Books: Polish Joke

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How the publishers got stung

Several of us read your untitled novel here with admiration for writing and style. Jerzy Kosinski comes to mind as a point of comparison when reading the stark, chilly, episodic incidents you have set down. The drawback to the manuscript, as it stands, is that it doesn't add up to a satisfactory whole."

Not bad, as rejection slips go. Except . . . what Houghton Mifflin, the rejecting publishers, did not know was that they were on the receiving end of a sting. The manuscript they turned down in 1977 was a freshly typed copy of Steps, a Kosinski novel that had won the National Book Award in 1969.

Houghton Mifflin is the publisher of three Kosinski novels, including his best known, The Painted Bird. But consider the embarrassment at Random House. They rejected the identical Steps manu script nine years after they had published it. In all 14 publishers and 13 literary agents failed to recognize the book when it was sent unsolicited by an author who called himself Erik Demos. Demos is the nom de hoax chosen by Chuck Ross, a Los Angeles freelance writer out to prove what thousands of aspiring first novelists already know: it is virtually impossible for an unknown author to break into print through the U.S. mails with what is known in the trade as an "over the transom" manuscript. One of the extremely rare exceptions to the rule was Judith Guest's Ordinary People (1976).

In the latest issue of New West magazine, Ross discloses that he first conducted the Steps experiment in 1975. At that time he sent 21 pages of the book to four publishers. Results of this first total rejection were published in Harper's Bookletter, a now defunct biweekly. That article also contained Kosinski's advice that next time Ross should offer the entire text of Steps.

When he did, two years later, not a memory trace of the first episode remained in the publishing world. Rejection slips again crowded Ross's mailbox. "While your prose style is very lucid," wrote Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, "the content of the book didn't inspire the level of enthusiasm ..." After a long delay, Random House sent a form letter, and an editor at William Morrow postscripted a consolation: "Sorry, I liked the opening gambit. Why don't you find an agent?"

Not a chance. The agents offered a chorus of refusals. "It seems too fragmented and dreamlike to be a good commercial bet," wrote Lurton Blassingame. "We regret that we do not have the time here to read unsolicited fiction," explained James Brown. Candida Donadio & Associates demurred with, "When all is said and done, we felt the manuscript lacked that all-important dramatic tension." And from the office of Knox Burger after two follow-up letters from Ross: "I'm very sorry, but we have no record of having received your MS. or postage.' Kosinski is philosophical about the fact that his award-winning, experimental novel rang no bells: "Thank God it means different things to different people. It was written ten years ago, and how many politicians would be recognized from what they said ten years ago?"

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