The tortuous attempts to get my latest book into print illuminate the cur- rent state of scholarly publishing, reveal the problems that serious writers now face and show that it’s become extremely difficult, almost impossible, to publish literary books on a single author. Remembering Iris Murdoch: Letters and Interviews is a one hundred and thirty page annotated edition of the hundred unpublished letters that Iris Murdoch wrote to me between 1978 and 1995, with three letters from her husband John Bayley. This book also includes my thirty-page memoir of Iris; two interviews I did with her (one for the Paris Review) with some important deleted passages; and a ten-page analysis of the memoirs by the novelist A. N. Wilson and by John Bayley. Murdoch discusses classic writers like Joseph Conrad, D. H. Law- rence and John Cowper Powys, and contemporaries like John Updike and Vikram Seth; her unprovoked quarrel with Rebecca West; production of her play The Black Prince; political views, especially about Ireland; delight that women could be ordained as priests; paintings she’s seen; conferences attended; extensive travels; and difficulty writing at the onset of Alzhei- mer’s. I had a letter from Iris’s agent, Ed Victor, who kindly wrote that ‘The Estate of Iris Murdoch has granted you permission to publish your correspondence with Iris Murdoch,’ and naively thought that editors would be eager to have a book on a major modern woman novelist. But conditions had radically changed since I’d last published scholarly books in the 1990s.
I wrote to eighty-two firms: seven trade publishers (including Iris’s US and UK houses and one that had brought out her biography), eleven small presses, sixty American and British university presses, and four academic presses that paid no royalties and even demanded a subsidy. (This would be a worthwhile investment for assistant professors seeking tenure.) Cambria Press in Amherst, New York, to prevent double submissions, sent me a useless contract before they agreed to publish the book, which would have bound me to them without creating any obligation on their part. Forty-sev- en university presses (eight of which had previously published my books) politely refused, twelve didn’t answer and one had gone out of business. One editor said she wouldn’t even be able to find anyone to evaluate the work. Four presses looked at the book, but didn’t send it out to readers, and four other presses sent me readers’ reports.
The editor at the first press was keen, spoke to me at length on the phone and sent me a draft contract. Though the first report recommended publica- tion after I’d revised the book, I never got a real contract. The first reader wrote: ‘This is all interesting, even fascinating stuff about one of the impor- tant British novelists of the twentieth century, and it ought to be published. . . . The material is of great interest to Murdoch fans and could be of mild interest to the general literate public.’ This reader made some useful sug- gestions that helped me improve the book. I eliminated repetition, cut the satiric comments about academic life, reduced the annotations (especially about myself) for the letters and deleted the appendix on Iris’s letters to our mutual friend – the Canadian painter Alex Colville. I published these letters in The London Magazine, February-March 2013, pp. 20-25.
After I’d made the revisions the reader, noting that it was not a typical scholarly work, concluded: ‘This is an odd but not at all unattractive book about the author’s recollections of his acquaintance with Iris Murdoch, one of the important British novelists of the twentieth century. . . . Meyers had his own experience [with Murdoch and Bayley] and he is candid and interesting about the details, the limitations, and the insights of his association with the couple. . . . The Meyers book takes the connection between writing and living as its primary focus and manages to say a lot in a relatively small compass. . . . There is a devoted core of fans who will welcome any new views of the novelist’s work and life. I recommend publication.’ But the press board, to the editor’s surprise, rejected this report as ‘unsubstantial’ and ‘frivolous.’ The editor asked the reader to expand and resubmit the report by incorporating her positive statements from the first review, but she was unwilling to do so.
So another report was required. The second reader, referring to my original title, wrote:
This Love Business: Letters from Iris Murdoch is a perplexing book. On the plus side, it is certainly, even compulsively, read- able: Jeffrey Meyers, well known as a biographer, writes clear and lively prose, offers a good précis of Murdoch’s life and career, and provides two mildly useful interviews. In his reminiscences he shows himself to be closely observant, with a taste for gossip, the more lurid the better. Once I started this quick-paced book, I was happy to keep reading until it was done. . . . At his best, Mey- ers writes well and is always fun to read. . . .
We are treated to a portrait of the happy squalor of Murdoch’s dilapidated house, are reminded of her enthusiasm for the novels of John Cowper Powys and that she regards Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas as the greatest of all paintings. And every so often her letters do say something about life: ‘We must become a detached spectator, meditating on human folly.’
But these merits were not good enough. I had to give sufficient context about my own life to make the letters comprehensible, but any description of my life made this reader see red. Annoyed at himself for enjoying the book, he asserted that I’d presented myself in an unacceptable way; unleashed a series of insults by calling me ungentlemanly, snotty, self- centered, self-promoting, egoistic, vain, pushy, bumptious, obnoxious and vulgar; and did not recommend publication.
Though Iris’s manuscripts are at the University of Iowa, my relations with their university press were more troubling. The first reader, an English Murdoch specialist, wrote: ‘He certainly achieves the aim of producing a collection of material that will be of great interest to the Murdoch scholar – and to those studying twentieth-century literature in general. . . . The most compelling section is, of course, the unpublished letters between Meyers and Murdoch seen here for the first time and these do lend a new slant on her intellectual development and thought. . . . The discussion of the Wil- son and Bayley memoirs are both insightful and amusing. . . . The letters certainly make a significant contribution . . . and do need to be given a far wider circulation: it is good that Meyers wishes this to happen.’
It was obvious to me that the second report was written by Anne Rowe, who identified herself by noting that she’d ‘edited a memoir on Iris Mur- doch for Kingston University Press.’ Like many academics, Rowe thought she owned her subject. Her inaccurate, self-righteous report claimed that I was ‘salacious,’ ‘scurrilous,’ ‘prurient,’ ‘demeaning’ and ‘disrespectful’ about Iris’s sex life. She also menacingly said that the press should take ‘legal advice’ about ‘possibly litigious material’ in my statement that ‘Mur- doch helped other women have operations that were illegal until 1967, for example – without any indication as to how this information was acquired.’ But this material was not libellous and there was no basis for litigation. Iris was dead, the women she’d helped were unknown and unnamed. In fact, the source of this information was page one-hundred-and-sixty-seven of Peter Conradi’s biography, which was not libellous when he published it. Nevertheless, Rowe’s threat terrified the inexperienced editor who, ignor- ing the animus behind her report, expected me to submit to her censorship and conform to her view of Iris.
Despite all this nastiness, Rowe came to a favourable conclusion about the book and wrote:
The private letters that are the most interesting and important part of the book are certainly worth putting into the public domain. . . . These letters are revealing in many areas. . . . [The interviews] are exceptionally good; interviewing is a skill that Meyers practises well, and they would comprise readily accessible background in- formation for the more general readership. . . .This material does contribute biographical detail and some fascinating personal de- tail on the life and work of Iris Murdoch. It could help to instigate new avenues of research and broaden approaches to the novels.
After I’d made more revisions, the Iowa editor wrote, ‘I’m happy to say that I’ve been authorized to offer you a contract.’ But there were a few problematical provisos. She was still worried about the non-existent libel problem. She wanted me to continue to tone down the description of Iris’s sexual life, which other readers had found fascinating. Though Rowe had never suggested that I’d misrepresented Iris’s letters, the ever timorous editor said she ‘would like to have copies of the originals so that we can check the typescript against them.’ For me, this was the breaking point. I deeply resented her questioning my scholarly integrity, had swallowed all the toads I could take and replied: ‘I don’t think this is necessary. I believe, after twenty years of correspondence with Iris, that I can read her difficult handwriting better than your editors can, and that—using Xerox copies that are harder to read–they are more likely to introduce errors than to correct them. I have already read all the letters aloud, noting punctuation, to my wife, an experienced editor, who simultaneously read the previously proofread typescript. After many books and articles, I’ve had a great deal of experience in transcribing unpublished material and now stake my consid- erable scholarly reputation on the accuracy of the text. I can’t see spending a lot of time and money on this tedious and pointless exercise.’ Finally, Iowa decided not to publish the book, which was just as well. I was very unhappy about the way the editor had handled Rowe’s biased report and didn’t look forward to more of her unreasonable demands.
