Friday, July 23, 2010

Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees

People often have warped images of writers: they drink or smoke too much, they obsess (think of Joshua Ferris’s cunning portrait in his recent short story “The Pilot”), they are quirky and maniacal (think of Jack Nicholson’s two roles as a writer). Thus, many people, afflicted by those images, shake their head mournfully when they hear you’re interested in pursuing writing as a profession.

Some of these stereotypes come from people who’ve had few encounters with writers (perhaps they bumped into a pungent and mustachioed English major sporting a beret). Some come from deep within the writing trenches: Gardner presents a caricature of his own in On Becoming a Novelist. It’s healthy, though, to read accounts written by people who are deeply familiar with real, professional writers. Betsy Lerner is one of them. She worked as an editor for years, and got an MFA before that, so she’s been around writers for a while. She wrote The Forest for the Trees (New York, 2000; 284 pp.) by drawing from that experience, and she did so with writers and editors in mind.

The book is divided into two parts: writing and publishing. The first puts the spotlight on writers as they toil away. It’s not preoccupied with techniques, but rather with the profile of writers and with how that profile often interferes with writing. She discusses the idea of “natural” writers (chapter 2), and claims perseverance, rather than raw talent, is the best predictor of success (33). She describes how the pull of family and community holds some writers back from gushing out on certain subjects (chapter 3). The pressures writers face—for instance, when dealing with self-promotion and fame (chapter 4)—often lead to neurotic behaviors (chapter 5) and even to substance abuse or even mental illness (chapter 6).

These chapters are deeply sympathetic. Lerner does not belittle the compulsions she’s found in many writers, the anxieties that drove many to therapists’ couches. But, even though Lerner wrote and published, she sees the pack of writers from the outside, unlike, say, Gardner’s portrait or the wide array of writers’ testimonials and memoirs. She acts more as an ethnographer than as an autobiographer.

The second part tackles publishing. Lerner stresses how much the publishing industry has changed since the days of legendary editors like Maxwell Perkins and Michael Korda. It is now fiercely competitive and commercialized, and publicity plays an extremely important role.

Lerner digs deeper. She wants to prepare writers for what they’ll face once they cross the glass doors they’ve been misting with their breath and actually get inside the publishing industry. The result is often very different from the land of milk and honey writers expect to find upon signing a contract: even successful books toss writers into a world ripped apart by bad reviews, intense pressures to score another hit (which may produce the so-called sophomore slump), or even worse: silence. The book may be ignored by reviewers and readers. Writers need to be prepared for this, Lerner explains. They need to learn to cope with rejection, neglect, meager returns on their hard work.

Some of the specifics of this second part of the book are useful. Lerner covers ground such as whether to get an agent (yes) or call an editor who’s reviewing a manuscript (no). She describes how the sales conference works, how the flap copy is assembled, the deleterious effect of making changes on typeset pages. Titles, jackets, and author photos are all mentioned.

If you’re looking for a book on craft, this isn’t it. If you’re looking how to write the next runaway novel, this isn’t it either. If you want some insights from a kind insider, which will help you question your resolve and prepare for what to expect after getting published, then it’s a good book. It’s packed with editors’ lore and snippets from authors’ interviews. It pays more attention to poets and poetry than any writing books I’ve described on the blog. To a good extent, it’s because poetry was the author’s genre of choice when she wrote. In all, this shouldn’t be the only book on writers or writing that you read, but it’s a helpful addition to others of its kind.

Oh, a revised edition is coming out in October, so you might as well wait a couple months to read it.

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