As the years passed, I was becoming a little less intense about students and my relations with them. Oh, there were still clashes which upset me, clashes about my criticism or my grading. Students in the job-focussed decade of 1975-1985 were preoccupied with grades. When I returned a story with numerous line criticisms on every page, and a critical summary, I'd be chagrinned to see the student ignore it all and flip to the back page to see the grade. Grading time at the end of a semester continued to be a stressful time for me. A telephone call at home or a knock on my office door was likely to mean a complaint about a grade, often accompanied by anger, pleading, or tears. I always listened to the complaint and explained as specifically as I could the basis for my grade, feeling that this explanation was part of what the student learned in the course. But I never changed the grade. Since only a changed grade would satisfy the complainer, these conversations ended bleakly, with the student feeling wronged and with me feeling disappointed in him.
Putting a grade on a piece of creative writing seemed out of key, anyway. So once or twice I tried giving a creative writing course with no interim grades, affixing instead a descriptive evaluation to each story. During the semester I was deluded into thinking the system was working. The students said they liked being free from the pressure of frequent grades on their work. But at the end of the semester, of course, there had to be a final graded evaluation of each one's work. And when that time came, the complaints and disappointments were more painful than ever. I realized that I had been buying serenity for myself which I now had to pay for. When reading my descriptive evaluations, my students had managed to give more weight to the favorable phrases than to the unfavorable. If I wrote "Nice character development", the writer translated this into an A, ignoring other comments such as "wobbling tone and point of view" or "clumsy transitions."
So I tried another device: giving more grades rather than fewer. I'd grade a story four or five different ways: for characterization, for suspense, for dialogue, for smoothness, for setting, etc. But with this method, too, the students tended to remember the A for suspense and forget the C-minus for dialogue, and at the end of the semester their hopes would not match my estimate.
I continued to struggle with the problem of how to grade an accomplishment as inexact as writing, envying teachers of mathematics and chemistry, where the answers were right or wrong, and no argument. An accounting professor never has the uncomfortable kind of interview in which a student cries furiously, "That's just your opinion!" But even to answer that outspoken objection was not as hard as dealing with the hurts and angers that were unspoken but visible. Once I criticized a story for being "undeveloped," though beautifully written. The student was polite, but I saw anger hardening his jaw so sharply that his face became a different face. I saw that he hated me, actually hated me, for not admiring his story just as he had written it. From that time on, his hardened face was the only one he ever turned toward me.
The most difficult problem of all was criticizing a story which was obviously based quite literally on the writer's own painful experience. A young writer can seldom separate himself from his story. Any criticism of the story is a criticism of himself. I've had several vivid demonstrations of this.
A student in a fiction-writing class turned in a long, disorganized story about a young man who had a crippling accident while mountain-climbing. I knew at once that it was Jake's own story, for I had been wondering about him since the first day of class. He walked with a stiff leg, as though he wore a brace on it. He was a little odd about the eyes; the left one drooped more than the right. He usually entered the classroom at the very last minute with his clumpy walk, but never smiled or met my look. He didn't talk to other students, but stared straight ahead, and seldom said anything in the class discussions.
From his story I learned that his left side had been paralyzed in the accident, though he had regained a good deal of the use of arm, leg, and eye.
The story was xeroxed for class discussion, and I approached it with what I hoped was a matter-of-fact objectivity. Its most obvious fault was that it was poorly focused. The point-of-view character became unconscious on page 10 from his climbing accident, and the narration left him and followed the brother and the parents. A second fault was the proportioning: there were too few pages of the crucial mountain-climbing scene, after a long discursive beginning. I praised what I could genuinely praise: the strong evocation of family love and suffering.
Jake said nothing in class to my criticisms or to comments of students, but he stayed afterward to speak about it. He told me that he was disturbed by what I had said because he had worked constantly on the story. "That's about all I've been doing," he said. Of course the problem was that he was too close to it, even though the accident had happened more than five years earlier. Naturally it was still a terribly emotional event to him. We had a long, painful discussion in which I tried to explain what I meant by "poorly focused" and "poorly proportioned." I suggested that the story might focus on the brother, who suffers through the whole thing while the main character goes into a coma. This outraged him, justifiably perhaps. "That's not the story I wanted to write." I objected to his lavish quotations from the trite and sentimental songs of Jim Morrison, a pop-singer who had recently died. This objection hurt him too, as though I had said his own emotion or his brother's was trite and sentimental. Distraught as he was, he was still polite. "I've kept you awfully late," he said at last. And when he was going out the door: "Have a nice weekend."
