The renowned American jazzman Charlie Parker, introduced to Jean-Paul Sartre in a Paris club during the 1949 jazz festival, reportedly said, “I’m very glad to have met you, Mr. Sartre. I like your playing very much.” According to writer Boris Vian, who also played trumpet and often served as master of ceremonies at the club, Sartre merely stared back at Parker in silence.
The story is probably not apocryphal: Parker, the free spirit and inveterate master of the put-on, was not above tweaking the high and mighty whether he knew who they were or not; Sartre, pompons in his growing celebrity, was humorless and intolerant by nature. Still, this was essentially a trivial incident, the chance meeting of two disparate creative souls on their way to world fame.
Were this to involve members of today’s American book publishing scene, though, it would probably be turned through descriptive hubris into something quite different: a protest against racist oppression and colonialism, perhaps, or a principled defense of artistic integrity. Unfortunately, such a perverse view would be all too typical of many of today’s publishing elites. Sad to say, many years past its glory days as a business for serious well-meaning gentlemen like Maxwell Perkins and Bennett Cerf or brilliant headstrong iconoclasts like Alfred Knopf and Horace Liveright, as the millennium approaches the book business appears rudderless, adrift on a tide of ideological obtuseness and mean-spiritedness, léche-cul trendiness, and absurd operating practices, its communal values and common sense in tatters.
Rather than people of Cerf’s droll gregariousness or of the dedicated gentility of top professionals like Hiram Haydn, Cass Canfield, or Ken McCormick, the trade-book industry of the 1990’s has been infiltrated by people more influenced by movies and other visual media. Preoccupied with the minutiae of deal-making, obsessed with extraneous concepts like the Internet, and desperate for a quick score to brag about, many of these moderns possess in equal parts an often hilarious blinkered arrogance, self-infatuation, and an anti-Americanism that almost makes Bill Clinton look patriotic by comparison. It is no wonder that the industry voted overwhelmingly for him twice, even held fundraising parties for him and the Vice Bubba, and persists in the belief that he is brilliant; career liar, thief, and fraud he may be, but compared to many industry insiders he is brilliant, and probably reads more books than any of them. Today’s publishing types may also be reassured that, like the President, some of their own clever fakers can succeed big-time, and at industry cocktail receptions there they all are, cranky, badly dressed, and on the make, complaining bitterly about each other, about America, and most of all about the industry they have done so much to trash.
When, the morning after the 1994 elections, news anchor Peter Jennings made his grave pronouncement that the country had had “a temper tantrum” the previous day, he might have been describing book publishing in its current state, for these days the industry seems to carry a permanent chip on its shoulder. There are indeed many perceptive, well-meaning folks in the business, and yet they, too, have allowed a general attitude of almost adolescent, antagonistic willfulness to take hold, what Hunter Thompson might call “bad craziness.” Good sense has yielded to a lunatic enthusiasm for pointless multiculturalism, a tabloid appetite for scandal, trash, and weirdness, and continued unreasoning support for peculiar, destructive ideas like revisionism, socialism, victimization, and the petulant viewpoint that all who do not agree with them are somehow unclean and must do penance. Thus the book business is in danger of being forever stuck in a 1960’s time-warp of its own creation. Far from its traditional role as purveyor of ideas and literature or defender of free speech, the industry has painted itself into a corner, urging too many of its insiders to waste valuable time and brainpower in pumping up unwarranted contempt for conservatives, the military. Republicans, WASPs, big business, organized religion, conventional marriage, and conventional recorded history. Not that they have not made good money publishing many of the same people they sneer at so self-righteously: Rush Limbaugh, Tom Clancy, and Stephen King may be hateful people, the feeling goes, but they certainly do pay for publishing folks to eat at expensive bistros. High life in the “liver of the beast,” as the 1960’s radicals used to say, and how about just a smidgen more lime in that margarita: more fun than Charlie Parker even could have imagined.
One gets the impression from watching publishers that their true mission, rather than marketing books to the general public, is to please each and every special-interest tribalist, anyone who does not like the status quo as he defines it, and every desperate soul in need of the latest bogus diet-fad book, self-help book, or save-the-pandas-and-you-too alternative lifestyle book. The sales of trade books may have gone through the roof in recent years, but it would be difficult to make a rational case that the industry itself is not a wreck, floundering desperately in search of stability. When one reflects that many insiders reserve some of their most colorful liberal-arts vocabulary for the bitter denunciation of the bookstore chains who have made it possible for publishers to achieve a measure of success almost in spite of themselves, one realizes what a strange, self-destructive hothouse of goofiness the industry has become.
There are many reasons, and many questions: How does an industry that damages its own credibility by ferociously defending—and paying huge sums to publish—dodgy characters like Kelly Flinn, Anita Hill, Donald Trump, and Dennis Rodman presume to pass itself off as a font of eternal wisdom? Did it occur to anyone that, even with the outlandish hysteria over the trial of O.J. Simpson, the payment of $3 million to Paula Barbieri for her gratuitous viewpoint was not exactly a top-flight idea? That Shaquille O’Neal may be a nice man but has nothing to say to justify an advance of $2 million? Coherent answers to such crafty publishing decisions are not easy to come by, but a milieu whose prominent philosophes include self-absorbed show-offs like Norman Mailer, Erica Jong, Jamaica Kincaid, and Harry Evans could stand a collective refresher course on what is reality and what isn’t. Thus several years ago, when Mailer denounced a campaign to remove graffiti as a sign of impending fascism, the book-business elites wagged their tails in delight; when Kincaid huffed that she wanted Newt Gingrich to have died instead of legal finagler William Kunstier, muzzles all around the industry grew moist with admiration; and when Jong wailed that she knew for a fact that Republicans were plotting to take away a woman’s right to vote, there were those in the ranks who seemed ready to wet the carpet in approval. Clearly publishing wisdom would prevail, set the record straight, and get even with those meanies in the general public to boot.
More recently, even normally clearheaded industry veterans like Tom McCormack have gotten into the act, extolling the virtues of independent and regional publishers with shaky finances and little access to the national review media, while suggesting the grand benefits of even higher returns and lower royalty and commission rates—comments sure to give writers, mainstream publishers, and agents terminal agita. It is tempting, though, to suspect that McCormack, long a prominent industry contrarian but one of the shrewdest men ever to occupy a corner office, may be indulging his own fondness for the put on, much as Charlie Parker did all those years ago. The danger in this droll little game is that other book folks might think that herein lies a surefire, painless, and—to use Oliver North’s term—neat plan to turn things around.
The thought of this is enough to make a sober man wince and a tippler pass out altogether, for publishers, leaving aside questions of individual taste or their nearly hallucinogenic delusions about the CIA, the National Rifle Association, and Ralph Reed, have been leaving their basic business sense at the coat-check for some time now. If it is true, as columnist Earl Wilson once said, that “experience is the word we use when we recognize the same mistake twice,” then this is an exceptionally experienced field indeed, where clever headstrong people make the same mistakes 10, 20, 50 times and preen about it to their buddies over cocktails.
Many of the zanier ideas have now become so ingrained that publishers are almost proud of them, passing them off as house innovations or updated industry tradition. Thus the fact that it now takes weeks, even months, for a publisher to consider a 300-page novel or a 15-page proposal is presented as normal business policy. One leading house tells callers that a final decision will require four months. Bad news, perhaps, for anxious writers, but very good news in that it will not be publishers charged with responding to a nuclear crisis or a germ-warfare incident. More than likely, a publisher’s considered response to such horrors would be a measured, dignified call for “study, patience, and understanding.”
In basketball, this approach would be seen as a classic stall, an endless choreographed dance of passing and dribbling to eat up huge amounts of time on the clock with nothing to look forward to but a final score of something like nine to seven or, worse still, nine to nine, an overtime period, and more passing, dribbling, and indecision. The inherent sloth and cowardice of today’s decision-making involves endless meetings and a shadowy and often spurious network of second and third, even fourth and fifth, “readers,” all to disguise the fact that no one dares make a final determination without a regiment of cronies to take the plunge, and perhaps later the fall, en masse. Everybody’s a critic these days, as some wag once said.
In 1971, Cass Canfield wrote in his memoirs that Harper’s rejection of George Orwell’s Animal Farm due to a negative reader’s report was such a disastrous mistake that it taught him “to read a manuscript myself when there is the slightest question about its merit.” Many editors and other publishing people act today as if this were some antediluvian notion akin to using a slingshot to bring down wild game. They frequently give the impression that they have not read much of anything. Instead, they natter endlessly about the film screenings and concerts they have attended, parties they have been to, bars and restaurants they have discovered. They also talk about how hard they work and how serious they are about books. Yet what remains of the industry’s badly damaged editorial process still produces delusional books suggesting that Columbus was a genocidal maniac or that Goebbels was just a regular guy, passes off grotesque novels like American Psycho as the natural outgrowth of Reaganism, and promotes fiction by illiterate youngsters writing inner-city ghetto English as a sign of emerging genius. On the other hand, respectable mid-list books—in other words, those not destined for best-seller status, so the thinking goes—are in trouble, and the reason usually given by the industry wizards is that the markets for them are too difficult to pinpoint.
