Private: Conversation with Duncan Murrell

Last week I linked a recent Poets & Writers article, in which (as I read it) Duncan Murrell argued that U.S. writers need to accept that publishing a novel will not have a significant effect on their lives. The flippant title of my post, “Also, he wants you to tell your children that there is no Santa Claus,” led Mr. Murrell–er, Duncan–to send me a very civilized message. Our exchange is reproduced below, with his permission.

From: “Duncan Murrell”
Subject: Santa Claus

Dear Ms. Newton,

I don’t remember mentioning Santa Claus in that Poets and Writers essay, but while we’re at it…

I think some folks have misunderstood the point I hoped to make with that essay, and that’s my fault. The essay grew out of the moment when, after attending the last of countless writers conferences as an “expert,” and fielding the thousandth question about the state of the industry and what “those people” were looking for, I found myself saying to a younger writer, “What do you care?” (I would have added, “Do your work and shut the hell up,” but I wasn’t raised like that, unfortunately.) Just this week I had coffee with a writer who, after insulting three authors I worked with, asked me whether “the New York publishers” were looking for “stories about tragedy and heartbreak and stuff like that, you know, child abuse and what not.” I wanted to say, “Yeah, since Dickens brought over David Copperfield. And then there was Euripides,” but I let it slide. It was very clear to me that this person, having written a couple of novels that had not been published, was ready to write whatever “the New York publishers” wanted, even if it meant writing something that was obviously distasteful to her. Not only is that a method for churning out crap that no one — the big Five or anyone else — wants to publish, it’s just sad as hell.

I hoped that the essay wouldn’t be interpreted as a long slag on the Big Five, which it wasn’t intended to be. I tried to point out that there are decent, smart people committed to publishing good work in every corner of publishing. If I failed, that’s my fault as the writer. I just wanted people to examine their definitions of success.

Great blog,


From: “Maud Newton”
Subject: Re: Santa Claus
To: “Duncan Murrell”

Dear Mr. Murrell:

Thanks for your email. I’m sorry for any offense caused by the flip reference to Santa Claus in the subject line of my brief post about your article.

I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said in your email message, and I agree with much of what you said in Poets & Writers, although I think perhaps you ask writers to lower their expectations a bit too far, and there are points at which the arguments presented in “Measures of Success” gravitate toward a didacticism I find off-putting.

I have no love for or connection to the Big Five of publishing. Indeed, I claim no connection to any house except my employer (a publisher completely unconcerned with literary texts), having not yet completed a full draft of my own novel or begun the process of seeking an agent or shopping around a manuscript.

I believe–strongly, fervently–that writers should write from their hearts and refuse to deliver canned products that fit within the latest publishing craze.

That said, the Santa Claus subject line, however poorly conceived, was intended to highlight the potentially soul-crushing consequences of telling a young writer, “…Publishing your book will not change your life….”

While I agree that publishing a book often does not change one’s life monetarily or likely lead to a body of work that will be remembered after one’s death (Anne Lamott is quite good on this, I think, in Bird By Bird), based on the experience of seeing my friends’ successes and failures I do believe that publishing a book even with a small house changes a writer’s life in many respects. Perhaps most notably, it is only upon publication that many who dabble with words feel confident enough to call themselves “writers”–authors, even–in public.

I agree wholeheartedly, however, with this: “it’s not a good idea to hand over so much of yourself to a publishing house, each and every one of which is a menagerie of the insecure, the grandiose, the brilliant, and the dull.”

I will be glad to publish our correspondence on my site if you like. I appreciate your taking the time to write, and once again am sorry for any offense the Santa Claus remark may have caused.

All best,

From: “Duncan Murrell”
Subject: Re: Santa Claus
To: “Maud Newton”


You didn’t offend me, you just gave me something to think about. I recognize the didactic parts of the essay, but I beg a little forgiveness for that because it was originally a speech I gave to a group of writers who had just completed a set of masters classes with [a number of prominent writers and instructors whose names have been removed at Duncan’s request], and it was very much a teaching environment. The preachiness, well, that’s a matter of character I have to work on. Anyway, those four (and [another name deleted], for whom I was the opening act) shocked me by saying that the speech was worth sending to a magazine, probably Poets and Writers. So I did.

I recognize that I’m being overly broad by saying, “publishing will not change your life.” But if by “changing your life” we mean becoming happy and rich and famous — desires that are not at all uncommon, let’s be honest — I stand by it. The money and fame almost always disappears, and the hollow sort of happiness derived from that fame and money will eventually disappear also. If you’re surprised that I felt the need to expand upon this obvious truism, believe me when I say that I was too. (Then again, we know that we often tell ourselves nice-sounding things that the primitive parts of our brain don’t register, so maybe it’s not so surprising.) Anyway, I can say with some confidence that the money-fame-happiness expectation was a persistent one among the writers I met while working as an editor. It didn’t matter if they were published and unpublished, it was the second greatest source of insecurity, anger, and depression, after alcohol abuse. (Don’t ask me which came first.)

If we define “changing your life” differently, as I suspect you do, then I think I can agree with you — publishing a book _can_ change your life. Connecting with more readers than you ever imagined possible can change your life, no doubt. Having something to show for your time on the planet is also nothing to dismiss lightly. Seeing your best work become something relatively permanent, or at least something you could show your mother– that would change your life, too. I can think of many ways publishing can change your life. I can think of many publishers, both the well-known and the not-so-well-known, who can deliver that kind of change. Hell, publishing _other_ people’s work changed my life. So I will acknowledge that I was unforgivably vague in that essay about what I meant by change, and maybe too glib when I hit on the “lower your expectations” formulation.

It would be a real shame if, as you suggest, a young writer were to be crushed by reading some nobody in North Carolina arguing that publishing won’t change their life. Whatever reason a writer has for quitting, it’s a shame. I also think that if a young writer were to read my essay and experience enough “soul-crushing” disappointment to turn away from their work, there wasn’t much hope for them, anyway. Let me propose this: the best endorsement of my essay would come from no one paying much attention to it. That would be consistent with the idea that writers spend way too much time worrying about the state of the industry, and what publishers want, and the pitfalls of the writing life as described by yet another in a long line of mopes. What am I, if not another one of those mopes? My hope is that a young writer would take my essay as a challenge, so that the next time I wrote something about the state of the industry, instead of experiencing disappointment, they would look up from their desk and say, “Did you say something? I wasn’t listening.” (And there goes my future with Poets and Writers Magazine.)

The most surprising thing about publishing this essay has been, judging from the messages I’ve received, many people got some inspiration out of it. That’s a mystery to me, but it’s been very
pleasant to hear.


p.s.–Again, you certainly did not offend me. But you will offend me if you keep calling me Mr. Murrell. Shit, I’m still in my 30’s.

From: “Maud Newton”
Subject: Re: Santa Claus
To: “Duncan Murrell”


Thanks for your thoughtful and down-to-earth response. In the new light of these clarifications, your perspective is very similar to mine.

We do differ–irreconcilably, I suspect–on the potential consequences of telling a young writer that publishing a book won’t change his life. “Soul-crushing” now strikes me as an unduly dramatic and generally ill-advised modifier, but I’ll stand by the spirit of what I said.

Please understand that, at 23, discouraged for practical reasons by parents and professors from pursuing my writing in a formal or informal capacity, I entered law school and incurred tens of thousands dollars’ worth of student loan debt. The weakness was mine, of course. I lacked the unflagging conviction that, as you imply, a true writer possesses. And now that I’ve abandoned the practice of law and taken a job that allows me time to write, it is quite possible that the naysayers in my life will turn out to be right.

Fellow blogger Mark Sarvas recently quoted a line from Richard Russo’s Straight Man: “It’s a fine man who’ll write a novel and keep it to himself.” Perhaps I’ll have the good sense in the end to be one of those men, but female.

But back to the point: unpublished writers are already called upon to accept that book deals are elusive and that any payments they receive in the lottery that is publishing might not be enough to cover their rent and car insurance. I’m relieved that you’re not asking them to believe that the publication of a book would not change their lives for the better in less quantifiable ways.

Oh, and I can absolutely confirm that many writers were encouraged by your essay. My friends Shauna McKenna and Stephany Aulenback (Steph hosts my site on Fridays) were among them.

On Friday, I forwarded our messages to Stephany, and she said:

In a way, the Murrell article ties in with all the fuss over the proposed changes at the NYTBR. From my perspective, it would be good if control over publishing success could be wrested out of the hands of the marketing and PR machinery of the big publishing houses and big media. Imagine a time when small independent publishers would be able to generate enough buzz for their best books through a variety of media outlets (including the more personal, word-of-mouth recommendations you find on bookblogs). In an ideal situation books would succeed financially — or fail — on their merits and not so much at the whim of the Times. Wishful thinking, I know.

I couldn’t agree more.

Thanks again for sending email. I always like to hear from readers, particularly smart and articulate ones like you.

Take good care,