In Hot Pursuit of the Next American Word Wizard

“One mustn’t criticize other people on grounds where he can’t stand perpendicular himself.”
– Mark Twain

I am attracted to American Idol each week not for the sinful pleasure and uncertainty of what will spring forth from rock marionette Steven Tyler’s epic lips. Nor am I riveted by the breathless voluptuousness of Jennifer Lopez (though she is quite ravishing). And no, Dawg, I am not hooked on the staccato shouts and mostly banal mantras of Randy Jackson. Nor, finally, am I enamored by the Colgate smile and Dick Cavett-like charm of Ryan Seacrest. (My wife has even lost her adolescent-like crush on Seacrest after he decided to poof up his hair like a daytime soap opera gigolo.)

What drives me to gleefully return week-in and week-out to this reality TV cesspool of melodrama–a blasted singing contest, for Pete Townshend’s sake– is the sheer talent of the contestants, first and foremost. And then the sportsmanlike judging of that talent.

Despite infinitely better entertainment options between the pages of a book, I am glued to the flat screen because I am an American voyeur, and like my voyeuristic brothers and sisters, I have become an armchair critic obsessed with the performance evaluation of my fellow citizens, be they presidential candidates or recording star hopefuls.

As a publisher I too live the life of a talent judge. Only instead of choosing the winning racehorse in a shell game of false promises or paring down a bevy of vocal chops, I am taxed (and blessed) with the burden of trying to handpick the next Great American novel among the several hundred manuscript queries that currently fill our inboxes at Atticus Books.

Thankfully I have help in the genie-in-a-bottle-like form of Assistant Editor Libby O’Neill. In addition, I lean on my supportive, literature-loving spouse and a few anonymous, trusty readers to lessen my reading and screening load. In the end, the decision to acquire and pursue publication rests with me (typically after a lengthy, round-robin discussion and assessment period).

We first discuss the writing of the manuscript more than the story. We then examine the author’s blogosphere activity, her understanding of the marketplace, and her circle of influence. Finally, if the writer passes those first few lines of defense, we look closely at the novel, dissect its engagement quotient, and weigh its lasting impact.

Some of the questions we ask:

  • Is the author’s way with words stellar enough to meet and exceed the narrative bar that we keep raising?
  • Is the work under consideration her debut release or does she have some experience on the indie lit circuit?
  • Will she make a good business partner? Will she grow to trust our instincts?
  • Will she know how to support our press? Will she build a mutual, online platform?
  • Will she know how to market her writing and build a following without using tactless in-your-face sales ploys?
  • Are we kindred spirits?
  • Is the novel original? Is it told in a distinct voice? Does it deserve a place on my bookshelf next to the heavy hitters of literature?

Internally we hardly discuss the mass marketability of the title–or if the target audience is brought up, it’s stated as an afterthought. Our mindset is that if a book is worth reading, publishing and preserving, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easy to market. Frequently it’s the opposite. It’s why unaffiliated literary presses have a near-impossible time staying in business. Our market is as narrow as the aisles of a cramped used bookstore. Literary presses fill a very specific crevice in the marketplace. We appeal to readers who like to think and writers who like to invent. Talk about your conundrums.

What fascinates me most about our house’s evaluation process is the vast number of intangibles that sway our decision, a decision that always feels mutual even when I appear to make it in a vacuum or what may seem to be in unilateral, executive fashion.

(Timeout for an old-school industry secret: Those long lags in communication between writer and publisher? They’re really a result of earnest conversations between publishing muses. They have nothing to do with indecision or concerns of  funding shortfalls. These worries draw indifference and cruel cackles from publishing gods (as worries are wont to do). This so-called predicament (known as a crisis of faith among mortal souls) doesn’t register as cause for intervention from a chorus of curators. When a press is out to change the world, earthbound angel investors run for cover; no business plan makes up for artful instincts and sweat equity.)

All right, where were we? Oh yeah, judging talent. (As if…) Because I have a wide open-door policy as a publisher (of which I am proud, to my detriment), many writers think nothing of sending me personal e-mails and queries even when we have specifically spelled out to them that the submission season is closed. For five months running, we have reluctantly explained on our How to Publish with Us page that our coffers are overflowing and yet still we get reams of proposals. And I perpetuate the problem because instead of promptly deleting the messages as I should, I cannot help but scan every one to see if I’m the least bit engaged by the cover letter or interested in the novel’s premise.

