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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 01/24/2005
Vol. 2, #156

My last column on this site was two long weeks ago when I was talking about being in the doldrums. I also explained way back then (two weeks back) that if you don't let yourself sink into the doldrums, you'll find something else coming along out of practically nowhere, that you didn't anticipate, that wasn't anywhere on the horizon and that you were likely to miss if you didn't just cling to those doldrums instead of letting them pass. Because if I'd clung to them, I wouldn't be writing today's story and I'd still be in the doldrums. Because I would have missed something, one of those sneak unexpected things that always pops up but you don't notice because you're too hypnotized by your doldrums and too preoccupied with all the problems you have to let you catch a glimpse of anything else.

Well, because I knew better, I caught the blip that I could so easily have missed. Somewhere, someone I knew slightly said something about a secret list, and that did it. Let me explain.

In my early writing career which goes back to the mid-thirties, I had no notion of self-promotion. In fact very few of that period's fledgling writers did. Writing was done by shy guys who sat in a corner and scribbled notes while everybody else was making out or having a good time. It's a fact, with Hemingway the major exception. That's the way it was. Writers were super-introverted. They did their work and then stumbled around and made awkward efforts to sell it, but without being pushy. Mostly, for example, I stumbled my way into comics. I didn't look for it. Various friends of mine took me by the hand and suggested I go here and see so-and-so. And soon enough, I was writing the stuff. Big time. Always thinking, like most of us back in those days that this was only temporary and soon enough the big writing opportunity would come along, and someone would buy my first, awkward, nineteen year old novel, whose title was taken from a poem by Shelley, In Lasting Night. (Hey, how's that for a doldrum of a title?) And in actual fact, one major publisher to whom I sent it in my diffident way, almost did buy it. I came within a hair of an early success. But, it didn't happen. In fact, what did subsequently happen didn't come from self-promotion at all.

A friend of mine took my first novel to Dial Press and so The Blowtop got published in January 1941. Then another friend of mine, a poet named Harry Roskolenko came along and took me to see Harvey Breit on the New York Times. Harvey was editing the "people who read and write" section of the NY Times Book Review.

Just a word though about Harry. He was different from all of us in that he really was a pushy, assertive, even pugnacious fellow. He was extroverted, athletic, adventurous and a great friend if you got along with him. His poetry, by the way, did very well in Australia. He went there and presented himself and got a lot of his stuff published there, even more than he got published in New York where pushy people were not properly respected.

But Harry's another story, a long one. I'm talking about my own rather typical non-assertiveness, and this interview with Harvey Breit led to an event that was the absolute apogée of non-assertiveness. In fact, it practically lost me the ball game. Harvey wrote an article in which he first made public that I was the guy really writing the Superman newspaper strip and had been doing so for a number of years, and not Jerry Siegel. And this was something the Superman front office had been trying mysteriously to cover up for reasons totally unknown except that perhaps they'd gotten into the habit of covering up for a long time because of the other earlier businesses they'd been in. They even covered it up from the FBI but that story, involving the atom bomb, has been around so I'll pass that one up.

But then, in that same article, Harvey described me as "the first existentialist novelist in America." Okay, that's not what I want to get into here. It's what happened next. I got a call from the New Yorker.

They wanted to interview me about how I could do Superman and write existentialist novels and how did I keep the two things apart. I believe I'd already mentioned either in this column or somewhere else that instead of reacting with proper assertiveness, that is, realizing that an interview with the New Yorker would drastically boost the circulation of my book, I responded by making a joke out of it. I mentioned the fact that I had these two differently colored rooms and two different costumes, and that the rooms were separated by a phone booth and how I would change costumes and slip between the two rooms via the phone booth when I went from working on my novels to my comics. And of course I never got my interview with the New Yorker and, as a result, my book, in its early version, was decimated by the return from the war of Dial's publisher, traumatized and suicidal, who, before he killed himself, killed all the books Dial was then handling, including my own. It would have been a total disaster except for the fact that The Blowtop got picked up in France and became a best-seller there in 1950.

But this is an illustration of how writers of my day, for the most part, had no notion of self-promotion and, in fact, were often their own worst enemies. If I'd done the New Yorker interview, Dial's troubles with its President would not have been enough to kill The Blowtop. And I would have spent far fewer years running around trying to find the right publisher and the right agent, and my books would have been coming out years earlier. Of course those weren't all lean years. I actually had some good agents and some good sales, but I'd have gone much further much faster had I understood assertiveness.

However, as I said, there I was with my doldrums, but with one eye still open for other possibilities, and it happened. It was a mere flicker. Without going into details, everything has turned inside out. I have been deluged with new publishing possibilities and can now seriously expect that a number of my works will be forthcoming within a couple of years. Two years in publishing is not long, by the way. It's the slowest business in the world. But that's because a lot has to happen before the finished and printed work hits the bookshelves.

Anyway, the real moral of this long story is that the doldrums can lock you up forever or you can unlock yourself quite easily by noticing that you have the key in your hands, the recognition that everything is always changing and something different is peering in at you only too often you're so sunk in the doldrums you'll probably miss it. Long story, but considering that last week provided such a good example of where the doldrums can lead if you don't let yourselves sink in them, I thought it might be worth telling.


<< 01/10/2005 | 01/24/2005 | 01/31/2005 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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