When a novice writer received a letter from Jacques Barzun, asking her to write a book, how could she have known what she was in for?
By Helen Hazen
March 1, 2013
In the late 1970s, I decided to try to write. I didn’t necessarily want to be an author, since I already had a career and I had heard enough about writing careers to warn me away from one. Feminism was ascendant, particularly in Iowa City, with its large university campus where I was employed, so something to do with women was an obvious beginning. The feminists had good points to make, but I couldn’t agree with some of their more extreme positions, particularly those describing masculine depravity, and the counterarguments were, I felt, stupidly reactionary.
In 1974 Rosemary Rogers had published Sweet Savage Love, the most popular example of an innovation in the romance novel genre in which the heroine is raped by the hero early on in the plot. In 1975 Susan Brownmiller had written Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, a treatise against rape in particular and men in general, and a landmark in feminist thought. Both books were bestsellers in their respective realms of influence. Both authors dramatically declared that their major passion was men, and it seemed to me a direct continuum linked one manifestation of that passion to the other and that I might explain it.
The article that launched my new effort, published in The Alternative (now The American Spectator) was titled “In Defense of Rape”; it discussed how these new rape/romance novels merely followed a standard romantic plot that even the Brontës employed. It also suggested that the feminists were treading dangerous ground by entertaining the same plot and distorting it. The article received a bit of notice, generally favorable; the editors were pleased, and I felt ample reason to be encouraged in my new pursuit.
But my little dream of a fling with the polite world of publishing was not what happened to me. Instead I was introduced to a process that involved a lot of fear and pain. Jacques Barzun, then holding the position of literary adviser to Charles Scribner’s Sons, wrote and asked if I could write a book. Not only did he
wonder whether you would think it possible to make a short book of the ideas you broached in your essay, each of which I can see implying others in the domains of life and literature that you so adroitly shuttled between … [but] alternatively … is there some other topic on which you have meditated writing a book? Without wanting to be ranked suddenly as an art-for-art’s sake promoter, I must confess it is your writing I should like to see more of, on any subject.
Had I been an aspiring writer, I would have slumped to the floor and wept. But I wasn’t; I was an aspiring dabbler, and the only thing that happened was that my mind stopped functioning. This was not part of my plan. I had welcomed a diversion, not a crisis in my life. I milled around, looking at myself for a few days, trying to reconcile my version of me with the words in the letter, and I didn’t succeed.
Living in the same city as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where there were probably more unpublished manuscripts per square block than in any other place in the world, I was well aware of the improbability of such an invitation. One of the most famous scholars of the day, whose teachings on all kinds of writing held a preeminent position in the worlds of writing and academia, whose own scholarship bounced from Wagner to baseball, detective fiction to teaching, the classics to all of Western culture, was simply not supposed to invite some nobody to write a book, any book. I sought the help of a writer in town. He read the letter, frowned, and read it again. Then he broke into laughter, threw the letter back at me, and told me to get out of his office and go write a book.
Many a writer will no doubt agree that one of the most serious problems facing a first-time author of a book is not knowing what you don’t know. I knew how to write an article—start with an idea and prove your point—and I assumed that this was also the general method for writing a book. It was not a bad assumption, but in practice the two exercises are distressingly different. Looking back, I realize that I did not know how to think, or at least how to think carefully and with prolonged vigor. But with complete insouciance I began to write.
During my first attempts, faintheartedness crept in. I would pore over my letter from Mr. Barzun like a lovesick teenager, my face flushing as I read that my prose was suffused with a “delicate mixture of wit and humor” and that he wanted to see more of my writing on any subject. That got me through part of a first draft. Looking back over the early attempts that I sent off, I squirm with embarrassment. Some of it I cannot read at all: it was just horrible. Since I didn’t know how to think, I told stories, stories that in my mind proved my point, that women loved men. And then I commented on the stories, explaining that, well, women loved men.
After reading some 90 pages, Mr. Barzun explained to me that it was “not a book.” Then he went on: “I believe none the less that a book can be made out of what you have written plus what you must write in addition.” And he proceeded in a couple of typed pages to tell me what I must and must not do. The enjoinders were so basic that I now gasp at them. He got a second reader to provide additional comment, quite unnecessary, but I suppose he thought I might be touchy, and he added in a closing paragraph:
I am ready to help as needed. I know it’s disheartening to think one has finished and to be told one must start again, but it’s the common lot. Often one has to tell this to oneself, which is harder, because there’s nobody to curse at. I shall be glad to be used, in your anger, as “the idiot who doesn’t see that, etc …,” provided you go ahead and reorganize and rewrite.
