Look at This! The art of Helen DeWitt

Becca Rothfeld in The Nation:

If anyone is entitled to misgivings about the pernicious world of publishing, it’s Helen DeWitt, the long-suffering veteran of a by-now-well-known bevy of artistic successes and commercial failures. The Last Samurai, an exuberantly experimental novel about a child prodigy and his brilliant but depressive mother, made a triumphant debut at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, but its publication was fraught. DeWitt fought to retain her idiosyncratic typesetting, faced off with a belligerent copy editor, and saw few profits in the wake of financial disputes with her publisher. Worse still, the imprint responsible for The Last Samurai folded in 2005. Though the book commanded a dedicated cult following, it went out of print until New Directions reissued it 11 years later.

DeWitt’s second book, Lightning Rods, must have seemed like an easier sell. A trenchant, ever-timely satire about sexual politics in the office, it follows an opportunistic entrepreneur who supplies companies with prostitutes, supposedly as a means of alleviating tensions in the workplace. But Lightning Rods proved surprisingly difficult to place. DeWitt completed it in 1999—yet did not find a home for it until 2010. In the intervening years, her agent rescinded his offer of representation, and she responded by threatening to jump off a cliff. It wasn’t the only time the vicissitudes of publishing drove DeWitt to desperate measures: When one of her many attempts at negotiating a deal on her own fell through, she took a sedative and stuck her head into a plastic bag.

More here.