Friday, March 6, 2009

The 'Inept Blob' vs. the 'Inhuman Turd'

Yesterday, continuing to clean out my old papers, I came across across a yellowed letter written in response to an interview of the novelist Nelson Algren that I did for the Chicago Daily News in 1976.

In the article, Algren unloaded bitterly on his editor, the legendary William Targ of G. P. Putnam's Sons (he edited Mario Puzo's The Godfather), accusing him of not having done his best for Algren's collection The Last Carousel. In a letter to Algren carbon-copied to me, Targ wrote:

"Nelson Algren:

"The Chicago Daily News-Henry Kisor interview reached me this morning.

"As an editor I've found it necessary to take a certain amount of shit from neurotic authors -- part of the job. But I will not take outright lies from anyone, nor public vilification.

"You said 'Nobody outside Chicago reviewed my book.' An outright lie. We have a bulging folder of reviews from all over America and yes, including Playboy. The L.A. Times reviewed it -- that's outside of Chicago. If a few publications failed to review the book, don't lay it on your editor. What do you expect me to do -- come at the reviewers with a gun. They did get books by messenger in New York, and by air mail around the country.

"You say no books were shipped to the West Coast. Wanna bet? Where do you think those 9,000 hardbound copies went? To your racetrack cronies? We have sales records and shipping records to refute your dumb lie.

"For calling me 'an inept blob' -- I must reply: you are an inhuman turd, a piece of excrement. I sweated weekends at home, and in the office, over the unspeakable mess of manuscript you sent to me. I made it all into a decent book. Many or most editors would not have allowed some of the trivia to appear between covers. It's true, there are some fine things in the book, but I preserved everything you wanted included in the book. I was trying to keep you happy.

"Your comments about not writing your next novel are not amusing; they strike me as irresponsible. As for the Carter manuscript [an ill-starred book on the boxer Hurricane Carter], it was submitted to one of our Berkley editors who declined it. I learned about it and called Candida [Candida Donadio, Algren's agent]. She told me you had fired her (what a charming valentine for an old and faithful friend!) and then went back to her. She sent me the ms and two of us read it here and agreed it was not for us. So much for that.

"I've long admired you as a writer; I won't deny your talents. But even if you were Tolstoy I woud say -- and shall do so publicly henceforth -- that you are a liar, an ingrate, a shithead.

"William Targ"

A couple of weeks later the Bergen County Herald News reprinted my interview from the Daily News' wire service, and Targ sent the publisher of that hapless paper a stiff note declaring that "Mr. Algren is a liar and highly mischievous and I intend to secure justice and damages from all concerned. You will hear from my lawyers shortly."

Nothing, so far as I know, ever came of that threat. Perhaps Targ realized that Algren was just too broke to be worth suing. Perhaps he just calmed down. Authors, after all, tend to be as capricious and unreasonable as small children, and often need adult supervision.

Most editor-author relationships are civil and even affectionate, but they can also twang with tension. When a writerly ego clashes with editorial sensibility, the result can be volcanic.

Algren died in 1981, Targ in 1999, and I don't think they ever reconciled.


  1. No, they never reconciled. Nelson kept that letter in his back pocket, believe it or not, and sometimes pulled it out to read to anyone he felt like entertaining. He kept it folded up in his wallet actually. It was as tattered and ratty as a used handkerchief. He read it out loud to me, giggling all the way, and he kept running his hand through through the tufts of hair on his head. He read it to me more than once, but I couldn't recall what the letter said. Thanks for reminding me.

    I just asked Roger Groening, who was a close friend of Nelson's for almost two decades, beginning in the early '60s, what he knows about the relationship with Targ.

    Here's what Roger said:

    "That's a pretty good letter. Nelson read it to me over the phone. It must have been fairly new, and he was laughing his head off. He had begun to hate Targ a long time before.

    "I met Targ. I guess it was at Betty's [Nelson's second wife]. This was on the Upper West Side [in Manhattan]. Targ came in wearing what was the equivalent of a $3,000 or $4,000 suit for those days. This must have been in the late '60s or early '70s. A beautifully garbed guy with silver fox hair and a trophy wife. He projected an air of great privilege, and he gave the appearance of making a condescending visit to the peasants. Then he left.

    "Nobody was impressed -- it was the usual motley collection of people -- and I said, 'Who was that guy, anyway?' And Nelson said, 'He's my editor. He's a complete shithead.'

    "Later, he told me how Targ had screwed up Last Carousel. He said it wasn't in the bookstores. And then all he got for the paperback sale was $800. That's what he ended up with."

    I asked Roger what he knew about the Carter manuscript.

    "Nelson gave me a copy of it," he said. "The original one. Which was terrible. I wasn't very high on it. I think he sent it to The New Yorker, hoping maybe they'd give him some editorial help. They weren't interested. It was just dead on the page.

    "Nelson was temperamental," Roger added, "especially in the later days. I didn't know Henry Kisor was still alive. Nelson talked of him with affection."



  2. Thanks, Jan!

    By the way, he's Jan Herman, an old colleague on the Chicago Sun-Times from way back. He writes a lively arts blog here, and today
    discusses "Algren at Sea," a centennial edition combining two out-of-print books ("Notes From a Sea Diary" and "Who Lost an American?") just published by Seven Stories Press.

    Algren, Jan reminds us, was born 100 years ago March 28.