The self-published book—despite its surge in respectability of late—is still derided, with snoots in the air, as “vanity press” by self-important literary critics. On a recent New York Times Book Review podcast, editor Pamela Paul proudly asserted that they don’t even read them. After all, who has time to go through all those so-called books? The assumption is that no legitimate publisher would touch it, so the author had to go it alone.
So, indulge me a little and let me take you back to my very first editing assignment. I was fifteen years old and my grandfather, a former Hungarian refugee from the Holocaust, was writing his life story. I was “the writer” in a family of doctors, so he came to me for this project, asking me to fix his broken English. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of his book. It was 1918, and he and his brother were hiding in wine casks in a courtyard in Paks, Hungary, while the townspeople went on an anti-Jewish rampage. My grandfather, six years old, looking out through cork holes in his makeshift hiding place, witnessed this:
“The mob was busy and loud. Every business was looted, homes ransacked and fires burning at will. … The women were beaten, their clothes ripped off, the men’s beards were plucked and given twenty-five lashes on the street, as the enraged mob looked on and enjoyed all the atrocities. … As the night came, the street was filled with drunks and looters singing hate songs which sometimes were mixed with the cry and pleading for mercy of the Jewish population. As we looked out from our peephole, we recognized some of our neighbors as they went by with their loot, and we fell asleep. Our sleep was short-lived, when we heard an enormously loud crash. The mob reached our house, broke through the steel shutters and rampaged the house, and as we looked out from our hiding place, across the street, the little Jewish-owned grocery store was in flames.”
My grandpa’s book recalls his childhood as a Jew in Hungary, his escape—with my grandmother and my father, then four years old—from Europe to make a new life in America. I am nearly fifty years old, and for American Jews of my generation, my grandpa’s story is both an ordinary one—for it was mirrored in the experiences of grandparents of many American Jews who grew up in the safety of ’60s and ’70s America—and an extraordinary one, because it described a lost world that took on mythic proportions in my imagination, of a life filled with danger and split-second decisions that could mean living or dying.
It was a heavy editing assignment for me as a teenager who only had some vague idea that I wanted to be a writer. What I did not tell my grandpa was that I kept much of his original wording in the book. I cannot imagine reading my grandfather’s book in anything other than his broken, Hungarian-accented English.
Later, after it was completed, my grandpa showed me a letter he received from a literary agent. She wrote that while his story of escape from the Holocaust had potential, there needed to be some sex in it if she were to sell it to any publisher. My teenage brain tried to wrap around this thought. Some agent behind a desk somewhere in New York was telling my grandfather, the most honest man I knew, a man who lived enough adventure for many lives, that his life story was not worth telling if he did not invent some sex scenes.
Today, I’ve been an editor long enough to see the rough first drafts of the work from many great writers—atrocious spelling, questionable grammar, disjointed ideas. Great editors can take these raw materials and mold them into great books. But why should fortune shine only on the lucky? Indeed, is it only those who are fortunate enough to capture the attention of a publisher, or wealthy enough to hire a team of editors, whose stories are worth preserving?
A generation later, my father self-published a book about his experiences as a battalion surgeon with the the 101st Airborne serving in Vietnam. It, too, is not a literary masterpiece. Nevertheless, it bears witness to history. Based on letters to my mother, my dad’s book chronicles key points of the war from 1967-68, including the Tet Offensive. It’s the experience of one guy, with a wife and three kids at home (including me at three years old), and all he saw and felt as a witness to history. In the early ’70s, when he wrote it, no major publisher would touch it. The Vietnam memoir subgenre would not sell for at least another decade. Yet, I am thankful my father wrote it. And, maybe, a future historian will be, too.
As for my grandfather, Holocaust survivors like him will very soon no longer be with us. There is no more time for them to wait by the phone for a proper publisher or editor (or even a fifteen-year-old grandson) to help them along. I’m glad we live in an era where these stories can be written and published easily. So bring on the bad grammar, the editing mistakes, the mid-sentence tense changes, and yes, even the shocking lack of titillating sex scenes. My grandfather’s self-published book sits on my bookshelf, and when my children are old enough they’ll read it. Someday, I’ll retell the story in my own way and, whether it’s a cringe-worthy piece of schlock writing or not, what my grandfather witnessed as a six-year-old child hiding from a pogrom will not be lost, and his voice will never be silent.
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy