by Mark Goldblatt
" 'You brought me here, in person, to reject my book?' "
Given the recent corporate takeover of Oversight Press, I was reluctant even to send them my latest first novel, Fate's Passionate Destiny -- I'd heard how their editorial priorities would shift from literary merit to the bottom line. But I'd tried every other New York house, so I put the manuscript in the mail and, sixty-one weeks later, found an envelope in my mailbox sporting the Oversight Logo followed by the words: oversight press / a division of dovetail publishers / a birk company. As I opened the letter, the callous that used to be my ego began to throb. "We have read your manuscript with interest and would like to discuss it with you at your earliest possible convenience."
The following morning, I sat before a broad oak desk in a plush Manhattan office with a view of the Hudson River. The front of the desk was emblazoned with the Omega Logo and three tiers of words: oversight press / a division of dovetail publishers / a birk company. Behind the desk sat my personal editor, Nigel. He had a copy of my novel and was skimming it as I waited. He grinned several times, laughed once, but as he read the final pages, his expression became grim. His lips bunched together in a tight purse. His nose bunched as well, and furrows formed in his high shoehorning forehead. As he set down the last page, he excused himself. Moments later, I heard frantic voices in the next room, but I couldn't make out the words. Then Nigel came back, snatched up several more pages, then excused himself again. Then the voices resumed, even more frantic. Then, again, Nigel returned. He walked hastily past me and sat down behind the desk. The network of veins at his temples was pulsing visibly. Suddenly, however, he smiled. He leaned forward in his leather chair and folded his hands on the desk. "It's unfortunate--"
I said: "I could make it longer if you like the style."
"That won't be necessary," he replied. "The truth is, and this is difficult to say, the market -- well, to be frank, the fiction market isn't right for your project. Thus, we feel, it would be inappropriate to go forward at present. Naturally, this could change. The market, as you know, is fickle --"
"You brought me here, in person, to reject my book?"
"Nothing of the sort. We'd like to make an offer."
"But you said you didn't want to go forward."
"Precisely!" he said. "The offer is not to publish it."
I narrowed my eyes. "I don't follow."
Nigel didn't respond but tore off a sheet from his memo pad. He shielded the scrap of paper with his left hand and jotted down a figure with a felt-tipped pen. Then he folded the paper and slid it across the desk. I unfolded the paper. Beneath the Oversight logo and the words oversight press / a division of dovetail publishers / a birk company, there were five figures.
"I think you'll agree," he said, "it's a generous offer."
"Very generous," I said. "But what's it for?"
"To abandon your novel." Nigel smiled. "I see you're confused. As you know, our company has recently united with the Birk Group. This new synergy allows us to enter into more creative arrangements with our authors. . . ."
"That doesn't make sense."
"Farmers get paid not to farm."
"Well, I suppose there's a logic to it."
He stood up and extended his hand. "No hard feelings?"
"None whatsoever," I said. "As a matter of fact, I have an idea for another book --"
Suddenly, Nigel's eyes widened. He let go of my hand and rushed from the office. Once again, I heard the frantic voices in the adjacent room. I strained to listen. There were three voices, but I still couldn't discern what was being said. I heard a small object slam against a wall and shatter, then more frantic voices.
When he returned this time, his forehead was dotted with perspiration. The pink was gone from his face. "This is difficult. It's . . . well . . . it's rather delicate, if you understand what I mean. Do you understand what I mean?"
"I've been authorized --" He cut himself off. "We're prepared to double the advance."
"But I thought --"
"Now understand me. That's double the same figure you yourself characterized, only moments ago, as generous."
"I'm overwhelmed," I said. "I don't know what to say."
"There is a condition, however."
"What is it? Do you want a legal thriller?"
"The condition is --" He stopped short again. "This is quite out of the ordinary. It's extraordinary. That's exactly the word I'm looking for. It's extraordinary. And of course it's nothing personal. Surely, you must understand that. You must understand. If it were up to me . . . well, it's not, and that's the end of it. It's not my decision. The first figure, that was my decision. For not writing the first book. But I would never myself --"
"Just spit it out," I said.
"The condition for the larger advance is that you not write a second book," he said.
"I don't understand," I said. "I don't even have an idea for another novel yet. You're paying me not to write something I haven't begun to think about?"
"In a nutshell, yes."
"...metaphors that dropped like nickels into tin cups."
I thought it over. "Should I concentrate on short stories?"
"That raises another issue," he said. "I've been authorized to up the advance, even treble it, if you agree, in writing, never to write again."
"What about poetry?" I inquired.
"All genres must be included in the agreement."
"'Atsa no good," I said.
He raised his eyebrows. "Excuse me?"
"Sorry," I said. "No can do."
"All right!" he shouted. "Quadruple it!"
"Four times? That's . . . "
"We'll have to cut salaries. Down-size staff. The union will be all over us. But we'll quadruple the initial figure if only you agree never to write another word."
I inhaled and did the calculation in my head: it was well into six figures.
I exhaled loudly.
"And . . ." he said.
"We'll throw in stock options if you burn whatever you've written until now."
"The lot of it. Personal correspondence. Grocery lists. Road directions."
So there I was. Tempted. Yes, tempted. How could I not be? After the years I'd put in. Years of rescuing happy endings from the jaws of despair, of lassoing characters back into plots, of metaphors that dropped liked nickels into tin cups. Years of sweating the details. Now, finally, the payoff was at hand.
Nigel put out his hand.
But then, at once, I stood up. I'm not in this for the money, I thought: I'm an artist. Would Dostoevsky sell out? Would Faulkner? Would Danielle Steel? I picked up my manuscript and headed for the door. I heard Nigel gasp, then begin to whimper, but I didn't look back, not even as I heard the window slide open and felt the sudden gust of city wind at my back.
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