Dear Thomas Pynchon, can you blurb my book?

Letters from an aspiring writer with big dreams -- and big delusions about his novel

Published February 26, 2011 5:01PM (EST)

Dear Mister Thomas Pynchon:

Thank you for taking the time to open this envelope and read what is contained herein. I know that you, like me, are a very busy and serious man, so I don't intend to waste our times.

I will have you know that while I am a fan of your work, this is the first instance in which I have attempted to make contact with you. You could say that I was waiting for the exact right moment and, if you did say that, then you would be right.

I am a writer named Rhon Penny (silent h), and I am no longer married. I am writing to you today because I have just finished my latest novel, and it would be my great honor for you to blurb it. If you are unaware, a blurb is one of those glowing remarks you find on the back of a book's cover, written by a highly regarded author or TV chef. For example, if I were blurbing this letter, it would go:

"If you could only read two things this year, make one this letter ... and the other maybe the Magna Carta!"

In today's literary climate, it is essential that a new writer obtain a blurb so that Joe Q. Dumbbell thinks a book is worthy enough of purchase or library checkout. My publisher/mother tells me a top-notch blurb can mean the difference between Harry Potter-type sales and Harry Stottleberg-type sales (a guy who lives in our building). As my primary-care physician says, "Humans are fickle pickles," which, while true, has never really explained why he has me on such a complicated smorgasbord of pharmaceuticals. I am very tired.

Like yourself (no doubt) I find blurbing to be absolutely repulsive. It is crass, pathetic and couldn't be less artistic. Just so you know, I am only doing this because the more I think about it, the more I would like to make a lot of money. Full disclosure: I named my conjoined Siamese cats Tommy and Pinchie. Tommy just died, which has made movement difficult for Pinchie. But she pushes on like a feline boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past (F. Scott Fitzgerald). Like blurbs, an author's choice of title is very important for sales. Take "Gravity's Rainbow." That is a terrific title. Why? Because it tells you exactly what the book is about. I would like to think that my book's title does the same: Cream of America Soup.

OK. By this point, I am going to assume that you have already agreed to blurb me, so let me just say, "Thank you." I truly appreciate it.

Let us now concentrate on the blurb itself. If you would like to construct your own blurb, then, please, by all means, construct it! You're good with words. On the other hand, should you prefer that I create a blurb for you to affix your name and well-deserved reputation to, then I have taken the liberty of coming up with some samples (please note the use of exclamation points). Here they are:

  • "Fifteen thumbs up!"
  • "If I had a disease that made me retch every time I read a great sentence, I would never stop vomiting while reading Ron Penny's latest novel!" [Note the misspelling of "Rhon." This will get people talking.]
  • "It is not for me to say whether Rhon Penny is a great new young talent, but I will say this: Yes, he is greatly talented, and no, he is not young!"
  • "If I were married to Rhon Penny … I would never leave him!"

You have to be wondering: What in the world is this novel I've agreed to blurb actually about? And why is Rhon no longer married? Excellent queries both. I will not tell you why I'm no longer married, but my book's subject matter is very much like "Gravity's Rainbow," in a way, and in other ways not at all. It's also very much a post-9/11 book, but not overtly. I'm not saying you need to know a lot about the medieval feudal system, Lady Bird Johnson, bats, my ex-wife's fear of conjoined Siamese cats, democracy or linguine ... but it wouldn't be such a bad thing if you did.

What I am saying, however, is that the book takes place in Connecticut. (Yes, I am aware that a lot of people refuse to write about the Nutmeg State -- for obvious reasons -- but it is a state I know and care deeply about. Furthermore, being afraid of criticism just ain't in Rhon's genetic makeup.)

For reasons I can't get into, I must immediately end this correspondence. But I will not sign off without addressing the giant elephant in this letter. Yes, if you blurb my book I will then blurb your next one. And I can promise you, as sure as I'm writing this letter with my lucky Bic pen, that it will be laudatory ... even if I absolutely hate it! I just have a funny feeling that I'm going to "adore" and "love" and "highly recommend" the thing! Catch my "drift"? In closing, let me say three things. One, I would certainly take my ex-wife back if she ever leaves Bernard. Two, feel free to keep the enclosed sign that reads "Danger! Writer's Zone!" That is a gift and it will go well in your office. And three, please allow me to express what I have to say in the form of a blurb: 

"If you could grow great people in the ground like tomatoes, then I would only plant seeds of you in the garden of my life so that I could have you available to top all of future life-salads. That said, if you could send a really well-thought-out blurb to my return address, I would greatly appreciate it!"

