“Published Prosperity: Gail Godwin’s Writer’s Memoir,” by Kerstin W. Shands

Essay by Kerstin W. Shands

Journals and memoirs are both self-narratives, but they are written from different viewpoints and for different reasons. Gail Godwin’s journals from the 1960s, The Making of a Writer, take us back to a present when no one could know how things would turn out and before Godwin herself could be sure of growing into the respected author her young self aspired to be.

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Memoirs, by contrast, look back on developments that have jelled into shape. Gail Godwin’s Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir, is a such a retrospect, focusing on important periods and turning points in Godwin’s life as a writer but also on the great changes that have taken place in the world of publishing.

Writing Hunger

Very early, Godwin has a “hunger to be published” (xiii). This hunger is symbolically captured in “St. George,” a story written in 1968, “about a lonely graduate student, Gwen, who cracks an egg and finds a tiny dragon and tries to raise it in her apartment” (27). The dragon grows and becomes too big for the apartment. While this is a concrete problem that will find a concrete solution, the writing hunger is a different challenge: “Writing had lived inside me since I was a little girl, and the need to write had continued to grow like a beast, but how to give it the room it needed and not become a bitter human being?” (29).

With a yearning to write so great as to seem impossible to contain, Godwin realizes that her writing needs more room. It needs a stage from which to launch a literary career. Thanks to her determination, such a writing space will indeed open up. Her tenacity will pay off, contracts with the right publishers will follow, and some of her novels will become bestsellers.

Portraits

Gail Godwin’s literary talent is obvious already in her diaries from the 1960s, in particular in the panoply of portraits—of friends, colleagues, romantic relationships, and even unknown people seen and sketched from a distance. This masterly touch is taken to yet another level in Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir.

Among the memorable portraits there is the one of Godwin’s mother, to whose memory Publishing is dedicated. Kathleen Krahenbuhl Godwin Cole was a brilliant and creative woman who, as a graduate student, wrote plays, acted in them herself, and, if necessary, even made the stage sets. In the first chapter on “Publishing Hunger,” she emerges as an extraordinary role model, one in whose footsteps Godwin will walk (at university even literally so).

A favorite topic of conversation between Godwin and her mother is “writing and getting published, a topic that never [fails] to charge [her] mother’s voice with a youthful wistfulness” (41). Godwin’s mother goes on writing in her seventies, now in the form of journals that, as Godwin puts it with so much respect, “reveal a woman disciplined in the skills of writing, living fully in the midst of her times, and determined to be accountable” (84).

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With light brushstrokes, Godwin manages to make several different personalities emerge in brilliant clarity and complexity. One example is the portrait of a talent scout sent by Knopf to the university at Chapel Hill in 1958 to whom Godwin hands in five pages of a planned novel. The scout is drawn in ironic and unflattering contrast to the marvelously portrayed literature professor who normally occupies the chair: “[Sitting] erect as a martinet in the same swivel chair in which my former professor had swayed and slouched, his cigarette ash lengthening dangerously above his necktie, as he alerted us to the many ways James Joyce was going to employ the words cold, wet, and damp for mood effects” (4).

The martinet-erect talent scout “[looks] up as if bringing [Godwin] into existence” (4). After reading and rejecting Godwin’s five pages, she hands them back “with a crisp sketch of a smile” (5). If only this scout could have known that the young woman in front of her would go on to become one of Knopf’s bestselling authors! Wonderfully, Godwin’s success later casts a retrospective light of satisfying revenge on this unsettling and discouraging meeting.

Among the beneficial influences there is Godwin’s fiction-writing teacher in London in the 1960s, Miss Slade, who suggests that Godwin write about someone quite different from herself. Godwin rises to the challenge, writing a story that gets the attention both of her future second husband (who also attends the writing class), and of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (where Godwin is accepted in 1967).

One of the most endearing portraits in Publishing is that of John Hawkins, a key figure in Godwin’s writing life. From the start, Hawkins seems to have been a dream agent, someone who, in kind and upright ways, gives good advice and heart-warming support to Godwin as she is pushing forward through the jungles of the publishing industry and navigating the whirls of commercial rapids.

