ARTICLE: Summer 1981
The Publishing Business
by Stephen R. Donaldson,
as published in
Wooster Alumni Magazine
I may not look like Cinderella to you. Even in the days when I routinely wore sack-cloth and ashes, you might not have taken me for a beautiful scullion with two jealous half-sisters and a Fairy Godmother. So maybe the image of the Frog Prince would be more apt. But in my case the princess who kissed away my ensorcellment was a short little man with fish eye glasses, a long beard, and a gap between his front teeth.
Nevertheless my career as a writer has been a Cinderella story.
I conceived the idea of being a writer during freshman orientation when I entered The College of Wooster - in 1964 - and I've stuck with it ever since. More things are wrought by single-mindedness than this world dreams of. It's difficult now to explain how that decision came about. I had always been a verbal person. In addition, I had lived a very active life in my imagination, and this life had always taken the form of stories. But I had always hated English classes in general and writing assignments in particular. However, on that Sunday morning during freshman orientation, some kind of electricity leaped the gap between being verbal and loving stories; and once the connection was made, it took control. I became an English major because I wanted to learn to write, and I studied everything I could with that end in view.
In those days it was a good thing I wanted to write fiction, because my non-fiction was atrocious. I didn't get an A in an English course until the end of my senior year; and even then every paper I wrote was like wrestling with the Angel of the Lord - the best you could hope for was a smile from your long-lost brother and a broken hip. But I had fallen in love with the idea of writing down stories, of experiencing them through words, and I didn't let the fact that I couldn't think clearly enough to compose a coherent essay deter me. In the corners of my course-load - and during the summers - I wrote all the stories I could. And luckily Wooster let me write a novella for my senior thesis. Still, by the time I graduated, I had produced only about 500 pages of fiction.
At that time, I began very tentatively submitting stories to magazines; but nothing came of it except form rejections.
In retrospect, I can see that those rejections were inevitable. I was writing with a great deal of energy and even some imagination; but I was writing reflexively, and some of my reflexes were not under any effective control: they were intellectually confused and emotionally imprecise. But this, of course, is retrospect. At the time, those rejections were painful and discouraging. In fact, at one point I was tempted to chuck the whole business. But a friend of mine who happened to be fairly wise in a quiet sort of way kept me from giving up. In very simple terms, he assured me that the problems of writing were worth dealing with. Since my writing contained nothing but problems, I needed that kind of encouragement.
From college I went to graduate school at Kent State University, which I attended part time because I was working full time doing alternative service for my draft board. With that schedule, I couldn't write much on my own. Yet something important happened to my writing in grad school. During a long paper on Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, I suddenly mastered nonfiction. In the course of one specific paragraph, I achieved enough self-awareness to start making clear choices about what I was doing - and to be confident that I could carry out my decisions. In effect, I had learned to think in writing. This was a result of mental maturation as well as verbal facility; and ever since I've believed that thought is a function of language. Ideation and syntax or sentence arrangement are two sides of the same process. If you doubt me, just try organizing a paragraph without organizing your thoughts. Or vice versa.
That was probably the most important contribution grad school made to my writing. A major step along the road to being able to write stories. And by cutting corners I contrived to raise my life-time output of fiction to 1000 pages. I also garnered another small handful of rejection slips.
By now you should begin to get the picture of me as Cinderella. I was working as hard as I knew how in order to become a writer of fiction; and the only rewards I got came when friends or professors took me seriously enough to tell me that my stories stank on ice. After four years of college and three of grad school two part-time, one full-time - and 1000 pages of fiction, the total critical reaction to my work could be summed up in one word: yuk. Rejection slips said the same thing a bit more tactfully.
By then I was tired of school. I was also tired of trying to squeeze stories into cracks of my schedule. So when my wife (then) was offered a job which would require us to move, I immediately dropped out of my Ph.D. program. As soon as we were settled, I began writing full time.
