never intended to write a book.
Not a "real" book, anyway. Not, like,
the bestselling kind that would land me a guest therapist
spot on Jenny Jones and a national book-signing tour at Barnes
and Noble Cafes. After all, I don't know any serial killers
or celebrities. I've never had any good jury duty gigs. I'm
not a Spice Girl.
my beginnings are much humbler, and go a little somethin'
like this: Daughter of a Jewish landscaper. Grew up in the
Midwest. Publish a multicultural feminist zine in my basement.
Acquired large interest payments on various college and personal
loans. Juggled six freelance and temp jobs to pay my bills.
High moral standards. High monthly living expenses. High from
the caffeine required to maintain this act.
I found myself in the posh Manahattan office of Linda Goodman,*
Real Live New York Literary Agent, six-figure visions danced
in my head. I had more baggage than a fleet of Greyhound busesfinancially
speaking, anywayand I was ready to make a drop-off.
plan was simple. I would exchange service industry livin'
for full-on media whoredom, complete with paid assignments
and the salary of a white-collar escort. TV appearances, infomercials
-- you name it and I was ready to perform the act. In no time,
I'd be stackin' enough Benjamins to pay off my debts. Yet,
it was in Midtown Manhattan, the literary Hollywood Boulevard
of the East, that I damn near pimped out my soul by mistake.
I paint myself as some greedy, soulless faux feminist, let
me explain. The book I intended to write was a modern feminist
guide-slash-manifesto, which I planned to call Generation
XX: Women Here and Now, or something along those lines. Intelligent
and articulate, my book would explore a new generation's approach
to sisterhood, relationships, media, activism, politics, multiculturalism,
and feminism. It would include the perspectives of women from
a range of ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions and
identities. I even hoped to invite some cool celebrity and
"underground" role models to write guest introductions to
deepest motive was to convey a healing message to young women.
So much of the media being churned out by the mainstream sucked.
It spoke to women's insecurities rather than to our intelligence.
It tried to sell us the same old 6'10" 52-lb. hetero Barbie
doll prescription. Frankly, that shit was tired. Through my
zine, I hoped to in some small way counterbalance the wack
messages, while still delivering a dose of pop culture and
all, I was no stranger to the deadly effects mainstream publishing
can have on a girl's self-esteem. I grew up with my hungry
snout buried in the feedbag of Seventeen and Sweet Valley
High. Like so many young women, I bought into the bullshit,
believing that my ethnic features were a curse, and that my
index finger had been separated from my throat at birth, only
to be reunited in a secret adolescent binge-and-purge rite
of passage. After a painful college era spent recovering my
self-esteem, I wanted to help other young women see that we
had choices beyond self-hatred. I wanted to create a platform
for young women to share real, honest stories that would inspire
and support other women and lead us back to our long-forgotten
way I saw it, healing was real work, and I deserved to be
paid for it. Why not? Women who work in healing professions
are always undervalued. People assume that nurturing others
is so intrinsic for women that it hardly takes a toll on us.
In truth, it's incredibly draining. It requires us to remove
the focus from ourselves and offer our vital energies and
support to an outside source, instead of investing it back
into our own energy banks. If I was gonna give this project
my soul, then at least my bills could get paid, right?
arrival in the world of mainstream publishing happened like
this: Last year, a friend and fellow young zine publisher
called me, excited. She'd just landed a $100,000 book deal
with a major publishing house. Her agent Linda Goodman, a
hotshot on the New York literary scene, heard my friend on
a radio show and called to solicit a proposal. The rest was
guess what?" my friend said. "Linda asked if I knew any other
young women writers! Since my proposal went over so well,
she thinks there's a really big market for us. I'm giving
you her phone number now."
took one look at the stack of unpaid bills gathering dust
on my desk -- credit cards, car payments, phone bills, student
loans, rent -- and decided my ship had come in.
that precise moment, something new and unfamiliar, something
green and depositable into a commercial bank, gave my inspiration
a swift kick-start. If my friend could make that kind of money
just for being herself, so could I! Best of all, my friend's
zine was highly intelligent, pro-woman, "alternative" in every
way. Her book would be based on her zine, which meant she'd
get paid by "the man" without having to sell her soul to him.
I asked, Why not me, too? If my zine never became profitable,
at least I'd be able to eat while I continued publishing.
Besides, a book that was marketed by a major publishing tour
de force would help spread my positive, pro-woman message
to the masses. Feminism and pop culture would unite at long
last into something cool and financially viable.
spent six weeks drafting my first proposal, and sent it off
to Linda in October 1996. It was a hodge-podge of chapters
covering what I thought were important third-wave feminist
topics -- body image, race, dating, education and careers,
general identity politics.
I felt vague about the whole book-writing thing, since my
publishing experience was limited to magazines. Hell, I was
only 23. Linda offered no guidance throughout the proposal
process, but she did give me a copy of my friend's book proposal
to use as a roadmap. In fact, she seemed annoyed when I called
with questions. "You're not done yet?" she'd sigh with great
pressure, coupled with my inexperience, elicited a curt, typed
reply on Linda's letterhead:
proposal seems to fall flat for a variety of reasons. The
tone seems too bitter and defensive, and you spend too much
energy on body image -- The Beauty Myth was published about
five years ago and this takes away from the freshness of what
you should be writing. Obviously, we'll be open to looking
at a rewrite.
the optimist, I moped around for a few hours, then decided
to step back up to bat. What did I have to lose? I knew I
could add a lot more flavor and personality to the proposal.
I called Linda again, hoping she'd actually offer some concrete
advice this time.
it fresh!" she screamed, in full-on New Yahwk character. "Just
(SIGH)...I don't know (ANNOYED SIGH)...You're the young woman!
What's Courteney Love talking about? What's Alanis doing?
What do the Spice Girls have to say? (EXTREMELY ANNOYED, DRAWN-OUT
SIGH) Look, you're wasting my time. JUST. Make. It. Fresh."
And with that, she slammed down the phone.
I was tempted to call back and ask Linda whether she wanted
a second proposal or a new, turbo-powered douche. She was
definitely giving me a not-so-fresh feeling. I imagined her
age-defying cheeks, pulled taut by the hand of New York's
most gifted plastic surgeons, cracking like a relief map of
parched soil. Somehow, this soothed me. I was on a mission
to get this deal, so I swallowed my tongue, focused on my
mission, and resumed my flow.
decided not to let Linda press me for time, and spent four
months writing my new proposal. As promised, it was springtime-fresh
and packed hella irreverence. I even outlined a strong-woman's
dating chapter called "Finding Your Inner Pimp." Per Linda's
request, I included a photo of myself with the neatly-packaged
proposal, so potential buyers could judge whether I was "television-worthy."
was a little different this time, though. I began to think
less like a writer, and more like a marketing associate. There
were times that I could hardly express myself for fear I'd
be "too serious" or "not fresh enough," and thus would lose
the deal. Will this sell? a voice kept nagging, and light-'n-airy
phrases stumbled from my word processor by way of this consideration.
My new proposal was sassy, no doubt, but steeped in its own
shocking irreverence (and the ensuing controversy that would
stir), and less focused on making women feel soothed and supported.
Linda and her associates loved the writing and sent the proposal
to about 20 big publishers. She was certain we'd get crazy
offers. I rode on a premature high, psyched that I could attach
my name to a flavorful, feminist book that would also pay
Instead of fielding offers, Linda got a pile of rejection
letters. One after another, the naysayers filed in, all with
the same basic excuse: We love the writing, but...there's
just not a large enough mainstream market for this.
was as disappointed as I was, mostly for economic reasons.
Again, she was unable to articulate instructions, should I
decide to take a third go-round at a book proposal. Instead,
she faxed me a stream of rejection letters so I could see
for myself. Excerpts follow:
for letting me see Evelyn Summerstein's proposal, which I'll
be passing on the opportunity to publish. Ms. Summerstein's
voice is fun, spunky, and smart. Unfortunately, we didn't
see a large mainstream audience for this book.
Evelyn Summerstein has accomplished in her magazine is most
impressivesmart, sunny, fresh, timely, and engagingbut
I'm sorry to say that her book proposal struck those of us
who read it simply as more of the same.
Summerstein is sassy, young, and edgy. Unfortunately, this
book seems more geared to teenage girls, rather than post-feminist
Summerstein is entertaining and full of energy, but not enough
to make me want to go out on a limb. Thanks so much for the
look. She's a firecracker.
like Evelyn Summerstein's feisty style and her sense of humor.
However, I don't feel that the material is focused enough
to attract a large audience. If she was Ricki Lake or Queen
Latifah, then this could sell. Forgive my cynicism, but it's
my feeling that readers only care about the opinions of the
spent the rest of the day in bed, crying. Maybe I did suck.
I didn't have what it took to be a best-seller. I wasn't even
worthy of a modest print run. On and on went the self-deprecation,
and my bills loomed larger than ever.
Linda called one last time. "A few of the young editors we
solicited want to meet with you, and try to come up with some
ideas together. They really like your writing," she told me.
"You have to come out to New York right away, though. If you
don't grab this while it's hot, they'll lose interest tomorrow!"
there was still one more born-again sucker bone in me. I jumped
in my car five days later, less than 24 hours after returning
from a conference in New Mexico. I made the normally twelve-hour
road trip to New York City in just under nine-and-a-half.
