The Wisdom of José Saramago

In 1953, 31-year-old José Saramago, then an unknown author, submitted Skylight, a novel, to a Portuguese publishing house. (The novel appears in English translation this month for the first time. My review will appear on Bookreporter’s site soon.) He received no response. He was so distraught by the publisher’s dismissive attitude that he didn’t write again for 20 years.

By 1989, Saramago was a celebrated author and nine years away from winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. He received a call that year from the same publisher that had ignored his submission 36 years earlier. They had rediscovered the work during an office move, they said, and they told him that it would be a great honor to publish the novel.

As Pilar del Rio, Saramago’s widow (he died in 2010), explains in the introduction to Skylight, Saramago retrieved the manuscript from the publisher’s office, brought it home, and refused to let anyone publish it in his lifetime. Del Rio describes her husband’s reasoning:

“His sole explanation–his main principle of life, often spoken and often written–was this: no one has an obligation to love anyone else, but we are all under an obligation to respect each other. According to this logic, Saramago considered that while a publishing house is clearly under no obligation to publish every manuscript it receives, it does have a duty to respond to the person waiting impatiently and even anxiously day after day, month after month. After all, the book a writer submits in the form of a typescript is much more than just a collection of words; it carries within it a human being, with all his or her intelligence and sensibility.”

Well put, and something for everyone in publishing, authors as well as agents and editors, to think about.

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