In the first six months, I wrote one novel and three short stories; and I was ecstatic. Writing full time enabled me to be genuinely single-minded, and that degree of concentration seemed to raise the level of my work every day. I didn't know it at the time, but I was in the process of recovering from the effects of my education. Education is a wonderful thing, and I don't regret any of it; but my education did cause problems for me which I didn't understand at the time. It didn't teach me how to write fiction: it taught me how to read fiction. Two very different things. Creating your own stories is not at all the same thing as perceiving what someone else has created. In grad school, I had unintentionally learned to approach writing as an approximation of reading. And not just of reading, but of scholarly reading.
The question here is one of the speed at which words are experienced. The average reader can read in half an hour all the words the average writer can produce in a day. That difference in speed makes a major difference in perception. The road between here and Smithville looks very different when you're walking than when you're driving. For one thing, the trees appear far larger and more substantial when you're walking. As readers, what scholars learn to do is read at 3 mph instead of at the speed limit. For a reader, this is a valuable and rewarding skill; but a writer who writes to be read at 3 mph will have a rather limited audience. On the other hand, a writer who writes only to be read at 55 mph will produce work which lacks depth, color, and detail - the very qualities which make the scenery worth looking at.
However, that's by the way. My point is that during my first six months of full-time writing the speed disparity in my stories became less troublesome as I learned to consider readers who were moving faster than I was. Unfortunately, the only external result was to double my collection of rejection slips. And then I ran out of obvious story ideas. I had to look for something new to write.
Well, ever since I'd started writing, I had been unconsciously trying to emulate my heroes – most notably James and Conrad. I called what I was doing "moral realism," and I approved of it. Few as they were, my readers did not. In my work, it made them squirm not because it was too effective, but because it felt wrong somehow. Nobody was able to tell me why. All they could tell me was, yuk. Since I didn't really enjoy that, I decided to try something different.
For several years, elements of "fantasy" had been creeping into my stories. Some of those stories were set in places which I had entirely invented. Some of my characters developed arcane powers. By a process too complex to detail here, I made the decision to go at it full-tilt - to actually write a fantasy. And not just a fantasy: a big fantasy. A trilogy.
There began "The Chronicles of Thomas Convenant."
The experience was a revelation to me. For the first time in my so-called career, what I was writing seemed to fit my talents. In the words of a friend, I had "found my métier." At unexpected intervals, my readers stopped saying yuk. The fact is that, for better or worse, my native abilities are what one might call "operatic." They are visceral, intense, colorful, and declamatory. My sense of language is orchestral, and my sense of dialogue is more closely related to recitative and aria than to conversation. And as for my characters, they would all do better if they could just sing. As you can imagine, when I took skills and instincts like these and applied them to "moral realism," the results bore an astonishing resemblance to Elmer's glue. But when the same skills and instincts were applied to fantasy, the results were considerably better. Before I knew what had happened, I had produced a 250,000 word manuscript - the initial version of Lord Foul's Bane. And my excitement for what I was doing showed no abatement.
At that point, I realized that if I truly intended to have a career as a writer, I had better attack the business of submitting manuscripts more seriously. Well, to me "serious" meant "methodical," so I obtained a copy of the Literary Marketplace, started with the As, and began offering my fantasy to every fiction publisher in turn. At the same time, I did a revision of Lord Foul's Bane and then started writing the second book.
I won't bore you with the details of the next four years. I wrote The Illearth War and revised it. I wrote The Power That Preserves and revised it. I did a third version of Lord Foul's Bane. And I submitted my epic to every fiction publisher in the United States - forty-four at that time. I submitted it to five agents. I submitted it to four magazines that regularly serialized novels. And I received a wide range of responses. One very kind editor told me that such a massive book from such an unknown writer was simply not economically feasible. One unscrupulous editor told me that he would be eager to publish my book as soon as I had made a name for myself somewhere else. One stupid editor told me that my writing was as powerful as any writer could wish but unfortunately it also was not very readable. The rest of the industry gave me essentially the same answer: yuk. Who wants to read a book about a leper? Besides, fantasy doesn't sell.
And after three and one-half years on that trilogy, I was done. I'd finished the alphabet, A to Z, and I'd done all the work I had courage for. I really didn't think I could take any more. I couldn't help myself: I believed that all the yuks were right. Covenant was the best writing I had ever done, and it just wasn't good enough. I wasn't good enough.