I was behind him in the hall and I was heartbroken to see him limping along, carrying his story, which he had turned in with such hopes. I had to make some further effort to work on it with him. So I called him and asked him to come in again on Monday for further discussion. I did some cutting and rearranging of the first pages to show him how he could improve the proportion without sacrificing the essential stream of the story. I told him how much I respected him for working so hard on it, and how I hoped he would try to revise it so that both he and I would be satisfied.
I thought we had a good talk. He did smile once in a while, as I had never seen him do before. He had very smooth clear skin and dark straight hair, and fine brown eyes except for that little droop to the left one. He had a sort of hesitation in his speech, which might also have been a result of the accident. He told me that he had climbed Mount Washington again on his braced leg a year after his fall. But he never did any more with his story, and I fear that his fiction-writing course left him with a great hurt. I never saw him again after the course ended.
In a summer writing course a graduate student turned in a sentimental story about a beautiful friendship between a young man in his twenties and a little girl of ten. They spend all their summer days together, playing his stereo, lying on his bed and telling each other their daydreams. I criticized the excessive sentimentality, suggesting that the writer should toughen it by looking at other sides of the relationship. I also suggested that he not have the child lie on the bed with the young man, because readers might see this as less innocent than it was.
The writer, Bob Weedier, came to see me in my office, almost in tears, to tell me that it was "all true." I hadn't fully realized, though I should have, that it was his own story. My suggestions that he change it seemed to him cynical, and probably corrupt. "Miss Christman, you just don't understand," he kept saying. I was torn between irritation that a 25-year-old graduate student had absolutely no understanding of what fiction-writing meant, and remorse for wounding this incredible innocent. I could not persuade him to work on the story. I believe I had so smirched the experience for him that he could not bear to have it handled any further.
Sometimes I wonder if students take creative writing courses mainly for the chance to ventilate their tensions and sorrows. A senior at Notre Dame turned in a story about a senior at Notre Dame whose eighteen-year-old girl-friend had just called him from their Georgia hometown to tell him that she was pregnant and was going to have an abortion during the Christmas holidays. The story wasn't as well done as this senior's work usually was, but there was a raw immediacy about it that gripped me. The young man in the story was in anguish. He didn't want the girl to have an abortion. "I love babies. I know I'd be a good father." He loved her very much and wanted to get married immediately, but she refused. Her own parents had married very young under just such circumstances, and their marriage had been disastrous. She wasn't going to repeat her mother's pattern of life, she insisted.
I couldn't simply treat this as a piece of fiction, and talk about the transitions and the need for more artistic distance. It was so artless that I felt it must be a real, present crisis. I called Mark Bergson in and asked him, and he readily admitted that it was. I urged him as forcefully as I could not to let his child be destroyed. He didn't want to, really didn't, but he couldn't see what to do since the girl would not marry him. "She won't let me do right by her," he said bitterly.
I saw between the lines of the story, as well as in his conversation, that he was much more committed to her than she to him. His story told of an off-again, on-again, love affair where he often suffered because of her inconstancy. The child might not even be his, I thought, but he was sure that it was.
Mark was suffering, and would suffer more if there was an abortion. He wanted to marry the girl at Christmas, and bring her up to Notre Dame for his last semester, or even quit college to get married and live with her in the small southern town. She was very young and he wondered how she would adjust to Notre Dame life, a little country girl with a high-school education who was studying beauty culture. He kept reiterating that she was very intelligent, but I could see that he feared the Notre Dame atmosphere would be formidable to her.
Mark thanked me for talking to him, saying I was the only one he had told. I asked him if he had talked to a priest. He hadn't. I guess he thought priests were irrelevant, like parents. "My parents don't understand the way it is with young people today," he said. He couldn't possibly ask for any help or advice from them. I told him I would pray for him, and he promised to pray too.
A few days later he stopped me in the library concourse to say that his girl had seen the doctor again and he had decided that she was not pregnant -- her symptoms were related to something else. "Our prayers were answered," he said exuberantly. He was about to leave for the Christmas holidays, happy and relieved. Would he live more responsibly as a result of this scare? I had my doubts. I never saw him again. It was another of those unfinished stories.
But over the years I have become more detached about students. I care about them. I suffer for their troubles. But I realize that what I do or say can make very little difference in their lives. My journals show my changing focus. The entries of recent years take in other people besides students and I am more concerned with finding story material of my own. As I wrote more fiction, I was thinking more about how to shape the encounters of my life into fiction. I had, as a matter of fact, always intended my journals to be a quarry for my writing, having marveled at the notebooks of Henry James and taken them for my -- impossible to imitate -- distant ideal. I loved to observe the way James would sometimes handle and shake an idea for years, returning to it again and again in his notebook entries, turning it upside down and inside out, until he finally found the right form for it. Sometimes he never did, and the story remained unwritten. I did this, too, on a small scale. There are story germs in my journals that I am still shaking back and forth. Most of them will probably never be written.
The germs which interested me most were those which centered on a moral dilemma. A character in conflict about how to act rightly is to me the essence of a good novel. I love Hester Prynne, Dorothea Brooke, Lord Jim, and Major Scobie. So it was natural that the bits of situation and character that appealed to me as material for my own stories usually involved a moral choice. Moral choices occur to people who believe that their actions have consequences, not to people who believe that human beings do what they have to do. The more fine and subtle the choice, the more it interests me; therefore I often wrote in my journal about sisters, priests, and brothers I met during Notre Dame summer sessions. These people who had dedicated their lives to following Christ's teaching exemplified the most radical kind of moral conflict. They were trying to live according to a norm that was ridiculous to the society around them: choosing poverty when everyone else was trying to get rich, effacing self in the midst of the "me generation," teaching and healing outcasts that everyone else wanted to let the government take care of -- or neglect.
Many of these religious people were going through crises about the vocations they had chosen, crises which were by no means the stereotyped scenario: nun falls in love with priest. It's true that in the seventies most nuns and priests who left their calling did marry, but often this was the result not the cause of the crisis. The nuns who talked to me about their problems -- many more nuns than priests confided in me -- seemed to be troubled most by the confinement of their lives and the squelching of their initiative. They had entered the convent very young, most of them, at a time when it was a safe life, shielded from the temptations of the world, and from the need to make decisions. The young nun had only to do exactly what the superior told her to do, in small matters and in large, and she could be serene in the knowledge that she was living the life that Christ had called her to. Vatican II changed this. Pope John XXIII opened windows, and the Council let the breezes blow through corners and attics of the Church that had been undisturbed for centuries. Everything was up for reexamination, including the wisdom and power of religious superiors, Individual souls, both lay and religious, were encouraged to consult their own consciences, and even their own tastes and talents.
In this climate, a sister with a notable talent in painting and a delicate nervous system could question whether it was really God's will that she should be assigned to a classroom of wild seventh-grade boys. Her superior said that was what the order required of her. Many sisters first doubted their vocations as a result of situations like this. It seemed to them that aggiornamento was taking place everywhere but in their own communities.
Not all superiors were inflexibly static. In some orders movement was brisk: sisters discarded their habits completely, gave up communal life and moved into apartments, searched out their own jobs, regulated their own religious practices. But these radical changes created other kinds of tensions for the sisters. They suddenly found themselves in a world of anger and greed and sex and selfishness which years in holy seclusion had not prepared them for. It was not easy to be sure exactly what the vocation was which they had vowed to accept.
I've written earlier in this memoir of Sister Juliana, who, after wrestling with this question, decided that living in a religious community was actually an indulgence. It was too safe and calm. She felt that God wanted her to risk more, to get out of her quiet, small-town parochial school and minister to a broader range of humanity. She wasn't sure where this ministry would take her, but she felt confident that she would find her way to the work that she was meant to do. I had deep misgivings about her, as I wrote in my journal. At thirty-eight, she was so utterly naive that I felt sure some person or persons would take advantage of her.
