I find myself hearkening back to conversations I had with a man I only met once one weekend more than forty-five years ago.
Shelley White, one of my classmates at UC Irvine, invited me to her home in Mendocino in the summer of 1974 to meet her father, Robin, a writer. Her father had been one of the early attendees of the Stanford graduate writing program, and knowing I was hoping to transfer, she thought we should meet.
Although I was hoping to spend the weekend with Shelley, her plan really was for me to spend it with her father. I was doubly disappointed when I realized that Robin White was one of the most bitterly frustrated curmudgeons I’d ever met in my life. I didn’t find out his full story until just recently, but that’s not why our conversations have been haunting me.
He had had considerable early success with novels and short stories. His novel Elephant Hill had won the prestigious Harper Prize, which was awarded to “a writer who hitherto had not found a wide audience.” A couple of years before I met him, he had published a non-fiction book about the tribulations of dealing with a special needs son entitled Be Not Afraid. But he had been unable to sell any fiction for almost ten years, and he bewailed a publishing industry—in the wake of Watergate and The Happy Hooker—focusing exclusively on books written by disgraced politicians and prostitutes.
Recently I found out that White had clashed with Ken Kesey, when they were both in Stanford’s graduate writing program. As Tom Wolfe noted in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, “Being hip on Perry Lane [where most of the lit students lived] now had an element nobody had ever dreamed about before, wild-flying, mind-blowing drugs. Some of the old Perry Lane luminaries’ cool was tested and they were found wanting,” White among them. Seeing Kesey’s star ascending at that time with Sometimes A Great Notion and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (a highly successful play about to become an even more successful movie) must have been even more galling for White, though he never mentioned Kesey’s name in my presence.
Although I never published as much fiction as White did, I did have some triumphs. Winning a national essay contest in high school got me deluged with offers to attend liberal arts colleges across the country. I wangled another essay win in college into getting a screen play into Universal Studios. Nothing came of it.
As a result, I’m beginning to caress my own set of Stanford regrets. Should I have been more assiduous about insinuating myself into the English department’s fiction-focused milieu? I remember being spectacularly unimpressed by the professor assigned to be my adviser; I remember him dismissively saying that he never wanted to be bothered outside of office hours. I can’t even remember his name.
It was no surprise, then, that I ended up at the Stanford Daily, gaily reviewing movies.
Ten years ago, I wrote a blog entitled When Should Boomers Euthanize Their Dreams?, asking when it was time to stop grasping for the imaginings of fame. I’m still grasping.
I’ve written a couple of novels, one literary and one a mystery. I wrote the mystery because it’s supposedly easier to sell a genre novel. Once the mystery novel was successful—or, even better, a series of mysteries—I was hoping to sell the literary novel.
But I’m still having trouble getting an agent, even for the mystery. One rejected my query after a few hours not because she didn’t like the sample chapter I sent, but because she didn’t like my query letter. So much for the triumph of content over style. After some excellent coaching from a fellow writer about query letters, suggesting a more personal approach, I queried one of her colleagues at the same agency, who only needed twenty-four hours to send a rejection.
I’ve subscribed to the Twitter feed of this particular agency—which comes up in multiple articles about agencies that will accept unpublished authors—and discovered that the majority of their new authors are female. As are the agents themselves.
Certainly, if you go into a bookstore (or, in the pandemic, browse online), you can see that the recent trend is toward women and people of color. I have no problem with that. But as an old white guy, I’m feeling excluded, even discriminated against.
I don’t want to turn into a bitter man like Robin White. But I can’t help thinking that I’m only seeing history repeat itself. When I walked into a bookstore six months after my weekend with him in Mendocino, the shelves were full of books by disgraced politicians and prostitutes.