Ah, those crack editorial and marketing decisions! The logic that suggests a new literary novel will “find its own audience,” like an expert tracking dog snuffling through the underbrush, is enough to make a person cringe until one reflects that the majority of books published today get little or no promotional support whatever. A browse through publishers’ catalogues will turn up numerous references to “National Promotion” but more often than not that means radio interviews in Tacoma and Indianapolis and a “Meet the Author” appearance that draws 16 yawning locals to a high-school auditorium in Lima, Ohio. Publishers have a very bad tendency to copy each others’ successes, failures, and techniques, so for a decade now the marketable fiction of choice has been legal thrillers and novels about serial killers, all marketed in the same hackneyed fashion, while anything different is regarded with extreme suspicion. The thinking, ideas, and organization that people in the advertising business call a “campaign” are usually absent altogether, although publishers do exhibit considerable talent in inventing, defining, and then smothering entire markets through the simple proclamation that no readers exist in those areas. Thus men don’t read, conservatives don’t read, and Christians don’t want anyone else to read. Books on foreign policy, music, history, and domestic policy don’t sell; first novels and, now, second novels don’t sell; poetry, translated works, horror novels, short stories don’t sell. Publishers have convinced themselves that this kind of thinking is what passes for market research, and have thus reduced the list of safe, blame-free publishing ventures to novels by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Tom Clancy, and Danielle Steel, books on the Kennedy family, and books by celebrities.
It is a relief, though, that all this research has shown that there do exist ample audiences to justify payment of $2 million to foot-fetishist Dick Morris, $5 million for a book on the obese Marlon Brando, $6 million to erratic foul-mouth Whoopie Goldberg, and reportedly $3 million for the ruminations of Goldie Hawn, if she has any. Industry luminary Harry Evans recently made the peculiar comment that publishers were “too interested in money,” but it might be more accurate to say that they are not interested enough. It is an editor’s job to acquire book projects, but today’s attitude seems to be, “Sure, I bought that bridge, but it was the company’s money. Cool!”
It would be a gross understatement to describe some of the people in the business today as star-struck; rather the vast majority of them seem absolutely desperate to glad-hand any stray celebrity they can find, hand over enormous sums of money, and then tell all who listen that they must rush to the airport, off to “edit” the new manuscript by one of the greats of politics or culture, gently to break the news to Loni Anderson, Joan Baez, and Pamela Anderson (or whatever name she is using this month) that Chapter 15 of their memoirs needs a little work. It is certain that, even now, there are editors in hot pursuit of Bill Clinton’s memoirs, determined to golf with the First Bubba and ensure that the American public will enjoy its “right to know” about the great man’s programs, although perhaps not about how he has worked vigorously to exaggerate and heighten racial tensions, subvert our military and national defense, and antagonize our allies. More to the point, perhaps at his side they will get to attend those Renaissance Weekends at long last.
One of today’s peculiarities is that book publishing seems composed in roughly equal parts of unregenerate ignoramuses, decent well-meaning professionals, and others of little conviction who go along merely to get along. One joke has it that the dummies acquire the books, hand them to the pros to edit, and demand that all the others keep their mouths shut during editorial and sales meetings. Not content with this arrangement, though, the business slogs doggedly ahead, serene in its more modern, politically correct, and technologically hip identity, and now seems bent on re-inventing itself even more fully by welcoming into its bosom a motley collection of retreads from other areas of media, from newspapers, television, and rock magazines. The idea, as actually stated publicly by various exuberant industry spokesmen, is to smooth the way to that elusive synergy whereby a book morphs easily into a movie, an audio tape, a CD-ROM, perhaps even a Beanie Baby. Should these new recruits be successful, it may become dangerous for legitimate book-folks, for soon other strangers will appear in publishing: bassoonists, stewardesses, organic-food gurus, all with titles like “Editorial Director” or “Associate Publisher,” every one of them bubbling over with enthusiasm for literature, devotion to free speech, and commitment to the grand principle that “we must all learn to love one another or die.”
