Damp garbage and the writing process

John Steinbeck, in Writers at Work, recounts a fictional dialog with a publisher, illustrating the gauntlet of publishing a book.

His tale is cranky and entertaining, and I’m sure some authors can relate:

The book does not go from writer to reader. It goes first to the lions – editors, publishers, critics, copy readers, sales department. It is kicked and slashed and gouged. And its bloodied father stands attorney.

Editor: The reader won’t understand. What you call counterpoint only slows the book.

Writer: It has to be slowed. How else would you know when it goes fast?

Sales department: The book’s too long. Costs are up. We’ll have to charge five dollars for it. People won’t pay five dollars. They won’t buy it.

Writer: My last book was short. You said then that people won’t buy a short book.

Proofreader: The chronology is full of holes. The grammar has no relation to English. On page so and so you have a man look in the World Almanac for steamship rates. They aren’t there. I checked. You’ve got the Chinese new year wrong. The characters aren’t consistent. You describe Liza Hamilton one way and then have her act a different way.

Editor: You make Cathy too black. The reader won’t believe her. You make Sam Hamilton too white. The reader won’t believe him. No Irishman ever talked like that.

Writer: My grandfather did.

Editor: Who’ll believe it.

2nd editor: No children ever talked like that.

Editors: Lets see if we can fix it up. It won’t be much work. You want it to be good, don’t you? For instance, the ending. The reader won’t understand it.

Writer: Do you?

Editor: Yes, but the reader won’t.

There you are… You came in with a box of glory, and there you stand with an arm full of damp garbage.

He then takes all the criticism together to show how contradictory it can seem:

The Reader:

  • He is so stupid you can’t trust him with an idea.
  • He is so clever he will catch you in the least error.
  • He will not buy short books.
  • He will not buy long books.
  • He is part moron, part genius, part ogre.
  • There is some doubt as to whether he can read.

From Writers at Work, The Paris review interviews, 4th series.

4 Responses to “Damp garbage and the writing process”

  1. jonny rubbish

    i agree with your analysis of the guy reading your script but that’s life at the bottom, we still need these pond life, they are our stepping stones to successfully publishing.
    There is however a tragedy in the amount of genius writers are tripped up as being artistic they are normally placid and full of empathy.
    That’s why arse-holes like most management prey on them, eat their flesh and guts and throw away the bones, after taking 20% of course.

  2. Ramona Anderson

    Thanks for the chuckle….

    P. S. Still waiting for my free kitty

    1. Scott

      I sent you a half dozen of them. I think your mailman is a thief.



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