Letter to Writer

Dear Writer:

I am looking for creative nonfiction that is strong in character. This does not mean that your work must be devoid of narrative, but rather that the narrative must grow out of character, which is to say, out of the choices the writer makes in the telling of the story. Loren Eiseley in his memoir, All the Strange Hours, writes about subjects as diverse as the dancing rat and his mother’s shattered mirror, a hatchery fire and the man on a New York train with hands like tiger’s claws. He has been criticized for his eclecticism, if you will, his poor narrative construction.

But memoir succeeds precisely because the writer is freed from chronology, can order his or her life thematically, by association, by any mechanism that pleases her or him. The writer can choose what is important to tell. By definition, then, memoir will have interstices, is not autobiography or biography. I am looking for more books like Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Last Fine Time.

This being said, it is very difficult to draw lines. I would clearly accept a book like William Manchester’s memoir, Good-bye to Darkness. But were I so fortunate to receive a book like Manchester’s The Last Lion or American Caesar, a book so replete with the character of a Churchill or a MacArthur, I would publish that book. I would be happy to have the burden of the footnotes and bibliography with which to contend. I would not quibble with the fact that such a book also serves scholarly and biographical purposes. To my view, The Common Law by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., is not for the specialist; rather, it is a book of profound literary value accomplishable by the industrious lay person.

Consequently, I would like to see more books written by professionals for the rest of us. I would like to see more Holmeses writing about the law, more Selzers writing about medicine, more Eiseleys and Goulds writing about science. Maurice Richardson’s book, A Fascination of Reptiles, tells us as more about fascination than it does about reptiles. And Lewis Thomas’s Lives of a Cell certainly tells us as much about New England as it does about any cell.

I am interested in writings about cross-cultural experiences and specifically about the role of language in such experience, would publish a book like Richard Rodriguez’s The Hunger of Memory. I find travel books, even a book like In Patagonia, to be uneven. The sweeping generalizations of travel books, generally, I find unuseful. I am not particularly fond of V. S. Naipul’s Middle Passage.

His poor impression of the intellectual heritage of Martinique is a conclusion, ultimately upon investigation erroneous, that makes me wonder despite the brilliance of his writing, why I have spent so many hours with his book. He seems unaware of the work of Frantz Fanon or Aimé Césaire.

If your book is about a journey to Tibet as in The Snow Leopard, it probably won’t find a home with me. Not all journeys are the same. If your book is another Flight to Arras, I would be eager to publish it. My choices are subjective. I have a penchant for anything by Richard Cobb that is neither explicable nor defensible. It just is.

I spent three years every quarter as an intern in acquisitions at the Eastern Washington University Press. I am looking for books from writers, unpublished or published, who have been told by large commercial publishers that their books are too literary to be profitable. We all know the story about how many times Catch 22 was rejected. My experience as an agent is that editors don’t choose books for large commercial houses, which is to say, there are no Maxwell Perkinses any more. This is not to say that established writers do not have very good editors with those houses. If you are Joan Didion, you have the best.

I do not see Colonus Publishing, Inc., as being avant-garde, but rather as filling the traditional need we have in this writer’s life for an alternative to commercial publishing. When even a small press like Tin House will not accept manuscripts that are not agented, it is obvious a writer must first catch the eye of an agent to have any chance for his or her work to be seen by an editor. Today, in effect, agents have become our acquisition editors, deciding what is literary, what is not; what is commercial, what is not. This is not necessarily a bad system, but it is just a system, and it is first driven by the considerations of marketing.

Editors will say they are looking for the next new thing. And why wouldn’t they? The truth is, the runaway best seller runs away because it is new. Sometimes I wonder what happened to all those editors who rejected Catch 22.

But the reality is that books are not selected by editors at large commercial houses based on their literary appeal. They are selected for their commercial appeal. And their commercial appeal, which is, in effect, determined in committees of agents and editors and marketing people, is unavoidably judged by how much the books resemble the last new thing that sold. The fact is, people are risk averse by nature. That’s why politicians take polls.

Books are often sold in two or three book packages. They are negotiated before they are written based on an agent’s perception of what might sell. We have been left with a Hobson’s choice. To get the next new thing, that next Catch 22, the thing most like the last new thing is generally chosen and developed. While you can see this principle most easily in film, our literature is heavily influenced by our film. Harry Potter is never allowed to die. Indiana Jones creaks around the course one time too many. Rocky continues to embarrass himself into senility. Prequels for Star Wars are written basically to create characters to adorn children’s lunch boxes and for Pepsi commercials. I have nothing against a good trilogy, but it should bear some witness to art, and if it doesn’t, in fact it is not pleasurable. Perhaps it would have been better if the last Cat Who had been written awhile ago.

I would rather read books that writers felt compelled to write. I wish you the best of luck on that road we share to the deep north to view the cherry blossoms—the one we call the writer’s life.

Thank you for reading,

Rich Skalstad
Editor, Colonus Publishing, Inc.