Self-addressed envelope included. Stamps not, but highly recommended.

Yours in the words,

Rhon Penny

- - - - - - - - - -

Dear Mister Don DeLillo:

Thank you for taking the time to open this envelope. As you are no doubt aware from having read my last five letters, time, the very whitest of white noises, is of the essence.

A quick reminder: I am a writer named Rhon Penny (silent h), and I am no longer married. I am writing to you today (again) with an exciting proposition that is going to be very difficult to decline. But first, a little background about this crazy "game" we call the "literary world." Have you heard of a writer named James Patterson? Of course you have. He's only the biggest-selling writer in the book business (sorry, not meant as a personal attack), churning out literally two or three best-sellers a year! So, you're thinking, what's his secret? Guess what? He uses writing partners. This is where I come into the picture.

Dan, has it always been a dream of yours to have it both ways? To be able to enjoy the advantages of a wonderful social life wherein you can rewatch "What Women Want" for the hundredth time, or hold an impromptu barbecue in the park with your buddies, while also earning the respect of your peers as a top-flight man of letters? This has always been a dream of mine. And it's my thinking that if we join forces -- preferably immediately -- we can make this happen.

Being somewhat familiar with your oeuvre (and knowing how to spell "oeuvre"), I realize that you might not be so quick when it comes to creating book ideas --  but I'm incredibly fast. How fast? Since I started this letter, I have come up with four solid concepts:

  • A "what if" premise: What if the United States had lost World War II, and another country -- perhaps Belgium -- had somehow won? Would we all have strange accents and eat mussels all the time?
  • A more "highbrow" literary idea: A man no longer loves a woman, and vice versa. I think a lot can be done with this.
  • Something racial: A guy is bitten by a radioactive chameleon, and wakes up to find he can change skin color depending on who's standing next to him.
  • If the website "Ask Jeeves" is to be believed, you once wrote a book about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. How about turning the tables, and writing about a less violent, but no less interesting, major event? The Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest? It's topical and interesting. Let's use it.

Another option would be to do something about Frank Sinatra (you love him, right?). Maybe a story about a guy who gets kicked out of the rat pack for telling Sinatra he couldn't go out that night because he just popped a frozen macaroni and cheese into the toaster oven. Or something very similar?

Can we now talk author-to-author? I'm sure you might have a few questions about this specific writing arrangement, and I'd be happy to answer them all. For instance, are you worried about how we'll split the royalties? Or whether your name will go first in the byline? Or who will take the "lead" on talk shows? Me on "All Things Considered," you on "The View"? Let's not jump the gun, OK? Here's a question for you, though: Do you have any old ideas sitting around in your "trunk" that need freshening up? Most writers, as you no doubt are aware, are constantly working on a few things at once. This is what's in my trunk:

  • A young man discovers a portal into another universe ... and decides to open a much needed Baskin-Robbins. (This manuscript ends at Page 52.)
  • An unauthorized biography of my mother. (She literally has no idea.)
  • A book titled "Something Stinky, Something Fine." (So far, I just have the title, which was an in-joke I once had with my former boss Teddy at Kinko's. Sadly, he just died. But I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I found a new collaborator.)
  • A soldier goes to modern-day Afghanistan for some reason and realizes he wants to leave, because of all the current craziness. What does he need all of this madness for in his life? He only wants to sleep. (Just getting started on this one.)

For each of these manuscripts, I will give you what I have so far, along with an incredibly detailed outline -- I have plenty of time, as I'm currently receiving workers' comp (I was luckier than Teddy). You will do the same for your half-baked ideas. I'm sorry to be so brusque with you, but if we are to become literary partners, it's better that you know my shortcomings from the very start. (For the record, I can also be sort of cheap.) For reasons I can't get into, I must immediately end this correspondence. But I will not sign off without saying the following:

Mr. DeLillo -- Don ... I am a very sick man. I happen to suffer from a little disease called optimism. Is it catching? I hope so.

Your future partner in the words,

Rhon Penny

- - - - - - - - - -

Dear Family and Estate of John Updike:

I am a writer named Rhon Penny (silent h), and I am no longer married. I am writing to you, the legal custodian(s) of the complete works of John Updike, because I am seeking advice on how to take my (and John's) career to the next level -- the financial-wealth level.