Yes, folks, I am battling a fatal illness–an endless, wildly ambitious (some might say delusional) quest for literary talent. I’m in hot pursuit of the next “best writer of his or her generation,” a word magician in the same mold as David Foster Wallace or Carson McCullers. Not that I have a particular yearning to own the rights to a copycat magnum opus with 388 endnotes conjoined by more endnotes. And not that I wouldn’t in all likelihood reject the next Infinite Jest because I undoubtedly would have had trouble “accessing” its genius or glibly turn down The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter because of its brutally honest and tragic portrayal of the terminally afflicted. It’s just that I fear letting the next immortal work of literature fall through the cracks of my imperfect small press house of mirrors.

The climb is steep when you’re in an uphill chase to discover greatness.

A sensible, bottom-line thinking publisher would fear swinging and missing at the next doctored pitch of a JK Rowling protégé or the next coming of Suzanne Collins, but me? No. I fear letting slip through my fingers a book that 99.2% of the reading population wouldn’t buy, read or appreciate anyway, and the critics wouldn’t even deem worthy of revisiting until long after my ashes were resting on the backs of sea turtles. And in my glowing afterlife of taking sea turtles for a free ride, I would kick the fate of my phantom, underground classic and curse the glittering undertow of our fame-obsessed culture while Lucifer’s after-hours band of merry pranksters hitchhiked a shooting star from Barney Rosset’s rainbow to the silver-lined cloud of Sylvia Beach to a faraway galaxy of nearsighted bank officers who eat alphabet soup for breakfast and indiscriminately hand out vouchers for second print runs.

The definition of spinelessness in my book is when bold and daring manuscripts die on the vine, i.e., before they even have a chance to blossom into objects of merit.

Yet despite the harbinger clang of conventional wisdom, critics heralded DFW in his short lifetime and readers rallied around his commanding, multidisciplinary, heartbreakingly palpable prose. Critics and readers also embraced the then 22-year-old Carson McCullers as a remarkable debut novelist with her tender treatment of complex issues. What caused this love affair? Which editor spotted DFW’s striped cranium on a predominantly polka dot planet and claimed it a national treasure? Who gave Carson McCullers the break that led to her life in letters?

Libby can tell you that I truly have an incurable disease. I’m a glutton for slush pile punishment. But instead of reigning me in, she politely demurs to my whimsical requests (by way of forwarded e-mails) and adds another query to the endless spreadsheet. I know that she wants me to stop being such a pantywaist and reject the rule breakers out of principle. After all, without parameters, this profession is bedlam. And independent publishing needs no help in that department.

Yet I support those who color outside the lines as much if not more than those who comply with our wishes because I’m in the arts and people in the arts aren’t here because we have a choice. And patrons of the arts don’t support artists because we admire their sensibility.

Levelheadedness may get you a nice corner office suite with a view of the city skyline, but that trait often doesn’t mix with the makeup of a person whose primary purpose is to create beauty and despair and separate themselves from a pack of corporate lemmings who write memos and think using spellcheck is a form of editing.

But of course I digress.

Judging. My name is Daniel. Who on earth am I to judge?


“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”
– Benjamin Franklin

Two seasons removed from American Idol judge Simon Cowell. Two seasons removed from his snide, caustic remarks. His scowling condemnations. What have we learned? Apparently we dig kinder, friendlier judges. A syrupy support group. Endorsements and warm fuzzies aplenty. Ain’t this what dreams are made of?

Like many viewers, I tune in and listen to every American Idol performer’s every note, observe every cross-step and stumble, and critique every last gasp and expression as if it were my own family member risking humiliation while teetering on the brink of fame and fortune.

I am enamored by J Lo’s endearingly instructive coaching style. I am flummoxed by Randy’s glibness. I am hopeful that the face of Aerosmith will flip a bird, moon the audience, make a pass at a schoolgirl with her nonplussed father watching while graying Uncle Sammy’s jaw drops and we assess the collateral damage of a 64-year-old stage stooge openly ogling a 16-year-old in front of a national TV audience of tens of millions.

And then I inspect the dress of the contestant. I admonish her for how she amateurishly strolls the stage in her too-high heels and too-short dress. I judge her self-consciousness. I condemn her song choice. I hold my trust that America will get it right and squeeze her off the show by not casting a vote for her number.

How did this happen? When did I become a Nielsen rating statistic? When did criticism become a part of my makeup?

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