Hall to McNair: February 18, 1981


[Click image to view]

18 February 1981

Wes McNair
N. Sutton, NH 03260

Dear Wes,

Good to have your letter.

Are there any textbooks which resemble the one that
you propose on interdisciplinary themes in American culture?
On the whole, I think this one is the less likely. If there
are no other textbooks in the field, any publisher will be
reluctant to take up a new field – and of course there are
far fewer courses which would use such a book, than might
use an introduction to poetry. On the other hand, there are
dozens of introduction to poetry texts!

There is an old rule in the textbook business: if
somebody proposes a book telling you that it is absolutely
new, and nobody has ever thought of doing this before, reject
the book! It is a very cynical field. The usual notion –
the old wisdom – is to find the one or two books in the field
which are selling the most copies, and do another book which
is very much like them, maybe taking the best features of each,
doing a few new things in it, but very little, and covering
everything that they pretend to cover – and then bring it
out and advertise it as absolutely new and the perfect thing
for everybody’s course, knocking every other book out on its

Do you know Perrine… Sound and Sense? I hate it.
It is the one to shoot for. Probably the second best seller
in that field right now is X. J. Kennedy’s Introduction to
Poetry. There are others by Nims and Simpson, which sell
a little every year but not terribly much… there is the old
Understanding Poetry, which sticks in there. And I have two of
them, in a sense. One is my old The Pleasures of Poetry, which
has never done very well, and the other is the poetry section
of my new Holt book, To Read Literature, which will probably
be issued as a separate text, the poetry part by itself, next
year or so.

Perrine is full of lies by simplification. Kennedy and
I are known as too sophisticated.

The ones that sell best integrate a lot of poems into
many chapters, and the subject matter is pretty well decided
upon for you, and even mostly the organization. Then usually
these books have a brief anthology of poems for further study
appended to them. The trouble with Simpson and with my first
one is that they had a brief introduction, not organized particularly
as a text – no study questions and so forth – followed by a good
anthology. Apparently most teachers want – though most teachers
will tell you that they do not want – something that leads them


by the hand.

I know so much about this, I would take twenty pages
to tell you about it. Think about it, and if you continue
to want to do one, let us get together and talk about it.

I think that the first thing for you to do is to work
out a plan for such a book, which would detail what the chapters
would contain, and what sort of thing you would do by way of
study questions and by way of a supplementary anthology…
then in order to convince a publisher you would need some
sample pages, maybe one whole chapter and a couple of things
from other chapters…and then you would have a sort of
prospectus for a book which you would be worthwhile (sic) to
send around to publishers. I do know some people in the
business. I think I could be of help.

It is always wise to remember: some textbooks make
a tremendous amount of money, another percentage make a
small but gratifying regular income… And most textbooks
fail and do not make any money at all. However, it is better
than gold mining, and more remunerative than writing excellent

Best as ever,