As I slid down the scale of university presses and continued to roll the rock up the hill, I found an editor at Bucknell who seemed eager to publish Remembering Iris Murdoch. But even the most sympathetic editor has no recourse against a negative judgment. Bucknell’s report, apparently written by a politically correct feminist, saw no merit in the book and found fault with nearly everything in it. She questioned my record of ‘very specific details from events that took place decades ago,’ then contradicted her own criticism by stating the obvious: ‘presumably, the author kept a diary dur- ing this period.’ She also claimed that I ‘seemed unaware of the volume of collected interviews, published in 2003 under the title From a Tiny Corner of the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch, edited by Gillian Dooley,’ though I was well aware of it. My two interviews were reprinted in that volume. She wrote, ‘From the letters, we do get a vivid sense of Murdoch’s generous nature, her erudition and creative élan, and her play- ful persona as a friend and confidante.’ But she then contradicted herself, opaquely concluding, ‘I do not believe that the manuscript makes advances in the field. . . . It is not at all clear to me that the author is someone whose opinion or memories of Murdoch should hold much interest for us. . . . It’s not clear that we learn anything new about Murdoch from these letters.’
These five reports from three presses were intensely subjective, contradic- tory, even self-contradictory, inaccurate, abusive and absurd. I was struck by the role of chance in this devious process, and by how a good book could be derailed by reports that were dismissed as frivolous, that demand- ed political correctness, and were vengeful and envious. The Bucknell re- port expressed considerable resentment that I, a mere academic no better than herself, had somehow managed to sustain a seventeen-year friendship and correspondence with Iris.
I had one last throw of the dice with Palgrave-Macmillan, which had pub- lished two of my biographies and seven of my scholarly books between 1985 and 1990. If they didn’t accept Remembering Iris Murdoch, I’d pub- lish it myself. The Palgrave report, diametrically opposed to the one from Bucknell, stated:
I strongly recommend publication of this manuscript because it is very well-written and adds a new dimension to previous studies of the important author Iris Murdoch. The previously unpublished letters from Murdoch and her husband John Bayley to Meyers are literarily informative and personally touching; and Meyers’ own viewpoint on her writing and character, based on his personal contact with her and her husband, is very valuable. Meyers’ in- terviews with her bring out a lot of important literary points about her writing. And his view of the memoirs by Bayley and A. N. Wilson, which seem to take opposing points of view about her, introduces much-needed balance into the discussion of her per- sonality and character. Finally, the manuscript sheds some light on Meyers himself, which is also valuable because he is a distinguished biographer.
On January 22, 2013 – fourteen months after I began this process – Pal- grave accepted Murdoch and sent me a contract for their innovative series, Palgrave Pivot, of short, fifty-thousand word books. These e-books with print-on-demand lithocase hardcovers are published, astonishingly, with- in twelve weeks of acceptance. This was a most welcome change from my last book, a life of John Huston, which took nineteen months to bring out. But there was, as always, one last obstacle. The editor wanted Iris’s agent to sign a longer and more explicit permission form. I thought the permission we already had could be interpreted as we pleased and was good enough. I was afraid of sinking my own ship if the agent refused, for whatever reason, to sign the new form. Fortunately, he signed without a sigh and all was well.
The draft contract from the first press had offered an advance of $1,000 and standard royalties: 10% of list price on hardcover, 7.5% on paperback. Palgrave, by contrast, offered only 4% of net price (2.4% of list) on the first five-hundred copies. If all these copies are sold at $30 each, I’ll make about $360, which I usually get for a book review. For my first book, published by Boydell in 1973, I received an advance of £50. For my fifty-first book, published by Palgrave forty years later, I got no advance at all – a dismal lack of financial progress with scholarly books. Nevertheless, my persis- tence justified my faith in my own work and my deep-rooted belief: every bullet has its billet.