Wednesday, September 08, 2004


There's now been some back-and-forth commentary between
Maud Newton and Terry Teachout. About this piece by Gal Beckerman about author Stacy Sullivan. I am more in agreement with TT than with Maud; in fact, I thought he could have been even stronger in his remarks. Here's the thing though (and I hope I am not going to sound disrespectful of the author, because of course it's heartbreaking when you pour your soul into a book & then it doesn't get the huge amount of recognition you dreamed of getting). As far as I can tell from the article, the author should have been more realistic to begin with about what a moderate-sized advance meant for the house's commitment to the book. But it's more than that. The following quotation speaks for itself: this isn't a story about the fact that publishers no longer properly edit, it's a story about an author who must have been quite difficult to work with: she missed her first deadline by a mile, probably missed other deadlines, changed her mind a number of times about what book she was writing, then handed in an inappropriate and overly long manuscript that she thought someone else would just take care of for her. It's hardly surprising that things went as they did--again, I don't say this to disparage Sullivan, just to suggest that it sounds to me like there were serious misunderstandings going BOTH ways. Here are the relevant paragraphs, anyway:

"Sullivan signed her book deal in mid-2001, and her first deadline was September 15 of that year. She realized, a month before the date, that she would have only half ready. Then came September 11. It had taken her time to focus and settle into the writing, but after spending a few weeks transfixed, like most New Yorkers, in front of the television, she began to feel completely incapacitated by the shift in the world’s attention. The book just didn’t feel relevant anymore. When her idea was sold, the war in Kosovo had seemed to be a key for understanding future U.S. foreign policy. Her book was to be a ground-level account of this new era of humanitarian intervention. In a matter of minutes, this storyline had been eclipsed by terrorism and holy war, and all her journalist friends were rushing off to Afghanistan. Adding to Sullivan’s woes, she had also grown disillusioned with her book’s heroes. Once the NATO bombing ended and the Serbian paramilitary was forced to leave Kosovo, the Kosovo Albanians quickly began harassing the small Serbian population. From once being the victims, they had become the perpetrators of the violence. “I felt sort of betrayed and distraught and I started hating all my characters and I just had a hard time writing it,” Sullivan says.

"She sent the first half, waited for feedback, and says all she got back was a note saying, “Excellent work. When can you be finished?” Discouraged by the lack of substantive response, she nevertheless kept working.

"Her new deadline was July 2003. After two more years of work, she managed to turn in a sprawling 600-page draft that she hoped her editor would then slice in half. It was all the material she had amassed, including a long digression in the form of a travelogue of her time on the road with the war photographer Ron Haviv. In short, nothing that was ready for publication.

"A few weeks later, waiting for a call from her editor, Sullivan got a package in the mail containing her 600-page ramble — copyedited and with an attached index. She panicked. “I had turned in what I thought was a draft and I had gotten back this copyedited manuscript,” Sullivan says. “They were just going to print that. And it was so rough. There was no way.” But the book was already on the conveyor belt. It was listed in the next season’s catalogue and the sales representatives had begun pitching it to booksellers. Everyone, including her agent, told her there was really nothing to be done. But Sullivan insisted they pull the plug. “It wreaked such havoc,” she says. “They had to take it off the production train, where it takes on a life of its own.”"

On the whole, more cautionary to publishers buying first books on the basis of a proposal than to authors! However, I really do wish Sullivan the best of luck with her book--which sounds quite interesting.

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