Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir by Gail Godwin
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.