Elevating our expectations: Guest blog by J.S. Anderson, Lucky Bat Books Author of Book of Hours: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios.
There’s a story, likely apocryphal but nonetheless useful, about Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State during much of the 1970s. Whatever one thought of his policies, he was almost universally considered an intellectual heavyweight, which is why the story works. I don’t know to whom to give attribution, but it goes something like this:
A young and promising State Department staffer was instructed to prepare a report for submission directly to Henry Kissinger. Aware of the distinction he’d been given as well as the burden of his assignment, he worked night and day not only to complete the report but satisfy the exceedingly demanding Secretary. Having prepared and revised it repeatedly up to the very deadline, he submitted it on schedule. Several days later he was summoned to Kissinger’s vast office. Though the Secretary was working on something else, the staffer’s report lay close at hand.
Without looking up, Kissinger tipped his head toward the report and asked one question in his deep and thick German-Jewish accent. “Is this the best you can do?”
“Uh, well, sir,” stumbled the chagrinned staffer, “perhaps I can take it back and work on it some more.” The Secretary pushed the report across the enormous desk and waved the young man away without further comment.
Completely humiliated, and having torn apart, reassessed, revised, reformatted and rewritten the report, the staffer submitted it again, this time with even greater anxiety. To his great heart-racing dismay, he was once more summoned to the Secretary’s office.
This time Kissinger lifted the document from his desk, waved it impatiently at the young man and growled, “You are telling me, Mr. Smith, this is the best you can do?” The staffer, nearly apoplectic with embarrassment, could hardly speak. He knew his diplomatic career was over before it had even started. “Well….Well, sir…uh…well, yes, sir. I…guess….Yes, sir, it is.”
The Secretary looked back down at the work on his desk and set down the young man’s report at its side. “Very good, then” he said. “I’ll read it now.”
I’m leaving out a middle instance for the sake of brevity, but the point is still made. Secretary Kissinger would spend his time only on the very best work his associates could produce.
At first take, it seems a ludicrously high standard, doesn’t it? Upon further thought, though, which reader wants to spend time on anything less than the very best an author has to give? Less care, less time, less work, less quality?
Yes it’s an elevated expectation, but it seems to me readers of serious literature deserve the same respect Secretary Kissinger demanded: Writing that is well-researched, imaginatively and meticulously written, professionally edited and proofed, and skillfully formatted and published.
In this uneven and anarchical world of modern publishing, there remains a need for good writing and fine publishing—and more and more of that responsibility lies directly with the author.
I’m no Henry Kissinger, and no, he was not a friend of mine. But I find that keeping his standard in mind, apocryphal or not, serves me quite well.
J. S. Anderson is the author of Book of Hours: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios, published in 2013 by Lucky Bat Books. Mr. Anderson is working on a sequel, Book of Hours: Peter’s Parchment, which is due out by the spring of 2015. Learn more at jsandersonauthor.com