(Ed note: This is the second of a series of posts by Jeffrey Meyers. You can find Part I to this essay here.)
A Writer's Lament Part II
The most intriguing controversy concerned an unsolved mystery. In September 2012 I gave the Seymour Lecture in Biography, on “The Search for Five Women,” at the National Libraries of Australia in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. It described my discoveries, while writing five biographies, of the secret sexual relations that were either suppressed or unknown in great writers’ lives: Joseph Conrad with Jane Anderson, Wyndham Lewis with Iris Barry, Scott Fitzgerald with Bijou O’Conor, Ernest Hemingway with Jane Mason and Robert Frost with Kay Morrison. As I gathered the fragmentary evidence, these vague women moved out of the shadows and into the spotlight, took on color and distinctive shape, grew solid and sprang into being. The lecture was enthusiastically received and the Australian Book Review wanted to print it. But since it offered no fee, I sent it to an important American quarterly, where I had published nine long essays. On October 4, 2012, the editor wrote: “Thanks for sending this essay. It has lots of fascinating material, and we’d be delighted to publish it.” He tentatively scheduled it for July 2013 and all seemed fair sailing.
On December 13 the managing editor unexpectedly raised some strange objections. The editor, she wrote, “asked me to get in touch . . . as our legal counsel is nervous about permissions issues at stake in your most recent essay with us.” It involves ten people and might present difficulties. “So our advisors are wary. Do you have formal written permission to quote the letters? . . . If we cannot publish, of course we'll send you a cancellation fee. I hope we can work something else out; but I fear it would take a great deal of revision, and might not yield a result any of us liked.”
Trying to find out what was wrong and how I could revise it, I replied: “This essay concerns my discoveries about five women in my previously published biographies, and all the quotes are from my books. If I reduce the quotations, quote only from my own books and stay well under ‘fair use’ of 500 words, I don't think there's a problem and don't think written permission for these few, scanty quotes is necessary. If your lawyers still see a problem, please give specific references and I'll deal with them.” The managing editor, replying rather vaguely, did not identify the problem or say how I could fix it: “I don't understand these matters entirely (I hope our counsel does), but don't think that ‘fair use’ covers it if a specific permission is required to quote from private sources. I don't know if permission would extend from prior use in a biography, frankly, though certainly it sounds as if that might provide some other documentation.”
A week later the skies darkened. The managing editor said their lawyer had rejected the standard definition of fair use and warned that they might not bring out my piece: “there isn't definitive word on this yet; but our counsel is skeptical about the fair-use claim and doesn't think we should publish. It's a cautious age and the initial publishing contracts don't necessarily cover this use. We need clearance to be able to publish, so we might well have to cancel this one.” Puzzled by her response, I felt like a Kafka victim, guilty of non-clearance but not knowing what to clear. I replied that “I still don't understand the problem and don't see how this is different from the previous essays I've published with you. I've asked your lawyer to be specific and tell me exactly WHICH material needs clearance. As it is, I don't know what's troubling him or what to do to satisfy him. Please ask him to write to me directly.” But the journal did not want me to contact their lawyer and now urged me to withdraw my essay, though I still hoped to resolve the non-existent problem and saw no reason to withdraw. As we drifted toward the precipice the managing editor added, “ The lawyer won't write directly; we have trouble getting time as it is. But the clearance is required. I'll try to get more details (if I can--I'm not sure I shall). We would understand if you prefer to withdraw the piece under these circumstances.”
Finally, the hard-nosed editor intervened and shipwrecked my essay: “I am aware of your correspondence, and it's nearing the badgering phase. I'm afraid we are adamant in following our legal counsel's advice NOT to publish the essay, which would involve too many tricky maneuvers. And furthermore, we are a busy office and can't spend our time arguing with you. We will send you a kill fee of $300 and you are free to publish the essay elsewhere.” What he called “badgering,” I called trying to find out the truth. I had been straightforward in offering to revise and thought all the “tricky maneuvers” were their own.
I never heard from or spoke to their lawyer and never found out what permissions he supposedly thought were needed. If I had written to Knopf, for example, asking permission to publish twelve words from a previously published letter, they would have considered my request absurd and ignored it. The cancellation by the journal seemed to cause some problems for them. They had to cave in to outside pressure, hide the real reasons from me, create unnecessary ill will, lose what they had called a fascinating essay and pay a $300 kill fee.
As a biographer, I was keen to solve the mystery, but could not do so. The need for permissions was clearly a ruse. I was never told what really was wrong with my essay or how to eliminate the problem, was never allowed to contact the lawyers and never found out the truth. I can only speculate about what actually happened. The editor may have told someone—perhaps a wealthy, influential and powerful patron—about my forthcoming essay and that person, perhaps related to one of the women I’d discussed, objected to publication. But they could not suppress my essay, which will be published later this year in another journal. So nothing was gained apart from the essential need to please the patron.
Jeffrey Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has recently published Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (2009), George Orwell: Life and Art (2010)—his fifth work on Orwell—and John Huston: Courage and Art (2011). Thirty of his books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. In 2012 he gave the Seymour lectures on biography, sponsored by the National Library of Australia, in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney.