Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Robert Pirsig: Celebrated ''Zen an the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" author, dies at age 88 - An investigation into the unfactchecked and untrue urban legend that he ''submitted'' the book to 121 publishers before William Morrow said yes


Obit factcheckers:

Please do some fact checking before you write your obits next time.

Rober Pirsig did not actually "submit" the book to 121 publishers until William Morrow's savvy young editor James Landis said yes. This remark appeared in virtually every obit about Bob in April 2017 and not one reporter checked this to see if it was true. In fact, the "claim" was  jokey aside by Mr Pirsig in 1974 to an un-named and un-sourced reporter in an early interview, and yet there is no source to this remark. Read below, and next time, stop repeating urban legends that are false and not verified. It makes for sloppy reporting, even for obits.

Why is this ''claim'' still current, and why did the publisher itself go along with this at the very beginning in an interview with the New York Times in May 1974? Well, they William Morrow's PR people ''positioned'' him in the day before social media and the internet as an unknown, mysterious Zen philospher writer and with the PR team saying he was "rejected" by 121 publishers before James Landis said ''yes'' gives readers the impresson that this poor, hapless, hard-working Zen philosopher had been ''rejected'' by the powers that be for a total of 121 book submissions and that makes readers and reporters and  PR people think: "Oh that poor guy, rejected for so long, by so many editors and publishers, but he persevered and soldiered on because he knew he was on to something big and the proof is the book, so read it."

But in fact, this was a false claim that has now become an urban literary legend and it needs to be debunked.

So people read it based on the PR hype and ''friend of the publisher'' reviews like George Steiner and others. The laydown of the book was a carefully orchestrated PR campaign! And it worked.

And, of course, a great book it was and still is. Robert Pirsig was a genius and a one of kind American philospher, and he was also something of humorist and wit, prone to telling reporters some ''claims''  as jokey asides that he never meant as anything than as little jokey asides.


He made up that ''claim'' of 121 rejections as a jokey aside, nothing more!

Don't any journalists fact check their obits these days?

Apparently ace reporters like the AP's Hillel Italie and the Los Angeles Times Steve Chawkins and the New York Times Paul Vitello never fact-checked this "fact." Why? Because, they reasoned, even if it was not really true, it makes for good copy!
And over 100 obits in English and more in other languages took this literary urban legend and ran with it. Why? Again, who cares if it's true or not, it makes good copy.
This blogger  did some online research about all this and here's what I found. Draw your own conclusions. Or ask Snopes.com to investigate this.
Mark Richardson, a journalist and author in Canada, who I asked about this 121 rejections"claim" [that has become an urban legend now] told me the other day:
''Hi Dan:
Thanks for writing, and nice to meet you by email. At one point, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was named by the Guinness Book of Records as ''the most rejected book ever to be successfully published.''
However,  as is true with much his of 1974 book, the truth is a little less romantic. As I wrote inmy book ''ZEN AND NOW'' about Pirsig, [some excerpts are worth noting:]
  1. “I am working on a book with the somewhat unusual title Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and am now looking for a publisher,” wrote Robert Pirsig on June 6, 1968.
  3. “The book is, as the title says, about Zen and about motorcycle maintenance, but it is also about a unification of spiritual feeling and technological thought. Part of its thesis is that the division between these is a deep root of the discontent of our age, and it offers some heterodox solutions. Two sample pages are enclosed. If you are interested in seeing more, please let me know.”
  5. There’s a famous story of perseverance that of the 122 publishers that were pitched [with a covering letter], and only one accepted Pirsig’s proposal. In fact this is not quite the case.

  6. For a start, Pirsig sent identical copies of the body of his letter to all of them; it could as easily have been 1000 [or just 25 or 30] – the 1960s equivalent of SPAM. As well, [of the two dozen of so cover letter proposals and they were just proposals, the book had not been completed yet when he sent out the queries] 22 of them expressed an interest but only one person, Jim Landis, a 20-something editor who’d been hired just a year earlier at William Morrow, would stick through the full four years of writing to accept the final manuscript. The pitch letter [in 1968] had been addressed to Morrow’s editor-in-chief, John Willey, and consigned to what publishers call the “slush pile” of unsolicited proposals.
  8. “What I guess was unusual about Bob’s letter [in 1968] was that he’d gone to the trouble of getting John Willey’s name, so this was a slush-pile letter with a difference,” recalled Landis when [Mark Richardson]  wrote to him. “Had Bob not gotten Willey’s name, it’s possible the letter might not ever have made its way to me.”
  10. Landis wrote back [to Pirsig] on June 10 [1968] with encouragement. Pirsig had his response before the journey began. 


Mark  continued:

"[Dan, there's more.] In fact, of those 22 that expressed interest and responded, [only] 6 actually engaged in further correspondence with Pirsig about the project, but it was only Landis who eventually offered him an advance, of $3,000 [and landed the book for William Morrow]. And the pitch letters, [whether it was 25 or 30, and nobody alive knows that facts on this], according to those who know the full story, including Landis, [who is still alive and living in happy retirement in New England,] were actually mimeographed - Pirsig wrote a common body and then added the correct person’s name at the beginning of each.
''I cannot recall right now where this information came from...... It probably came from newspaper interviews at the time [perhaps the May 1974 New York Times interview by Mr Gent]. Most important, though, is that Pirsig read the manuscript of Mark Richardson's  Zen and Now and corrected several inaccuracies he found in it. He would not have allowed this "claim of 121 rejections" to go through if it was not accurate. [Or would he?]
Hope this helps,

I replied to Mark immediately, thanking him for his update and heads up, writing:

"Dear Mark,
Yare a gentleman and a scholar. That is exactly what I was looking
 for. Thanks so much.
This is all trivial and not important. A great thinker has died. That's what is important. Of course.''

And a second correspondent Ian Glendinning in the UK, also told me this:

"Dear Dan,
The crack that Robert Pirsig made in an early interview about "having 120 rejections but you only need 1 acceptance" was a jokey rhetorical reference to these basic facts in an interview he gave after the book was published in 1974, as you suggest. "

Ian sent me some links form his blog research, too:

The source is Santos and Steele's "Guidebook to ZMM" also confirmed in private correspondence with the author and Mark Richardson's correspondence with Landis.

The crack about "having 120 rejections but you only need 1 acceptance" is a jokey rhetorical reference to these basic facts in an interview, as you suggest. .


So in conclusion, it is NOT TRUE that Robert Pirsig's cover letter or his book (which was not even written yet) was ''rejected'' by 121 publishers at first. And it is not true that he even sent out 122 covers letters. No one can verify that, and given Pirsig's 1960s sense of humour and his way of dealing with the media, he most likely sent out 25-30 cover letters by snail mail, with 22 of the editors expressing some ''interest'' but only Landis at William Morrow was able to use his savvy publishing and PR skills to ''get'' the book. Or as we would say today "get the get."

Don't believe me. Ask James Landis. I asked him today personally and he told me this, replying to my questions in internet time:

[Dear Dan], I have no idea about 122 of us [publishers or even how many he sent the pitch to]. After 4 years of waiting, 5 or 6 of us [publishers] got the entire [manuscript] and no one else bid [but me], thank goodness."

Jim Landis also taught me an important lesson in his internet answer to me, noting [that no matter how many ''covering letters'' or manuscripts of the completed book that Pirsig sent out, or the number of rejections he received, and nobody knows the true exact number except Bob, who is no longer with us, one must remember that]: ''Rejection (in writing and in life) comes in (too) many forms."

''Rejection (in writing and in life) comes in (too) many forms."  -- Jim Landis


So even Bob Pirsig's editor and publisher Jim Landis does not know for a fact exactly how many ''covering letters'' Bob actually sent out, whether it was 25 or 30 or "over 100" or 122. And the number is not important? The main thing is that Pirsing was a genius and he was persistent and the book finally found a savvy publisher who knew how to market the book and it made publishing history, and you yourself, dear reader of this blog post, no matter what age you are now, YOU READ THE BOOK, TOO!

RIP, Robert Pirsig. Long live Robert Pirsig! Whose spirit still lives on!