Editorial Manners 101: Raymond Chandler Tells The Atlantic Off
By Maria Popova
“Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards,” Bill Watterson admonished in his timeless 1990 speech on creative integrity — but how can you be certain of when you’re slipping into that dangerous territory, and what can you do to reclaim your own creative integrity?
The storm of rejection is a common trope in the life of the aspiring writer approaching magazines for publication, but it takes a special kind of creative courage for an author to reject, or at least tell off, a magazine, and to do so out of principle — especially when that principle prioritizes purpose over prestige and meaning over money. From the 1981 anthology Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (public library) — which gave us Chandler’s collected insights on writing, an invaluable addition to famous writers’ advice on the craft — comes a delightfully eloquent literary put-down from celebrated novelist and cat-lover Raymond Chandler. On January 21, 1945, Chandler penned this irate and somewhat ambivalent letter to Charles Morton, his editor at The Atlantic Monthly, articulating his indignation over certain editorial manners and his frustration of having his profound desire to write for love rather than money abused:
I have one complain to make, and it is an old one — the cold silence and the stalling that goes on when something comes in that is not right or is not timely. This I resent and always shall. It does not take weeks to tell a man (by pony express) that his piece is wrong when he can be told in a matter of days that it is right. Editors do not make enemies by rejecting manuscripts, but by the way they do it, by the change of atmosphere, the delay, the impersonal note that creeps in. I am a hater of power and of trading, and yet I live in a world where I have to trade brutally and exploit every item of power I may possess. But in dealing with the Atlantic, there is none of this. I do not write for you for money or for prestige, but for love, the strange lingering love of a world wherein men may think in cool subtleties and talk in the language of almost forgotten cultures. … I like that world and I would on occasion sacrifice my sleep and my rest and quite a bit of money to enter it gracefully. That is not appreciated. It is something you cannot buy. It is something which, even when the gesture is imperfect, deserves respect. I can make $5000 in two days (sometimes), but I spend weeks trying to please the Atlantic for $250 or whatever it is. Do you think I want money? As for prestige, what is it? What greater prestige can a man like me, (not too greatly gifted but understanding) have than to have taken a cheap, shoddy, and utterly lost kind of writing and have made of it something that intellectuals claw each other about? What more could I ask except the leisure and skill to write a couple of novels of the sort I want to write and to have waiting for them a public I have made myself? Certainly, the Atlantic cannot give that to me.
All the best,
And yet Chandler apparently gets over his gripes as he sticks with the Atlantic — but he remains scrumptiously crabby with the whole operation and grumbles about his copy-editor at the magazine in another letter to editor Edward Weeks two years later, on January 18, 1947:
By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between.
Pair with Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling’s rants against the popular press.
Published May 21, 2013