Instead of committing suicide, however, I decided to start submitting my books to British publishers. Sometimes the human animal can be remarkably stubborn. I simply couldn't face the idea of giving up. So I sent away for a directory of publishing houses in England. And while I was waiting for it to arrive, I did two things. I wrote a really pathetic novella about a writer who never gets published. And I sent Lord Foul's Bane back to Ballantine Books.
I resubmitted the book primarily because I couldn't stand to let it sit idle. My rationale was that I had done a complete rewrite since any publisher in the Bs had seen the manuscript. But the plain fact was that the book affected me like an albatross bleeding to death on my desk, and I couldn't bear to look at it any more. Somebody had to at least read the damn thing. And I chose Ballantine to receive this albatross a second time because they had published Lord of the Rings. In other words, I knew they had money.
What I did not know was that the former fantasy editor at Ballantine had been fired; and a man named Lester del Rey had taken his place. Enter the short, bearded princess who kisses the frog. Lester read Lord Foul's Bane, asked to see The Illearth War and The Power That Preserves, sat on the whole thing for three months - while I went unquietly crazy - and decided to take a chance.
As a result, I first broke into print thirteen years and one month after I had committed myself to being a writer.
Since that time my trilogy has sold over 40,000 sets in various hardcover editions. Ballantine has sold 500,000 sets in paperback. My British publisher has sold 200,000 sets. That comes to over two million books with my name on them. Covenant is being translated into Japanese, German, Swedish, and Dutch. I've won three awards. People in restaurants ask for my autograph. I get fan mail. I'm satirized by everybody who hates this kind of fantasy. If I wrote in Covenant where it says "Donaldson," I could get my parking tickets published.
And so, my children, Cinderella became a beautiful princess. I hope I live happily ever after. I've earned it.
However, desert may have little to do with it. At this point, one can hardly resist the temptation to ask a very pertinent question: why? How does it happen that a writer who at one time couldn't sell pencils on the streetcorner is now "the hottest fantasy writer around," "the successor to Tolkien" (to quote two of my less even-tempered reviewers)? Well, as is true in most good fairy tales, the ultimate answer is a mystery. But for the purposes of this essay two fairly obvious answers do present themselves - one practical, the other philosophical.
The first is that a large audience for good fantasy has always existed (witness the constant success of various "horror" books and the less-publicized health of the "sword-and sorcery" genre), but the publishing industry didn't know how to reach it. Lester del Rey was hired at Ballantine because he believed he knew the secret namely, that some highly fecund middle ground must exist between the vivid-but-mindless tradition of "sword-and-sorcery" and the (often more sophisticated) vivid-but-grisly tradition of "horror." The phenomenal success of his publishing program has proven him right. In simple terms, I had to remain a scullion until an editor came along who had enough imagination to see my potential.
But that doesn't explain the existence of the fantasy audience in the first place. It's easy to see that fantasy provides a peculiarly effective medium for escapist entertainment. However, I think there is also a deeper answer.
As I see it, all literature - all seriously rewarding fiction - deals in one way or another with one central issue: what does it mean to be human? Mainstream, "realistic" literature confronts this question by discussing human behavior in recognizable contexts. Like good science fiction, good fantasy confronts the question by altering the context - by testing human behavior against the standards of the imagination rather than of the demonstrable world. And this is appealing to audiences because so much of who we think we are grows out of our dreams and nightmares rather than out of our direct experience. One of the paradoxes of being human is that we are all caught between the intimate power of our dreams and the public powerlessness of our lives. Good fantasy tackles this issue head-on by concentrating on the dreams - by envisioning them as purely as possible, by giving them the solidity of "real" experience, and then by using them to shed light on the human needs, attitudes, and behaviors they contain.
It would be silly of me to claim that my books achieve the stature of literature. I hope they do; but that judgment is not mine to make. Nevertheless I consider it inevitable that books like mine should be popular in a society in which each individual's imaginative leeway and sense of personal efficacy grow more limited every year. This limitation may be a natural consequence of mounting social complexity but it places a heightened importance on those who dream. Thomas Covenant is an "everyman" for people who find that their own lives surpass their ability to imagine themselves.