Thirty-two publishers turned down a new book called Volunteer Slavery for no good reason. Here are two of the worst: (1) The Washington Post wouldn't like it. (2) The author and memoirist, Jill Nelson, is some kind of horny, angry, upper-middle-class "Negro" gal. Where's the market? Who can relate?
Our response to (1): So what? And to (2): When an author who writes this well knocks, the first principle of publishing is to open the door.
Yet Nelson's agent peddled the book for almost two years before she sold it. "We did have some senior editors with clout who were champions of the book and couldn't get it past their boards for whatever reason," Faith Childs told us. "There's a line in her book where she said the people at the Post could not imagine her. I think some of the same reaction accompanied this book."
It seems a lot of ordinary people can imagine Jill Nelson. Volunteer Slavery just appeared, and it's already in its third printing. Nelson's on the map now, as is a tiny, black-owned Chicago house called Noble Press. When the manuscript finally made its way there, executive editor Doug Seibold, a young fellow who understands first principles, picked it up and couldn't put it down. He got back to Childs at once.
Nelson is your garden-variety single black mother who grew up summering on Martha's Vineyard. In the mid-80s, at the age of 34, she gave up her beloved New York and an underpaid career as a free-lance writer to take a staff job on the Sunday magazine the Washington Post was about to launch. The magazine was a disaster, and so was the job. After four years Nelson had a nervous breakdown and quit.
The story line of the book is Nelson at the Post. But she wanders at will from that alienated sojourn into feverish ruminations about her race, class, sex life, and above all, family. "I can deal with all manner of black folks, white folks, other folks, just not myself and my family," she writes. "Part of my becoming a journalist has to do with getting in other people's shit before they even think to get in mine. It is both a power and a powerlessness trip." As an author she wades into lots of other people's shit. She's probably unfair to someone--white or black--at least every other page.
Take this shot. The setting is a predawn vigil Nelson and fellow black reporter Deneen Brown were keeping outside the home of mayor Marion Barry when he was having his troubles. Rumor had it Jesse Jackson was either coming or already inside. "I liked it that two black women had been assigned a 'big story.' This could have been a momentous day for me, Deneen, the Post, America. Somewhere, maybe, Martin Luther King Jr. was smiling.
"Then Saundra Sapperstein Torry, a legal affairs reporter at the Post, showed up, and the dream was deferred. She looked like a yuppie version of the Wicked Witch of the West: skinny, pasty white, her hair jet black. She announced to Deneen that she was dismissed. Deneen stood her ground, gently insisting that she would stay and also work on the Jackson story. Sapperstein scurried off, called city editor Mary Jo Meisner, and tattled."
Is this justice to Sapperstein? Maybe not. But we soon decided Nelson's iniquities didn't matter. The book's simply too rich in perception, pain, and wit.
Nelson comes to town this weekend for Black Expo, and she'll be back a few days later to promote her book. We asked her by phone what it's like to be turned down by 32 publishers.
"It's like being at the Washington Post," she said.
What did the rejection letters say? we asked.
"It's too angry. It should be a novel. It's too much about her family. Or it's too much about the Washington Post. To me it said something profound about how out of touch many of these people are. I don't think my experience is particularly unique. I don't think my voice is bizarre. And I don't think my attitude is singular. And I think the attempt to say my book was those things and I somehow am some marginalized, aberrant Negro personality is offensive.
"I think we need a diversity of voices, and I think this preponderance of jail-to-Yale stories, Gee-I-feel-guilty-I-went-to-Harvard-on-affirmative-action stories, I'll-never-be-as-good-as-white-persons stories--I find them boring. But even if you find them thrilling, there's a lot of room for more voices, more dialogues. I think to some people's minds I'm supposed to be the fat, happy, satisfied Negro who grew up in a nice middle-class house and Mom and Dad were professionals and we went to Martha's Vineyard and then I got to work at the Washington Post--and that I'm not makes some people go ballistic. But there's a lot of people like me. You know I've been on book tour, and what I've found is that across race, class, and gender most people respond to this book in terms of work. Most people don't like their jobs."
Did any of the publishers see how funny it was? we wondered.
"The people who noticed how funny it is tend to be the people who fought for the book. If you can't deal with the angry stuff you can't deal with the humor, because the humor is acerbic, in your face. Doug Seibold, my editor, he got the book immediately. He was completely not threatened by it."
