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Such Sweet Sorrow

It has been five months since word began to spread that Tom Wolfe, best-selling author of The Right Stuff (1979) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), had left Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ending a partnership that spanned forty-two years and thirteen books, to sign with Little, Brown. And it's been nearly four months since Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford decamped from Knopf after seventeen years and four books, including all three Frank Bascombe novels—The Sportswriter (1996 edition), Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006)to publish with Ecco. Speculation soared in the weeks following the moves, with gossip inevitably turning to assumptions about advances, sales figures, and advertising budgets. (The New York Times reported that Wolfe's advance from Little, Brown for his next novel was close to $7 million; Ecco described Ford's new deal only as "major.") Yet still almost nothing is known about the true reasons for these departuresor arrivals, depending on your perspective.

Regarding the nuances of sculpture, Rodin once said that an artist must never look at a surface without considering the volume, implying that a sculpture's meaningits powerlies beneath what we are able to glean at first glance. If applied to the daily chatter that surrounds publishing trends, the French master's observation provides a useful lesson in how we might view the moves of Wolfe and Ford. The fact that two writers have chosen to work with new publishing houses is certainly the surface; the private reasons that led to those decisions make up the hidden volume.

Beyond the basic facts, those in the know are not talking about these decisionsor, more precisely, no one is saying anything. The writers aren't talking, nor are their former editors, Gary Fisketjon at Knopf and Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The writers' agents and publicists have made a few vague comments, but the information publicly known about these two deals amounts to little more than the chatter of literary scenesters, fueled by speculation.

A common theme in much of the conjecture surrounding Wolfe and Ford is an all-too-human tendency to assume the worst: Egotistical infighting, over book sales and money, seems to be the dominant presumption. Perhaps in our culture's rush to see a fistfight, or rubberneck at the misfortunes of others, we have overlooked a simple answer: People change. As Proust put it, "Things don't change, but by and by our wishes change."

Some of the speculation is doubtless driven by the misconception that major writers hardly, if ever, leave big publishers. In reality, even Maxwell Perkins, one of the most lionized editors of the twentieth century, did not sustain working relationships with all of the literary giants he edited during the first part of the last century. While Ernest Hemingway remained faithful to the editor until that final shotgun blast in Ketchum, Idaho, and F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed on for as long as Scribner's could stand his crack-up, Thomas Wolfe (the taller, less dandy of the T. Wolfe's) left the publisher for Harper & Brothers after, according to Wolfe biographers, the gentle giant was deeply hurt by Perkins's aggressive paring of Of Time and the River (1935).More recently, in 1997 Stephen King left a relationshipwhich bore forty-four books in eighteen yearswith longtime publisher Viking, to sign on with Scribner. (The oft-mentioned detail of that infamous exchange is Viking's balking at King's reported request of an $18 million advance for Bag of Bones, published in 1998.)

Still, this little literary history lesson teaches us almost nothing. Perhaps it would be more productive to consider the issues that underpin the speculation. Since some have hypothesized that Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Knopf were less than thrilled with the sales of Wolfe's and Ford's latest booksI Am Charlotte Simmons and The Lay of the Land, respectively, both published in 2004that is one place to start.

When the media gives figures for book sales, the numbers are usually attributed to Nielsen BookScan. Though that system is said to represent 70 percent of a book's total sales, some authors say that BookScan numbers are often much lower than the sales figures on their royalty checks. Still, the system has nearly become the final word on sales. According to BookScan, I Am Charlotte Simmons sold 431,000 copies in hardcover and paperback; Farrar, Straus and Giroux had announced a first printing of 1.5 million hardcover copies alone. Similarly, The Lay of the Land is said to have sold 87,000 copies; Knopf's first printing was 150,000 copies.

In some ways, a book's BookScan numbers have become the literary equivalents of a movie's opening-weekend box-office receipts. Had such a system been in use a century ago, one wonders if Hemingway would have even been signed to Scribner's in the first place. What if Perkins had known that Hemingway's collection of short stories, In Our Time (Boni & Liveright, 1925), sold (according to Malcolm Cowley) only a paltry five hundred copies in its first season?

What is missing in all the wasted ink and speculation about Wolfe and Ford is a respectful acknowledgment of the intimacy of the writer-editor relationship. As any writer who has had the pleasure of a trusting relationship with an editor will tell you, it is a matter close to the heart. There is nothing quite analogous, even in the art world. There is no person whose job it is to sidle up beside a painter and say, "Okay, a little less green in the corner there, a bit more yellow down here, and then I think you're done." Who would dare be so brazen?

These writers and editors have all voiced deep respect for one anotherFord for Fisketjon, Wolfe for Galassi, and vice versa in both cases. This can only mean that the professional was almost certainly complicated by the personal.

Time will tell how the authors' relationships with their new publishers will develop. Ford's next novel, titled "Canada," will be edited by Daniel Halpern and published by Ecco in 2010. A year later, Little, Brown is set to release Wolfe's latest project, "Back to Blood," which will be edited by Pat Strachan, who worked with the author at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the late 1970s and '80s, before she left the publisher herself and eventually joined Little, Brown. And so it goes.

Since the volume remains largely unknown, the surfaces of these stories will have to suffice. And perhaps that is as it should be. After all, gazing upon the lives of others is not the same as looking at art.

Joshua Bodwell is a journalist and fiction writer in Maine. Aided last year by a fellowship from the Maine Community Foundation, he is completing a collection of linked short stories.

“The fact that two writers have chosen to work with new publishing houses is certainly the surface; the private reasons that led to those decisions make up the hidden volume.”

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