Although the King James version of the Bible warns us that, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” I’m going to suggest that if you’re a writer, and maybe even if you’re not, you ignore that proverb. In fact, it’s better to turn the proverb upside down. After a fall, after being destroyed, that’s when we need to lean back on our pride the most. Humbleness is an attractive quality in everyday life, but meekness and self-doubt tend to increase in proportion with the size of a career reverse. The way out isn’t more bending of the neck, it’s more standing tall.
After the publication of my first novel began a period where nothing I wrote appealed to any of my former sponsors and collaborators. This was strange as that first novel had been a major success.
I learnedthis lesson. Even successful writers’ careers are not unbroken upward trajectories. Even writers with agents and publishing deals can suffer a line that looks like a bull market hit by a pandemic.
The key to surviving such a fall, and perhaps the key to our all surviving these corona days, is to dwell as immodestly as you can on how you managed to succeed in the past.
I disagree with advice columns that tell you to learn carefully from what you did wrong. Don’t blame the victim. Sometimes you do your damnedest, you do nothing wrong, and you still fail. The only way up and out is to pat yourself on the back. Remind yourself you are a smart person. That was the main thing that helped me rebuild my confidence and my desire to go on after a major professional setback.
This is the story of what happened to me then. I’ll review the things that might’ve contributed and that I might’ve done differently. One widely held view is that we study history in order to avoid the mistakes of the past. Almost no professional historian believes that. The past is so full of its own particularity and unpredictability that it never applies perfectly to the problems we struggle with today. Rather, read my narrative for company, for the feeling that whatever has befallen you, either in your writing life, or in your career generally, you are not alone. Read this for some ideas about how you too might make your way back.
From $150K to zero in nothing flat
At the time I had five books under my belt. These books were with five different publishers. The publisher of my last one was pleased with what I’d done for them. I have the feeling my first novel sold better than they expected. On their website they called it a national bestseller. Independent booksellers especially liked it. The publisher was ready for a new book proposal. The question was whether it should be a follow up to the novel with the same characters, or something completely new.
I pitched the idea of working on a new historical fiction. I was interested in the Boston collector, Isabella Gardner, who acquired a trove of Renaissance treasures in the late nineteenth century. John Singer Sargent painted her portrait three times. They were friends. He was probably gay. She was certainly married. They advanced one another’s careers. But there was a mutual attraction between them, too.
I imagined their friendship producing not only great art, but also quarrels similar to those that separate lovers. I’d been in such relationships with women myself. I wanted to tell their story as a fiction that was nevertheless based on facts. I wanted to tell the story that the available letters and paintings would never tell on their own. I wrote a proposal for this. The publisher bought it for an advance of $150,000. All seemed well.
The first draft was easy to write. I’d been reading about them for years before I wrote the proposal so I knew the broad outlines of their story already, and I knew the incidents I wanted to describe and animate. When I handed it in, the editor took three months to read it. I complained. I nudged. I fumed, but there was nothing I could do. The great editor, Robert Gottlieb, says in his memoir, Avid Reader, that he always made a practice of getting back to a writer within 24 hours. When my editor finally did report back, she said she didn’t like it.
She thought that it was wrong to have split my attention between the two heroes. One of them should have been leading the action. She was unconvinced by my account of Sargent’s homosexuality. It was too bloodless and too elliptical for her. Gardner she thought a dislikable harridan, which was strange, as I loved her.
She complained that the style of the writing was too formal, though recall this was a book about the nineteenth century, an era considerably more formal than our own wear-your-sweatpants-on-the-plane era. She later told me she missed the lightness of my previous book. What she didn’t tell me until later — after she’d been fired — was that she didn’t think there was any way I could rewrite to be publishable. She’d said as much to her boss. She didn’t have the courage to say it to me.
Instead, she suggested I submit something else. When I said I’d redo it to address her criticisms, she agreed to that. My agent cheered and said that was the right thing to do.
Over two years I wrote and rewrote that book four times. The editor encouraged me to submit new drafts. “It’s almost there.” When the company dismissed her, her boss told me they wouldn’t publish it.
This was agony. The writing lost its freshness. The project began to lose its interest. It felt like a millstone around my neck. I didn’t understand how I could go from a series of successful books in a row to writing a manuscript that everyone rejected. I felt like I was going crazy.
What went wrong?
Even now, it’s hard for me to consider what went wrong dispassionately. I’d had an interview with Richard Ormond while I was doing the research for the book. He was Sargent’s great nephew and an important Sargent scholar. I respected him. He was charming. His office was in a set of rooms high above London’s clubland on Pall Mall, with rare Sargents hanging on the walls. He laid his cards on the table almost as soon as we sat down. He knew that I’d written a gay biography of Benjamin Disraeli. “I don’t think Sargent was gay, do you?”
Though there were already many reputable scholars who’d concluded that Sargent was gay, Ormond didn’t want me jumping on that bandwagon. When I came to write about Sargent’s sexuality, I wanted to be true to the nineteenth-century conventions. I wanted to convey the terror of exposure gay men would have felt in the wake of Oscar Wilde’s trials. I wanted to depict the secrecy that would have surrounded questions of sexuality then, and how far someone prominent would have gone to keep his romantic and sexual life private. Perhaps I conveyed tortured doubt about my own sexuality and that didn’t make for a very pleasant, or page-turning experience for the reader.
It was a difficult time. I think all four of the drafts of the novel I produced are good. The publisher wanted back the money from the advance they’d given me. I received threatening letters from a collection agency in Kentucky. Yet, I produced exactly what I promised I would do, four different times. Why should their decision not to publish compel me to suffer?
My agent said that he didn’t see the point in representing me anymore. He didn’t call me. He sent me an email. He said he was no longer representing the kind of work I wanted to do. He formally bowed out and offered his help, if I wanted it, in finding someone else in his office who might like to represent me. He didn’t see any point in representing me himself.
This was hard news, but it didn’t surprise me. I felt a little alone when I read his email, but I also felt relieved. I was now free to do what I wanted. Nevertheless, I’d lost a book. I’d lost a publisher. I’d lost an agent. That was a considerable tumble.
Rebuilding my self-respect
The publisher thought I knew too much about Sargent and Gardner. Being a historian got in the way of my being able to invent stories about them. I’d already demonstrated I could do that with the Queen, but somehow the achievements in art of both Gardner and Sargent inspired awe that maybe the Queen, much as I respected her, hadn’t.
I began to doubt myself in an unhelpful way. Why hadn’t I listened carefully enough? Why hadn’t I read between the lines when the editor seemed to invite me to rewrite the book based on her criticisms.
But in fact all writers need arrogance. They need belief in themselves. Pride and self-confidence are not liabilities. You have to follow your own passions and not write for the imagined passions of others. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say “If not you, who?” Any good piece of writing rests on self-exposure: that takes courage, not self-criticism.
Does that sound terrible? It’s the only thing that’s helped me start again. Before this disaster, I wrote three books that each did unusually well. I will produce another was what I told myself to pull myself out of the trough.
When I started out to write my doctoral dissertation, fellow historians told me the documents I wanted didn’t exist. When I applied to work for the first time in the Royal Archives, I was rejected. When I had the idea of working on Jacqueline Onassis, a college president, who then had considerable influence over my daily life, told me I didn’t have the necessary qualifications. All of them were wrong. Only self-esteem saw me through to write the different books that resulted. The confidence necessary to carry on comes not from making careful lists of your mistakes, but from dwelling on the times in your past where you showed them how to do it.
If I lost a lot in trying to write this novel on Gardner and Sargent, if I was injured, both psychologically and financially, I also gained a new sensitivity to injury. Awareness of my own defeat also made me sympathetic to the injury of a famous young man, who turned out to be glossy and attractive only on the surface. He became the subject of my next book.
Hum this to yourself. “Anything you can do, I can do better. Anything you can do, I can do better than you.” It helps.