How will we know if our work is good? If it’s horrifyingly bad? As writers, we rely on a complex weather system of approvals and disapprovals from trusted readers, peers and publications, and we develop inner barometers to give us readings on the quality of our work. But what happens if we don’t?
Last summer I encountered this question in the form of Anne Sexton’s short stories, which are stored in Folder Six of Box Fifteen of her papers at the Ransom Library in Austin. This box also contains the thirteen years worth of correspondence Sexton exchanged with her agents as she tried to get the stories published. The last note is from Roger Angell at The New Yorker. It reads:
On April 9, 1974, Sexton’s agent, Joan Brandt, forwarded this rejection to Sexton, appending her own note, reading: “I knew you’d like to see this – and it is a good letter – will plod onwards – ”. There is no record of whether or not Sexton liked seeing the letter, but the attempts to publish stories – the “plodding” – seems to end here.
Before this rejection, Sexton had several good reasons to believe The New Yorker would publish her stories. Diane Wood Middlebrook writes in her biography of Sexton that when NewWorld Writing accepted Sexton’s first short story in 1959, The New Yorker responded by giving her one of their “first reading” contracts, guaranteeing themselves looks at her prose. It’s also worth noting that , according to The New Yorker’s website, by the time they rejected “The Bat,” “The Ghost” and “Vampire” they had already published twenty of her poems. Sexton’s literary star was in its full ascendency: publications, awards and prestigious fellowships had all come her way. No one writes great poems all the time, but when Sexton cast her lightning bolts in the right direction, they split the tree in half.
Yet in the two years preceding The New Yorker rejection, communications from Sexton’s agents regarding her stories began to include phrases that didn’t indicate immanent tree-splitting:
Even as I sorted through these warnings I wanted to read the stories for myself, and so I sought out “Vampire.” At first I thought part of it was missing: it was only a few pages long. I read it quickly, and then again in case I’d missed anything. The main character is a wealthy man who sells insurance to people whom he considers weak. One evening, a doctor refuses to buy insurance from him. On his way out of the doctor’s driveway, the salesman runs over the doctor’s dog. The next day a pair of white-coated men stop the insurance agent on the street, carry him off, and when he wakes up he is in a dark room with an address book full of hookers and dancers, a baguette and – this, for me, was the kicker – a wetsuit. The man puts the wetsuit on every night and chooses the address of a woman. When he gets there, he sucks her blood through her bellybutton, eats a baguette and then leaves, tucking her back into bed as he goes.
My mind was blown, and not by the wetsuit, the baguette or the hooker’s bellybutton. The story is bad – a rushed, easy-metaphor, plot-driven kind of bad – and yet Sexton dedicated years to writing and marketing it, doggedly maneuvering her way through a minefield of rejections. Maybe her ego drove her forward; probably she understood that prose’s grip on money has always exceeded poetry’s. But whatever motivated her, the correspondence seems to indicate that as the rejections came in Sexton became increasingly insistent that the problem wasn’t her stories, but lack of faith on the part of her agents. A letter she wrote in 1961 reads:
Despite their threatening tone, I find Sexton’s notes heartrending, and also sobering. She did not surge forward in prose and by 1974 she certainly knew this. She is like someone who has pressed her expectations to the edge of her abilities without realizing that the edge was there. When I read these notes I can sense that over the years this edge is taking shape for her. She is mapping it. Worse, when I read the replies from Sexton’s agents and editors, I suspect that they aren’t mapping that edge at all: I wonder if they always knew its precise location.
But Sexton’s power – her snapping, flashing language – is in the story, in parts. Here’s one example, out of the mouth of the pre-vampiric insurance salesman:
I love these two sentences for their own sake, and because they make a beautiful moment in an otherwise terrible story, and then again because they remind me about what’s so scary about the profession so many of us have chosen. For our terror of writing, of not understanding our best gifts, we have “Vampire,” a true story about what it means to hike off into the wilderness of our own expectations without a map and to eat our pocketful of breadcrumbs for lunch. It’s the story no one mentions when we talk about persevering as writers because we need to believe that we know where we’re going, and that if we don’t like our destination we’ll know the way back. For this sort of terror, for the darkness behind us, “Vampire” may be worth reading.
Elizabeth Langemak lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.