Sprung for a hotel room and prayed I'd "earn it back" if I
got the deal.
next two days, Linda toted me around to four super-huge publishing
houses (which shall remain nameless). At each, I met with
a group of surprisingly cool women who were mostly between
the ages of 25 and 35. They threw around the term "feminist"
liberally, seemed to have more than a clue, and were very
excited about my zine. It wasn't at all what I expected, and
I felt hope renewed once again.
the exception of one publishing house, where a 29-year-old
editor decided that I was "too young to write a book," editors
at three houses offered to work one-on-one with me. I narrowed
it down to one, and made plans to work with a hip, young editor
story short, Pam and I went back and forth for a couple more
months, crafting a new proposal that we hoped would sway the
skeptics in the upper echelons. She was really excited about
working with me, and bent over backwards to help. At one point,
we exchanged faxes every day, and clocked considerable long-distance
Pam was still what Naomi Wolf might call a "power feminist"
-- if one could call her a feminist at all. She was living
the dream that has been handed to young women today by our
mothers' struggles: an impressive corporate position, a female
boss, a closet full of self-purchased business suits from
an impressive array of designers. Yet, the more I worked with
Pam, the more I realized how much a part of the "establishment"
she really was. She still had to answer to the big boys and
girls in Marketing -- which meant that she, too, was a part
of that whole Linda Goodman douche conspiracy -- trapped in
the neverending quest for an unnatural sense of freshness.
believed that she could help me "balance" my proposal enough
to get it approved. I had to spell out my theme in ABC's and
123's for the publisher, effectively draining all the spunk
and flavor out of it. Pam beat the thing into mainstream-ready
submission, dividing my ideas into chapters like "Go For It,
But Keep It In Check" and "Let's Get Real." Somehow, I ended
up with a proposal for a how-to book on building a multicultural
feminist movement, onto which Pam attached a kumbaya title.
Although I suppose I could have written this joyless book,
the outline was safe, oversimplified, and dangerously close
to falling off the tightrope into an abyss of mainstream cheese.
there was still one obstacle. Pam had to get the proposal
past the hardcover and trade paperback publishers, and the
marketing team. They were gonna be the toughest sell. In the
end, the hardcover woman said she'd do it only if the paperback
woman did, too. The paperback woman sold me out. Market research
based on recent titles geared toward young, multicultural
women were dismal (at least, in her eyes). Her conclusion?
There was "no real market" for a book targeting this audience.
was June. I had spent nine months (significant?) on this project,
and hadn't brought in a dime from it. My roommates were sick
of watching my moods swing back and forth every time I got
jerked around by what they now called "the Massengil Gang."
I was so emotionally disoriented, I wasn't even sure what
the hell I stood for anymore.
it didn't take me too long to remember. The episode turned
into a big-time reality check. Linda and I parted ways, mutually.
I faced the existential question of a broke-ass 24-year-old
attempting to juggle ideology with a need to pay the bills:
How far was I willing to bend -- for money and for my beliefs?
all this, I realized that part of being a feminist, for me
at least, means having a soul. It means caring about the impact
of my words, and speaking what my spirit tells me. My mistake
was buying into the naive misconception that in 1997, feminism
and patriarchal America can share crayons and color a happy
as it sounds, telling the truth is a shield. If someone hates
me for telling it like it is, I'm okay with that. My views
may be more "radical" than what commercial publishing is ready
to risk, and that's just how it is for now. I can only hope
it will change in the next decade. Meanwhile, I came dangerously
close to printing words that I felt no passion for, and stamping
my name on them to boot. I could have been the proverbial
Spice Girl of the literary world -- Sellout Spice, perhaps.
They would have used me and my "girl power" to make as much
money as they could, then dropped me as soon as the next craze
came along. Frankly, I'm glad I didn't qualify.
believe that a pop culture feminism can exist, but only if
it grows organically. Ambitious young feminists need to dole
our goods out carefully. We need to do our thing no matter
what, and let the mainstream types come to us. Then we can
decide if we want to be bothered with them.
this fiasco, I decided I wanted to write a book, anyway, even
if I had to publish it myself. Even if I never made a dime
off of it. I wanted to write because I had something to say.
I put together a proposal that truly reflected my beliefs
and sent it on my own to a couple feminist publishers. They
responded with total support.
now working on a book with a cool independent/feminist publishing
house. Sure, they care about money, but their first priority
is to print books that have a progressive message. I won't
be raking in the cheddar that a Linda Goodman deal would have
brought (the publisher pays only royalties), but I'm over
it. I have a contract and supportive editors who share my
how I feel satisfied with that proves that the dangers of
selling out are underrated. When I was working with the mainstream
publishers, I could hardly express myself for fear that I'd
lose the deal. And there was so much more at stake. If my
first book wasn't a bestseller, I knew they'd dump me with
a quickness -- which would undoubtedly jeopardize my chance
for a long-term writing career.
offered the cream of my soul to mainstream publishing, only
to be informed that everything on their shelves was freshness-dated.
So I concluded that there's no price tag on my spirit. As
for all those greedy folk who rejected me from the ranks of
media whoredom? Well, I guess they can kiss my bottom line.
Summerstein now knows that commercial douches upset the natural
balance of those sensitive feminine areas.
in the Spring 1998 issue of Bitch