Are you a fan of absurd questions? Good. Here's one: Have you read the terrific 1979 novel "Flowers in the Attic"? Of course you have. Not that you even need reminding, but this is the book wherein a brother and sister are locked in an attic, and spend their days playing board games, reading old issues of National Geographic, and partaking in incest. It's a lot of fun. You're thinking: What the heck is Rhon getting at? Well, here's a little secret: the author of this book, V. C. Andrews, died in 1986 ... and yet, to this day, Miss Andrews still produces obscenely popular books under the V.C. Andrews brand! How in the world does V.C. do it? Guess what ... she doesn't! An alive writer does all of the writing for her! This is where I come into the picture.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but your father, John Updike, was known as "highfalutin." Meaning, he tended to write books that most people didn't "get" or "buy." And that's fine. Not everyone can be Judy Blume. Truly, you should not feel ashamed. There's little doubt that if I had a menu filled with writers, your father would certainly be one of the main courses. Let's face it, though: he would probably be something like pumpkin octopus risotto, or some other dish that sounds all fancy but no one ever orders.

A little bit about myself: I have more than 15 years of experience trying to get published, and by extension, much to offer you in your extended period of grief. Until recently, I worked at Kinko's, and I am now on workers' comp (yes, it was "alcohol-related"). I am a fan of body-switching movies and reruns of old game shows, and while I've never been a huge fan of your father's work (too serious and stuck-up), I have a million ideas that just scream out "Put John Updike's name on me!" As you can see from my following ideas list, I'm sort of going through a historical thing right now:

  • Has anyone written -- I mean really written -- about the Holocaust? Oh, sure, there have been books and movies and perhaps even a rap song, but has anyone penned a fancy book about the subject? My answer: I'm not sure. Here's my idea: a novel set in Nazi Germany, about an adorable, wisecracking gerbil who lives inside a Jewish person's skullcap (without that Jewish person's knowledge or consent). The gerbil's name will be Rosco.
  • Slavery has always bothered me slightly from a moral/ethical/historical perspective. But where to begin? This subject is, let's admit it, a large one. How to tackle it? Where's my "in"? Let me sleep on this one.
  • Bubonic plague holds a great fascination for me, as I'm sure it does for all of the Updikes. How awful would it have been for a child to be sleeping on his or her straw bed one day, and then the next, to be suffering from an awful bug-transported disease? How would this child have felt? Would it have coughed? Sneezed? Died? All three? This subject is ripe for further investigation. We can also include a scene involving Christmas, if you want the book to be extra, extra popular.

Now, I've been burned in the past by sending out detailed outlines, but for each of the above ideas I can certainly provide you with a hand-drawn illustration of what I am going for -- as well as an ironclad promise that most of the action will take place in suburban Pennsylvania, with ample nudity. And that your father and/or husband, John Updike, will have "written it." (Note the quotes.) Before we talk again, here are some additional ideas that I can't wait to sink my (and your dead father's) teeth into:

  • Did your father ever write an episode for a sitcom? How about a screenplay for a movie based on a TV show from the '80s or '90s? No? Let me write this for him.
  • Poetry slams were very exciting and hip a number of years back. Let's take advantage of this.
  • Children's literature is kind of hot right now. I was thinking that a "John Updike Presents" would be popular, and would be a terrific way to launch our new partnership. Just off the cuff: A boy wants to become a wizard at a magic school, but has to apply for financial aid. I would concentrate on the financial-aid part, and I'd really get into the nitty-gritty of how little wizard boys go about acquiring favorable financial-aid packages and such. And I do mean "as such." But there really does have to be a signed contract before I get into the particulars ...
  • Something to do with "electronic books."

For reasons gastrointestinally based, I must end this correspondence immediately. But I will not leave you without quoting the following (seen on my therapist's paperweight): Excuses are like butts. Everyone's got 'em, but I don't necessarily want to see 'em.

Please ... no excuses. Or buts.

Your partner in literature,

Rhon Penny

Mike Sacks has written for the Believer, the New Yorker, Salon and Vanity Fair, among many other publications. He is currently on the editorial staff at Vanity Fair. "Your Wildest Dreams Within Reason" is his third book.

By Scott Rothman

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By Mike Sacks

Mike Sacks works on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair magazine.

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