Actually, Seibold was pretty apprehensive going in. He had in mind the parade of white editors Nelson excoriates. But the two connected spiritually over James Brown. "She was a dream to work with," Seibold says.
Noble Press was founded in 1988 by David Driver, a black man who grew up on Chicago's west side, got rich in the 80s trading financial futures, then chucked it to start his own publishing house. "We've done lots of issue-oriented books," Seibold told us. Worthy books, on acid-free, recycled paper. "We've been a little thin, maybe," he acknowledged, "on things that were more readable."
"He sent out announcements listing the titles they have done," said Faith Childs, talking about a mass mailing from Seibold to literary agents. "I got one of the announcements and at that point I was not above sending the book to anybody."
Because Noble is such a small house, Childs didn't consider her work done when Nelson signed for a $10,000 advance. "We did something they don't do for most of their books--I'm not putting them down. It helps to have quotes, and I got blue-chip quotes, people whose names will help sell the book. I sent the book to people in manuscript and told them I thought it was a very important book--but a small press was publishing it, and we needed to have the benefit of their endorsement to get it into the hands of the right people."
Childs's friends came through. "Essential reading for whites who wonder why all blacks can't succeed as some seem to"--Derrick Bell, author of Faces at the Bottom of the Well. "Honest and often horrifying struggle with the painful identity crisis of the black middle class"--Cornel West, author of Race Matters.
For all Nelson's sardonicism, "horrifying" is a pretty good word. Voluntary Slavery isn't apt to leave you feeling better about anything--except perhaps the state of publishing in Chicago. Nelson's family is battered by the very black affluence she was raised in. In later life her father goes through various wives and changes of identity. Drugs plunge an older sister into catalepsy. A brother gets clean only after the rest of the family gangs up on him. Mom drinks a lot, and Nelson herself goes on the wagon when she recognizes she's a step away from alcoholism. This is a family that abounds in love. But it's black in America.
Yet there is this good news about the state of publishing in Chicago. Will you ask Noble to publish your next book? we asked Nelson (a tricky question because she's outgrown a small press). "I might. I would certainly like to," she said. "They were there when I was at a loss."
"I think we would be expected to put up as much money as anybody else," Driver says. "We have a relationship, but we can't cry poor like we did the last time. Jill's value as a published author has expanded dramatically." He argues that the big New York houses still undervalue her. Noble just tried to auction off the paperback rights. "We were looking between $250,000 and $400,000. The best was a little over $100,000. I was insulted. Jill was insulted. So I think we'll just tell them to stuff it."
Arming the Bosnians
Ljubomir Sopcic is on his way back to Bosnia, where he somehow finds it conceivable that accurate information, effectively disseminated, could change the course of the war.
Sopcic, 31, a Chicago carpenter by trade, spent ten weeks in Bosnia earlier this year. Sunday he returns as leader of the three-man "Bosnia-Herzegovina Video Project"--with Jeff Callen, a graduate student in video at the School of the Art Institute, and Paul Grajnert, a teacher and videomaker from Seattle. They are bringing professional video gear to give the Bosnians.
Sopcic told us he and his companions hoped to raise $12,000 to buy six Hi8 camcorders, plus microphones, tripods, and videotape--"everything you'd need to do a decent job." With only $2,000 in hand and another $3,000 promised, Sopcic said they'd be lucky to deliver four.
"We want to provide a minimum of two cameras per area," he said. "One for the media and one for human-rights people, so that they can share information and make copies. This will provide an outlet for local video producers that can be aired on the [Western] networks. Everything they've done before has been far below broadcast quality."
Sopcic said, "When the war started, the news agencies looked for information, and one of the only parties capable of giving any was Tanjug [the Yugoslav news agency]. They presented it as best served their interests--as a civil war, an ethnic war based on centuries-old hatreds, something inevitable because the people couldn't live with each other, and to cover up the fact this was a territorial war.
"It seems to me that once the media get hold of an image it's very difficult to change that image. But if you know anything about Bosnia-Herzegovina you know it was a model of coexistence. Thirty percent of the marriages in Bosnia-Herzegovina are mixed. The world has to know these are real people who are defending principles we all have to defend--the right to live the way they want to live, as a multicultural, multiethnic state."