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The appointed successor, Moses Cardona, follows in John Hawkins’ footsteps not only in his sharp powers of observation and excellent advice, but in being always the gentleman, someone who is easing the way for Godwin in taking superb care of professional arrangements on all levels.

There is an astute portrait of Robert Gottlieb who takes over when Godwin’s editor at Knopf, David Segal, dies (53). Segal publishes The Perfectionists, moves to Knopf and buys Glass People, and then Gottlieb takes over and publishes Glass People, The Odd Woman, Dream Children, and Violet Clay (personal communication from Gail Godwin).

Gottlieb’s and Godwin’s views of Godwin’s authorship differ, as do their versions of how and why their collaboration ends. In Gottlieb’s view, Godwin “viewed herself as a highly successful commercial writer” (Gottlieb, quoted by Godwin, 56), an assessment Godwin corrects saying that she “viewed [herself] as a literary writer who wanted to reach a larger audience and make enough money to take time off from teaching” (57).

A chapter entitled “The Life and Death of a Publisher” portrays Godwin’s editor in the 1990s, Linda Grey, a multi-facetted and mysterious person. Looking back on Linda’s life and difficulties with perhaps greater empathy and understanding than many others, Godwin’s portrait suggests that there are many unknowns about Linda Grey.

Peaks of Desirability

Graciously and truthfully, Gail Godwin’s memoir opens doors to a world many readers are unaware of when they turn to a new novel: the world of publishing, or “the industry,” as John Hawkins sometimes calls it.

Peopled by the superbly cultured and cognitively sharp, the publishing world is also an unapologetically and aggressively commercial web of negotiations, contracts, auctions, money, and, upon publication of one’s work, the wheels of implacable marketing machines set in motion. This may include book tours with no expenses spared (Godwin still remembers the bathroom at the luxurious Peninsula Beverly Hills).

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In the 1982-1999 time span, there is a peak in Godwin’s ‘desirability status.’ On top of Knopf, seven publishing houses want to publish A Mother and Two Daughters, something that leads to an auction in the summer of 1980 for A Mother and Two Daughters (won by Viking, who offer 55,000 dollars). A Mother and Two Daughters is Godwin’s first New York Times bestseller, reaching the top of the list. Looking back, Godwin finds it hard to believe “that seven major New York houses were bidding for [her] book” (60). A Mother and Two Daughters sells over a million copies. “Never again would publishers bid so much and so wildly for the honor of having me on their list,” she muses (87).

In 1986, John Hawkins sells A Southern Family to Larry Hughes at Morrow for the largest of Godwin’s two seven-figure contracts (personal communication from Gail Godwin). At a later point, at a picnic with her former teacher at Genevieve’s of the Pines, Sister Kathleen Winters, Godwin tells Sister Winters: “I can’t believe how much money they’re going to give me” (88).

A Southern Family and A Mother and Two Daughters are important both emotionally and financially. They yield a big enough bounty to build Villa Godstar in Woodstock (beautifully rendered in a black-and-white drawing by Frances Halsband) into which Godwin and her life companion, Robert Starer, move in July 1987, and it allows Godwin to purchase a condo for her mother in Asheville as well: “I was able to take two huge steps that enhanced my life and the lives of the two people closest to me. Robert and I built the Woodstock house, in which I still live, and we enjoyed it together for fourteen years” (82).

An Industrial Revolution

But great changes are lurking in the publishing industry. Even though Godwin underlines that her “little volume” “in no way [claims] to be even a very small slice of the history of American publishing in [her] lifetime” (xiii), her account does convey a sense of the extraordinary developments in the history of publishing in the United States.

In Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life (2001), Godwin argues that the shift from heart to head that began with Descartes was further entrenched with the Industrial Revolution. One might see a similar shift in publishing, with an “industrial revolution” taking place in the 1980s and 1990s. A calculating head takes over.

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The commercial web of dependencies is candidly described in Godwin’s memoir. Godwin herself is impressive in her entrepreneurship and business acumen. For some of her books (Heart, Queen of the Underworld, and volume 1 of The Making of a Writer), she hires publicity firms, she pays for ads, and she writes an essay for The New York Times Book Review to appear in connection with the publication of volume 2 of The Making of a Writer.

