Dear Miss Snark:
When do you cry uncle with a manuscript? My novel was workshopped in a competitive university literary program by six emergent writers and an award-winning literary darling.
We tore this sucker apart and put it back together, and in the end everyone was quite excited about it (despite its 600 page length). In terms of street cred I've previously published a short story in a DAW anthology, written many magazine articles, and was short-listed for a major writing contest. After about 40 queries to New York agents who claim to represent literary fiction I've had something like 3 requests to see the manuscript, all of whom ultimately declined with a version on "I have no idea where I would sell this."
I try to write somewhere between literary and genre fictions, and I'm wondering if this will make the book a harder sell: the genre types will claim it is too slow, while the literary types might feel it is too plot-oriented. It is also a rather unusual book in that it is a historical novel blending nautical fiction (think Master and Commander) with an artsy-fartsy literary theme (think Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).
Is my being a foreign (Canadian) writer a handicap when pitching to New York?
I've got over two years of full-time research and writing into it and it is my third novel. I've been writing full-time for five years, and with the feedback I received in my university program I thought that I had finally reached a level of writing that would allow me to get published. Do I pack it in or keep slugging? I've already started the next novel and I find that pitching the old one detracts from this work.
First, ignore your sunk costs. You can't get your time back. Even if you sell it tomorrow that time is not available to use again. That doesn't factor into your decision.
Second, nothing makes my hair stand on end more than "workshopped this till everyone was excited about it". None of those people make their living selling books. MFA programs turn out some of the worst, most bloodless, self absorbed crap I've ever seen. And what the hell is an emergent writer? Someone with an MFA and no publications?
Third: you got 3 looks from 40 queries. That's not bad. All of them requested the novel? That's actually pretty good.
Fourth, being Canadian isn't a problem. We like Canada. It's like the United States only different.
Fifth. Don't compare your work to Joyce. Ever. Even if you just know you're his spiritual heir. It makes you look like an egotistical numbskull.
Sixth: 600 pages is mind boggling. It's no wonder they didn't know where to sell it. It's too big for a trade paperback and you'll need a crane to lift the hardcover. Invest in some pruning shears.
Now, "I don't know where I'd sell it" is the key. Good writing sells (mostly). It sells cause agents love it and won't quit talking about it till they find an editor who also loves it. I've sold a couple things after a LONG time cause I loved it so much I refused to give up.
I've also had people tell me they think something is hard to sell cause it doesn't fit in a category when it DOES fit into a category: crap.
I think you might benefit from running the first couple pages through the crapometer when it returns from Winslow, Arizona the last week of December.
I think you've got the right idea to move on with the next one too. Every great writer has a couple novels hidden away as a secret reminder that they weren't always a literary darling.