With the early drafts, his line-by-line editing was something no one of his stature should ever have to do. For instance,
And it is that element which feminist fiction does not acknowledge. It establishes the fact that problems exist and quite properly determines that men cause them, but it produces no possibility of resolution, because the only one available is to swoon into the arms of some perfect man.
It is that element which feminist fiction makes no provision for. It makes its case for blaming men, after having made the case for oppression, but it resolves nothing, because the only logical and desirable outcome would be to swoon into the arms of some perfect man.
They tell stories which deal with the adversity of love, with the problems that arise in a woman’s life which are worth retelling. The novels remain with us because the authors deal with the subject with brilliance.
The stories tell of the adversity of love, and hence of those events in a woman’s life that are worth retelling. These novels have lasted and continue to move us because the authors have treated their subject with consummate art and imagination.
I feel sure he knew that none of these early edits would find their way into any final product; he was teaching me the basic construction of effective sentences.
I sent numerous partial and complete drafts to him over the next few years. He edited them with such fury that some pages were entirely covered with corrections, comments, and questions. On one occasion the entire draft clunked back into my mailbox, copiously marked up, before I had received the certified notification from the post office that Scribner’s had received it. Didn’t this guy have anything else to do?
Some months after my first piteous attempt, I had sent him another batch of pages. His response suggests that I had begun to understand my problem:
But we are not out of the woods, even with these four chapters; for as you say in your disarming commentary at the back, you are uncertain about the way to write a book and—there are some relapses into your ‘telescopic’ style: six ideas with their heads and tails obscured by horrendous anatomical overlapping …
My memory is that I was unaware that one idea might actually be three or four, or six, and I had to look hard to discover where all this overlapping occurred. Which in retrospect somewhat begs the question: if I hadn’t had the ideas to begin with, how would I find them? It might be hokey to declare that one’s teacher saw in you what you could not see in yourself, but when it happens to you, it is quite remarkable. My ideas had begun, in truth, as feelings: I love … I hate … that is so sad … that is so confusing … and I was forced to make intelligent sentences out of such gooey snarls.
Mr. Barzun proceeded with three pages of admonition, numbering them clearly from first to seventh, each including a paragraph of explanation:
First, you must decide what your subject is. Either you discuss rape, abuse, domination as social acts, undergoing revaluation as part of the feminist movement; or you discuss the emotional role and contents of the literature of romance, i.e. you pass from sociology to literary and psychological criticism; or again you discuss the nature of men and women as it can be ascertained from literature, ordinary experience, and the cultural attitudes now battling—new versus old. It is my hunch that the subject you desire to treat (and which I should like you to treat) is the third.
I did not have a subject? Surely he was wrong! My subject was quite plainly men and women. And yet, bit by bit, I began to understand what he was saying.
Second, your chapters keep the reader wondering what indeed (what in hell) you are up to. … There is a staggering amount of repetition about what women do and men do. And your best original ideas, which should be the strong current by which the rest is carried, are stuck away in corners as mere asides, as trailing comments. In one sense, none of your chapters visibly does anything different from the previous one.
Third. The cure is obviously to assign each chapter A Point to Make—a big point with little ones clustering around. The successive points should be so ordered that they form an argument, a course of reasoning, which can be quickly summed up at the end. To find the points and their order, you need a half sheet of paper, headed “I believe that …” with brief propositions below. Fiddle with the sequence until it seems to you smooth and natural, by which is meant convenient to follow.
Thank you, Mr. Barzun, but I do not remember that any of this process was smooth and natural. A rough journey up a steep slope full of brambles, crawling and whimpering much of the way is what I remember.
Fourth. When you have this menu for your guest’s dinner, stick to the contents of each course as you serve it—no strawberries in the soup. … You must treat every topic once and be done with it—so you can build on top of it and not have to re-lay the foundation already set.
Strawberries in the soup indeed, an image that has stuck with me these many years.
Fifth. There are too many quotations and they are too long. The result is that the point of each is lost within the general tenor of the passage. Go over them and select the best bits for every different point—whip, kiss, rough words, whatever. … In short, remember that your authors merely illustrate the points of your thesis; your voice must be the one steadily heard, even when you recite the extracts relevant to the point you have just made.
