Monday, June 06, 2011

There Can Be Value in Criticism

While finishing work on a good-sized encyclopedia entry about Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner, I came across a story about his initial efforts as an author that I thought was fun and might encourage today’s young writers to keep plucking away at their work.

It seems that in the early 1920s, Gardner decided he wanted to do more than be a defense attorney all his adult life. So he set about trying to break into the pulp-fiction-writing market. He recognized right off the bat, however, that he was no natural-born author. “It was like I was trying to sign my name with my left hand,” Gardner later recalled. “I knew what I wanted to do, but for the life of me I couldn’t do it.” To protect his reputation, he submitted his stories to editors under a pseudonym, Charles M. Green.

As time went on, Gardner managed to peddle a couple of jokes to a newspaper, then sold a humorous skit involving a Frenchman and a hotel detective. But the first major work he saw published was a novelette called “The Shrieking Skeleton,” which he sent in 1923 to what was then a three-year-old pulp-fiction magazine called Black Mask. Its editors were distinctly unimpressed. In fact, they thought Gardner’s story was so bad, they forwarded it to the periodical’s too-serious circulation director as a gag, suggesting he plan a major promotional campaign around it. Predictably incensed, the circulation man responded with a note highlighting the narrative’s failings and begging for its rejection.

The editors subsequently returned Gardner’s manuscript with a refusal notice, but accidentally included the circulation director’s detailed criticism--which inspired the would-be wordsmith to rewrite his tale and resubmit it. Black Mask bought “The Shrieking Skeleton” the second time around, launching Gardner’s literary career.


Man of la Book said...

Of course there is value in criticism, but try telling that to the person being criticized :)

Steve said...

Great piece. Inspires me to dig out that novel I written twenty pages of. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

What a great story - and one that, I'm sure, resonates with every would-be novelist struggling through the inevitable round of rejection letters. Thanks!