19 February 2005

White Rabbit

After last weekend's pitiful harvest, this weekend includes a cornucopia of publishing-industry news items. Some of them may prove fit only as fodder for greedy pigs, but at least there is enough to fill the basket.
  • Before readers get the book; before editors hack at edit the book; the writer must write the book. Aye, there's the rub. Most deadlines imposed on authors are at least as optimistic as deadlines imposed on the Middle East peace process, as they are concerned with the production aspect of a book and assume that nothing—not plague, not locusts, not academic duties, not landmines hidden in the material—will get in the way of the author churning out 1,800 final-draft-worthy words a day (or whatever figure). Deadlines are a necessary evil; there is, after all, a significant aspect of publishing that involves scheduling of resources. They are also, however, far more often breached than made. As today's Guardian notes, there's a long tradition of late books. HarperCollins (US) got in a great deal of hot water with the author community a few years back when it cancelled a passel of contracts (by "passel" I mean "more than 100, but exact number unknown to anyone outside of HC"), mostly on grounds of "excessive" lateness.

    The problem with this assertion is that the author often is not the only one who is late. However, the author is ordinarily the only one on whom any real consequences of lateness fall. While there are exceptions, they are extremely bound up in unusual circumstances, such as the need for a book to be released on a certain date for marketing reasons. Or, all too frequently, a combination of the calendar and… well, the calendar:

    With celebs, there's usually a ghost involved, which can create further complication and delay. With P Diddy, the writer involved is Mikal Gilmore, brother of the more infamous Gary and author of an excellent book about him, Shot in the Heart: One Family's History in Murder. It seems author and ghost fell out before a word was written. Grey matter — or lack of it — can be another problem. Mick Jagger famously received a seven-figure advance to write his memoirs but later returned the money, saying he couldn't remember anything of significance. He was too busy living the 60s to recall them — and no ghost has been able to revive his memory.

  • This, of course, leads the the question of "What do authors do with all of that time on their hands?" It's not nearly as simple as that. Another article in today's Guardian focusses on YATAI (Yet Another Theory About Inspiration):

    One of the television scenes I love most is Alan Partridge trying to sell some ideas to a TV commissioner: his most desperate is monkey tennis. Sometimes when I write a proposal for a book I feel I am offering monkey tennis, because a novel can really only be described in terms of plot, and plot, in the TV sense, is very low down on my list of considerations. Occasionally I imagine Jeffrey Archer or Wilbur Smith making a detailed plan: villain seen in red sports car in Antibes; briefcase switched in the Ritz-Carlton by beautiful girl in hotpants whose uncle is the deposed president of Nicaragua, car chase, mercenary in prison escape, etc., until the resolution: sun going down over villa, champagne flowing like water… happiness guaranteed.

    Justin Cartwright, "First, Slice Your Author" (19 Feb 05). Sadly, the remainder of the article instead veers off the road (perhaps trailing after the Ferrari) into the author's muted lament that reviewers "aren't getting" his book. Nonetheless, having seen far too many proposals for books (and drafts of) books on monkey tennis, I think Mr Cartwright definitely has a point. My astute readers—given the reflexive and cross-cultural nature of this blawg, I have no other kind!—will no doubt catch on to the juxtaposition of this item with the previous one.

