Waugh, Catch-22 and the Demented Governess

Many of us will have read Waugh’s 1961 letter to Nina Bourne, who worked for US publisher Simon & Schuster. In the letter, Waugh politely and very humorously declines to give them a blurb promoting their new book Catch-22, the first novel of Joseph Heller. Waugh offers a blurb but no promotion. (Letters, p. 371-72; quoted below). Robert Gottlieb, editor at Simon & Schuster, provides some back story to the letter in his autobiography, Avid Reader, which has just been published. An excerpt has been released on the publisher’s website. Catch-22 was one of Gottlieb’s first successful projects at Simon & Schuster. It turns out that Nina Bourne was in the publisher’s marketing department and became heavily invested in promoting the book. As described by Gottlieb:

…when the book was ready to be launched, at the meeting to decide the size of our fall-list printings the naysayers came up with the figure of five thousand. This roused the tiger in Nina, whom everyone had always thought of as a genius, yes, but also as an adorable little bunny. Suddenly she stood up, glared around, and spoke: “If after all these years my total belief in a book doesn’t warrant a printing of seventy-five hundred, what’s the point of my being here?” Stunned silence. This was not the Nina people knew and loved. “Of course, Nina!” “Yes, Nina!” “Seventy- five hundred if you think that’s the right number, Nina!” … In the famous campaign to sell Catch-22 to the world, Nina—more fervent about it than about any other book in her seventy-year career—was the secret, and deadly, weapon.

Nina Bourne’s letter to Waugh (which is not reproduced) seems to have been part of what she called her “demented governess” scheme to secure blurbs and support from noted writers:

We had sent out scores of advance copies of the book, accompanied by what Nina called her “demented governess letters”—as in, “the demented governess who believes the baby is her own.”

The reply from Waugh was not what they had hoped for but was one of his funnier letters and quite in the spirit (if not the tone) of Heller’s very funny novel. Gottlieb describes the results, in the same spirit:

There were at least a score of letters from notable writers, but, perversely, the one we most enjoyed was from Evelyn Waugh:

“Dear Miss Bourne:

Thank you for sending me Catch-22. I am sorry that the book fascinates you so much. It has many passages quite unsuitable to a lady’s reading. It suffers not only from indelicacy but from prolixity. It should be cut by about a half. In particular the activities of ‘Milo’ should be eliminated or greatly reduced. You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches—often repetitive—totally without structure.

Much of the dialogue is funny.

You may quote me as saying: ‘This exposure of the corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.’

Yours truly, Evelyn Waugh”

We didn’t take him up on his offer, though we probably should have.

In the end, Waugh’s indifference didn’t matter. They managed to shift 35,000 hardback copies in the first year, followed by millions in paperback thereafter.

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