Her innocence fascinated me, and I invented a story about what would happen to her, changing the setting and circumstances just a little. I put Julia, the generous, unworldly ex-nun, into a small-town grade-school as a substitute teacher, and placed among her colleagues a poet, an unsuccessful poet, embittered at having to earn his living as a teacher. In this story Julia befriends the poet, encourages him, and even falls in love with him, although he is fifteen years younger. He plays on her tenderness and gets her to subsidize the publication of his poetry collection. This story, which I called "Julia", was published in Southern Humanities Review in the fall of 1975.
But the exploitation suffered by the character in my story was mild compared to what actually happened to the ex-sister Juliana. Fiction cannot dare the extremes of fact, About a year later she told me her real story. She had fallen in love with a man whose wife had divorced him, leaving him with two young children, one of them crippled. The wife, I believe, had been a night-club dancer. This man pressed Juliana to marry him, assuring her that he could get an annulment of his marriage. His need was urgent because of the two little children, and she married him without waiting for the annulment process to be completed. What was more, she immediately turned over to him her nest-egg of $1500, which she had saved up since leaving her convent. She believed that a married couple should share everything, she told me ruefully.
Within a month of the marriage he had turned on her in a drunken rage and thrown her out of his house. Her vocabulary, acquired during all those years in religious sisterhood, was not equal to describing the brutality in detail. That he was drunk, that he hit her, that he threw her out -- that was all she could say. "I feel so ugly. I feel so worthless," she kept repeating.
She got a divorce, and I think her money was eventually returned to her. She went back to teaching, and later earned a degree in library science and became a children's librarian. I still get a note from her each Christmas, serenely thankful for her work with children. I wonder if she ever regrets leaving her religious community. Probably she feels that all her sufferings were part of a pattern intended for her by the Holy Spirit, to deepen and enlarge her.
Juliana was only one of several nuns whose lives gripped my imagination. One summer in my Notre Dame writing course there was a little freckled gamin who came to class in cut-off jeans and a halter-top. Sister Nan was the quintessential seventies nun, rebellious about all rules, ecclesiastical and academic. She wrote her papers in longhand, decorated with flowers and cartoons. She objected to nearly all my assignments as being too rigid. I was hampering her creativity. Most students who complain of having their creativity hampered do not have much of it, but Sister Nan did. She was bright and talented. We had some clashes.
What fascinated me about her was that across her back, revealed by her skimpy halter-blouse, was a big scar, the result of her having given one of her kidneys to her brother. She had saved his life by this gift. Her thorny rebellious personality, her cleverness, her heroic deed -- these things kept needling me. I wanted to put her into a story. I kept wondering whether she had run into any opposition from her religious order when she proposed giving up a kidney to her brother. I could never bring myself to ask her, because she didn't seem to want to discuss the matter. She didn't consider her deed heroic, and wanted no credit for it. But why dress so as to show the scar, I wondered, if she wanted to keep the kidney donation a secret?
This was the nugget which captivated me: the contradiction between showing the scar and denying its importance. But when I finally wrote the story there was no halter-blouse, and my fictional Sister Brigid was a composite of several of the nuns I had known. I called my story "The Giver." Sister Brigid actually owed more to Sister Juliana, who had been so recklessly generous with herself and her possessions to the man who seemed to need her so desperately, than to Sister Nan. Sister Brigid in my story is obsessed with giving -- she wants to give heroically, as the saints did, for the love of Christ. The story starts with her gift of a kidney to her brother.
I wrote "The Giver" first as a short story; the nun wants to save her brother's life by her gift, but she has to balance this act of heroism against her duty to her religious community. Will she be unjust to her order if she endangers her health and her future ability to work and contribute? Will she risk becoming a liability to her sisters? She prays to do the right thing and thinks she has chosen rightly. But when her brother's system rejects the kidney implant, she takes it as a rebuke from God: her gift was not pure, it was tainted with the pride of heroism.
After I had written the tale, the subject continued to expand in my imagination, blending into the harsh catastrophe of Sister Juliana's marriage. I had another story germ in my journal, a scrap that I had heard from a student at DePauw. She told me of a high school girl, perhaps herself, who baby-sat for a graduate student whose wife had left him with a child. His household was in chaos: dirty clothes, unwashed dishes, the child disturbed and undisciplined. The distraught father was attractive and appealing in his loneliness. The baby-sitter tried to help him by straightening out the clutter and soothing the child. She gave more and more of her time to the case, much more than baby-sitting required. The young man began to lean on her help and sympathy until he absorbed her life.
