When I was in college, the school had a series of writers-in-residence, one of whom was a novelist whose work my mother had cherished. At the time, I read one of her books, too, and was mightily impressed. She was teaching a composition course one semester, and I wanted very much to be among the anointed – the few, the proud, the chosen – with whom she was going to share the mysteries of her craft. That meant submitting a short story or essay for her consideration, which dutifully I did.
Days later, I was summoned to her office in the brick monolith that housed the school’s English Department, and there I met her for the first time. She was seated behind a desk the size of a putting green. When she saw me, she said, her voice a little distracted, “You’re Chris. I’m not going to try to pronounce your last name.”
I nodded, only a little apprehensive. I had not yet learned to trust the gift of fear.
She slid my short story across the expanse of desk as if the pages were road-kill. “Well, Chris I’m-Not-Going-to-Try-to-Pronounce-Your-Last-Name,” she began, “I have three words for you.” This clearly wasn’t going to be good, but I am nothing if not optimistic. And so I waited.
“Be a banker,” she said. That was it. I was dismissed.
This might not have been especially troubling counsel, except that I had spent much of my freshman spring trying desperately to pass Economics 11. At one point the econ professor, trying to be comforting, reminded me, “You’re a writer guy. I see your byline in the newspaper. It’s not like you’re going to be a banker.”
I am honestly not sure that a week has gone by when for one reason or another I haven’t recalled that moment of humiliation in her office. I had a lot of drive before our thirty seconds together, but even more after we had parted company. Some early mornings or late nights when I was in my twenties, writing fiction in the hours before and after my day job in an advertising agency, I would allow myself a small dram of righteous anger as I worked.
Although I have told people this story before, rarely (if ever) have I shared the novelist’s name. I was never precisely sure why.
Now I know: It was because over a quarter of a century later, I was going to be given the chance for the most exquisite revenge imaginable. Not too long ago a book editor at a prestigious newspaper emailed me a list of four new novels that would soon be arriving, wondering if there was one among them I might like to review. There was: The writer-in-residence whose sole critique of my work extended to four syllables had a new book in the pipeline and it was mine for the taking.
Had I shared this novelist’s name over the years when I told readers this story, there would have been no way I could have reviewed her new book. Why? Because the people who assign books for review tend to be much bigger people than the novelists who review them. These editors actually worry about objectivity and conflicts of interest.
Novelists? Not so much. We view schadenfreude the way well-adjusted people view dark chocolate gelato. We tattoo La Rochefoucauld onto our souls: “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.” Trust me, we are really, really small people.
Moreover, I was confident that this other writer would have absolutely no recollection that once, on a dusky afternoon back in the Mesozoic era, she had eviscerated me with three words. I could savage her far more publicly – and with complete impunity.
It was the perfect literary crime.
Nevertheless, I stared at this book editor’s email for a couple of hours. It’s not that my spine was surgically removed at birth, but rather that I’ve always wondered: What if the short story I asked that writer to read so many years ago really was the sort of train wreck that indicated I was indeed better suited to, I don’t know, Enron? The fact was, in the following years I would manage to amass 250 rejection slips for short stories before I would sell a single word. There’s a good reason I write novels: Apparently, I can’t describe a sneeze in fewer than fifty words.
(Just for the record, my first few novels were pretty awful, too. Exhibit A? “A Killing in the Real World,” which just might be the single worst first novel ever published, bar none.)
And so, in the end, I fessed up. I revealed to the book editor my history with one of the writers behind one of those four books – which meant I would not be reviewing it.
The truth is, when I considered the possibility of reviewing this other writer’s new book, the amateurish quality of my own early work nearly smothered me like a landslide. In hindsight, I doubt that short story deserved more than a four-syllable critique. And regardless of whether she meant to inspire me, she did. She did.
Someday I might share with the world who that writer was. But, in the end, I think it’s just as likely that one day I might dedicate a book to her.
(Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel, Secrets of Eden, was just published in paperback. His next novel, The Night Strangers, arrives on October 4, 2011. This essay originally appeared in the Washington Post on April 8, 2011.)