The postman always knocks twice. He has to, because publishers won’t open the door to him. Unsolicited manuscripts have all the popularity of swine flu and none of the cachet. “We get about 15 a day,” says Anna Porter, editor-in-chief of McClelland and Stewart. “Each is read at least once and that forms the most costly part of our edito-
rial budget. Only about 2% get into print and the return postage alone is phenomenal.” At Macmillan of Canada the policy is under review: “We’re soul-searching.” says senior editor Doug Gibson as the unread manuscripts pile up. “We publish about one out of 1,500. It costs a hell of a lot of time and money.” The question: can it be worth it?
Rarely. Which accounts for much of the cozy, self-congratulatory glow emanating from New York’s Viking Press. Back in August, 1949, Viking published an unsolicited manuscript and it took them 27 years to recover. But recover they did, and the impressive results of their new venture may inspire recession-pressed publishing executives to set up shop in the mailroom. At its publication last month, Judith Guest’s unsolicited novel. Ordinary People, had chalked up an extraordinary $635,000 in sale of paperback rights, plus a film sale to bofio book-buyer Robert Redford. For the 40-year-old Minneapolis housewife the writing of her first novel was “a great learning experience”—sandwiched into school hours to avoid inconveniencing her executive husband, three sons, and one female malamute.
Guest’s novel tells of suburban angst, middle-American style. Conrad, 18, has just returned from eight months in a mental hospital. His suicide attempt, we learn, came after surviving the boating accident that drowned his older brother. Conrad is edging back to normality and desperately trying not to crease the tablecloth or disturb breakfast etiquette along the way.
Dad, a tax lawyer, wants only to help his son. But how much concern is it proper to show? “Mid-terms already . . . Should he tell him not to worry? No, he will think it means something ...” Mom knows that a real Christmas tree differs from an artificial one by having pine needles that “imbibe” themselves in the white shag. Life’s nasty spots are best dealt with like fingerprints on the fridge: quickly, quietly and with a spray cleaner.
Though her subject is easy to parody and at times her style a little too pat, Guest writes convincingly most of the time and movingly quite often. Popular American fiction most often places the mental breakdown in the Chronic and Acutes’ ward of Big Nurse or the mad housewife territory of Bergdorfs fourth floor. Guest’s contribution is to move the cuckoo’s nest of splintered reality into the land of gentility and gentiles. American writers never had much difficulty in ranting or whining about existence. Now Guest comes along with pleasant suburban natter about guilt, failure, self-discovery and flawless strawberry mousse. Given the low pain threshold of modern America it makes perfect sense. Today’s sedated society has no tolerance for the slightest physical, emotional or economic discomfort. When Judith Guest writes about shattered nerves caused by indiscreet cocktail party chatter, her readers understand. BARBARA AMIEL
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