I don't remember what happened in the real case, or whether I ever heard the end of it, but the situation stayed with me. I thought of it when I heard the former Sister Juliana's account of marrying a deserted husband with two young children, I saw how the baby-sitter could be merged into the nun with very good effect. Whereas a high-school baby-sitter could simply walk out, or her parents could interfere and remove her, when the man became too demanding, the nun would be acting under her Christian compulsion to give in Christ's name, and to continue giving as long as the need continued. The nun would be confronting that perennial dilemma of those who follow Christ: where do you stop giving? When, if ever, should you put your own legitimate self-interest ahead of another person's need?
When, if ever? Most of us never take the question to that extreme. We have a pretty strong sense of what we owe to ourselves, and seldom feel impelled to go against our own comfort and safety for the sake of someone in trouble. If we can tell ourselves that the trouble was brought on by the person's own recklessness or neglect or laziness, we can pass by without much remorse. At any rate we know, most of us, that there is a limit somewhere to what we are bound to do in the name of charity. St. Martin of Tours gave only half his cloak to the beggar.
But some heroic people don't know the limit, or don't acknowledge any limit. Such people fascinate me, probably because I find it so hard to relinquish, even moderately, my privacy and security for the sake of others. Oh, to give money isn't so hard, but to bring refugees and derelicts into my home would be impossible. So I revere those saints and heroes who can do this. A couple in the language department at Notre Dame, Paul and Vittoria Bosco, volunteered to take in a family of Cambodian "boat people" without even knowing how many were in the family. "You can't make conditions about that," Vittoria said. They would keep the family for a month, two months, three months -- as long as it would take them to learn a little basic English and get jobs and housing. The Boscos didn't question how far their generosity would take them when they began giving.
My heroine began to emerge as a young woman who wanted to give without stint. In high school she had seen a banner with a quotation that stunned her: "Youth was not made for pleasure but for heroism." It summed up her vocation to follow Christ totally, to submerge her ego into His purposes, to let Him use her in whatever way he pleased for the needs of others. This was my Sister Brigid: serious, humorless, imprudent, incautious, but with a bottomless fund of sympathy and generosity.
After the kidney episode, I led Sister Brigid into a larger and more complicated testing of her generosity. She is working in campus ministry at a college, where she meets a graduate student whose wife has left him for another man. He has two little girls and is trying to keep his household together on a graduate student's stipend while finishing his Ph.D. Sister Brigid tries to find baby-sitters and household help for him, and ends up taking on the chores herself because she is so sorry for him and so solicitous about the children. He leans on her, asks more and more of her, and finally asks for everything; that she abandon her vows and marry him.
This is the ultimate test for Sister Brigid's passion to give. Larry's life is falling apart; he can't do his work because there is no order in his home; his children are not being cared for or fed properly; the needs of this family are so urgent that Sister Brigid can see no way to stop giving. It seems selfish to put even her own religious convictions ahead of their cries for help. She asks herself if God really means her to save her own soul by abandoning this drowning family.
As a foil for Brigid's extravagant selflessness, I created another character, Father Porter Woods, the priest who is her boss at campus ministry. Porter Woods is a sophisticated, humorous, worldly-wise priest who tries to keep Brigid on balance. He loves her for the way she spends herself on others, yet he would like to teach her a sense of proportion. He reminds her of what Christ said about casting pearls before swine. Through Porter Woods, an attractive man, a psychologist, and most of all a dedicated priest, I showed the other side of the argument that Christians will never be able to settle: how far must a Christian go in loving his neighbor?
To me it's the most interesting of all human dilemmas, and I loved writing this novel. I didn't give much thought to its publication until I had finished it. Then, since Dodd, Mead had published A Nice Italian Girl and had an option on my next juvenile book, I offered it to them. I didn't think it was a "young adult" novel, but they could decide about that; and if they wanted to publish it on their regular list I would be even more pleased.
