Let's Invest More in the `Life of the Mind'

THE procession is endless - novelists, playwrights, opera singers, concert musicians, actors, ballet dancers, artists. All are reaching out for a chance to display their skills. New York and Los Angeles are the heartbreak headquarters. They come to these culture centers from all over the country in search of the ``big opportunity.'' And all but a perilous few of them will be turned away. Let me address myself to just one part of the parade of hopefuls - the writers.

Some years ago, when I was editor of The Saturday Review, I would be asked about the quality of writing in America. I had to reply that I had no way of knowing because I didn't know how many fine novels were written but not published. Most new authors have the notion - not illogically - that if only they write a book good enough, publication will follow. But their manuscripts are returned unread because most publishers prefer to deal with literary agents or to rely on their own scouts.

They may receive recommendations from other authors. But the signal fact is that most publishers are not interested in unsolicited manuscripts.

Years ago, when Simon and Schuster was celebrating its 25th anniversary, the company actually boasted that every book was developed from within; that is, not a single manuscript came in ``over the transom.'' When I asked Richard Simon whether this meant he had missed out on important unsolicited manuscripts routinely returned, he replied that it would be impossible for any book of genuine merit to go unrecognized by his firm.

It seemed to me the proposition might be worth testing. I had my secretary copy out the first two chapters of ``War and Peace'' which, accompanied by an outline of the rest of the book, was sent off to Simon and Schuster. It was returned several weeks later with a note saying it didn't fit into the firm's publishing plans. It was ironic that only a few weeks earlier Simon and Schuster had issued Tolstoy's classic in a new translation.

Thinking the rejection of ``War and Peace'' might be accidental, we typed 60 of Shakespeare's sonnets and shipped them off to S&S. Once again, the manuscript was returned, this time with a note referring to the difficulty of finding a market for poetry in America.

Not wanting to single out S&S, I suggested to students in a writing class that they copy out opening chapters accompanied by outlines of classics from the world's literature. Among the recent authors were Faulkner, Hemingway, Drieser, Thomas Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis. Past authors included Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Austen, Bront"e, Moli`ere, Cooper, Dickens. Samples and outlines were sent off to some 22 book publishers, many of whom had issued the same books in original or reprint editions. All the submissions except one were returned unrecognized. The exception was Alfred A. Knopf who ``rejected'' a Faulkner manuscript with a note hoping that the person who submitted the work could stay out of jail.

It is undoubtedly true that the vast majority of unsolicited manuscripts are unpublishable. It is also true that some authors, like Sinclair Lewis, Norman Mailer, Betty Smith, and Elizabeth Jordan were finally able to find a home for their manuscripts after having been rejected by a dozen or more publishers. But the central fact is that uncounted authors of merit - and we have no way of knowing who they are - took the rejection notices as an authoritative evaluation of their work and gave up.

At a time when some ``modern'' painters are in high fashion and command tall prices for their work, thousands of artists of genuine talent have no outlet and try to sell through sidewalk exhibitions.

An analagous situation exists in the other arts. The restaurants of Los Angeles are stocked with actors and actresses serving as waiters or entertainers. One enterprising restaurant in the city hires young opera singers to perform for its customers. The venture is commendable; the singers are nourished by the hope that some of the customers may be in a position to help. But such restaurants are not so much springboards to important careers as a dead end for most of the aspirants.

The condition of these performers is reminiscent of the poignant lot of their counterparts in the Soviet Union.

During recent travels in the Russian hinterland, I would attend concerts given by local artists. There were many thousands of these singers, instrumentalists, and dancers but only a precious few would make it all the way to the big cities and large performing companies. Their destiny would be decided even more by local Communist Party chiefs than by popular response to their talent. Life for them was largely a lottery and they had no way of breaking out of a closed circle.

I had to reflect that their melancholy situation was not so different from that being experienced by many American artists. While political factors may not figure in the fortunes of our own performers, sheer chance rather than ability often predominates.

The most valuable resources of nature are not minerals but human creativity. Yet a great deal of authentic talent in our country is going unused or unwanted. The losers are not just American artists but the entire culture. We can no more afford to squander creative splendor than petroleum or uranium or magnesium or agricultural products.

The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were designed to help prevent precisely this kind of costly waste, but the past decade has been marked by systematic government budget cutbacks in the arts. There is a fierce retreat from the notion that the life of the mind is important to a free society.

Meanwhile, billions of dollars have gone into military fraud or over-spending without any public outcries from the same officials who rush to the microphones at the slightest evidence that food stamps have been misused or that there may have been irregularities in funding for education and the arts.

To paraphrase the widow at the grave of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's ``Death of a Salesman,'' attention must be paid.

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