Ed note: This is the first in a series of five posts by Jeffrey Meyers. 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. A new post will appear every day this week.
Since the publication of my biography of John Huston in 2011 I’ve been writing an essay almost every week and have twenty-eight in press -- all of them out within a year. As I write faster than editors can publish them, I have the unusual problem of finding enough journals. Despite some rejections, increasingly polite as I grow older, I still manage with considerable effort to place everything I write. Eager, even desperate, to maintain good relations with my current editors, I’ve been forced to make unpleasant compromises with them. But I feel, partly to protect writers weaker than myself, that I have to defend the integrity of my work, protest against unacceptable practices and refuse to write for oppressive editors in future. I hope my experience will help authors to deal with their dictatorial powers and bizarre behavior.
After publishing 835 articles in 170 journals in the last 47 years, I’ve inevitably become involved in some heated disputes. A major difficulty is that many of the students I gave C- to in my English courses have become editors, the natural predators of authors. Like Dr. Behrens in The Magic Mountain, many editors don’t recognize any unit of time less than a month. The main problems I’ve encountered and fought against have been: editors accepting essays, keeping them for six to twelve months, and then not publishing them (guilty parties include Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Film Quarterly and Literary Review); accepting essays but delaying them, sometimes for as long as two years, after acceptance; attempting unnecessary “editing,” rewriting my essays and always making them worse (felons include American Interest, Common Review, Los Angeles Times op-ed page, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America and Wilson Quarterly); and introducing absurd errors without consulting me.
Despite my strenuous protests, the editor of Zyzzyva, the most extreme and unstoppable example, insisted on crudely rewriting every sentence. No author, even the most abject and desperate, would submit to this and I withdrew my essay from his talons. The editor of New Letters praised my review of Larkin’s Complete Poems, which included a new interpretation of “The Whitsun Weddings,” but didn’t like what I considered the best part of the review, my introductory comparison of Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop. I offered to move it to the conclusion, but he insisted I take it out. I then withdrew the review and immediately placed it in a better journal. An unnamed editor at Booklist, assuming he knew more than I did, specialized in adding errors without consulting me before the piece went to press and making me look foolish. I quoted unpublished lines from Eliot’s The Waste Land, he misquoted published lines from the poem. I wrote “In [the year] 1425 subjects were depicted”; he changed this to “In 1,425 paintings subjects were depicted.” The author has no defense against such arrogant incompetence.
The editor of the Gettysburg Review said he wanted me to appear in almost every issue. When I sent him my latest piece and waited for several weeks, he promised a decision at the end of that week, then at the end of the next week, and still remained silent. Since he didn’t seem interested, I withdrew my essay. He became furious and banished his sometime favorite from his pages. After I waited for a year in Siberian exile, he allowed me to submit another essay, which he turned down but said would soon be accepted by another journal. Always on the lookout for a suitable venue, I sent him another piece, on Ford and Waugh, and added, “As you predicted, my ‘Lawrence’s Children’ was immediately accepted by the most distinguished American quarterly.” My comment sent the touchy tyrant through the roof and produced this weird response: “Honestly, if you can get such immediate attention to your scribbles from ‘the most distinguished American quarterly,’ I think you are wasting your time sending things to us. If I may offer a bit of advice, perhaps you should identify the most distinguished literary quarterlies of each member nation of the United Nations, and submit only to them. Given the ubiquity of email, you won't have to pay international postage fees. Oh, and no to this little effort at comparing and contrasting, and please do not communicate with us again.”
Unwilling to let him have the last word, twisting the thumbscrew and hoping to curb his intemperance with other authors, I sent this letter to the president, dean, and English department chair: “I’m concerned about the mental health of the editor. Between the summer of 2008 and the autumn of 2011, I published eight essays in the Gettysburg Review, and now attach my vita. I’ve just submitted another article and, without reading it (his description of it is extremely inaccurate), he sent me this astonishing response. What does the United Nations have to do with this? I don't think a man in his precarious condition should be editing your journal. His bizarre behavior gives your college a bad name.” I got the usual mealy-mouthed replies, but my point was made.
On March 7, 2005 I sent the following letter to the president, provost and dean of the University of Virginia, to eight members of the Virginia Quarterly Review editorial board, to the chairman of the Virginia state Appropriations Committee and to more than 100 other writers describing my disastrous relations with the editor of that journal. I strongly felt that he should not be allowed to treat an author this way and that my complaint might prevent him from doing so in future:
In September 2004, when I was deeply engaged in completing a life of Amedeo Modigliani for Harcourt, Ted Genoways asked me to write a 40-page survey of the biographies of Walt Whitman. To oblige him, I interrupted my own work, spent two months reading 15 biographies, and wrote a lively and amusing essay. On December 9 he wrote: “you’ve tackled a formidable task with utter aplomb. Some of the bios you tackled are practically unreadable, so it’s wonderful to have you analyze them for people with weaker stomachs. I also like the fact that you’ve placed the question of Whitman’s sexuality at the center of the discussion.” He sent me printed proofs of the essay in February and a contract, dated February 11 that stated “We are pleased to accept ‘Whitman’s Lives’ for a future issue of VQR.”
Yet on February 22 Genoways suddenly and shockingly informed me that he was also suppressing this essay. Instead of receiving the promised fee of $3,200 for 32 printed pages, he offered a kill fee of only $500 — a staggering difference for a professional author who has no salary and lives on his writing. Five hundred dollars is certainly not adequate compensation for two months’ work. I think it would be only just, considering the appalling circumstances, to pay me the full $3,200.
I’ve never experienced such outrageous behavior from an editor. You must realize that this is a terrible and unethical way to treat a contributors. If an editor wants to reject an article, he must do so when it’s submitted and not after it’s been commissioned, accepted, praised and gone into printed proofs. I don’t believe you can allow Genoways to operate in this bizarre and brutal manner, and strongly advise you to replace him with a new editor who keeps his word, upholds professional standards, and restores trust in the journal and the university. I’m sure you know that word of this scandal could spread rapidly around the world through the internet.
I never got paid in full, but had the best reply from the poet Robert Bly, who wrote on April 15, “That is a shocking letter and a horrendous story.”
I also sent an angry letter to Genoways, calling him cowardly and treacherous, crazed with petty power yet without the balls to bring out a controversial essay. He was a Whitman scholar, deeply invested in that subject, and was afraid to publish a satiric attack on the Great Grey Fraud, which might have put him in bad odor with the poet’s brotherhood.
Seven years later, on April 4, 2012, the New York Times reported that “Ted Genoways, the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review whose tenure was both award-winning and tumultuous, will leave the literary magazine at the end of May. . . . Mr. Genoways came under a harsh national spotlight in [August] 2010, when Kevin Morrissey, the managing editor of the review, committed suicide in Charlottesville. Staff members said that Mr. Genoways had . . . bullied his colleague and . . . created workplace stresses that contributed to Mr. Morrissey’s death.” So Genoways was finally forced to resign.