Monday, June 11, 2012

Penelope Fitzgerald writes her publisher

As summer, with its mix of work travel and personal travel (and, let's be honest, the occasional need to simply sit in the park and read Donald Westlake) gets into gear, I feel I should issue an advance apology: the next several weeks may see more sporadic blogging than usual.

Under cover of that excuse, all I have today is a passage from one of Penelope Fitzgerald's letters. In my day job in the marketing department at the University of Chicago Press, I send out a weekly roundup of the publicity garnered by our books, and I have taken to opening it each week with a quotation from a letter by a writer. I enjoy the excuse that gives me every single week to dip into yet another collection of letters and--in order that I not repeat any author until I absolutely have to--to explore collections I'd never before thought of looking into. Nine months in, and I have to repeat an author; we'll see as the months wear on how long I'm able to hold the line.

So here's last week's, found in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, taken from a letter Fitzgerald sent to Richard Ollard, her American editor at Houghton Mifflin, on August 23, 1981:
I do want to ask whether you couldn't (or could) manage to get At Freddie's out in the summer, I'm sure it would make no difference to Collins because as you said to me hardbacks can't be sold anyway, I just feel I shall lose heart if it's got to wait till next autumn. Barbara (Pym) always used to come out in June . . . and you are in her group someone said to me firmly the other day you either have to be in hers or Beryl's. This made me vow never to go to a literary party again and I shan't, either. --But please if you can find a moment do see if you can shift me back from the autumn.
I love this letter for the link to Barbara Pym, of course, but also as an exemple of Fitzgerald's relationship to her publishers as seen through the letters: she comes across as simultaneously demanding and accommodating, knowing what she wanted and, often, being willing to push until she got it--yet at the same time not being too difficult and retaining a sense of perspective. In another letter to Ollard, she writes, after seeing finished copies of Human Voices,
my family tell me I was getting above myself anyway in objecting to the jacket and it serves me right that I've turned dark blue on the back flap.
And, lest you think that is simply passive aggression, I should explain that she goes on to thank him for the fact that the book's design bulks it up and makes it look longer, a good thing for a novelist whose works are as deceptively lean as Fitzgerald's.

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