8. WHY WRITE? A Panel Discussion with the Masters
  9. THE LITERARY AGENT’S 10 COMMANDMENTS (for aspiring writers)
  11. 20 Famous Authors on: THE DOWNSIDE OF LITERARY SUCCE$$
  13. Fiction Freakonomics: HOW MUCH THE MASTERS MADE



  1. “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” Elmore Leonard
  2. “Kill your darlings.” Stephen King
  3. “Every style that is not boring is a good one.” Voltaire
  4. “The best technique is none at all.”  Henry Miller
  5. “Forget grammar and think about potatoes.” Gertrude Stein
  6. “Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work the critics don’t like – then cultivate it.” Jean Cocteau
  7. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov
  8. “Don’t wait for inspiration: Go after it with a club.” Jack London
  9. “Write drunk; edit sober.” Ernest Hemingway
  10. “Pity the reader: Sound like yourself.” Kurt Vonnegut



  1. “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”  Oscar Wilde
  2. “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” David Foster Wallace
  3. “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Flannery O’Connor
  4. “Adversity is the first path to truth.” Lord Byrn
  5. “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” G.K. Chesterton
  6. “Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.” Mark Twain
  7. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” Stephen King
  8. “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” Camus
  9. “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Arthur Schopenhauer
  10. “Truth disappears with the telling of it.” Lawrence Durrell


  • “Truth is mighty and will prevail! There is nothing wrong with this, except that it ain’t so.” Mark Twain
  • “There is only one truth and that is that there’s no truth.” Flannery O’Connor



  1. “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”  Leo Tolstoy
  2. “When you lose your reason, you attain the highest perfect knowing.” Jack Kerouac
  3. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  Shakespeare (Hamlet)
  4. “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”  Aristotle
  5. “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”  Gloria Steinem
  6. “Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.” Howard Nemerov

7. “Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”  Oscar Wilde

  1. “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”Arthur Schopenhauer
  2. “Fiction was invented the day Jonah arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, at a 1948 writers’ convention


“The two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain






“In today’s publishing climate, it’s eat or be eaten.”

Betsy Lerner, editor/agent/author, 2005


  • Yesterday:             The publisher brought its audience to you.

Today:                     You bring your audience to the publisher.


  • Yesterday:             The publisher helped build your platform or personality cult.

Today:                     You build your own platform or personality cult.


  • Yesterday:             The publisher did all the marketing and PR.

Today:                     You do all the marketing and PR.


  • Yesterday:             The publisher did most of the line-editing and fact-checking.

Today:                       You do most of the line-editing and fact-checking.


  • Yesterday:             The publisher paid the price for your Titanic.

Today:                       You pay the price for your Titanic.





Like economists, weathermen, and Vegas bookies, editors soon learn that the more clouded the crystal ball, the more important it is to make it look crystal. At least to civilians, no less than to publishing conglomerate CFO’s.

Writer/editor, Andre Gide at Gallimard, broke the rule long ago. He called his rejection of Proust’s, Remembrance of Things Past, the most “bitter regret” of his life. “Would I have been able to recognize right away the obvious value of Baudelaire, of Rimbaud? Wouldn’t I have dismissed Lautreamont at first as a madman?”

No such second-guessing has been heard from the 12 who dismissed Potter, the 15 who rejected A Time to Kill, the 60 who opposed The Help, the 200 who spurned Roots.

On the other hand many 7-figure auction bidding-war titles have tanked.

As Simon & Schusters ex editor-in-chief, Michael Korda, confided: “At least half the books on any given week’s bestseller list are there to the immense surprise and puzzlement of their publishers.”


As a practical matter, most don’t have time. Max Perkins had a few manuscripts to deal with in a day, and took a four-martini Algonquin lunch break. Today’s editor can have a hundred to juggle between marketing meetings, focus meetings, jacket meetings, meetings about meetings. So she doesn’t read. She skims.

Seven years ago, agent Noah Lukeman wrote you get just The First Five Pages before the skimming starts. “God help the publishing professional who needs 50 pages to evaluate every manuscript, he’d never survive,” he told the Algonkian. “He wouldn’t be able to get to the 10,000 manuscripts behind it.”[1]

Today’s editor is an industrial wine taster. She uses a spit bucket. By mid-afternoon her palette is ODed. She can’t tell shit from chardonnay.

As long time agent, Susan Rabiner, writes: “Today you are fortunate if your materials get into the hands of an editorial assistant, many of whom are just months out of college and may know less about what makes a manuscript publishable than you do.”[2]

Still, assistant editors carry the heaviest screening workload. They get pauper wages and they live in New York. Meaning they can’t afford Adderall, much less a Monster or Cocaine Energy Drink.


Shit floats too. But cream —  always?

From Guttenberg on, this has been the publisher party line plagiarized from Van Gogh’s headstone.

Should there be a statute of limitations on the rising? Twenty years? Granted, real cream, not just Half & Half, is like wine: none before its time. Forty years for the Amontillado? This still might be pushing it.

Before the author remainders himself like David Foster Wallace, then?

Historically, dying is the best accelerant for slow cream. The richest artistic cream –- whether it finally surfaces in words, symphonies, or wildflower canvases — is always recognized on a corpse.

Outside the DOA statute: Could it be that there was or is another Dante, Dickens, Bronte, Pynchon – whose cream still  hasn’t risen to the top? Whose manuscripts are now in ashes, out to sea, or under the rubble of a lonely garret?

Impossible, say industry stalwarts and seminar gurus: there are no unrecognized writers, otherwise we’d know about them.

This fiction is based on another publishing confucianism: Birds of a feather flock together. In other words, if another Dickens existed or exists, his MFA or writer’s group friends or lovers or somebody else in his network, would have reported him to FSG, Knopf, or another literary ASPCA.



For Hunter Thompson and a few other dead licensed shock-and-awe jocks – okay. But most everybody else is slushed. PC publishers will not chance the blowback on a non-primetime loose cannon, even if he’s the next Swift or she Dorothy Parker.



Everything has already been written, it is said. The most a creative artist can hope for is to spin things differently.

But, a hypothetical: say, a novelist creates not another novelty much less a Twilight Fanfiction, but something original. Now there are two possibilities: a. The ms. won’t see the light of day because nobody will understand it; or b. It will, then the author will be expected to write only that for the rest of his or her life, bleeding the originality to cliché.



Editors and agents are often asked what they look for in a manuscript. What excites them. What makes them miss their subway stop. The number one for most?


Gurus agree: Don’t follow fashion, write with passion.

“The true writer always plays to an audience of one,” wrote E.B. White in The Elements of Style.  “Let him start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and he is as good as dead.”

But, the Literary Law of Equal and Opposite reaction applies: “Anything that is written to please the author is worthless,” countered Pascal.

Practically, who is right in today’s market?

Another hypothetical…  Before sitting down to work, Novelist 1 Googles his story idea, discovers somebody has already published something like it, so drops it. Novelist 2, without research, passionately finishes his story and fires it off. The editor replies: “Compelling [powerful, deeply felt, whatever]. But derivative.”

“But I wrote it with passion!” the writer protests.

“Try the French,” suggests the editor.



James Frey / EL James lit — yes. Henry James /James Joyce  — no.

Industry lobbyists might argue this. As today’s tea party politicians, trickledown executives, and anti-global warming experts prove, statistics are countless: there’s one for every pocketbook and POV.