All of this is linked to the necessity for a writer to have a public image. How important is such an image? That is the question raised in a chapter called “Performances,” whose epigraphs mention, firstly, a character in a Gissing novel who argues that one and the same novel will be differently received if presented by an already well-known or a completely unknown author (“you have to become famous before you can secure the attention which would give fame” [156]), and secondly, Norman Mailer’s view that an author must create a public personality if he wants to be successful and sell books.

Godwin’s own creation of an author image is shaped in both planned and unplanned ways with some aspects finding their way into her novels. One example is Magda Danvers’ in The Good Husband, provocatively pacing and pivoting on spike heels when she is giving a presentation to a group of priests.

An author also must think of reviews. While Godwin does not hide her dismay at some of the smug and silly reviews her novels have received, she wisely reminds us that, in Buddhism, “negative and aggravating people and events count as your important life teachers” (174).

Editorial Interference

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Commenting on the sales, reviews, bestseller lists, and the influence of editors and publishers, Godwin underlines that editors usually do have a “genuine desire to make a book or a story better” (120). One example is when John Hawkins and another editor talk Godwin out of murdering a character on the last page of The Perfectionists, another when Bob Gottlieb dissuades her from giving a science fiction-inspired ending to Glass People. Similarly, Moses Cardona wisely suggests that a preface Godwin has written for Flora should be taken out. It would detract from the main story, and the relationship between the protagonists is already “haunting enough” (147).

But there are also battles and skirmishes marked by “subtle egoism, philistinism” and “corporate toadying” on the part of editors, and authors need to be aware of what editors’ motives are (120). Looking back, Godwin says: “I am proud of the instances when I dug my heels in to defend my vision and I rue the times when I compromised or caved” (120).

At the same time, a writer needs self-scrutiny: “How can an author tell when she is being ‘mulish’ and ‘unlistening’ about editorial suggestions … and when she is simply standing up for her vision and protecting the integrity of her work?” (120). The editorial and marketing fingers sometimes meddle too much, even wishing to modify characters (as the suggestion to make the husband in Evensong less “passive-aggressive”). Godwin is also told that “from a marketing point of view, ‘religious angles can be tricky’” (112).

The much-anthologized story “A Sorrowful Woman” is another example of editorial interference. It was published in Esquire in 1971 after the requirements of the editor, Gordon Lish, that all dreams of the ‘sorrowful woman’ be taken out—something that makes it a completely different story, one many readers feel confused about, not least students who are given writing assignments about this story.

Not even titles are safe. Godwin’s planned title The Red Nun—A Tale of Unfinished Desires is cut down to Unfinished Desires—still an excellent title, but The Red Nun would certainly have been far more striking. Godwin regrets her “caving moment” of accepting that cut, but it came out of a fear that Random House-Ballantine would “withdraw all support from their marketing efforts” (135).

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What becomes increasingly obvious is that in the industry, the reigning element is fear. After the “industrial revolution,” no one in publishing is secure, not even top executives.

The Novels

Marked by an astonishing perceptiveness, Godwin’s account of her career as a writer and of the publishing world is not without some sharp edges, then, even though its dominant quality is an immense charm and generosity.

Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir also offers interesting insights into Godwin’s novels and how they came to be. Three chapters are devoted to this: “1970-1985 – The First Eight Books,” “1987-2011 – The Next Nine Books,” and a separate chapter on Flora, “A Change of Heart and Style.”

Comparing A Southern Family with A Mother and Two Daughters, Godwin sees the first-mentioned as more complex and the latter as “an easier and more engaging read” (77). A tragedy based on the death of Godwin’s half-brother in 1983, A Southern Family is her most autobiographical novel—one that her mother “more or less anointed [Godwin] to write” (“You will write Tommy’s story”)—and one that was made even more difficult because of the conflicts and tensions in Godwin’s family at the time (a divorce looming between her mother and stepfather; custody hearings over her dead half-brother’s small son; threats from her stepfather who said he would sue Godwin if she presented him in a bad light in her novel [78]).