This last bit was difficult: you establish your own voice and then let your quoted authors do the work for you. To take the lurid flourishes of Barbara Cartland and her like, or even those of the Brontës and George Eliot, and to put them into a sophisticated and convincing whole, wasn’t working. Just as he ordered, I had to learn to stand far back and speak for myself.
His sixth enjoinder had to do with nomenclature: romance, romanticism, romanticize. Easy stuff, compared with
Seventh. Most difficult of all your tasks will be to balance the kinds of material relevant to your doctrine. Too much Gothic or other literature will make your contention look trivial. Too much personal experience will limit it to personality. There must be around each of your subtopics the support of every kind of thing you know, from books, events, reports, experience, and fantasy—or if not every kind for each, at least more than one or two. It is by the accumulation of varied bits of fact that skepticism is overcome …
So I sat down anew, looking at the murk in front of me and with a blank page began to write down my Points to Make. I pored over his commentary and slowly, slowly began to understand. It felt like I was growing new brain cells so that I could figure it out. It felt like I was growing smarter. The next stage was hellish.
He was unfailingly kind throughout the process, even his handwriting: small, gentlemanly, filling up all four margins. Somewhere throughout it all I had signed a letter with my first name only and he wrote back immediately reporting that some of his younger friends called him JB and suggested that I do that as well, so we became, in his words, “old campaigners together.” He joked and cajoled, provided little asides from his own experiences. He began to send me clippings and articles from magazines and newspapers about romance writers and feminism. He sent me his own books with nice greetings.
I must have asked on one occasion about his editing style because he responded,
I go through your pages like an angry bull—angered because wanting to know your thought and baffled by the hazards and obstacles you put up; then I summarize their kinds and purports in the covering letter, without having to go back or revise the indictment. Of course I’ve had practice—with students and colleagues and a few Scribner authors.
Sometimes the angry bull did show up in his edits and his diminutive handwriting burst into loud shouts with his arms waving about. But that was only after we were buddies, and by then I could laugh. Frequently enough his objurgations were merely “WHOA!” or “NO!” or “BLATHER” or “ARGH!” Regularly he noted, “This won’t do at all.” In counterbalance he sprinkled each manuscript with fine compliments: “brilliant,” “good thinking,” “excellent writing,” or often enough, “lovely.”
I have often wondered why he stuck with me. Our relationship was based solely on the U.S. Post Office, and he could have closed the door easily and graciously at any step; surely that first draft should have put an end to it. That he continued to struggle with a true neophyte still leaves me bewildered. But I know that he wanted to see writing by a female that countered some of the weak and absurd arguments of feminism; partway through the process he referred to my subject as “the most serious debate of the century.” I suppose that he thought me capable of some sensible thinking and some good turns of phrase. Perhaps I was the only act in town.
I began with simple ideas that he kept pushing at until they became less than simple. They often became so complicated that they confused even me, and then he pushed more until they became clear. On one occasion I must have tried to explain that all my repeats (“repeats!” was one of the most common of his marginalia) were a form of trying to “peel away an onion.” He replied: “Your plan for an ‘onion’ construction might work if you were an established author, whom readers would be ready to see displaying a tricky technique, and also if the subject did not involve layers and layers of onion skin written on by Barbara Cartland.”
He kept citing things for me to read. Lord, was that tiring. “See the incident at Toulouse in Montaigne.” “You should deal with S. Butler in a new, good edition by David Grene Chicago Press.” “An interesting variation in Meredith’s The Egoist?” “You should read Byron’s oriental tales in verse and mention them ahead of the Bronte girls’ work.” Usually he was right, but sometimes not. He once sent me off to look into courtly love, thinking I should give it a nod somewhere. (I hadn’t gone back before the 18th century in any of my discussion.) I looked into it and reported back to him that courtly love seemed to me to be a lot of silly men’s stuff. He agreed and apologized.
It must be difficult for an editor to keep his ideas and words out of his writer’s work. When I felt the language going wrong on me, I stuck to my own voice and he didn’t push. One of his adjectives—fresh—snuck into the final product, and I still cringe at its use. I believe it was in the context of “fresh ideas,” which would have been fine if I hadn’t been a teen in the 1950s, when “fresh” was exclusively used for boys doing exciting hanky-panky to girls. He pounced hard on word misusage: “claim” does not mean “maintain,” and “contingent” is not “dependent.” “Confused” is, I now know, a permanent state of mind, and it is not insulting to be bewildered. Gender and sex are not interchangeable. And–WHOA–“scattering” and “smattering” are two very different things. The past of careen is careered (at least when it applies to rapid forward movement).