Dodd, Mead, however, didn't seem to know what to make of this novel. The various editors had assorted objections. One reader said she was alternately bored and infuriated by the book's "dogmatism." One thought the priest was superb, but others said he was too worldly. One thought Larry was basically decent; another talked about his nasty traits and couldn't see how Brigid could care for him. Brigid's character annoyed nearly everybody at Dodd, Mead. Oddly enough, however, all readers commented on the "page-turning" quality of the story. The firm's reaction was summed up, finally, by the editor who said that a writer's second novel was "the danger book", and that I had picked an unfortunate subject for my second novel. They advised me to set the book aside and do another novel. Later when I was more firmly established I could go back and tackle this unfortunate subject again.
I should have been depressed by this mosaic of rejections, but strangely enough I wasn't. I believed in this book. Dodd, Mead had held onto the manuscript for four months while issuing these mixed bulletins, and I was actually relieved when they finally sent it back. I asked Dorothy Olding if she would take over the marketing of it. She was now the president of Harold Ober Associates, the only one of the three original partners still in the business. Dorothy agreed to take on my manuscript, no doubt swayed by our long years of working together and our enduring friendship. She didn't feel overly sanguine about finding a publisher for The Giver. It was no potential best-seller. I felt confident, however, that some editor would like it and that it would have its modest sale. In a couple of months Dorothy called me to say that Ellis Amburn at Morrow had accepted it.
That was one of the happiest phone calls I ever had in my life. My whole experience with The Giver was happy, in fact, though the book soon lost this title. Ellis Amburn was a good editor for me. First he wrote me a long letter, telling me the things he liked about my story. I don't believe he was a religious man himself, yet he was able to enter sympathetically into the spiritual conflicts of my character. He attached no editorial conditions whatever to his acceptance of the manuscript, but he did suggest a few changes, chiefly a change of title. Since his responses were so sensitive, I was inclined to accommodate most of his suggestions, all of which improved the book. He thought "The Giver" was a flat, or bland, or nonprovocative title, and I could see his point (though it was the right title). I made lots of suggestions for other titles, none of which was better.
Finally Ellis suggested "Flesh and Spirit," and I agreed. I liked the tension in this title, though I feared that it promised more "flesh" than the story would deliver. Flesh and Spirit it became.
To my great surprise, Reader's Digest Condensed Books chose Flesh and Spirit as one of its selections. This was exciting, not only for the generous royalty payments, but because the Digest Condensed Books have an enormous list of subscribers. It awed me to think how many people would read my story in its condensed form. And, by the way, the Digest condensers are so skillful that a book loses very little in the boiling down. Flesh and Spirit also had a large-print edition for readers with diminished eyesight. It had some pleasant reviews and made a tidy sum of money, though it was no best-seller.
When it was published I was sixty-five years old, and had been "elevated" to the rank of Associate Professor Emerita at Notre Dame. I didn't want to stop teaching, and fortunately I didn't have to. Notre Dame allows retired professors to be hired on a year-to-year basis for part-time teaching if their departments are willing. American Studies continued to hire me.
Nor did I want to stop writing. Besides the articles and stories which I often wrote with my classes, I wanted to write another novel. Several possible subjects were fermenting in my imagination, the most insistent of which was a little fragment that had appeared in Flesh and Spirit. Sister Brigid counsels a student who intends to quit school and go to work. His father has deserted the family, leaving a mountain of debts, and the young man feels he must get a job and help his mother and sisters. He's a tremendously bright student with a full academic scholarship, which he will abandon because of the urgency of the family problem.
A freshman in one of my classes at DePauw had told me this story of himself. I didn't know him well. He seemed bright, but erratic and rebellious. When he came to discuss a paper one day toward the end of the semester, he was distracted, and suddenly blurted out that he was going to quit college. His mother was in the hospital and his father had run out on the family. "My father screwed us," was the way he bitterly put it. He was going to drop out and take care of his sisters. He mentioned that his math professor had been urging him to stay in college until everything else had been tried. Even his high school sister wanted him to stay and hang on to his scholarship. I added my voice to these others, but I don't think it did any good. I never saw him again. I wish now that I had followed up with a dean or counsellor. This was in one of my first years of teaching, when I didn't know that a dean of students might have taken some effective action in such a case.
The boy's plight stayed in my mind and I began to ponder a family situation in which it could occur. At first I thought of it as Dan's story. I had named him. The tension was to be that Dan's mother, humiliated by the her husband's desertion, clings to her son for psychological rather than for financial reasons. I had seen something of this in the case of a dear friend of mine who, after she was widowed, began to build her life around her unmarried son. "I must go home and cook Billy's dinner," she would say when we were out for an afternoon. Billy, I knew, was capable of raiding the refrigerator for himself, or going out to a diner, and in fact would have preferred it. He didn't want his mother making so much of him, but he was tender to her widowed grief and let her do it. I knew that he was going with a girl, and I suspected that he was delaying marriage until his mother became more self-sufficient.
In the case of the eighteen-year-old Dan of my story, I saw the mother wanting him at her side as a figure of masculine support to counter her shame at being a cast-off wife. She didn't realize, any more than Dan did, that she needed his presence more than she needed the money he could earn. The story would be told from Dan's point of view, and I would have to let the reader see into the situation that Dan didn't fully understand. If I had stopped there, it would have been a young-adult novel.
But as I pondered the characters, I became interested in the larger family story: how through a number of circumstances and character conflicts, the family breaks apart. No one character is to blame. There are no villains. It is a story of the way lives go wrong in spite of the best intentions. Michael and Virginia, the husband and wife, and Virginia's father all fail one another in some way, and the tragedy falls on the children. My structure became a triptych, with the story of the marriage the large central panel, flanked by Dan's story on one side and Leslie's on the other. Leslie is the high-school sister. I called it "A Broken Family."
This novel was a bitter failure, and I don't know why. By the time Dorothy Olding offered it to Morrow, Ellis Amburn had left the firm for a bigger job with another house. Another editor accepted the manuscript for Morrow, and said a few pleasant things about it. He suggested no changes, and voiced no objections, yet I felt something tepid in his reaction. Probably he accepted the book because of the fact that Flesh and Spirit had been chosen by Reader's Digest Condensed Books, which is a bonanza for the publisher as well as for the author. But Reader's Digest did not take A Broken Family. Publishers Weekly gave it an unenthusiastic forecast. It had very few reviews. It sold fewer than two thousand copies, and sank without a trace.
I have to blame myself. In my years as a literary agent I often heard authors complain that their books failed because the publishers didn't advertise them, did not push them, did not get them reviewed in The New York Times. I know something of the realities of the publishing business. I know that advertising budgets have to relate to the proportional importance of a book on the publisher's list. A publisher can't "push" a book on the public. And certainly a publisher cannot make a reviewer review it.
I'd like to learn the lesson that lies in the failure of A Broken Family, but I haven't figured out what it is. The Publishers Weekly forecaster called me "an awkward writer who is not well-skilled at developing characters." Yet a PW forecaster evaluating A Nice Italian Girl said: "Ms. Christman is a very good writer who has written a bare-knuckles novel about a very brave girl." And another PW forecaster said of Flesh and Spirit: "Elizabeth Christman's tender and funny portrait of a modern nun torn between the evangelical counsels of perfection and human attractions comes to a most believable conclusion." Different forecasters, probably, but I'm still the same writer. How can their assessments differ so widely?
William Styron, talking about his own work, quoted Melville: "To write a mighty book you need a mighty theme."
This is probably an important thing to ponder. When I think of the dismissal A Broken Family got from a library journal: "A shallow family story," I puzzle over it. Virginia is a somewhat shallow woman, that's true. I knew that -- even intended it. She doesn't know herself very well, has never had anything ugly or harsh in her life until her marriage begins to deteriorate. She is not passionate. Is it worthwhile telling a story about such a character? Why did I think it was?
Styron thinks middle-class lives don't make mighty books, although he allows that a writer as gifted as Updike can do pretty well with them. The classic example of small themes is Jane Austen. You couldn't call her books mighty. But I'd be satisfied. Who wouldn't? Still there is something to what Styron, or Melville, says about finding the strongest subject, or the subject you feel strongest about.
I thought it was interesting to tell the story of a commonplace tragedy happening to commonplace people such as everybody knows. Perhaps this was the "unfortunate subject" which the Dodd, Mead editors warned me about earlier. Yet Henry James insisted that we must grant the artist his subject. If the work fails, he said, it is the author's "failure to execute, and it is in the execution that the fatal weakness is recorded." So there I will have to leave it.
© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.
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