While many editors concede that literature is a “tough sell” today, most nevertheless insist the cup is half full. But how much longer can Jonathan Galassi, Morgan Entrekin, Pat Strachan and the few other champions of quality fiction keep their heads off the chopping block? Meanwhile, corporate goldfish will refuse to admit that the bowl is losing water until they’re high and dry. And the editors who see the level going down can only say:

“It might be a little shallower in here — but, hey, shallow is good. Shallow sells.”

Then they reach for their snorkels and Patterson’s next Ulysses.





 “To my grandfather the book business today would be unrecognizable. It belongs to the entertainment industry much more than to the literary world.”

Charles Scribner Jr., whose company was bought out by CBS [1]

“The Literary-Industrial Complex has largely sold out its cultural purpose to its commercial one, creating an atmosphere of fear, cynicism, rapaciousness, and ignorance.” Ted Solotaroff, ex Harper&Row editor (from “What Has Happened to Publishing?” The New Republic, 1987)

“In today’s publishing climate, it’s eat or be eaten.” Betsy Lerner, editor/agent/author, 2005

“What of writers today?… We have to tramp like trained dogs through the wasteland of Midwestern malls on our book tours, begging the consumer—our fellow citizens!—to admire us, to buy us. But we are like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, performing astonishing feats for a nonexistent audience.”T.C. Boyle, Paris Review interview, 2000

“Success is 80 percent who you know…. Slow down, Cinderella your pumpkin coach has been temporarily delayed until you learn to kiss ass then you can dance the night away…. [But] the Kissee shouldn’t be aware that his ass has been kissed.” Elaine Niles, Some Writers Deserve to Starve! 31 Brutal Truths About the Publishing Industry.

“[To succeed] today’s author should be so well connected that he’s sleeping with a producer at ABC News or something.”Agent, Jeff Kleinman, on the “ideal” author

“Today you are fortunate if your materials get into the hands of an editorial assistant, many of whom are just months out of college and may know less about what makes a manuscript publishable than you do.” Susan Rabiner, literary agent

“In fiction, it became enormously difficult to break through the sheer weight of numbers generated by perhaps two dozen, or fewer, top writers who virtually dominated the list.” Michael Korda, former Simon&Schuster editor-in-chief

“[For a new book to succeed] There has to be this constellation of events. Not only a Times Book Review front cover, but Don Imus talking about it and Ellen Pompeo actually reading the book on-camera. And Barack Obama has just bought it.” Daniel Menaker, ex Random House editor-in-chief.

“Literary first novels are almost impossible to introduce into the marketplace…If something is not done, soon, not only first fiction, but all literary fiction, will disappear as a viable part of the publishing world.” ‘robert lasner, Ig Publisher:

“My judgment doesn’t count any longer. There used to be a reason to get into publishing. Whether they know it or not, they [editors] all want to be Maxwell Perkins….They didn’t flock to publishing because they want to publish Danielle Steel.” Kent Carroll, who left Carroll & Graf, after a conglomerate buy-out.

“The sin [of bestselling Thriller authors] is that they treat their readers like idiots. Some of them can’t help it — that’s how their minds work—but others deliberately dumb down their work because a lot of money is made that way.” Patrick Anderson in The Triumph of the Thriller.

“In America you can make a fortune as a writer, but not a living.” James Michener

“70 percent of the fiction and nonfiction best-seller lists is dreck,” Stephen King

“How can you keep downgrading people’s intelligence and insult them with the shit you’re publishing?” Ray Bradbury, 1993 speech to leading  publishers and editors, receiving a standing ovation.

“At least half the books on any given week’s bestseller list are there to the immense surprise and puzzlement of their publishers.” Michael Korda

“All the books that I think are going to sell don’t work, and all the books I don’t think are going to work sell a lot and win awards — that’s why I love this business so much,” Bob Loomis, ex Random House editor

“The average shelf-life of a trade book is somewhere between milk and yogurt.” Calvin Trillin

“When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” British novelist, the Booker Prize winner, Ian McKwen. Fiction buyers are 80% women

“Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea,” Garrison Keillor.

“The book business is obsolete…The future cannot be evaded. I await it w/ wonder and trepidation.”Jason Epstein, ex Random House editor-in-chief.



[1] Charles Scribner Jr., In the Company of Writers: A Life in Publishing. (Easton Press, 1984)






Since the dawn of the blockbuster, publishers have developed an eight-rung Jacob’s tennis ladder for living novelists based on their 1099, or their 8861 Welfare to Work credit.


  1. FRANCHISES (approx. .000001% of writer population)

Authors whose books have sold more than 100 million copies.

The Forbes Top 10 Club: Patterson (2010 earnings: $70 million), Stephenie Meyer ($40 million), Stephen King ($34 million), Danielle Steel ($32 million), Ken Follett ($20 million), Dean Koontz ($18 million), Janet Evanovich ($16 million), John Grisham ($15 million), Nicholas Sparks ($14 million), and J.K. Rowling ($10 million).

Comments: The Franchise can sell a million units of anything, even in a recession.


  1. BREAD-AND-BUTTERS (.000009%):

10-100 million-sales authors.

Members: John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Sue Grafton, Dan Brown, Tami Hoag, Patricia Cornwell, EL James, Jeffrey Archer, Mary Higgins Clark, Nora Roberts, Ann Rice, Janet Dailey etc.

Comments: Like a Franchise, a BB enjoys an evangelical following. But, unlike the Franchise, a BB may not survive serial bombs.


  1. ONE-HIT WONDERS (.00009%):

Those who have homered, but have yet to do so again.

Members: Robert James Waller [Bridges of Madison County], James Redfield [Celestine Prophesy], Charles Frazier [Cold Mountain], Xaviera Hollander [The Happy Hooker], etc.

Comments: OHW novelists pray. OHW editors take Prilosec while trying to divine the Blue Book value of their next title.


  1. PRESTIGES (.00001%):

Award-winning literary writers who have provided a fresh perspective on the human condition, and/or get half page ads in the NYT Review of Books, and/or get reviewed by Maslin, Yardley, or Kakutani.

Members: Phillip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ann Tyler, E.L. Doctorow, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Denis Johnson, etc.

Comments: These writers’ Pulitzers defer honor on their house, making it seem more interested in masterpieces than mammon. Some conglomerates still advance a platinum club member seven-figures and take a bath. So most Prestiges don’t have to sell plasma or, worse, teach. They have the luxury of keeping their public epiphanies down to an MFA worship service, or a Meet-and-Greet-the-Almighty conference mixer.


  1. 5. MID-LISTERS (.002%):

Those who have not been serial remaindered and sent to the Gulag. Each of their titles has sold at least 10,000 copies, and maybe a few thousand per year afterwards.

Members: Anybody who still appears on his or her publisher’s webpage roster, or who still has the audacity to identify him/herself at a cocktail party as an author.

Comments: With luck, suck, or pluck, ML’s teach. If they can’t land an adult ed night class, they can work at a county fair published-author petting zoo. Meantime, they can apply for grants or Section 8 housing.


  1. DEBUTS (.00015%):

Those who have published their first novel with a conglomerate house or reputable indie.

Members: Anybody listed in Publishers Weekly, Publishers’ Marketplace, or in their alumni or Lions Club newsletter.

Comments: Like the Inca, the industry loves a virgin. But losing your virginity doesn’t always live up to expectations. Said Amy Tan: “The very first time I was published [The Joy Luck Club], I went into severe depression and could not stop crying.”