As for ideas, he nudged and poked, squeezed and forced. Did he change or create ideas? Time and again he assured me that he didn’t know what I was thinking:
My substituted words and phrases are only indications of possible lines of thought: I may have misunderstood your intent, so do not hesitate to put in something else. But each of my marks means ‘Trouble here—something to fix.’
But I do know that he made me develop ideas that I would not have arrived at without his coercion.
After a while I got to see that the trouble was that I started with an emotion that, with some pulling, became an idea, but I suffered a weakness in rigorous thinking and was unable to sufficiently elaborate on that idea. Mr. Barzun argued elsewhere that without clear and accurate language we cannot communicate effectively. This was exactly my dilemma. He even recognized the problem early on. His response to the mess of the first draft ended with this prescient admonition:
The only thing I shan’t allow is that your present lack of pattern is the way women think and on that account must be put up with. Even women readers won’t put up with it.
I slowly learned to take the thought one step at a time, to think logically from one point to the next and put those thoughts into clear and effective sentences.
I see from looking over the correspondence that he asked me to begin the entire book again four times. He told me unequivocally the first time and was circumspect enough during the next attempts to outwit any inclination to throw the damn thing out the window. I suppose I employed some self-help quirks to deal with the punishment. In my mind he became a tormenting suitor determined to win: nuisance notes in the mail, calling at all hours, banging and yelling at the door, leaving me querulous, achy, and distraught. I hated him and I loved him and there was no way to rid myself of the affliction without finishing the job properly.
To this day, I am not sure who won. Was it that shrewd, tough old sophisticate who knew there was a book somewhere or the weary creature who did not break under the onslaught of ARGHs? Toward the end he wrote,
This is only an interim report, embodying only my impressions, themselves based on a partial, not complete reading. You have an important book on a subject of great contemporary interest. You have learned to disentangle your quite original ideas and make them clear … But some work remains to be done … The matters you deal with are so charged with dynamite that your views upon them must be very exact and your reasoning must be unassailable. At a good many points, inexact wording and non sequiturs (or repetitions) do damage to your defences, which must be repaired.
And months later: “Your book rereads very well and works up to a really strong ending.”
The book, Endless Rapture: Rape, Romance and the Female Imagination, was finally published by Scribner’s in 1983.
And my buddy stayed on with me.
One thing I have not talked to you about. I venture to raise it now, because yours is a first book. It is a polemical book and it will be reviewed unfairly as often as not. The question is, Do you reply? If you do, how? And do you take up each error and misrepresentation?
Because he was worried that I might make a fool of myself (a distinct possibility given my past conduct), he gave me some more numbers to consider:
1. Take up only matters of fact; i.e. ignore all personalities.
2. Use a very cool tone, which does not exclude irony but does exclude indignation and anger.
3. Keep the rejoinder short (and of course absolutely clear). For this purpose, work quite hard at successive drafts of the letter to the editor, letting it lie a couple of days between finishing and sending it. There is always a word to change before the final typing.
And there was a number four, warning me to keep a “fairly wide moat” around my castle to protect me from the “violent lunatics … on the loose.”
The reviews were mixed. The reviewer for the Los Angeles Times began hers, “Every day we live gives us something to be thankful for, and today I’m thankful for reading Helen Hazen’s Endless Rapture. … Who would have thought that a book called Endless Rapture really would be endless rapture.” But The Nation’s reviewer did not like it much: “The best that can be said about this awful book … is that a blind hen sometimes finds a pea.” Most reviewers shared the latter opinion.
I had occasion to meet JB at his office in Scribner’s during those days after the book was published. The office was large enough, with a clutter of books and a sofa off to the side. He was tall, good-looking without being overly handsome. Light-colored clothes, light tie. Older, in a nice way. Were this a romance novel, I would report that I, beautiful and proud, walked into the office with chin high, looked into his face, and broke into tears. And that he took me to the sofa, sat me down, his arm gentle but firm on my small shoulder; and that I clung to him and sobbed until he quieted me. And that we talked and talked until I was calm. But this is not a women’s romance.
Of course I didn’t cry, and we didn’t sit on his sofa. I cannot remember much of what we discussed, but it was a pleasant time. Probably we talked about how the book had been presented, how it was doing. It was hot out, so we likely talked about the weather. We certainly did not talk about love or hate or pornography or violence or rape, or anything to do with endless rapture. We just talked.
Helen Hazen is the author of Endless Rapture: Rape, Romance, and the Female Imagination.