Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Writers Helping Writers. Or Not. Cheever, Bradbury, Salinger and Vonnegut

In 2004, Nicola Nikolov, an émigré to the U.S. in 1976 from communist Bulgaria, walked into William Dailey Rare Books in Los Angeles with a small archive of letters.

Briefly recounting a dark biography past and reduced, if freer, circumstances present, he told of his life as a published Bulgarian author and his difficulty establishing a writing career for himself in the United States. It was extremely important to him that his writing be accepted.

In August of 1978, he wrote, heart in hand, two-page long, well-written, typed letters to a small number of American novelists, with full, dire biographical details, limning his struggles to get read by the New York publishing establishment, and sincerely requesting that the novelists read and evaluate a few stories that he had enclosed. He saved their responses.

John Cheever replied with a firm, self-effacing dodge. Returning a manuscript unread seemed “like abominable hypocrisy… [but] as an Academician, my reading schedule is crowded until next Spring and that…I consider my judgment on anything but my own work to be worthless.”

Ray Bradbury bemoaned his lack of time but said he’d try to get around to reading them. “If, a month from now, I return them unread, you will understand, won’t you? I am a complete loner, do everything myself, no secretary ever, do all my typing, letter-writing, revisions, which means my days are full, too full.” Later, after offering pointed, practical advice on developing “friendships CLOSE AT HAND, to encourage you,” he suggested that Nikola submit his work to an agent of Bradbury’s acquaintance, with Bradbury’s blessing. ”I hope I will not fail you, but, if I do, it will not be because I am a [publishing] bureaucrat but an overworked and semi-mad author.”

J.D. Salinger did not deign to write a separate reply. At the top-right of Nikolov’s letter Salinger typed an ink-initialed rebuff stating his long-held conviction that “a writer makes a grave and often grievously consequential error in judgment if he so much as glances at another writer’s unpublished manuscript, let alone agrees to read and pass some sort of esthetic judgment on it...,” etc. He did not respond to Nikola's report that Catcher in the Rye was popular in Bulgaria and the U.S.S.R.

The 1978 writers' best friend/humanitarian prize is awarded to Kurt Vonnegut.

In an extraordinary, lengthy typed letter Vonnegut discussed the plight of the immigrant to the U.S. (“I would never urge anyone to come here, unless he were a world figure or multi-millionaire like Sozhenitzen”) and the fiction writer in contemporary America: “the best books earn nothing, usually. There are supposedly, at any given time, no more than 300 people in this whole country who make their livings as self-employed writers. America has more admirals on active duty than that.” Then, miraculously, Vonnegut agreed to read the proffered short stories. Further, in an act of profound kindness, Vonnegut enclosed an unsolicited check for the poverty-stricken Bulgarian with the “hope that you and your wife will spend it on a good supper and a bottle of wine. The America you find yourselves in is the America I have tried to describe in my books. It makes no sense. Nobody knows what it is. Anything can happen. Cheers, Kurt Vonnegut.”

Nikola Nikolov never did get published in the U.S.

So it goes...


The Salinger letter remains available from William Dailey Rare Books via the ABAA website.

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