Pub­lish­ing: A Writer’s Mem­oir by Gail God­win

Pasatiempo - - FRONT PAGE - — James McGrath Mor­ris

Pub­lish­ing: A Writer’s Mem­oir by Gail God­win, with draw­ings by Frances Hals­band, Blooms­bury USA, 224 pages

As this is­sue of Pasatiempo at­tests to, the pub­lish­ing world is chang­ing — and for those for whom books mat­ter, it is a dis­con­cert­ing time. Best-sell­ing au­thor Gail God­win was thus pre­scient in se­lect­ing the ti­tle

Pub­lish­ing for her en­gag­ing, though at times some­what mad­den­ing, mem­oir of her life as a writer in an era when ed­i­tors bought au­thors lunch, agents called clients at home at all hours, and pub­lish­ing was a cozy club, once one gained ad­mis­sion.

“This lit­tle vol­ume,” ex­plains God­win at the be­gin­ning of her il­lus­trated book, “is a med­i­ta­tion on pub­lish­ing — on the hunger to be pub­lished, on the pur­suit of pub­li­ca­tion, and on the prac­tices and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions that go with be­ing a pub­lished writer.” God­win has plenty of fod­der for her med­i­ta­tion. Af­ter 14 nov­els — many of them best sell­ers — com­ing in three times as a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Book Award, and re­ceiv­ing nu­mer­ous pres­ti­gious grants, she nar­rates a writ­ing life that be­gan dur­ing a time when pub­lisher Al­fred A. Knopf dis­patched scouts to col­lege cam­puses in search of lit­er­ary tal­ent.

Writ­ing from the pleas­ant van­tage point of some­one who sub­se­quently met with enor­mous suc­cess, God­win opens her mem­oir with a tale of painful fail­ure. A Knopf scout with an emer­ald wed­ding ring and a “so­phis­ti­cated” brown­ish-mauve man­i­cure found that God­win’s five-page writ­ing sam­ple fell short. “‘Sorry, this isn’t right for us, but good luck,’ ” she told the as­pir­ing writer, then a jour­nal­ism stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “As I slogged along in­side my bub­ble of fail­ure be­neath the Great Amer­i­can Nov­el­ist’s an­cient trees,” God­win writes, “it struck me for the first time that I was noth­ing new, just the lat­est model of a young per­son hun­gry for suc­cess, and pos­si­bly one of the very many who was not go­ing to make it.”

Kath­leen Kra­hen­buhl, the writer’s mother, who had walked the same cam­pus paths 24 years ear­lier, in­cul­cated God­win with a sim­i­lar love of sto­ry­telling. “We made up sto­ries to­gether, in which I was al­lowed to do aw­ful things un­der the alias of some­one called Theophilus, the Aw­fullest Bear in the World,” the au­thor writes. Although she ap­pears di­rectly on only a limited num­ber of pages, God­win’s mother is a touch­ing pres­ence through­out the mem­oir and is its best part. When God­win tele­phoned her with the news of Ran­dom House’s re­jec­tion of her first novel, her mother said, “‘You’ve still got us. Come for Christ­mas.’ ” “‘But, I was just there last sum­mer,’ ” God­win had protested. “‘Well, come again,’” replied her mother, whose own un­even ca­reer as a nov­el­ist and play­wright as­sured an em­pa­thetic ear for her daugh­ter. Then, a few pages later, Harper & Row of­fers a con­tract. God­win rushes to tell friends and col­leagues. “I had saved the most im­por­tant phone call for last,” she writes. “‘Now when you come for Christ­mas we will re­ally have some­thing to cel­e­brate,’” her mother says. “‘I know what this means, be­lieve me. And you know I know what it means.’ ”

But aside from th­ese heart­felt mo­ments, the re­main­der of the book is mostly a chatty ren­der­ing of God­win’s pas­sage from one pub­lish­ing house to an­other, from one edi­tor to an­other, from one agent to an­other, from one con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tion to an­other, and from one best­selling book to an­other. The ac­count is unin­spired and fre­quently seems to serve as a means to get the last word in.

For in­stance, she seeks to cor­rect the de­scrip­tion of her pro­fes­sional breakup with the noted edi­tor Robert Got­tlieb con­tained in an in­ter­view with him. She re­prints the of­fend­ing por­tion and then spends sev­eral pages pro­vid­ing her ver­sion. Like many mem­oirists, God­win’s ac­count here and in other places bor­ders on lit­er­ary re­venge. But this sort of cat­ti­ness is preva­lent among writ­ers in the airy sum­mits of pub­lish­ing and writ­ing, so read­ers may love peer­ing in through the win­dow she opens to this world.

The book cer­tainly of­fers an au­thor’s per­spec­tive on the dra­matic changes in pub­lish­ing dur­ing the past 30 years. Much of what God­win de­scribes, from the con­cen­tra­tion of own­er­ship of the pub­lish­ing houses to the ob­ses­sion over brand­ing au­thors, is well known, but she cap­tures what it felt like. “A mood of fore­bod­ing has blighted the air of ca­ma­raderie and grace. We sense we are ex­pected to dance faster or more gain­fully, and our un­cer­tainty makes us tense.” Specif­i­cally, God­win laments the end of job se­cu­rity for ed­i­tors, who are of­ten gone by the time a writer has com­pleted the con­tracted work. “It’s hard to main­tain your equi­lib­rium when your dance part­ners keep get­ting dragged off the floor.”

In the end, the book of­fers two re­wards. For writ­ers, God­win ac­cu­rately cap­tures the all-con­sum­ing, vis­ceral drive to be pub­lished that sets apart those who make into print from those who don’t. It is, as she right­fully de­scribes, a hunger. For those for­tu­nate enough to have moth­ers who stood by them when they pur­sued a goal, ca­reer, or dream, Pub­lish­ing serves as a paean to that kind of par­ent­ing. When I fin­ished read­ing the book, I wished not that I had met the fa­mous ed­i­tors and writ­ers who pop­u­late the book. Rather, I wanted to have met God­win’s in­spi­ra­tional mother.

To her credit, the seventy-seven-year-old au­thor and ben­e­fi­ciary of so much lit­er­ary suc­cess knows who to thank. Thumb­ing through the pages of the mem­oir one last time, I came across the ded­i­ca­tion page. There, God­win had aptly in­scribed the book to her mother.

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