A warning to any reader who may subconsciously slip in a few words such as "How to Break Into" or "Everything You've Wanted to Know About" in front of the title of Gail Godwin's new memoir, "Publishing": You may want to look elsewhere for tips on what is now referred to as "traditional" publishing. But for aspiring authors or old pros at the business, Godwin provides an insightful and heartfelt look at the roller-coaster ride of a published author.
Godwin's memoir focuses on her long history of publishing and the professional and personal relationships that sustained her and challenged her along the way. She reveals no one's secrets but her own, and is honest, perhaps more than most writers these days, about the "success-hunger" that has motivated her since a scout from Knopf turned down her first submission in 1959.
After working as a newspaper reporter at the Miami Herald, Godwin entered a Ph.D. program in English when she was 30, thinking that "If I could not be a published writer, maybe I could earn my living teaching literature until I was sixty-five and then I would decide whether I wanted to go on living." She had been telling stories, often with her mother, since she was a child, and writing down these stories for her own personal fulfillment was not enough for her: She needed to share them with the world (and get paid in the meantime).
Rung by rung she climbed up the long, difficult ladder of publishing. She found an agent, started to publish and then worked with many editors, some of whom she lists on a "dance card" in one chapter as she bounces between them (for reasons as varied as lack of interest and death). It's hard to imagine the publishing industry had ever been as volatile as it is today, but Godwin refers to a particularly rocky time in 1983 as she wrote that, "It's hard to maintain your equilibrium when your dance partners keep getting dragged off the floor."
Godwin is a three-time finalist for the National Book Award and the author of 14 novels, including "Evensong" and "A Mother and Two Daughters." Her conversational tone in this memoir belies the hard work of her many years of writing and publishing: the celebratory moments, the slights, the long book tours and the endless nights of writing against the tide. But what choice did she have? "Writing had lived inside me since I was a little girl, and the need to write had continued to grow like a beast, but how to give it the room it needed and not become a bitter human being?" She found her place among the readers of the world, and publishing — love it or hate it — gave her the room along the way.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.