When I came to work at The Sun a little more than a year ago, I faced the daunting task of becoming familiar with the files of manuscripts awaiting publication.
One such file contained not a manuscript but The Sun’s collected correspondence with a beleaguered writer named William Penrod, whose letters had been accumulating since 1987, when T. L. Toma sat at the assistant editor’s desk. As I began to read, it was like peeking into a dark, paper-strewn room and finding its lone shadowy occupant pounding away at a stubborn old manual Smith-Corona, the floor littered with beer cans and tabloid newspapers, the air filled with smoke and expletives.
Soon enough, I was given the opportunity to add my own chapter to the file. I wrote Penrod to inform him that we were accepting a submission of his for publication: the novel excerpt “Orson and Me,” which appears in this issue. In dealing with the author, I came to regard his cantankerous correspondence with a smile and an understanding nod of the head. For me, he has become the curmudgeonly voice of all writers struggling to be read. I hear him sometimes in my ear as I write a note on a rejection slip, reminding me of the herculean labors that go into bringing even one writer’s work to my desk.
With this latest publication of one of Penrod’s novel excerpts (The Sun has previously published two chapters, in issues 161 and 175), the time seems right to bring his correspondence out of our files and into the light. What follows are some of our favorite installments in the ongoing saga of one writer’s attempts to be published.
— Andrew Snee
thanks again for taking the time. greatly appreciate your comments on the rejection, even though i was sure you would take “quitting.” a guy quitting jerking off — what could be more literary?
i’ll try and answer some of your questions. i have been published in the north american review (three novel excerpts), gallery, cavalier, (thought i could make an easy buck writing comic porno), and once in the paris review. have worked, not recently though, for the chicago tribune’s sunday magazine, and, of course, have written a couple of book reviews. wasn’t worth a phuck at that, but, like everybody else, i got my cookies off seeing my name in the paper and being described as a “freelance critic,” which means, i guess, someone who ain’t got a car and ain’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of getting laid any time soon.
i don’t know any editors. shit, i don’t even know anybody who’s ever read a book. i used to know a couple guys, would-be writers like me, but they went out to the coast, got their minds expanded, and started growing their own. now they spend most of their time sending off outlines or samples to book publishers in the hopes of getting million-dollar advances.
well, i am sending you another novel excerpt, “the bus ride.” maybe you’ll like it, but if you don’t i shall appreciate your taking the time to comment. it means a lot.
the v. best,
dear sy s.:
i had planned on writing you a long-winded letter that would cleverly delineate the anguish and paranoia of the would-be writer in his attempt to deal with those who hold power over his puny efforts, but when i woke up this morning it dawned on me that sy and the sun have just spent the night being battered by hurricane hugo and they sure don’t need no bullshit from another self-absorbed writer whose biggest problem at the moment is whether to have one egg or two.
i hope you and yours are ok.
p.s. i think i’ve finally made contact with an agent who doesn’t charge a reading fee.
dear t. l. toma:
i don’t know if you guys would be interested in another excerpt of the novel, but i am offering a couple more.
gad, trying to market a novel is possibly the most boring pursuit in the world. i hate writing query letters. it takes time away from writing i would prefer to be doing. a couple more short stories to finish and then i’d like to get busy on another novel, but maybe i’ll get some money from this one first so i can fulfill my real ambition — to own a self-winding watch.
well, enough chitchat. got to go out and work some in the garden. i have managed to delude myself into believing that i am a great farmer as i work my puny plot to a fare-thee-well. but i am always so proud when i bring in that first ripe tomato. it makes a bologna sandwich taste like filet.
tell the sy i said hi, even though i know he’s probably busy worrying about donald trump or charles keating right now. i’m worried too.
all the best,
i submitted some material to you on sept. 25, and now i’m just wondering if you got it or what?
the post office has pushed me to the edge. i might go out and beat up my mail person. i really might. she don’t look too tough to me. i figure i can lay a good one on her when she’s loaded down with xmas cards and bulk mail, knock her right on her keister. the fact that she’s probably got six delinquent kids, a drunk husband, two mangy dogs, and a sick cat will not stop me from striking back at the post office, the cause of all my angst and destroyer of my self-esteem, manhood, etc.
you see, i keep sending query letters to publishers and agents and hatcheck girls, but nary a reply do i get. i pray for a reply every night: just tell me to go shit in my hat, i pray. then i’ll know that my stuff has at least been delivered.
right now, i am too distraught to even comment on madonna’s latest video. that’s how low i have sunk because of the post office and my suspicion that everything i send out is ending up in some monstrous can containing the correspondence of all the country’s poor writers.
well, i’m back. went to church and stole money for postage out of the poor box. i don’t feel bad either. the people i talked to there had never heard of The Sun or that great editor Sy Safransky or that great assistant editor, who can heap enough praise on a poor writer to last way past lunch time, T. L. Toma.
yeah, i talked to a family of fourteen who, incidentally, claimed they hadn’t eaten for days and pestered me for some of the postage money i forcibly took from their ailing mother. they weren’t interested in my plan to get another great rejection slip from THE SY with an assist from the great assistant, T. L. Toma.
what’s it all coming to? i ask you. i was so disgusted that i almost gave the money back and let them squander it on milk and bread and the etceteras that poor and destitute people crave for, with never a thought to receiving a great rejection slip from that great editor SY SAFRANSKY or that great assistant T. L. TOMA.
so, with my ill-gotten gains (i can still hear those despicable poor folks crying. i guess i better close the window.), i send along this, which in my dejected delirium i think would work ok, even though i am painfully aware that mine is not the final say.
well, i got to go make another raid on the poor and downtrodden for more postage money so i can get more great rejection slips. the scum. i’ll give ’em credit: they put up a pretty good fight sometimes. but they can’t keep me away from the next and the next and the next precious rejection. . . .
most of the agents i’ve contacted tell me that the market for fiction is lousy now. i believe it: nobody reads anymore. maybe videos are the thing now. it bugs me to hear some of these putzes referring to themselves as “artists.” i want to grab them, shake them, and yell in their faces: van gogh was an artist! but then they wouldn’t know anything about van gogh, just that he was crazy and cut off his ear for some woman.
to hell with it. i think i’ll just mail this piece, “easy pickin’s,” about door-to-door salesmen. i only lasted about fifteen minutes on that job. i knocked on a couple doors but just couldn’t do it.
i guess there have been a lot of jobs i ain’t been worth a fiddler’s fuck at. selling cars was the worst: i couldn’t give one away. i could never talk about cars with any romance in my voice. i couldn’t even tell one from the other, except by the colors. i could just tell a red one from a brown one.
i’m gonna go hide now.
The Sy & The TLT:
i figure all i really need is one or two more of those great compliments from t. l. toma and i’ll start believing that i am too good for the sun and everybody else.
believe me, it’s already starting to work. i’ve written to several book publishers, many agents, and kim basinger saying that i am obviously too good for them and therefore they ain’t gonna be hearing from me no more.
let ’em suffer, i say. i feel absolutely no remorse, except maybe for kim. i know it’s not her fault. she’ll just have to hold hands with the others: whitney houston, madonna, and the rest, who will all soon be getting letters from me telling them that i am too good for them also.
thanks for everything,
dear T. L. or S. S.:
tell you what. i’m gonna save you some time and trouble and write the rejection for you. how about that? grateful? you should be.
We are sending back your two fucking submissions posthaste and forthwith. We found the novel excerpt, “Choking the Chicken,” particularly offensive.
Why, we pondered, does every would-be writer think that his inability to have a relationship with a member of the opposite sex should get him published? That he can’t get laid is certainly no surprise to us or anybody else.
In short, we were revolted. We found your submission to be actually subversive. We hope they revoke your citizenship or your ass freezes off in the Indiana winter to which a just God, in His wisdom, has condemned you.
Sy and T. L.
been busy, busy, busy. sex is keeping me busy. yeah, sex. it’s so simple: i just walk around with this big unpublished novel under my arm and when i see a girl/woman/whatever that strikes my fancy, i make my move, sometimes chasing her down the street and right into her boudoir, which is always pink or light blue with frilly curtains on the windows, and when i have finally cornered her, i thrust the forty-pound unpublished novel under her nose and insist she read it so i can die in peace. . . .
none of them have read it yet, most being understandably busy with mtv and elvis sightings, but some do offer me sex if i’ll just go away. lately i have become firm and replied, “sorry, no sex until you read my forty-pound unpublished novel. and don’t even think about calling your weight-lifting boyfriend as he would get a phucking hernia if he even tried to pick up my enormous novel, which has yet to be read by an astute publisher or slick agent, most of whom want $4,000 up front just to tell me how, under their guidance, i could make the novel sound exactly like catcher in the rye. . . .”
TL & Sigh:
i continue to work out my latest contact with an agent — the sneaky, slippery, slimy worm. i struggle to contain my fury. i will not, i must not, i tell myself, threaten this idiot slime. it’s a waste of time and won’t change a thing for this person, who lies in wait for another check to support the gross habits he must have.
it’s happened before, but i’ve never been sucked in quite so far. a fifty-dollar handling fee was the first request. ok, i thought, i’ll go along with that this time. doesn’t seem too unreasonable. well, i sent the fifty dollars and waited.
in a few weeks the guy came back to me and said he’d been taking the book around and getting a lot of comments on it, but that it may need some revisions, and that he would guide me through the process for a mere $5,425. or, for $2,175, the gnomes in his agency would do the revising themselves.
and so it goes. now i’ve got to bite my tongue and tell this agent that i cannot afford to use him and try to persuade him to return the book. god, in the simple process of trying to market this book i have become more slippery than a congressman trying to cash a check.
my dear safransky:
i haven’t gotten my dear john letter yet. i always get a dear john letter. always. when a sizzling passion is suddenly defused i can always count on getting a dear john letter. it is, i believe, the ultimate “coup de grace” and, if done properly, can be a work of art.
here are some samples that i have saved over the years and would like to share with you, in the hope that you might become enlightened as to this art form:
I don’t want to have sex with you anymore and our engagement is off. That ring you gave me was the cheapest I’ve ever seen. My mother says you must’ve got it in a box of Cracker Jack. If you ever try to contact me again I will have you arrested and thrown in jail.
Dear Mr. Penrod,
You ain’t worth a fuck as a soldier and the general has asked me to write and tell you to get out of the armed services and go home, or, better yet, go get into the enemy’s military so we can win the war.
The general also says he will issue the order to have you shot on sight if you are seen wearing the uniform or even drinking beer in an American Legion post.
Dear Mr. Penrod,
Our candidate for president doesn’t want you to attend any more of his political rallies. He says that every time the people see you waving one of his placards he slips down further in the polls.
He says that if you show up at any more rallies he will have the Secret Service take you into custody and make you John Gotti’s roommate for the next fifty years or so.
Would you please stay away from the family reunion this year. Nobody wants to reunite with you, especially your Aunt Matilda. She says she’s sick and tired of having you grope her every year, and she will poison the potato salad if you show up.
of course, it has crossed my mind that you may not be as accomplished in the art of the dear john as some of the other folk i have encountered. therefore, out of the goodness of my heart, i will try to help you out:
Would you please stop sending your fucking stories to The Sun. We don’t want the things. Nor do we want any more of your novel excerpts. We’ve had the last one you sent for more than a year, and my newest assistant editor has threatened to quit rather than read it. You’ve done nothing but bring me and The Sun bad luck.
You see, nobody cares that you never get laid. It just shows what good sense women have, if you ask me. If some poor woman, out of pity, did decide to give you a roll, you’d just talk her to death about how big it used to be. With all the trouble in the world these days, who the hell needs you in their magazines or in their beds?
of course, if i don’t get my dear john letter things just might get nasty. i might break into your house and steal all the cream cheese and bagels and leave you with nothing but black-eyed peas and grits, which would serve you right.
i been meaning to write another letter for some time now, a derisive letter that would fill you with shame, smear you with a thick guilt that cannot be washed off in this lifetime.
but i got to get me a new typewriter first. this one is all fucked up. sticks. smears. has been beat to death. people try to interest me in a word processor, but i think: shit, i’ll never learn how to use one of them things. maybe I’ll spring for an electric.
but enough of this folderol, whatever that means. i have things to do. and so i enclose “orson and me,” a true enough story, i think.
in rejection i remain . . .
dear andrew snee:
i thank you for the news of the acceptance. you are now my best friend in the whole world.
this makes eight excerpts of the novel sold, but i have not yet been able to interest agent, publisher, or neighborhood nymphomaniac.
i think my fondest wish at the moment is to be done with writing query letters, and with the damned novel too. i am 100 percent convinced that i can do much better next time, and that this thing will only be regarded as a warm-up.
i must also ask about THE SY. i hope he is well and still turning out those great rejection letters. maybe i shouldn’t say this, but a rejection letter from THE SY is almost as good as an acceptance. THE SY was born to write rejection letters and you, my boy, are in the company of a master. i know it’s only a matter of time before you too are writing some of the great rejections.
i envy such talents and can only dream what a great world this would be if you two had been allowed your critical input down through the ages:
Dear Al Bell:
Stop fucking around with that stupid telephone. It’ll never work. When you want to talk to someone in the next town, just hop in your buggy and hit the road like the rest of us.
The Sy & The Snee
Dear Orville & Wilbur:
What’s this nonsense i hear about you two good-for-nothings trying to build a flying machine? Just do what we do: strap a couple ducks to your feet and take off. It’s a snap, although it does get a bit messy with all that duck shit.
Your pals . . .
well, i am comforted only by the knowledge that death will someday bring a closure. . . .