Many writers speak of the joy of writing, how the day is not complete unless they can sit down and work on their latest story, how they would write if nobody knew they wrote, how writing completes them like icing on a cake. Most writers also know that even on the best of days, the gods conspire to defeat their best efforts, or cause mischief, or add a few roadblocks where logic says there should be none.
The writer’s first duty is, perhaps, not getting so frustrated when the gods conspire that s/he comes to a point where s/he can no longer write. At the same time, it’s considered bad form for a writer to complain in public, so other than having a sympathetic and patient spouse, writers seldom have anyone willing to listen to their frustrations.
When I think of my own frustrations about major publishers and reviewers, I remember my college writing instructor Michael Shaara’s frustrations. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1974 novel The Killer Angels. Even so, most people never heard of it until after the movie based on the novel was released in 1993 five years after Shaara died of a heart attack at 59. Then reviewers started saying The Killer Angels was the best civil war book ever written. I can’t help but think how the gods conspire when he never heard that or saw that readers finally discovered his work.
But that’s not the half of it. His best novel The Rebel in Autumn, written prior to The Killer Angels, never found a publisher in his lifetime. Written about the protests of the 1960s, it was (perhaps) too current for publishers to accept. Like his baseball novel For The Love of the Game, which became a Kevin Costner film in 1999, Rebel was published through the influence of his children Jeff and Lila (both are authors) posthumously in 2013.
I doubt it does an author any good to have some close friend say, “You feel unappreciated now, but after you’re dead, people will love your work.” When the gods conspire, they love this scenario. Loners at Florida State University in the 1960s–myself included–were drawn to Shaara as a kindred spirit. We all felt out of place and we talked about this between classes at a spot that served decent coffee and didn’t mess with while you used to booth without paying rent. We all knew what the gods did and we all felt that one day our numbers would be up.
So, The Rebel in Autumn doesn’t surprise me as a novel (other than how good it is and how wrong the rejecting publishers were) because we talked about protest, the war, the establishment government, most people over 30, the political vicissitudes of a university, and the survival of the nation. The novel was and is about our shared experience, our common worries, and our frustrations with the absurdities of our daily lives.
I do not feel comfortable reviewing my mentor’s novel, but I can say that I share his frustrations about the lack of good sense of major agents and publishers.
Malcolm R. Campbell
Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing