Book publishing is famously subjective, and authors who survive learn to have thick skins. But no matter how tanned your literary hide is, when a “no thanks” letter arrives, you’re still a little wounded.
Then comes an uncontrollable urge to read between the lines. What did the rejection letter really mean? I’ve heard some whoppers from writers over the years, including vast conspiracy theories that describe the New York publishing houses and literary agencies as hatcheries for evil agendas of all kinds.
I tried to avoid falling prey to this drama with my latest novel, The Sower. It’s just out in hardcover, so why in the world would I waste energy revisiting this book’s journey? But then someone said three little words to me the other day.
House in Vermont.
It’s code gay men in New York City use these days. When gossiping about someone they’ll ask, “Do you think he has a house in Vermont?”
House In Vermont.
The first time a friend in Manhattan was asked this question, he responded, “No, I’m pretty sure he has a cottage in The Hamptons.” The phrase was repeated with each of the words spoken as individual sentences until the meaning became clear.
The main character in The Sower has a House in Vermont. At least he does at the beginning of the novel. He’s infected by a manmade supervirus that turns out to be a cure for all diseases – a germ that kills other germs. He soon discovers the only way to pass it to others is via sex. When word gets out, he becomes the most wanted man on the planet, with large forces conspiring to make sure he never sows this miraculous seed. The idea of sex as a means for “good” is too threatening to some people’s values.
When I finished writing this parable I began the process of getting it published. I’m no Stephen King, but my first novel was a bestseller and national award finalist. I sold that book on my own, so a friend who’s a publishing insider connected me with a long list of New York literary agents he thought would represent me.
All of those agents were gay men.
And they all refused to look at even one page of The Sower once they heard the premise.
I wonder now if they feared that advocating strongly for this book would have made them the subject of insinuating chatter. Why is he pushing this? Does he have a House in Vermont?
HIV still has that taint. In his memoir about treating people with HIV in Africa, Of Spirits and Madness, Dr. Paul Linde showed how those infected are considered cursed, possibly because they somehow offended a long dead relative.
HIV isn’t the first disease to come with moral baggage. People suffering from depression were shunned by society in the 1800s. In the early twentieth century the word “cancer” was murmured, rather than spoken aloud, because of the shame associated with the disease. Those who had it surely committed a sin to deserve it.
Those reactions were borne of a lack of education, religious superstition, or outright ignorance. Gay men in Manhattan live squarely in the 21st century, which makes phrases like House in Vermont particularly upsetting. People living with HIV continue to face discrimination, so to hear that one of the groups most impacted by the plague has found its own verbiage to perpetuate stigma is disgraceful.
Am I reading between the lines incorrectly about the rejections from all those gay men working in New York publishing?
Consider this. Once The Sower made it into heterosexual quarters, it received a completely different response. Straight literary agents actually read the manuscript and I was offered representation. The first publisher to see the book, a straight man, immediately made a bid for the rights.
So when I heard about the House in Vermont code, I wondered. Did gay literary agents shun The Sower due to a fear of creating speculation about themselves?
One of the agents called me with his rejection, wisely deciding not to put this nonsense in print. “Well, you know, the HIV-cure-international-thriller-genre-novel has been done to death…”
I guess novelists aren’t the only ones who come up with whoppers.