According to industry expert, John B. Thompson, conglomerate accountants call these writers “Subperforming Margin People.”[1]

Members: The living dead.

Comments: The SUMP is often not responsible for a loss. The editors may have embalmed his or her title; the PR department may have ignored it; Sales may have failed to supply stores at the right time; a similar title may have been released just before; media spots or endorsements may have fallen through. But the king kills the messenger for the Waterloo.

Thompson quotes an anonymous Brooklyn author who, after releasing fourteen books from major publishers, was unable to sell another: “I wear the sales figures I forged in life,” he said, echoing Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. “I’ve become no better than my last sales figures… I feel trapped… That’s what most of my writing friends feel as well.”

Another Thompson SUMP, with ten titles and many awards, changed his name because: “You’re better off in this industry being a completely unknown person. It’s better to have no history than a mixed history. It’s insane. It makes no sense. But that’s publishing.”

Calling the situation “fucked,” noted novelist and New School professor, Dale Peck, scolded albatross authors for “mourning the death of an industry that’s done so little for them for so long,” expecting them to tolerate “decreased advances, sales, and opportunities to publish work that doesn’t fit into an increasingly homogenized marketplace.”[2]

Author sour grapes, or reality?

In 2008, Poets and Writers asked agent Molly Friedrich, “What about a literary writer… who has published a couple of books that haven’t sold too well?

“They are in trouble. I’m not going to soft-pedal that. It’s very, very, very painful,” replied Friedrich who has been in the business for forty years and represents a broad spectrum of authors from Sue Grafton to Frank McCourt.

Her colleague, Donald Maass – agent, author of The Breakout Novel series, and of seventeen novels — agrees: “Unless an author today finds a sizeable audience very quickly, they will be washed out.”[3]


  1. THE UNTOUCHABLES (98.9876%):

The terminally unpublished.

Members: Lepers.

Comments: Many resort to vanity, print-on-demand, or e-publishing. A few become e-Cinderellas (see Vanity of Vanities? The P.O.D. and E-Revolution). Others succeed in selling to their mother and handful of friends who also donate to UNICEF or the ASPCA (Assoc. for Prevention of Cruelty to Authors)



[1]John B. Thompson, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (UK: Polity, 2010)

[2] “Dale Peck Criticizes Publishing Industry: Says Writers Must Stand Up,” Newsweek/ Daily Beast, May 19, 2011.

[3] Michael Neff, 2003 Algonkian interview with Donald Maass



WHY WRITE? A Panel Discussion with the Masters. Part II

Moderator, Jean Cocteau:

“This sickness to express oneself, what is it?”

  • “I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still.” Syvia Plath
  • “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”  Anne Frank
  • “What an extension of self is this pen. Once this pen is in my  hand – like a wand—I stop being the confused, turgid, ugly and gross person.”  John Steinbeck
  • “I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.” Mother Teresa
  • “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” E.B. White
  • “I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of. ” Joss Whedon (Mutant Enemy Productions founder)
  • “I write to find out what I’m thinking… . What I want and what I fear.” Joan Didion
  • “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”  Maya Angelou
  • “Writing is thinking on paper.” William Zinsser
  • “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” Friedrich Nietzsche
  • “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”  Anais Nin
  • “A writer has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.” Ronald Dahl
  • “Modern poets talk against business, poor things, but all of us write for money.” Robert Frost
  • “Why do I write? Because I find life unsatisfactory.”  Tennessee Williams
  • “Getting even is one reason for writing: I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” William Gass
  • “It’s the job of the writer in America to say, ‘Fuck you!’ To kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful.” Ken Kesey
  • “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” Albert Camus
  • “One writes because one has to create a world in which one can live.” Anais Nin
  • “There are palaces and prisons to attack. One can even succeed now and again in blowing holes in the line of the world’s communications.” Norman Mailer
  • “The role of art is to make a world which can be tolerated.” William Saroyan
  • “I write for the same reason I breathe … because if I didn’t, I would die.”  Isaac Asimov
  • “If I do not write to empty my mind, I go mad.”  Lord Byron
  • “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” Franz Kafka
  • “Sir, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money!” Samuel Johnson
  • “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting laid. It’s about Getting happy, okay? Getting happy!” Stephen King
  • “Writers write for fame, wealth, power, and the love of women.” Sigmund Freud




For aspiring writers

  1. Don’t send the agent a manuscript already coffee-stained, dog-earred, or graffitied. That’s their job.
  2. Don’t send her a Coming-of Age-novel, short story collection, or poetry chapbook unless you’ve kidnapped her firstborn.
  3. Don’t send your ms. to rival agents simultaneously, even if you’ve been waiting two years.
  4. Unless you’re Charles Manson, O.J., or a former Jerry Springer guest, Don’t tell them how many times your literary efforts have been unfairly spurned in the past.
  5. Don’t try to erase blood from your ms. Use White-out or Kilz-It.
  6. Unless you’re Colbert, Sedaris, or an SNL grad, Don’t try Humor unless you’re locked in her restroom wired with C4.
  7. Don’t use the Mohammad Ali “I am the Greatest” approach in your cover letter – i.e. claim to be the next Hemingway, Rowlings, or The Rock. (As the truism goes in the profession: Only bad writers think they’re good.)
  8. Don’t use the Kafka “I am a bug” approach, either. Not even if you’ve discovered the agent supports a UNICEF orphan or the ASPCA. Professionals like pathos, not pathetic. (But if you’re a paraplegic, a molestation victim, or have had your face chewed off by a chimpanzee, mention that.)
  9. Unless you’re Gina Dunham, Lady Gaga, or Snooki, don’t use colored stationary, smilies, or weird fonts in your cover letter. It’s the first sign of a wannabe.
  10. Unless you’re a hiphop artist, an Iranian defector, or a dyslexic transsexual, avoid typos, punktuation, and neogrammar. Agents may not read your ms., but they’re sensitive about mechanics.




  • Herman Melville: Moby Dick (1851)

“We regret to say that our united opinion is entirely against the book as we do not think it would be at all suitable for the Juvenile Market. It is very long, and rather old fashioned.”

  • Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1856)

“You have buried your novel underneath a heap of details which are well done but utterly superfluous.”

  • Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland (1865)

“…A stiff overwrought story.”

  • Rudyard Kipling: The Light that Failed (1889)

“I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

  • Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows (1908)

“… An irresponsible holiday story’

  • Ernest Hemingway: The Torrents of Spring (1926)

“It would be in extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.”

  • D. H. Lawrence: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

“For your own sake, do not publish this book!”

  • William Faulkner:  Sanctuary (1931)

“Good God, I can’t publish this — we’d both be in jail!”

  • Pearl Buck: The Good Earth (1931)

“Regret the American public is not interested in anything on China.”

  • Samuel Beckett: Dream of Fair-to-Middling Women (1932)

“I wouldn’t touch this with a barge pole.”

  • Irving Stone: Lust for Life (1934)

“A long, dull novel about an artist.”

  • George Orwell: Animal Farm (1945)

“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA… The choice of pigs as the ruling class will no doubt give offense to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.”

  • Ayn Rand: The Fountainhead (1943)

“It is badly written and the hero is unsympathetic.”

  • Anne Frank: Diary (1952)

“The girl doesn’t… have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity level’.”

  • Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita, 1955

“Overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian…. I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”

  • William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)

“…An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.’

  • Norman Mailer: The Deer Park (1955)

“This will set publishing back 25 years!”

  • John Knowles: A Separate Peace (1958)

“Embarrassingly overwrought… even pretentious.”

  • Joseph Heller: Catch-22 (1961)

“He has two devices, both bad, which he works constantly… This, as you may imagine, constitutes a continual and unmitigated bore.”

  • Octavio Paz: The Labyrinth of Solitude (1962)

“I don’t see that the whole book could be of interest to American readers. This is because it is addressed to Mexicans.”

  • John Le Carre: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963)

“You’re welcome to Le Carre – he hasn’t got any future.”

  • Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar(1963)

“There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”

  • Jacqueline Susann: The Valley of the Dolls (1966)

“She is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries out for the hands of a pro.”

  • J  G Ballard: Crash (1973)

“The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”

  • Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)

“Nothing was good. Not the syntax, the way of putting things, nothing. To write is a talent. You don’t just pick up a guy from the bus station and expect him to do it.”



* * *

20 Famous Authors on:



Leo Tolstoy: “I am sure there never has been a writer more indifferent to success than I am… if it is success.”

Eugene O’Neil to Thornton Wilder: “Beware success. It will destroy you quicker and more permanently than men, women, or the bottle.”

William Faulkner: “Success is feminine like a woman; if you cringe before her she will override you…. Show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.”

Joseph Heller, on the ultimate Catch-22: “Success and failure are both difficult to endure. Along with success come drugs, divorce, fornication, bullying, travel, meditation, medication, depression, neurosis and suicide. With failure comes failure.”

Oscar Wilde, from Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893): “In this world there are only two tragedies:  One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

Ernest Hemingway “If you have a success you have it for the wrong reasons. If you become popular it is always because of the worst aspects of your work.”

Malcolm Lowry, letter to his mother-in-law, after the success of Under the Volcano (1947): “Success may be the worst possible thing that could happen to any serious author.”

Malcolm Lowry, to Jonathan Cape editor, after acceptance & payment for Under the Volcano: “We are wallowing in success, feeling in fact like starving men whose eyes are being stuffed with potatoes.”

Henry Miller, on his breakthrough to popularity: “It’s unreal to me, the whole thing… In fact, I rather dislike it… All I see is more disruption in my life, more intrusions, more nonsense.”

John Steinbeck, after Paramount pays him $4,000 for rights to Tortilla Flat (1934): “For the moment he financial burdens have been removed. But it is not permanent. I was not made for success.”

John Steinbeck to his agent, reacting to the acclaim for Of Mice and Men (1937): “This ballyhoo is driving me nuts… I’ve got to get away from being John Steinbeck.”

J.D. Salinger: “It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity–obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.”

J.D. Salinger: “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.”

Jack Kerouac to Gary Snyder, after success of On the Road (1957): ”What a crock of shit it is to have to satisfy every Tom Dick and Harry stranger in the world….I am no longer ‘beat,’ I have money, a career. I am more alone than when I lurked on Times Square at 4 AM or hitchhiked penniless.”

John Grisham: “My success was not planned, but it could only happen in America. I’m a famous writer in a country where nobody reads.”

Stephen King: “One thing that I don’t want to do anymore is take another monster advance. I’ve taken a couple of them.”

Harper Lee, after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960):  “When you’re at the top there’s only one way to go… Now I’ve found I can’t write. I have about three hundred personal friends who keep dropping in for a cup of coffee.”

Grace Metalious (who died of alcoholism at age 39) after Peyton Place became a hit TV series in 1964: “If I had to do it over again, it would be easier to be poor. Before I was successful, I was as happy as anyone gets.”

Samuel Beckett’s wife, Susanne, on learning that he had won the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature. “This is a catastrophe.”

Doris Lessing, after receiving the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. “All I do is give interviews and spend time being photographed…It’s been a bloody disaster.”

Amy Tan: “The very first time I was published [The Joy Luck Club], I went into severe depression and could not stop crying.”

  1. Scott Fitzgerald, on the release of his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920):: “I started balling because I knew it would never be so good again.”

Charles McCabe: “My collected works are mostly on vomit bags of Pan Am & TWA.”




“If there’s anything writers are more neurotic about than writing, it’s money.” Betsy Lerner, author/agent/editor

“If you want to know how God feels about money, just look at who He gives it to.” Dorothy Parker (who left her entire estate to Martin Luther King Foundation)

“Sir, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” Samuel Johnson

“I’m physically incapable or writing anything I don’t think will be paid for.” Truman Capote

“If I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.” Anthony Burgess

“Modern poets talk against business, poor things, but all of us write for money.” Robert Frost

“Yes, I’ve made a lot of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down with the thought of being paid for it.” Stephen King

“Hemingway sold himself for the God almighty dollar.” Ezra Pound

“Have you ever seen the possession of money corrupt a man as it has Dos Passos?” Hemingway to Edmund Wilson.

“You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, at a 1948 writers’ convention

“In America you can make a fortune as a writer, but not a living.” James Michener

“One thing that I don’t want to do anymore is take another monster advance. I’ve taken a couple of them.” Stephen King

“Dollars damn me… What I feel most moved to write, that is banned – it will not pay.” Herman Melville, letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne

“I have no money, no resources, no hopes.  I am the happiest man alive.” Henry Miller

“Horace, Horace, please stop these checks. Give me back my poverty!” Sherwood Anderson to his publisher, Horace Liveright, who lends him $75 per week.

“I am no longer ‘beat,’ I have money, a career. I am more alone than when I lurked on Times Square at 4 AM or hitchhiked penniless.” Jack Kerouac

“For the moment the financial burdens have been removed. But it is not permanent. I was not made for success.” John Steinbeck, after Tortilla Flat payday, 1934

“What the hell would we do with $5,000 a week.  Don’t bother us!” Carol Steinbeck, 1939, after Grapes of Wrath blockbuster, screaming into the phone at Hollywood studio chief.

“Can you explain to me why a guy with a name as ‘famous’ as mine and fourteen books and translated into fifteen languages around the world have to worry about rent?” Jack Kerouac to Seymour Krim, who wrote the Desolation Angels (1965) foreword, complaining that he couldn’t afford to travel to New York for the publication launch.





Fiction Freakonomics: HOW MUCH THE MASTERS MADE

Yesterday vs. Today

 “If you want to know how God feels about money, just look at who He gives it to.”

Dorothy Parker (who left her entire estate to Martin Luther King Foundation)


1818    Advance for Jane Austen’s first novel, Northanger Abbey: 10£

2012    Little Brown advance for Tina Fey’s first title, Bossypants: $6 million


1840    Amount Graham’s Magazine paid Edgar Allan Poe for his Auguste Dupin mystery (history’s first detective tale) “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”: $56

2012    Annual earnings of James Patterson for his Alex Cross mysteries: $94 Million


“In America you can make a fortune as a writer, but not a living.” James Michener


1840    Publisher George Smith’s advance to Charlotte Brontë for Jane Eyre: £100

2013    Random House advance to Lena Dunham for Not That Kind of Girl:

 A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned: $3.5 million


1843:   Dickens’ A Christmas Carol earnings: £230.

