Too Quiet

It’s too quiet. That’s what classmates and teachers told me when they read the chapters of my first manuscript, when they dissected it word for word, just as workshop rules dictate. There’s no action. People talk a lot. It’s not edgy enough to today’s readers. It’s good, but you’ll never get it published.

Friends said the same thing. I like it, they said, but who do you think is going to buy something like this? I can’t imagine. To tell you the truth, Michael, if it hadn’t been your book, I would have stopped reading after the first ten pages. The prose is great, but I just don’t think anyone’s going to want to read something this quiet.

An agent disagreed. Send me the full manuscript, this agent said. Three months later, I received an email with “Your wonderful novel” in the subject line. This is a terrific manuscript, the agent wrote. My assistant, who used to work at a Big Publishing Company, thinks it’s the best first novel she’s read in five years. I want to offer representation. Let me know if I have to duke it out with other agents.

An editor at the same Big Publishing Company wanted to acquire it. But he was a junior editor. The senior editors, and the men and women in acquisitions, didn’t think anyone would want to read it. The junior editor was very sorry, but he had no choice. He had to pass. It was the consensus of the senior staff that the manuscript was perhaps just a little too quiet.

No one acquired the novel. Every editor had different reasons for passing on it, but can you guess which one-word criticism cropped up most often?

I just finished reading Tinkers by Paul Harding. It’s a beautiful book, a tale of three generations of New England men, told from the point of view of the youngest, who is hours away from dying. It’s the kind of book that finds drama in deceptively simple scenes: the pride one character derives from being a bagger and then the produce manager at a grocer’s, where he built “primeval forests of lettuce and broccoli and asparagus”; the tenderness and fear of an adult grandson giving his bedridden Gramp a shave; a young boy finding a dead mouse in the woods. Each of these scenes is rendered in poetic prose. The scenes that feature what passes for action, mainly those involving one character’s epileptic seizures, are tiny masterworks of understated tension.

Tinkers is a quiet book.

According to an article in the April 18 New York Times, that’s what agents and editors told Harding when they rejected his work. Where are the car chases? they asked. This is too contemplative. No one will want to read a quiet, contemplative novel.

Fortunately, someone did. Fortunately, Bellevue Literary Press gave Paul Harding’s quiet book a life as a trade paperback original. After Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize on April 12, the book was for several days the number 8 bestseller on Amazon.

Was my novel as good as Tinkers, or as good as my agent’s assistant said it was? I have no idea. Publishing, like love, is a subjective business. But I’m thrilled to know that books like Tinkers still get published, and that, with a little luck, people will find them and buy them. On a more personal note, it’s nice to know that someone like Paul Harding, who, like me, is in his 40s and had a slim publishing record prior to now, can still get his work in print. My gratitude to Bellevue Literary Press for giving Tinkers a chance. And my gratitude to Paul Harding for giving hope to so many of his fellow writers.

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One thought on “Too Quiet

  1. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful post. I love quiet books. In my mind, nothing beats quiet conflicts, like the ones present in Henry James’s novels and short stories (The Golden Bowl is a perfect example of tense, scary, and quiet drama). Your description of Tinker makes me very much want to read it, and I’m sure it will give me hope, too, as I work on my own fiction.

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