Inspired by The Turn of the Screw, Flora, Godwin’s fourteenth novel, gets a chapter of its own entitled “A Change of Heart and Style.” With this novel, the writing process is different, and Godwin does not show it to anyone while she is working on it. The story draws on Godwin’s own experience during a polio epidemic in 1948 and her memories of a life in isolation with regular deliveries from the drugstore of candy and comic books to “1000 Sunset Drive” on top of Sunset Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina, by a man on a three-wheeled motorcycle. Unassuming, open, and spontaneous, Flora, the eponymous heroine, is an unusual character and even more so since up to then Godwin has not “been all that interested in people who [aren’t] cunning and determined to win” (148). With Flora there are also changes in Godwin’s writing style and methods of work.

Existential Insight

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Godwin’s memoir is published when she is in her late 70s. Far from being indifferent to the upheavals during what I have called the industrial revolution in publishing, Godwin is also becoming increasingly aware of her age and her writing in a much larger perspective.

In her memoir, there are three pivotal passages that stand out in far-reaching existential insightfulness.

The first occurs in 1958. The dismissive meeting with the martinet-erect Knopf scout provokes an insight of remarkable depth for someone in her early twenties. After seeing herself in a “bubble of failure” “beneath the great American Novelist’s ancient trees” (Thomas Wolfe also walked the same paths at UNC-Chapel Hill), Godwin’s usual perspective on the world suddenly explodes and she sees herself within a time space of cosmic proportions: “it struck me for the first time that I was nothing new, just the latest model of a young person hungry for success, and possibly one of the very many who was not going to make it” (5).

The second pivotal moment is linked to readings of English poetry. In her chapter “Unpublished Prosperities: Obscurity and Breakthrough,” Godwin remembers a poem about the perpetual transformation and annihilation of all life, the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer’ (although “he who is solitarily situated”’ is a more correct translation than “wanderer” [35]). Thinking about this poem, she comments: “It was all going to pass away for everybody! . . . we were all going to vanish, every last one of us, published or unpublished, back into the night from whence we came. This never failed to cheer me up” (36).

She also recalls a scene from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, an image of a banqueting-hall in winter where a sparrow “flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another,” “[vanishing] from sight into the darkness whence he came” (quoted by Godwin, 30). If one ponders the existential vision of a small bird flying across a hall and disappearing, the risks of rejection for a writer take on less momentous proportions. A writer, metaphorically speaking, is like that sparrow flying across a room, and her whole production is no more eternal than a bird’s flight across a banqueting-hall.

While working on Flora, a third existential moment occurs. Having rearranged her workspace, Godwin sees the room from a new perspective. With her own novels reassuringly lined up in view, she thinks: “It opened a new perspective on time. One day, like the millions of writers before me, I would leave behind an empty desk; however, I would also leave behind a row of books” (152).

Fleeting moments of unflinching existential insight that echo biblical wisdom, these pivotal passages look at human life and effort with a stern and dispassionate straightforwardness, one that neither diminishes nor enlarges the importance of our achievements but that regards them with an even keeled and peaceful realism.

Published Prosperity

Another title for Godwin’s memoir could have been Published Prosperity, in response to a remarkably titled volume she has dreamed about in her youth. In this dream (mentioned both in her journals and in her memoir), Godwin comes upon a house where her future is. Moving through the rooms and spaces in both horizontal and vertical dimensions, she finally enters a room where a book she has written is found. This book has the prophetic title Unpublished Prosperity.

Looking back on the published prosperity, Godwin’s memoir is a wise and honest account of someone who has known from the start that she could write. Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir offers a superb perspective on Gail Godwin’s shifting experiences and successes as a writer along with those of a complex and ever-changing publishing industry.

 

 

Works Cited

Godwin, Gail. Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life.  New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Print

————–. The Making of a Writer. Volume 1. Journals 1961-63. Edited by Rob Neufeld. New York: Random House, 2007. Print

————–. The Making of a Writer. Volume 2. Journals 1963-69. Edited by Rob Neufeld. New York: Random House, 2011. Print

————–. Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir. Illustrations by Frances Halsband. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Print

Neufeld, Rob. “Godwin Reveals Publishing World and More.”

Citizen Times.  Jan 10, 2015. https://eu.citizen-times.com/story/life/books/2015/01/10/rob-neufeld-godwin-reveals-publishing-world/21549311/. Accessed 29 June 2021.

 

 

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