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The Recalcitrant Scrivener


From the Introduction
It isn't necessarily accurate to say that the worse a novel is, the more copies it will sell. But that is more often true than the reverse. This state of affairs is usually attributed to the taste of the reading public. I would suggest that the decaying taste of agents, editors, and publishers is every bit as much to blame. Call this deformation professional if you wish, or "the myopia problem." These are people who should know better.

From "Random Thoughts"
What intrigues me about the Random House headquarters on 55th Street and Broadway is that here is a publishing company that actually appears to pay homage to its past and to the titles it has published. Walk into the lobby and you will be met by a vision of hardcover books, their jackets facing out from behind plexiglas: Doctor Faustus, Ulysses, Ellison's Invisible Man, The Big Sleep, Mencken's American Language, Freud's Moses and Monotheism, Thunder on the Left by Christopher Morley, Rudyard Kipling's Verse, and The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes, to name just a few. On the other side of the room, you would see Shelby Foote's three-volume Civil War history, Portnoy's Complaint, and In Cold Blood, among others.

One could almost be in a bookshop that sold twentieth century first editions. The security guard lets you know that you aren't. As a friend of mine has pointed out, a lot of dreck was no doubt also published back then, roughly 1927 to 1970. Nevertheless, the standard is pretty damn high.

From "Publishing Kingpin"
The publishing company I worked for was the once venerable firm of Grosset and Dunlap, then located in the New York Life Building. Grosset was on its last legs, living off its back list, which included the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew for younger readers, Berlitz language titles, astrology books, cook books, and yes, celebrity biographies. The management had given up on the idea of publishing adult fiction, presumably because they were incapable of selecting titles that would sell. Not even their celebrity biographies sold—few made back their advance. No personal computers yet, but clunky IBM electric typewriters and a moderate amount of cigarette smoke framed the office.

From "The Issue of Pacing"
Many people in publishing appear to have an obsession with pacing. Their fear is that today's readers will lose interest if they are not immediately sent on a linear trajectory, that we are all afflicted with a severe form of ADD. They fail to realize that what intensely interests one reader will completely bore another. Each reader is different, an idea that is anathema to marketing people and to sociologists.

In the Postscript to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco reveals how he had to fight to be allowed to keep the first hundred, deliberatively slow-paced pages of his novel intact. His aim was to immerse the reader in the daily routine of a medieval monastery without advancing the plot to any appreciable degree. Eco's reputation in Italy was such that he was ultimately permitted to do this. It is virtually impossible to imagine an American writer being allowed to do so. Neither Henry James nor Proust would be published in today's environment.

From "Who Rejected These Novels?"
I would like to believe that at least one or two editorial assistants or lower-level editors fought for these manuscripts and were shot down by the people above them ("Who is the audience for this novel?"), but I have my doubts.

The major book publishers cannot have it both ways. They cannot dedicate themselves to the maximization of unit sales and still claim a role as the gatekeepers of literary culture. At this stage of the game, book publishing and literature are mutually exclusive terms.


© 2013 Steven Fraccaro