Editor, Agent and Author Betsy Lerner on What’s Wrong with Writers

Gillian Reagan | January 18th, 2011

Betsy Lerner

Sovereign book editor and star literary agent Betsy Lerner was “burning with rage.” She was sitting in the Booth Theatre this past Sunday after a production of Next to Normal, the Pulitzer-Prize winning musical about a manic depressive mother and her troubled family, surrounded by sniffling theater-goers, some with tears streaking their cheeks. “I didn’t think that it was true, what I felt from it,” she said. “But people really loved it. And, well, that’s what makes horseracing. Why do people love something that makes them cry? Is it because it was well-written or because it’s manipulative?”

Lerner was dressed in a black blazer and jeans, sitting in the corner cafe at McNally Jackson Books on Price Street Monday evening, discussing prose, the publishing industry, and “what’s wrong with writers?” “I don’t want to read something unless it evokes an emotional response in me, but how they evoke that emotional response in me is about being really, really, really true,” she said. “Sometimes, and I really wonder if you feel this way, that you write a scene that is so sad and you know everybody is going to cry and you finish it and you think, ‘Yeah, fuckers!’ You know you nailed it. You know you nailed your scene and you care more about that than the fact that you just wrote about your suicide attempt or whatever. Because that’s what you want, you want to know that you nailed your scenes.”

In other words, the craft of writing, creating a world for the reader, should take priority over the feelings of the writer, according to Lerner. “I do believe that everybody has feelings but writers as artists are supposed to put them in some kind of form for us that is beautiful or arresting,” she said.

Lerner knows what beautiful writing looks like by now. She was an editor for 16 years at marquee publishing houses — including Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin and Doubleday — before eventually becoming a literary agent at her own firm, Dunow, Carlson and Lerner. She was the recipient of the Tony Godwin Publishing Prize and received an MFA from Columbia University. In 2003, she published a memoir, Food & Loathing: A Lament, and in 2001 she published The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. A revised and updated version of the book was released in October.

The Forest for the Trees is based on the premise that there are no bad writers, only writers without editors to help them navigate the wilds of the publishing industry. Maybe some of them are prisoners of their own neurosis or “lazy bastards,” as Lerner put it.

She said finding the right writers is like dating. “It’s almost like going to a bar and hitting on somebody,” she said. “You just feel it, who you’re attracted to.”

“I read it, and I wake up more than I fall asleep, do you know what I mean? Like, if something is good, I awaken. I want to start reading more and maybe my hands get a little clammy and I’m excited. It’s stimulation… It’s a very basic, almost physical reaction to the work. Then if I do want to work on it, I have to be more critical and ask certain questions. Like, well, is it really a book? And can I, actually, do I think I can sell it? What does it need and how can I convey this to the author?”

“Sometimes it’s as simple as, can I pitch it? Can I hear myself pitch this and what would it be? I’ve actually sold two books in my life [with the] pitch, ‘this is probably not sellable,’ and that’s always a good one.”

But reverse psychology doesn’t always work, even for pros like Lerner. “If people don’t buy them, I never think I made a mistake. I always think, ‘The bastards!’ And I’ll find somebody to take it on.”

So what else is wrong with modern writers, besides, perhaps, getting too involved in their own feelings? A lack of patience.

“Jonathan Franzen didn’t come out of the womb with The Corrections in his hand,” Lerner said. “He published two books previously and couldn’t sell bubkes… Everybody wants to be Franzen, and it’s crazy and unrealistic.”

Also: egos.

“I’m fascinated by the question of the author’s ego because it’s both the thing you most need and often most can hurt you,” Lerner said. “You have to have a healthy ego to be writing, I think. Well, maybe not writing but trying to be getting published.”

“People just get in so much trouble when their out-sized egos alienate everybody or make it difficult for them to hear criticisms or revisions,” she continued. “Some of our greatest writers seem to have tiny egos and some have Norman Mailer-sized egos, all across the board. And whether the size of that has a relation to the quality of the work? These are questions I am obsessed with. When I meet a writer, that’s part of what I see.”

“I have an author who believes that he is worth a seven-figure contract. And I don’t think he’ll get that because of his sales record. And I, in the past, I would have said that’s unrealistic. But when you have a writer with a huge ego, and you tell him that, they could fire you, right? They could say, ‘You don’t believe in me. Why should I be with you?’ So now I’m going to say to that person, you are worth that, and we’re going to take it out and see what the market says. And the market and the critics have this great way of telling somebody something about their ego, and their expectations.”

As for how she deals with rejection, and picks up crumpled writers who received a beating in the reviews, she repeats a mantra from movie director Spike Lee. He was attacked by critics for Jungle Fever, and told the press: “That’s the price of getting in the game.”

“I took that as my own mantra. I’m going to put a book out there, maybe people are going to hate it, maybe, worse, nobody is going to care. But that’s the price. I want to get in the game. I’m not going to be scared anymore,” Lerner said. “If you really are a writer, you’ll write again. You cannot snuff it out.”