At a time when universities are cutting funds for the arts it has become extremely difficult to publish serious books on literature and letters. The tortuous attempt to get my latest book into print provides a specific case history on the current state of academic publishing and reveals the problems that scholarly writers now face. As an experienced professional and widely published author I mistakenly thought, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the doom of man might be reversed for me. I tried to publish The Mystery of the Real: Letters of the Canadian Artist Alex Colville and Biographer Jeffrey Meyers. Edited, with Four Essays, by Jeffrey Meyers for more than two years. But my struggle, after many setbacks, eventually succeeded. I can now warn scholars to expect hostile readers and dispiriting negotiations, and suggest how to place a minor but significant book.
I naively thought that presses, especially in Canada, would be eager to bring out my correspondence with, and the first published letters of, their country’s greatest painter—the equal of his fellow realists Andrew Wyeth and Lucian Freud. The two major Alex Colville exhibitions in Toronto in 2014 and Ottawa in 2015 had sustained widespread interest in his art, and I had an endorsement from his daughter and executor Ann Kitz. She wrote, “I enjoyed reading this—I actually just sat there with my coffee and read it right through immediately—and am pleased.” She gave me permission, without a fee, to publish his letters and reproduce in color sixteen of his late paintings.
I tried to interest publishers in this book by describing its content: “I spent several days with Alex Colville (1920-2013) on each of three visits from California to Wolfville, Nova Scotia. I received seventy letters from him between August 1998 and April 2010, and kept thirty-sex of my letters to him. He sent me photographs and slides of his work and, in his eighties, discussed the progress and meaning of the paintings he completed during the last decade of his life. His handwritten letters, precisely explaining his thoughts and feelings, gave me a rare and enlightening opportunity to compare my insights and interpretations with his own intentions and ideas. He also discussed his family, health, sexuality, politics, reading, travels, literary interests, our mutual friend Iris Murdoch, response to my writing, his work, exhibitions, sales and meaning of his art. Alex’s letters reveal the challenges he faced during aging and illness, and his determination to keep painting as his health declined. He stopped writing to me when he became seriously ill two years before his death. In this context, the late paintings take on a new poignancy.” Alex, normally reserved and even reclusive, delighted me by writing, “I am touched by your friendship, which I think is as important to me as to you.”
I wrote to seventy-three firms: twenty-five Canadian (including four that had brought out books about Colville and another that had published two of my books), twenty-seven American and twenty-one English. There were four vanity presses, four trade publishers, forty-four small (mostly art) presses and twenty-one university presses. Most felt there was no market for letters, were not interested or didn’t bother to answer. Nine read and rejected it; four vanity presses offered contracts; and one accepted it.