1994:   Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box advance: $4.125 million


1847    Emily Brontë’s advance payment for self-publication of Wuthering Heights: £50

2009    Audrey Niffenegger’s advance from Scribner for Her Fearful Symmetry: $5 Million


1852    Advance for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: $300

2012    Little Brown advance for J.K. Rowlings’ The Casual Vacancy: $8 Million


“Dollars damn me… What I feel most moved to write, that is banned – it will not pay.”

Herman Melville, letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne


1891    Herman Melville’s lifetime royalties for Moby Dick: $556.37

1974    Peter Benchley’s lifetime royalties for Jaws: $30Million


1925    Boni & Liveright profits (from its literary novelists Hemingway, Faulkner, Dreiser, Anderson, etc.): $8,609.12

2012    Random House/Bertelsmann profits (from its genre novelists E.L. James, John Grisham, Ken Follet, Danielle Steel): $420Million


1927-34           John Steinbeck’s total literary earnings for seven years: $870

2003                1 hour’s earnings for Steinbeck’s East of Eden after the 1952 novel is endorsed by Oprah: $100,000 (for 60,000 copies sold)


“For the moment the financial burdens have been removed. But it is not permanent.

I was not made for success.” John Steinbeck, after Tortilla Flat payday, 1934

1930s Average pay to Fitzgerald, Faulkner,  & Steinbeck for screenplay adaptions: $1,500 weekly

1990s  Average pay to Shane Black, David Mamet, Joe Esterhaus for each adaption: $1.5 Million


1936    Macmillan advance to Margaret Mitchell for Gone with the Wind: $500

2014    St. Martin’s advance to Sylvia Day for 2-book romance series, Blacklist: $10Million


“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends,

and then you do it for money.” Virginia Woolf


1940    John Steinbeck’s paid IRS bill (after Grapes of Wrath success): $40,000

1950    Jack Kerouac’s unpaid IRS bill (before On the Road): $89


1940    Amount Wm. Faulkner borrowed from his agent, Harold Ober, to prevent electric shutoff at his house in Oxford, Miss.: $100

1941    Amount Faulkner told his editor, Bennett Cerf, he had left : 60¢

1980    Minimum amount Norman Mailer tells his agent, Scott Meredith, he needs for annual living expenses: $200,000


1953    Henry Miller’s combined earnings for his erotic novels including Crazy Cock,

 Tropic of Cancer, and Sexus: $6,872

2012    E.L. James annual earnings for her erotic novel, Fifty Shades of Grey: $95 million   


“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.” Henry Miller


1957    Viking advance to Jack Kerouac for On The Road : $1,000

2007    Sum paid by Indianapolis Colts owner, Jim Irsay, for original 120-foot typed scroll On the Road manuscript: $2.43 million


“I am no longer ‘beat.’ I have money, a career. I am more alone than when

I lurked on Times Square at 4 a.m. or hitchhiked penniless.” Jack Kerouac


1961    Value of Hemingway estate: $1,410,310

2013    Value of Tom Clancy estate: $300Million


“Hemingway sold himself for the God almighty dollar.” Ezra Pound


1974    Doubleday advance to Stephen King for his first novel, Carrie: $2,400

1997    Penguin/Putnam advance offer for his next novel (which King rejected): $21Million


“Yes, I’ve made a lot of dough from my fiction, but I never set a

single word down with the thought of being paid for it.” Stephen King


Sources: Author biographies, monographs, magazines, periodicals




 In the last two decades, 250 MFA programs have issued diplomas to 150,000 students, many crafting the Great American novel. But, only a small percentage of grads have even gotten published. The others are tutoring English, making Starbuck mochas, or selling plasma.

To improve the future prospects of creative writing students, why do MFA programs still cling to the academic ivory tower and offer only courses on such secondary subjects as composition, characterization, authorial voice, and point-of-view? Why not a curriculum focused on realistic job training: how to write the next Fifty Shades of Grey and make $95million in a year like E.L. James, marketing maven with a BA in History?

Here is a list of required and elective courses to be offered in the new Trump University MFA program, guaranteed to produce the next generation of great authors.


  • How to Clone a New Vampire, Zombie, or Kid Wizard Blockbuster without Compromising Your Literary Integrity.
  • How to Pen A 3rd World Victim Story Even Though You’re From Scarsdale.
  • How to Create a Sympathetic Hero Other than Yourself.
  • How to Disguise the Fact that All Your Protagonists Are You, and All Your Antagonists Your Parents or Former Lovers.


MARKETING 201 (Required)

  • How to Give an Editor, an Agent, or Sonny Metha Head Without Losing Face.
  • How to Find Your Voice at a Paris Review Cocktail Party or a Yaddo AA Meeting.
  • How to Create a Bulletproof, Imaginary CV or Publication History for an NEA, Guggenheim, MacArthur Genius, or a Macdonald’s Managerial Position.
  • How to Get Your Million Little Piece Rehab or Rubber Room Memoir to Oprah.
  • How Turn Your Moonlighting Experience as a Drug Dealer, Pole Dancer, or Welfare Mom into the Next Less Than Zero, Turning Point, Or Harry Potter.


AFTER-MARKETING 301 (Extra credit toward PhD in Literature)

  • How to Fahrenheit 451 All Your Rejection Slips Without Contributing to Global Warming.
  • How to Win a San Quentin or Rikers Pen Scholarship without Killing Anybody or Further Embarrassing Your Parents.
  • How to Exploit Your Composition, Characterization and Conflict Skills When Writing Owners’ Manuals, Junk Mailers, or Ad Copy for Dog Food.
  • How to Score a Janitorial Job at Your Post-Grad Alma Mater on the Merits of Your Kindle Ulysses Fanfiction.
  • How to Compose a Catchy Farewell Note that Will Ensure Posthumous Fame & Fortune for Your Moby Dick or Confederacy Of Dunces.





“What of writers today?… We have to tramp like trained dogs

through the wasteland of Midwestern malls on our book tours,

begging the consumer—our fellow citizens!—to admire us,

to buy us. But we are like Kafka’s Hunger Artist,

performing astonishing feats for a nonexistent audience.”

T.C. Boyle, Paris Review interview, 2000

An average advance for a fiction debut, literary or genre, is $2,500 to $10,000. Publisher’s Marketplace calls this “a nice deal.” Every professional tries for the “very nice deal” ($50,000–$99,000), the “good” ($100,000–$250,000), the significant ($251,000–$499,000), but, mostly, the “major deal” ($500,000 and up).

Better than 90 percent of the working literary force winds up with nice. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Authors aren’t greedy, per se. The more a traditional publisher advances, the larger the book’s first print run. Meaning the more it has to lose. Meaning the more likely it is to help with marketing. Meaning the author may not have put a kidney on Craigslist to cover his own campaign.

Advance determines print run. The $10K-advance writer earns about $1 per paperback, so 10K are printed. Since nine out of ten debut titles never go to a second printing, most authors never earn more than their advance. One reason for this is the lack of publisher marketing support.

If you are an unsupported author,  you must become your own sales and PR person. If frugal, you fly solo; if a financial kamikaze you hire a New York PR agent. A basic campaign starts at $10,000. This buys fifty to one hundred hours of pro PR time. The investment breaks even if her efforts sell ten thousand extra books and the moon is blue.

Another arrangement is to pay the agent for performance, not time. Say, ten grand for getting you on Oprah, five for Charlie Rose, one for a Maslin review. After all, you’ve hired her not for her rocket science sales know-how or even a Harvard MBA, but for her connections. Her mojo. Her suck. If she doesn’t have that, why pay her one hundred times your own pay grade?

