If there’s a writer alive who doesn’t have an odd story about how he or she got published for the first time, that person might not be a writer. Gail Godwin, who’s been a finalist for the National Book Award three times and published five best-sellers, should receive some kind of award for perseverance, though. Her first editor, David Segal, died at the age of 42 the day before she was supposed to meet him for the first time. He published her first novel, The Perfectionists, in 1970 at Harper & Row and then moved to Knopf, where he bought her second novel, The Angel Keeper. Instead of having lunch with him, she met with legendary Robert Gottlieb, the editor in chief and publisher at the time, who asked her what kind of editor she’d like to work with since hers had just died. “Well, it will have to be someone who appreciates great literature,” she told him, according to Godwin’s new book Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir. Then she started crying in his office.
The fact that Godwin is willing in this book to be honest and tell on herself makes it a valuable guide for new writers. She knows she was being pompous the day she claimed to write “great literature,” but she also cuts herself some slack given what she was going through at the time. You get the feeling finishing this book that Godwin has managed in her career to absorb the most meaningful advice she ever heard about being a writer. As she remembers it, Isak Dinesen once said something along the lines of “just be able to go on without hope and you’ll be fine.”
That dire counsel reads like something today’s young writers should adopt, not a woman who went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was taught by Kurt Vonnegut. But one of the insights of reading Publishing is being reminded that the trial of upheaval we’re now experiencing in publishing certainly isn’t the first, or even the most dramatic, upheaval the industry has weathered. Godwin writes evocatively about the moment she decided in the early 1980s to leave Knopf to be published by Viking. Then, in 1983, Peter Mayer fired the president of Viking. Godwin’s agent called a nd told her that “nobody’s answering their phones over there, but it’s rumored there’s a bloodbath coming.” “Twice my editor or publisher was fired on my publication day,” Godwin explains. In her memoir, she refers to the early ’80s as the era when publishing “went through some ungainly and ruthless stages.” Which sounds like today.
There’s a nostalgia complex those of us in publishing sometimes like to indulge in. It’s the idea that in the good old days, publishing was a less corporate, more gentlemanly calling and everyone was kinder. After doing the research for an article I wrote in 2013 on our 80th anniversary about Virginia Kirkus and the founding of Kirkus Reviews, I stopped believing all that gentlemanly stuff. Godwin’s memoir reminded me that even though the nostalgia is inapt, there are a lot of reasons to love being a part of publishing.
Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews.