Written by A Guest Author December 28th, 2023

Is an Unpublishable Book Worth Writing?

By Lory Widmer Hess

Why write a book that can’t be published? My own first book, a memoir that I wrote in the aftermath of my father’s death, was one of these. I’d never completed a full-length manuscript, only fragments and false starts, until then. But somehow, during this time of loss and grieving, I found the motivation to bring my memories full circle, ending up with what felt like a solid piece of writing. For personal and legal reasons, I didn’t feel that I could make it public, and to fictionalize it felt wrong as well. Still, the act of finishing it proved to me that I was able to structure and sustain a full-length narrative, that I could write a book.

Writing an entire book just to prove that you can might seem a waste of time, but mine was so significant for my personal growth that it was well worth all the effort. Such a project can also be a bridge that leads to other things. I ended up mining some of my memoir material for my next book, one that did prove to be publishable. (It’s due to appear in 2024.)

Reframing or rewriting books has a long literary tradition, of course. Although Charlotte Brontë could not find a publisher during her lifetime for her first novel, The Professor, it formed the seed for her masterpiece, Villette. Michael Chabon wrote 1,500 pages of a book called Fountain City before abandoning it, but it ended up inspiring Wonder Boys. “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten,” as the saying goes.

And then there are the books that at first appear unpublishable, but aren’t. Sometimes these are by debut writers whose talent comes to light almost by accident. Marilynne Robinson showed her manuscript of the novel she’d nicknamed “Moby-Jane” to a writer friend, who passed it on to his agent, who found it remarkable but wasn’t sure anyone would publish it. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux took it on, but they weren’t sure it would sell. Housekeeping was rapturously received by critics and is now considered a modern classic.

When Raynor Winn wrote The Salt Path, it didn’t even occur to her to show it to anyone from the publishing world; she’d created it as a birthday present for her husband, to remind him of the journey they had taken together on England’s South West Coast Path, as his health and memory were degenerating. It was her daughter who upon reading the manuscript knew this was a story that begged for a wider audience. Winn was persuaded to submit her manuscript to an agent, who sent it to a publisher … eventually fulfilling her long-buried dream of authoring a book with a penguin on the cover.

Even previously published authors can have trouble judging which works have potential. R.C. Sherriff’s first play had been a hit, but his follow-ups had flopped, and so he started a novel instead, determined to write purely for the joy of writing. A seaside holiday had given him the notion of a novel about ordinary people in simple language, though he doubted Victor Gollancz, his sophisticated literary publisher, would be interested. In fact, Gollancz found The Fortnight in September delightful and insisted on publishing it without changing a word.

Other books start in one direction and then head in another that seems to take them out of the realm of the publishable. When German children’s author Michael Ende was asked by his editor what he would write next, he looked through the ideas he kept on slips of paper in a shoebox, and came up with one that read “A young boy picks up a book, finds himself literally inside the story and has trouble getting out.” He thought he could deliver the book by Christmas. But several months after that deadline, Ende confessed that he was having trouble with his protagonist, who refused to leave the fantasy world he had entered. Oh, and he had also decided that the book required special presentation that would require a steep increase in publication costs.

To their credit, Thienemanns Verlag stuck by their author, and after nearly three years’ wait finally produced The Neverending Story in a costly two-color edition with full-page illuminated capitals for each chapter. The first edition sold out immediately and the book became a worldwide sensation.

Stories of an “unpublishable book” that becomes a bestseller are tantalizing, although suffering through years of rejection is tough on authors, and sometimes they don’t survive to enjoy their book’s success. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the childless remnant of Sicilian nobility, wanted to leave something behind when his title ended with him, but was frustrated by repeated rejections of the novel he’d written. He died believing it would never be published; when The Leopard was brought out by Feltrinelli Editore one year later, it became the best-selling novel in Italian history, and is now a landmark of world literature.

Sometimes the story has a happier ending. At least two dozen publishers said no to the new book that a five-time novelist was calling “Mrs Who, Mrs Whatsit, and Mrs Which,” during a time when she seemed to have hit a publishing wall of rejection. When it eventually appeared, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery Medal for distinguished children’s literature, and its sales figures are now in the millions. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was once again the publisher that said yes to a book they loved but didn’t think would be a commercial success, and their leap of faith certainly paid off.

In fact, if a book is calling you to write it, there are so many reasons to heed that call, even if you or someone else considers it unpublishable. You never know what the eventual end of that story may be.

Bio: Lory Widmer Hess lives with her family in Switzerland, where she works with adults with developmental disabilities and is in training as a spiritual director. Her first book, When Fragments Make a Whole: A Personal Journey through Healing Stories in the Bible will be released by Floris Books in Spring, 2024. Visit her website and blog at enterenchanted.com.


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