Though this may seem a reasonable argument to a writer, the marketing maven will dismiss it as delusional, if not psychotic. She will patiently explain the ABCs of book sales to you, then lay out her three-prong strategy: a signing tour; a viral dispatch to late-night radio talk shows; a Titanic title launch party. So you flush your advance for her to drop a dime on graveyard deejays; to lick envelopes; and to buy Sangria and party hats.

Post-Waterloo, you get a courtesy campaign wrap-up call from your professional, telling you how well she thought everything went “in today’s extremely challenging marketplace.” If you are impolite enough to express your regret that she failed to get you on NPR, she may impolitely remind you that you are not Joyce Carol Oates or Snooki.

At this point you are at the mezzanine of the marketing money pit, headed for the Marianna Trench. Currently, you are ten grand down, plus travel expenses to the signings, talk shows, and your gala.

Working solo again, you must send out complimentary copies of your book to everybody. The freebie mailing involves another catch-22: The most likely people to buy your book are friends, but friends expect a free copy; so you send one to all, and nobody is left to buy your book. Too often the only part of the text a friend is interested in is your dedication and acknowledgments. If you forget to mention them, they may not reach page 1; if you do, they may break down and buy a few discount copies for their own friends.

As for online marketing, as everyone knows, today no high-flying author works without a Net. To build an audience, you must blog, Tweet, text, YouTube, Podcast, chat, forum, RSS feed, Facebook, and MySpace. If you’re a nonfiction specialist, in order to establish expertise in your field, you should invest another few thousand for a web page. Fill this with excerpts, teasers, Q & As, blurbs, and blogs. Then link, bait, meme, aggregate, social bookmark, and search engine optimize. Since a million other writers are doing the same, consider spending a few dollars extra for Authorbuzz, Google ads, banner ads, floaters, pop-ups, interstitial and/or superstitial ads.

By this time, the debut author is hemorrhaging fifteen to twenty Gs in red ink, but the cost should be kept in perspective—it’s five times less than an MFA.

Still, one wonders: If Hemingway had had to endure today’s Seventh Circle of Purgatorial Sales, would he have cut his loses and remaindered himself after The Sun Also Rises?




“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting laid. It’s about Getting happy, okay? Getting happy!” Stephen King

“It’s good to be just plain happy, it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how and still be happy,  that is beyond happiness, that is bliss.” Henry Miller

“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.” Henry Miller

“I have been ecstatic; but I have not been happy.” Edna St Vincent Millay

“I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, on the release of his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920)

“Oh, I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy.” Charlotte Bronte, dying words to her husband of 9 months. Rev. Arthur Nicholls.

“If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it.” Ernest Hemingway

“By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.” Socrates

“To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.” Albert Camus

“Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.” George Orwell

“Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy.” Virginia Woolfe

“Every happy man should have an unhappy man, in his closet, to remind him, by his constant tapping, that not everyone is happy, and that, sooner or later, life will show him its claws.” Anton Chekhov

“Boy, I’m glad I’ve failed… It was horrible at first, but I’m glad I’ve failed. Praise be to God for the failure!” Herman Melville, “The Happy Failure” (short story)

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” Samuel Beckett, Endgame

“I discovered that this suffering was good for me, that it opened the way to a joyous life.” Henry Miller

“The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.” Bertrand Russell.

“Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it we do suddenly realize — sometimes with astonishment — how happy we had been.” Nikos Kazantzakis

“Happiness consists in the multiplicity of agreeable consciousness.” Samuel Johnson

“I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between.” Sylvia Plath

“The real reason for not committing suicide is because you always know how swell life gets again after the hell is over.” Ernest Hemingway

“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.”  Mark Twain

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.” CS Lewis

“When I have one martini, I feel bigger, wiser, taller. When I have a second I feel superlative. When I have more, there’s no stopping me.” William Faulkner

“Who is the happier man: he who has braved the storm of life and lived, or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?” Hunter Thompson

“Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.” Robert Frost

“Happiness consists in realizing it is all a great strange dream.” Jack Kerouac

“If you want to be happy, be.” Leo Tolstoy




“I have high hopes of smashing my name into history

so violently that it will take a legendary form.”

Ron Hubbard, 1938 letter to his literary agent, Forrest J. Ackerman

The most published author in history, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, is the godfather of Tom Cruise, the “Mission Impossible” star himself: L. Ron Hubbard. In his lifetime, he released 1,084 books, 29 of which were novels.

The Scientology founder also holds the record for the most popular self-published book: Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Bridge Publications, its current printer, states that the title has sold 83 million copies to date. The unfaithful estimate 20 million. The heretical Neilson BookScan reported 52,000 sold between 2001 and 2005.

In 1938, Macaulay Publishers paid Hubbard $2,500 for his first novel, Buckskin Brigades, a western based on explorers Lewis and Clark experience with the Blackfoot Indians. Establishing his platform, the college drop-out claimed to have become, at age 6, a blood brother to a medicine man of the tribe, though the Blackfoot never practiced the tradition. With his advance, Hubbard bought The Magician, a boat. On a trip to Asia as a teen he claimed to have trained with Buddhist lamas and the last in the line of Kublai Khan’s wizards.

While sailing the seven seas, Hubbard continued to write novels, stopping in Hollywood to write scripts such as “The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok” (1938) and “The Spider Returns” (1941), though his name never appeared in the Columbia credits.

The cloud-parting of his literary career occurred at about the time he was working on Wild Bill. While under the influence of nitrous oxide during a dental extraction, he said he died for eight minutes, during which time “the basic principles of human existence” were revealed to him. Returning to life, he jotted them down, and called the work Excalibur, after Arthurian legend.

Hubbard phoned Arthur J. Burks, President of the American Fiction Guild, informing him he’d just finished ‘THE Book,” just as Edgar Allen Poe had declared about his Eureka and, later, Faulkner about his Flags in the Dust. Hubbard upped their ante: he described Excalibur as “Somewhat more important… than the Bible.” Burke brushed him off since, coincidentally, he was busy working on his own apocalyptic revelation, Who Do You Think You Are?

Undiscouraged, Hubbard telegrammed New York publishers, telling them to meet him at Penn Station to review THE Book and make offers.

Nobody showed.

Pressing on, he shelved his skeleton key to human existence and wrote Typewriter in the Sky. This novel concerned a struggling musician who discovers he is a time-traveling pawn in his friend’s buccaneer pulp novel, the plot turns of which are preceded by the ding of a celestial typewriter.

The most published author in history now took a sabbatical to save his country. He joined the Navy but continued to work on his self-mythology during the War. He allegedly won 21 metals, though, according to his biographer, Russell Miller[1], military records only account for 4. He was rushed to a military hospital wounded, crippled, and blinded though documents only mention ulcers and conjunctivitis. And he was pronounced dead twice though no evidence of continued nitrous abuse ever surfaced.

Postwar, Hubbard wrote that he was “abandoned by family and friends as a supposedly hopeless cripple.”[2] In a petition to the Veterans Administration for a pension increase, he complained of “moroseness and suicidal inclinations.” But, out of “pride,” he admitted to refusing the psychiatric treatment his physician had recommended.

Strapped for cash in spite of a disability raise, the novelist was arrested for shoplifting. But soon, according to his disciples, he was deputized by the LAPD to study criminals. In his spare time, he cured neurotics from Hollywood to Georgia, he wrote more sci fi thrillers, and he dabbled in black magic.