  • Today's NYTBR, though, contains two items that largely miss the point. The first concerns Disney's currently filming adaptation of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and careers even farther off the road than that Ferrari into speculations concerning how Disney might Disneyfy Lewis's work. He's so interested in setting up an opposition between the "overtly Christian" audience segment and those who aren't that he forgets about all of the other issues lurking inside Lewis's tortured—and, having read the entire series (apparently unlike the article's author), I use that word advisedly—reification of Christian faith. Although it was published fifth in the series, the third book chronologically (The Horse and His Boy) raises some very, very obvious anti-Islamic tensions that climax in the series's conclusion (The Last Battle); I think Disney is going to have a lot of trouble eliminating this in any attempt to pander to preconceived notions of religious propriety. Then there's the more subtle (and more "traditional") anti-Semitism found elsewhere in the series, not to mention the Dante-like adoption of Greco-Roman mythology. In any event, the article's emphasis on marketing misses the real points: That none of this can happen without permission from Lewis's estate, which has been relatively jealous in guarding his "vision;" and that we're worrying about the marketing implications of possible aspects of an adaptation before we really know what that adaptation has been.
  • Speaking of ill-advised marketing issues, though, Ben Yagoda's essay on "unfortunate" subtitles goes a lot farther toward rationality, but still misses the point. Most authors, readers, critics, etc. ignore trademark and branding issues in favor of defamation and copyright when they consider the publishing industry. If you read virtually any publishing contract, you'll discover that the publisher has the final approval on the title, and implicit approval on the imprint under which that title will be published. The contracts tend to be silent, however, on the author's name as a brand; nonetheless, there are bestselling authors today who could not publish under their natural names due to the poor sales of books under those natural names. (And this leaves aside the "house name," like "F.W. Dixon.") Yagoda's essay, though, doesn't adequately deal with the marketing purpose of subtitles. Instead, he is more concerned with elegant accuracy of representing the actual content of the book.

    Elongated voguish subtitles are harmless enough, but I miss the time, not so long ago, when it was possible for a book to go out into the world with only a strong title followed by a few hundred pages of outstanding writing. That was certainly the tack taken by most mid-20th-century nonfiction classics: Hiroshima, All the President's Men, The American Way of Death, The White Album, Elvis, Dispatches, Joe Gould's Secret, The Executioner's Song, Lillian Ross's Picture, The Right Stuff, The Soul of a New Machine, The Kingdom and the Power, just about everything ever written by John McPhee, and a book that, were it published today, would tote a subtitle like The True Story of How the Ivy League Elite Developed Strange Ideas About the World, Got America Into Vietnam, and Messed Up Foreign Policy for a Long Time. Back in 1972, David Halberstam called it The Best and the Brightest and then shut up.

    (typography corrected) What each of the selected titles has in common is an inherent cultural distinctiveness. That is, each functions as a brand name without resort to a subtitle. And, of course, each was published before the current domination of the publishing hierarchy by marketing dorks. That's not to say that marketing has never been a consideration—only that, until the mid-1980s, it was not the dominant consideration across the board.

  • And, last and probably least, we have another "identity" issue, returning across the pond to the Guardian. Those who follow the literary scene are probably all too aware of the proliferation of awards over the last few years, with their increasing insularity. In some instances, that has been the only real way for some outstanding work to get much, if any, recognition; the traditional awards system has even more blind spots than a man with a cataract in his only working eye. What the proliferation of awards has done, though, is made it that much more difficult to put works in context. Keep in mind that the Nobel Prize is awarded not to a work, but to an individual, and ordinarily for a body of work (not to mention ordinarily at the end of that individual's productive lifetime). Thus, the Booker Prize has added a new £60,000 prize for "international" works, and just announced its first shortlist (finalists). At the moment, it looks more like the return to clubbishness than a real attempt to place things in any kind of overall context, and resembles a privately judged equivalent of the Nobel more than anything else:

    The list verges on the elderly, with an average age of 74. The oldest is Mahfouz at 94, the youngest McEwan, whose novel Saturday is newly out, at 56. Dame Muriel Spark, 86, has been writing long enough to have been praised in the 1950s by Evelyn Waugh. The organisers have resisted the phrase "lifetime achievement award" to decribe the new contest, but the first entry comes close to it. In money the Man Booker ranks below the Nobel prize for literature at £750,000 and the Ireland-based Impac award at £71,000.

    (fake paragraphing removed for clarity) The assiduous may wish to compare and contrast this bit of news with the preceding three items, if that's not too much like work for a Saturday.