Whether these and other newcomers will be able to erase the recent stains of a $160 million royalty accounting fiasco at one major house, or the cancellation of more than 100 book contracts by another, is dubious. The latter ruckus is truly a damaging blow to literature, since such intriguing projects as a book of Jell-0 recipes and a collection of stories about celebrities and their pets may never see the light of day. We should not forget that Jell-O has always been something of a sacred icon in America, and there are legions of readers eager to find out whether Katie Couric really has a wolverine, or how Johnny Depp amassed that extraordinary collection of Woolworth turtles. Not only that, but does Kate Moss know about this and what does she think? What we have here are the publishing equivalents of what Alan King, commenting years ago about Gerald Ford’s public clumsiness, called “sight gags.”
These newcomers to publishing have already been praised as vastly intelligent, but this is pretty standard, because judging from the hullabaloo of compliments whenever book people meet face to face, everyone in the industry is simply brilliant, with IQs that would have dazzled Einstein. When backs are turned the mood sours, of course, and the giddy bonhomie changes to snickers about the last overpriced celebrity book that did not sell, the political memoirist picked up on morals charges, the ballyhooed new novelist who took heavy critical gas and heavier returns. With such a dense fog of schadenfreude hanging over the book scene these days, it is fortunate that there are still laws against carrying concealed weapons, at least in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. To be truthful, all this is not quite as showy as Mailer and Vidal trying to punch each other silly in front of witnesses, but an industry in trouble cannot always bring in the best entertainers, and Robert Downey, Jr., and Geraldine Ferraro have their own problems these days. With such disorder on all sides, there are the inevitable publishing panels, rogues’ galleries of industry seers wringing their hands over the latest outrages, and then rushing back to their offices to initiate further buffoonery. One inevitable question is; What’s to be done? Sad to say, the typical answer of too many of the elites, secure in their belief that no one can blame them for the ongoing mess, would probably be: About what? Regrettably, many insiders carry with them everywhere, like some unpronounceable blood disorder or tropical fungus that will not go away, the unhealthy misconception that everything is normal, that the world of book publishing has been a bizarre place for years, has survived and even prospered, and that this is the industry’s natural state.
Signs of hope can be detected, though, in a recent article in Publishers Weekly about several promising young editors from a variety of trade publishers both large and small. All under 40 years of age, they profess devotion to their craft and talk sensibly about all the right things: their impatience with delays, their interest in new and offbeat ideas, the need to draw in readers younger than 40, their willingness to look for new writers in unexpected places, their feeling that the concept of book promotion needs to be completely overhauled. If they, and others like them, are sincere, it is none too soon, for the book business badly needs clearheaded reinforcements at this point.
Yet they will be struggling against the accumulated foolishness of the past 25 years. They will need to bear in mind that a book must first exist as a book. Publishers deal in the printed word, and each sentence, paragraph, and chapter must be as well-tailored as possible; if their project is one of the tiny number that is turned later on into a movie—even one starring Pauly Shore—then so much the better. But in publishing, it is the reviews that matter and not the newsreels. There is, of course, the danger that even now one of these well-meaning young professionals may be preparing a deal memo for a Hideki Irabu book, or angling to purchase the memoirs of Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, or Rory Calhoun, lured by the mystery behind the great star’s fall from grace—as if our having to read about Holly Near wasn’t bad enough.
Above all else, they should consider the huge potential audience for good books out in what used to be called the American Heartland—and further reflect that this type of reader is not likely to look kindly on frothing anti-American bad-asses, who no longer seem as cute and allegedly principled as they did back in 1972. If anything, time has shown the rest of us that most of the grand causes of those years were daffy and even destructive, the black-footed ferret is alive and well and living in Wyoming, and today the word is that even Eldridge Cleaver enjoys a good strawberry daiquiri now and then.
Some years ago, Irving Howe made a point about the type of argument that is clever, persuasive, and articulately framed. His comment was: “But is it true?” If anything has gotten the book business into trouble in recent years it has been the tendency to pay heavy money to frauds making absurd claims that only certain publishing elites, Ramsey Clark, or the English Department at Duke University could ever take seriously. If these young editors are really serious they will dial 911 immediately when confronted by someone asking for large sums of money for the purported memoirs of Jimmy Stewart’s transvestite lover, or for a tell-all book about how El Nino is really an FBI sting operation gone amok.
The story goes that Freud once said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. If he were observing what goes on in the book business today, he might add, “You’re not out of the woods yet.”