His wizard sidekick was Jack Whitside Parsons, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory founder. Parsons ran the California chapter for the international sorcery temple of The Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, aka “the wickedest man in the world.” The scientist wrote the warlock that his new recruit was “in direct touch with some higher intelligence, possibly his Guardian Angel… a beautiful winged woman with red hair whom he calls the Empress and who has guided him through his life and saved him many times.”[3]

The Great Beast smelled a rat. He prophesied that Hubbard would make off with Parson’s mammon and his own Angel, a 21-year-old Empress by the name of Sara.

And so Hubbard did.

Sci-fi author, L. Sprague de Camp, explained the scam to his colleague, Isaac Asimov, writing that their colleague, Robert Heinlin, thought: “Ron went to pieces morally as a result of the war. I think that’s fertilizer, that he was always that way.” De Camp, Asimov, and Hubbard were all fraternal brothers in the famous literary Trap Door Spider Club.

Hubbard’s caper might have succeeded had Parsons not magically conjured a typhoon to intercept his yacht. The pirate and Sara, his “man-eating tigress” angel, as de Camp called her, were forced to shore and into the custody of the Florida Coast Guard. Soon Parsons, nearly bankrupt, was blown up in a laboratory explosion.

Hubbard himself survived the magical adventure with a slap on the wrist and a new lease on life. “I became used to being told it was all impossible, that there was no way, no hope. Yet I came to see again and walk again, and I built an entirely new life,” he wrote in My Philosophy.

At this point he might have at last penned THE Ms Impossible novel which would have made Frey’s Million Little Pieces and LeRoys Sarah memoirs seem like child’s play. He’d been crippled, he’d been blinded, he’d died three times. He’d studied with Kublai Khan’s sorcerer, he was a Blackfoot medicine man blood brother, and he had nearly fathered a “moonchild” Rosemary’s baby during “Babalon Working” sessions with his Empress, Sara, whom Crowley called a “vampire.”

But, instead of writing such a nonfiction novel synergizing all popular genres – Romance, Mystery, Horror, Fantasy, Action-Adventure, Sci-Fi, and Vic Lit – he set to work on Dianetics. Having built an entirely new life for himself, he wished to share his existential secrets with other lost souls.

Hubbard claimed to have completed his 400-page Modern Science of Mental Health in three weeks[4] in a rundown trailer (like Stephen King’s for Carrie) on a long scroll (like Kerouac’s for On the Road).  With customary modesty, he called it “a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his invention of the wheel.”

Neither the American Medical Association Journal or American Journal of Psychiatry agreed. Both summarily rejected the Dianetics paper.

When Hubbard submitted the full ms to a New York publisher, he told his agent, Forrest J. Ackerman, that the reader threw himself out of a skyscraper window. He went on to warn Ackerman that “whoever read it either went insane or committed suicide.”[5]

In order to avoid further publisher skydiving, Hubbard formed his own pub company, Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation. In the spring of 1950 the HDRF released signed, gold-bound copies of his magnum opus, bargain priced at $1,500 apiece ($29,000 now). This premiere special addition warned readers that “four of the first fifteen people who read it went insane.” So buyers were required to issue a sworn statement not to lend the book out.

Despite generally poor reviews, Dianetics became a blockbuster. Hubbard’s ten book sci-fi novel series, Mission Earth – which involves invading ETs pitted against lesbians, nymphomaniacs, and drug dealers — rode its coattails to become a bestseller, too.

The visionary author, according to his followers, dropped his “meat body” in 1986 to continue with his writing and research in other galaxies. Leaving an unprecedented literary legacy, Hubbard not only created a blockbuster, but became the messiah protagonist of his own work. In 1948, while writing Dianetics, history’s most ambitious Ms. Impossible author told a writers’ convention: “You don’t get rich writing science ␣ction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.”


[1] Russell Miller, Bare-faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1988)

[2]My Philosophy,” Church of Scientology International, 1965

[3] John Symonds, The Great Beast: The Life and Magick of Aleister Crowley (MacDonald and Co., 1971)

[4] On other occasions, he said six weeks. Sara, married to Hubbard in 1946 and divorced in 1951, told biographer, Bent Corydon, that it took 18 months.

Bent Corydon, L. Ron Hubbard, Messiah or Madman? (Barricade Books, 1996)

[5] “Secret Lives: L. Ron Hubbard,” Channel 4 Television, November 19, 1997

Ackerman, a sci-fi writer himself who also did monster movie cameos (his last for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”) called himself an “illiterary agent.”


* * *


“The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis.”

William Styron, manic depressive

According to Scientific American, writers are ten times more likely to be depressed than civilians, and eighteen times more likely to kill themselves.

Said Hemingway: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

Before his retirement, The Sun Also Rises master added:  “The real reason for not committing suicide is because you always know how swell life gets again after the hell is over.” In the final irony, Hemingway’s hell became inescapable when he was administered electro-shock treatments at the Menninger clinic for his depression, psychotic paranoia, and alcoholism. Unable to write afterwards and complaining that the therapy had “put me out of business,” he shot himself in his Idaho hunting lodge.

Norman Mailer, not a paradigm of mental health himself, idolized Hemingway. His debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, was hailed as greatest war novel since For Whom the Bell Tolls. When, six years after its publication, Hemingway committed suicide, Mailer told the Paris Review that the tragedy had a message:

“Listen all you novelists out there. Get it straight: when you’re a novelist you’re entering on an extremely dangerous psychological journey, and it can blow up in your face.”

Artists generally agree that there are two kinds of crazy: Creative – good, Destructive– bad. But the first can morph into the second slowly or suddenly in spite of every effort to stop it. So, in the end, Virginia Woolfe walked into a river; Sylvia Plath turned on the oven; and Anne Sexton — after finishing The Awful Rowing Toward God poetry collection — poured herself a tumbler of vodka, put on her mother’s fur coat, and locked herself in the garage with her car running. Or the creative fire was lost altogether, so Jerzy Kosinski put a bag over his head, Inge gassed himself, Hunter Thompson, Brautigan, and Hunter Thompson followed Hemingway’s example and painted a wall.

Like death-defying matadors, these artists had worked the reaper close, transfixing readers with their daring literary veronicas and their dangerous imaginations. “The artist is lucky who is presented with the worse ordeal which will not actually kill him. Then he’s in business,” said the Dream Songs poet, John Berryman, before jumping off a Minneapolis bridge in view of his writing students.

So, the age-old question: Must the writer suffer?

Many historic masters were not renowned for their sunny dispositions. So one might say yes. Often as not, misery and madness are the mothers of invention. Happy people seldom bother themselves with invention because they’re more or less satisfied with the way things already are. If they do create, it’s recreation. For Le Miserables it’s necessity. Some create utopias, others dystopias, and some try to keep themselves from the precipice through black humor.

“There is nothing funnier than unhappiness,” wrote Samuel Beckett who insisted that every man is born mad, and that the best artists remain so.

“If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.” his fellow Irishman, Colm Tóibín, advised his writing students at Columbia University.

Consider the uplifting story of the poet, Gerard de Nerval, who before losing his mind, walked a pet lobster on blue ribbon leash past the Palais-Royal, informing fellow pedestrians that the crustacean was a superior companion to a dog because it didn’t bark and “knew the secrets of the sea.” Less heartening was the night he left his aunt his last verse – “Don’t wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white” – and was found hanging from a sewer grate the next morning.

