from an “important press”—when these big publishers are spending thousands (millions?) of dollars of their acquisitions budgets on books by celebrity darlings and abstinence ex-witches and governors going anything but rogue.

What matters—what must matter if we who love and write and read books get to be part of the equation, the occupation—is the publication, not the publisher, yes?


A reader who asked me if she could read one of my published stories, and more recently, another reader of my book (which, by the way, she did not pay for but won in a readers’ website giveaway—clearly she had not read the description of the book or perhaps she would not have entered the contest, would have cleared the way for someone who did want this sort of book to win it) told me (and others) what they didn’t like about the work. One told me directly, as in: “I really didn’t like the magic at the end of the story. It isn’t the kind of thing I go for.” Another wrote a review (if you follow me on Facebook, you probably have seen my comments on this) for the readers’ website about the overuse of cuss words and drug use. She gave it two stars.

She is, of course, entitled to her opinion. (As is the woman who said what she said about magic in the story.) Some might say that this is merely honesty. I would posit that it is in fact, rude. If a person baked a cake and you asked for a slice would you tell that person that you thought it was too rich? That it was not to your liking? If you answer yes to this question, let me break it to you—you are not being helpful or constructive, you are being rude.

You say: “Thank you.”

You say: “I don’t usually eat pistachio,” if you must.

You say: “Wow. There is a lot here. I’ll save the rest for later.”


That’s all I’m saying. I’ll save the rest for later.


As always, thanks for reading. -PMc←