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JULY 2007

Marymount Writers Conference Hosts Literary Greats: Cynthia Ozick Speaks

By Sybil Maimin

Stars of the literary world including Mary Higgins Clark, David Steinberg, Tama Janowitz, Richard Peck, Bruce Jay Friedman, Claire Messud and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt were among the many high-profile figures who shared experiences and gave direction to hopeful authors at the twelfth annual Writers’ Conference at Manhattan Marymount College. “This has been our most successful conference yet,” reported organizer Lewis Burke Frumkes at the end of a very full and exciting day of panels, keynotes, valuable tips, and networking. Held in conjunction with Marymount’s widely respected Writing Center (founded and directed by Frumkes), the event drew, from across the country, a record number of aspiring writers as well as those hoping to advance already successful careers. Panelists reflected on the nuts and bolts as well as more intangible aspects of writing fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, mystery, humor, and memoirs. Practical concerns such as getting published and reaching the market were covered extensively in sessions with literary agents, publicists, and editors. Panelists were generous with reflections and advice. Two keynote speakers, prize-winning author Cynthia Ozick, and editor-in-chief of Publisher’s Weekly, Sara Nelson, mesmerized listeners with wise words drawn from personal experiences during impressive careers.

Reading a bit from her memoir about publication of her first book, Trust, in the ‘60’s, Ozick admitted to youthful illusions. “It was a wretched time…I thought if not printed by age 25 I was a failure.” She refused editor’s corrections. “Better oblivion than an alien fingerprint.” She believed T.S. Elliot was the “high bishop of art” and living a bohemian lifestyle meant “living for art.” In an elegant, beautifully crafted talk, she described the gradual “replacement of 19th century literary sensibilities” and the dominant influence of “high art” novels and their authors with non-fiction novels, journalism, and magazines. “Topical [magazine] articles generate buzz and no moss,” she scoffed. The “arbiters of literary culture are gone… novelists remain on the scene, even if not known,” but “the alters are gone.”  In her keynote, Nelson, who Frumkes described as “the overseer of the publishing industry” from her perch at Publishers Weekly, gave a rundown on the current state of the business. The worrying phenomenon of the conglomerization of publishing has its “silver lining” as more and more small presses are being established in reaction. The rise of the internet has provided additional ways to publish and market material. One-third of books are self-published today and, with an easily obtained ISBN number, works can be listed on every book site on the Internet. “Marketing is as important as editing,” she advised. “Once you have a product you need to get it out there, and “out there” is a different place than five years ago.” When speaking to publishers, look beyond editorial services. Ask about marketing plans and distribution systems. Nelson admitted she had written a book and despite her experience, connections, good reviews, and extensive publicity, she attained “only modest success.” “Learn to manage your expectations,” she advised.

The ongoing revolution in the world of communications shadowed the conference. Its importance was referenced in the Editor’s Panel moderated by Education Update publisher and editor-in-chief Pola Rosen. In a relaxed and open conversation, Susan Slesin, editor of O at Home, Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, and Betty Sargent, a book and magazine editor and former editor-in-chief at William Morrow Publishers, spoke of the influence of the Internet. Sargent referred to “a major sea change.” Calling it “exciting,” she sees online books and digitalized libraries. She suspects traditional books will continue while online versions will be different, “perhaps shorter.”  Cowin reported, “Clear is the new clever…a clear, but interesting lead” is essential because “online training makes people jump fast” [from one piece of information to another] and a writer “must make an impression in the first 10 seconds.”  The way writers and editors work will change, she predicted, as the medium becomes more visual and information, not style, is the goal. With “democracy online,” people who never wrote will produce books on the Internet. Slesin suggested, “Books are something you feel deeply and can’t be replaced.” The various mediums don’t compete, she said. “They help each other.” 

In her introduction to the Editor’s Panel, Rosen mused, “a love of words” and “need to tell a story” bound the group together. That could be said of all participants in the Writers’ Conference. Karen Ritter, who is writing her first novel, came to “get familiar with publishing and meet some of the people involved.” Marilee Hartlee, who had success with The Yuppie Handbook, wants to turn from humor to a more serious tone in her next book and came for direction. Jean Crichton, who is writing a family history about coal miners in Scotland who became successful mine owners in the United States, learned of the importance of including her own voice. Ellen Witchell, who runs book discussions groups, was “looking for insights to the writing process to bring back to her readers.” And Cindy Boyer, who writes history scripts for museums and the National Park Service, came to learn about expanding to fiction writing. A very full day for all!#



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