Or consider Nerval’s countryman, Guy Maupassant, who fancied urinating diamonds and incubating imaginary eggs while arguing with Lucifer in the French asylum to which his mother had committed him. More alarming is the tale of how the father of the modern short story cut his throat with a letter opener, raving that his brains were being devoured by flies and escaping from his nostrils.

Or take the case of another unmoored Frenchman, Antonin Artaud, who, returning to Paris after a Mexican peyote vacation, carried a gnarled walking stick which he insisted had belonged to St. Patrick, Jesus Christ, and Lucifer themselves. Less amusingly quirky is the fact that the father of the Theatre of Cruelty was committed for nine years and, before escaping by swallowing a fatal dose of chloral hydrate, confessed, “I longed to hang myself because I could not slit my psychiatrist’s throat.” Though Artaud railed that “all writing is garbage,” his life’s mission was to “write a book which will drive men mad, like an open door leading them where they would never have consented to go — in short, a door that opens onto reality.”

As with other like-minded artists, happiness was a provocative subject for the poet, playwright, and critic. “Nothing bestializes a being like the taste for eternal happiness, and mademoiselle Lucifer is that slut who never wanted to abandon eternal happiness,” he wrote.

Though Artaud never experienced the joy of slitting his shrink’s throat, the equally excitable Norman Mailer got away with stabbing his wife and pleading sanity. “Naturally, I have been a little upset but I have never been out of my mental faculties,” he told the magistrate.  “It’s important for me not to be sent to a mental hospital, because my work in the future will be considered that of a disordered mind. My pride is that I can explore areas of experience that other men are afraid of. I insist I am sane.” Nevertheless, the judge, fearing that the novelist couldn’t “distinguish fiction from reality” even when sober, sent him to Bellevue for a seventeen-day evaluation where he began his romantic poetry collection, “Deaths for the Ladies.”

Of the countless scribes in history who have logged time in the nuthouse, like Mailer most went unwillingly. Some agreed with Socrates himself: “The greatest blessing  granted to mankind comes by way of madness, which is a divine gift.” Others were with Hamlet: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.” Others were of the same mind as Don Quixote: “Too much sanity may be madness!” The only psychiatrist to whom any of these artists may have entrusted their fragile mental health was Carl Jung himself who said, “Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.”

Each mad writer in history has had his unique reasons for avoiding the couch, much less the rubber room. But there is one common reason above all. William Saroyan alluded to it when he asked: “How do you take away from a man his madness without also taking away his identity?” After miraculously pulling out of a booze and drug-death spiral, Stephen King nailed the artist shrink-phobia  down: “If you’re talking about real psychotherapy, I’d be afraid that it would put a hole in the bottom of my bucket. I don’t know if it would exactly destroy me as a writer, but I think it would take away a lot of the good stuff.”

In short, for many an artist, the good stuff is the crazy stuff. Nobody knew this better than King’s predecessor, the father of horror. After composing “The Raven,” “The Telltale Heart” and other exquisitely mad classics, Edgar Allen Poe spoke for Maupassant, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky and all his other gloriously possessed colleagues when he confessed: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”


* * *


“Men will always be mad, and those who think they can cure them are the maddest of all.” Voltaire

“When we remember we are all mad,the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.” Mark Twain

‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad!” Cheshire Cat at the Mad Tea-Party (Alice in Wonderland)

“I feel certain that I’m going mad again. … I begin to hear voices.” Virginia Woolf, suicide note 1941

“The only people for me are the mad ones who burn like fabulous yellow roman candles explodinglike spiders across the stars!’ Jack Kerouac (On the Road)

“When you lose your reason, you attain the highest perfect knowing.” Jack Kerouac

A writer is a controlled schizophrenic.” Edward Albee

“Writers…as a class have distinguished themselves as barroom brawlers…crying drunks, & suicidal maniacs.” Malcolm Cowley

“What’s most encouraging about the writing trades: They allow lunatics to seem saner than sane.” Kurt Vonnegut

“Madness is invigorating. It makes the sane more sane. The only ones unable to profit by it are the insane.” Henry Miller

“Most writers appear neurotic; the truth is, we don’t know the half of it.” Betsy Lerner, editor/agent/writer





“God bless… God damn.” Dying words of humorist, James Thurber.

“Lord help my poor soul.” Dying words of Edgar Allan Poe

“God will pardon me, that’s his line of work.” Dying words of Heinrich Heine

“I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room – and God damn it – died in a hotel room.” Dying words of Eugene O’Neill

“Poor Matt, he’s gone to Heaven, no doubt – but he won’t like God.” Robert Louis Stevenson on Matthew Arnold

“He was an embittered atheist — the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him.” George Orwell

“I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.” Graham Greene (The End of the Affair)

“I don’t like men and I don’t like animals. As for God, he is beginning to disgust me.” Samuel Beckett

“I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance.” Friedrich Nietzsche

“I have found God, but he is insufficient.” Henry Miller

“I’m an atheist and I thank God for it.” George Bernard Shaw

“All thinking men are atheists.” Ernest Hemingway, before converting to Catholicism

”No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.”  Flannery O’Connor

“The whole issue of God is a little piece of dog shit. But if you can swallow that part of the AA program, you don’t have to drink and drug anymore.” Stephen King

“When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” Oscar Wilde

“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.” Voltaire

“Dear God, let me be damned a little longer, a little while.” William Faulkner, Light in August

”Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don’t let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it.” Flannery O’Connor

“When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.” Truman Capote

“How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?” Woody Allen

“The basic problem for a writer is that if God exists, what is the point of literature? And if He doesn’t exist, what is the point of literature?” Eugene Ionesco

“All good writing in the end is the writer’s argument with God.” Sean O’Faolain




  1. “God will pardon me, that’s his line of work.” Heinnrich Heine, 1856
  2. “God bless… God damn.” James Thurber, 1961
  3. “Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms.” Alexander Pope, 1744
  4. “Does nobody understand? James Joyce, 1941
  5. “Only one man ever understood me… and he didn’t understand me.” Georg Wilhelm Hegel, 1831
  6. “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do!” Oscar Wilde, 1900
  7. “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room – and God damn it – died in a hotel room!” Eugene O’Neill, 1953
  8. “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that’s the record.” Dylan Thomas, 1953
  9. “Kill me, or else you are a murderer!” Franz Kafka, pleading his doctor for a morphine overdose to end pain of tuberculosis, 1924
  10. “Relax – this won’t hurt.” Hunter Thompson (suicide note), 2005



  • “I am dying. I haven’t drunk champagne for a long time.” Anton Chekhov, 1904
  • “Don’t wait up for me, the night will be black and white.” Gerard Nerval, (suicide note to his aunt), 1855
  • “I see black light.” Victor Hugo, 1885
  • “Turn up the lights, I don’t want to go home in the dark.” O. Henry, 191
  • “I must go in, the fog is rising.” Emily Dickinson, 1886
  • “Here lies Malcolm Lowry, late of the Bowery, whose prose was flowery, and often glowery. He lived nightly, and drank daily, and died playing the ukulele.” Malcolm Lowry’s self-written epitaph, 1957





[1] Michael Neff , Algonkian interview with Noah Lukeman


[2] Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get it Published (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002)



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