Maxwell Perkins Is Not Going To Save You
First of all, this in response to the article what inspired this.

Most of this we're going to ignore in favor of talking about Maxwell Perkins, of course.

Maxwell Perkins is the Santa Claus of the literary world. His elves are everywhere, living in magical cubicles in the Random House building, shoes curled and hair frosted like a candy cane. They see everything you do and if you write work that furthers the Great Work of World Literature, they'll reward you with presents and advances. If you write work that is merely honest they'll punish you with coal and a service industry job for the rest of your life. You go to sleep with your manuscript under your pillow, dreaming that Maxwell Perkins will come down the chimney and tuck a contract, a revised draft, and a fifth of bourbon.

It does not matter if your work is good or not, though of course it is; what an assertion. Maxwell Perkins can make it good. He made Thomas Wolfe--one of the most unreadable writers in the history of American prose, the man who took In Search Of Lost Time, ignored all the good parts, and said "Here is what the world needs: a tedious and hyperbolic description of my life"--Perkins made this man a superstar. He did this by sheer force of will and the willingness to cut tens of thousands of words from a self-insertion autobiographical saga about the Midwest.

Maxwell Perkins made F. Scott Fitzgerald into F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Every writer dreams about a Maxwell Perkins who will read them and understand not only How Good They Are but How Good They Could Be. No one is above this or indifferent to this. You can't be indifferent to the idea of Literary Greatness any more than you could be indifferent to someone hitting on you at a bar. Only Maxwell Perkins is better because he's not hitting on your wealth or your hair; he's hitting on your soul. He thinks you could go to heaven with a little spit and shine.

If you look into a mirror with a pot of ink in your hand and a journal in your heart-side pocket and you blink and you wish and you go to bed without a fuss, Maxwell Perkins can make your dreams come true.

Maxwell Perkins is long dead. Fitzgerald died obsessively rewriting the Pat Hobby stories and haunting the Bank of America in Culver City looking for advance money. Literary Greatness 1920s style is nonsense, and by thinking otherwise we're preventing publishing from working in any way.

Here is the problem with modern publishing: it is an unwholesome mix between those who love money and those who love and want to further Serious Literature. Publishers are copy machines; making money on books allows more books to be copied. The money people understand this, even if they must--in order to be effective at all--remain totally indifferent to where the money comes from beyond noticing new sources of money and making an effort to tap into those sources of money.

To direct the beast of publishing toward those new sources of money, money people require the services of the editorial department. The job of editors since Perkins has been to read manuscript submissions, to find work of genius, and to throw money at it until the business expands.

Here are two problems with this system:

- It by no means follows that "work of genius" is what generates additional money so that the copying service can remain in business.
- Editors have no idea what "work of genius" is.

The first point is pretty obvious. The second point seems a lot less obvious (and a lot more whiny) than it really is. Let's explain it further by making a mean-spirited proclamation:

Literary genius is not a renewable resource.

By this I don't mean that we've somehow become so blinded and bamboozled and blunted by the Demon World of Image that we can no longer produce complicated work on the level of Joyce or Faulkner or even that cad, Fitzgerald. We can produce complicated novels. We can incorporate magical realism and other post-national, post-colonial tropes to make our work deeper and more sustained. We can write Literary Novels in our sleep. They are all beautiful, according to the people who work in the bookstore and who get discounts on everything, and none of them sell very well.

Have you ever seen an Elvis impersonator? What about actual footage of Elvis? Can you tell the difference between these two things?

Suppose your entire career was staked on the assumption that you could. Not only that, but it's staked on the assumption that Elvis is going to appear Your job is to sit at the airport in Nevada looking at people really closely, and once in a while, going up to one, knocking off his fedora, and screaming J'ACCUSE. And giving him a million dollars in hopes that he will perform for you.

What if your entire career was staked on one claim: I can recognize genius when I see it. What's more, I can recognize a new genius roughly every five years, market it, and make you a lot of money at the same time.

My favorite part of the infamous NY Mag article: the last page, where we see the four books on which big publishing has staked all of its hopes and dreams. Take a look! Or just read the recap here:

- Another big novel about doomed love and time travel ($1.25 million)
- Two biographies about Famous People, a financier and a swimmer or something ($8.6 million total)
- The biography of a kitten who lived in a library ($1.25 million)

Do you sometimes feel that the news is a prank? Do you wonder what the next two hours were like for the editorial executive who sat through negotiations at Grand Central and finally said "All right, fine" to Dewey: A Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched The World. I imagine that he went into the bathroom and ran his hands under very cold water for two minutes longer than he had to, then he drove to the supermarket to pick up a pre-barbecued chicken for he and his wife for dinner, and when he was standing by the conveyor belt next in line to pay he set it down because it felt too heavy for him to carry any more and he stared at the pharmacy counter until the clerk told him for the third time to swipe his card, sir, and he said What is the point.

But the interesting one here is the doomed love piece, The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson.

Admittedly, I haven't read The Gargoyle beyond the free excerpt in the NY Times, which begins like this:

Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love.

That's the definition of the word accident, yes. It is something you do not expect, or "suspect." I usually think it is mean to pick on people's sentences one by one, but this is such a perfect example of The Genius First Sentence that it deserves to be picked on, picked at, torn apart, slashed to ribbons, left for dead in a pile of blood and meat in the gutter.

You can read the first chapter here if you want. It doesn't get better, despite its making plenty of these little flails at profundity: the dead skin wrapped around the burn victim in an IRONIC marshalling of SPECIFIC DETAILS THAT NOT MANY PEOPLE KNOW with a keen use of TECHNICAL LANGUAGE. The character is also a porn star or something, which is a very MODERN occupation, one at the CROSSROADS OF HUMANITY, PRIVACY, COMMERCE AND POWER.

One thing that is endearing to me (as someone who is editing a novel right now) are the little stabs of first-novel "Oh shit, how do I write a novel" anxiety. For example:

I imagine, dear reader, that you've had some experience with heat. Perhaps you've tipped a boiling kettle at the wrong angle and the steam crept up your sleeve; or, in a youthful dare, you held a match between your fingers for as long as you could. Hasn't everyone, at least once, filled the bathtub with overly hot water and forgot to dip in a toe before committing the whole foot? If you've only had these kinds of minor incidents, I want you to imagine something new.

(That "dear reader"!)

Davidson goes on to imagine what it must be like to be in a car wreck, pretty much as most of us would: imagine a stove, imagine your hand being stuck on it, etc. He knows that he has to really Speak To The Senses here, really Evoke An Experience. Then there's this:

I have no idea whether beginning with my accident was the best decision, as I've never written a book before. Truth be told, I started with the crash because I wanted to catch your interest and drag you into the story. You're still reading, so it seems to have worked.

The most difficult thing about writing, I'm discovering, is not the act of constructing the sentences themselves. It's deciding what to put in, and where, and what to leave out. I'm constantly second-guessing myself. I chose the accident, but I could just as easily have started with any point during my thirty-five years of life before that. Why not start with: "I was born in the year 19â€", in the city ofâ€""?

One and a quarter million dollars paid for this kind of writing. Why?

I don't believe it was the cynical idea that readers will just pay attention to the time travel, the schizophrenic girl, the gargoyles in the basement and the other fun topics and ignore the rest of the book. The idea to spice up your writing with time machines and stuff is not by any means a new or exciting development, and I have to believe that there are at least 100 manuscripts on an editor at Doubleday's desk that combine fun sci-fi themes with Deadly Serious Literary Technique. I have to believe that there are at least 1,000 manuscripts on an editor at Del Rey's desk that combine these things, and do so with more attention paid to both entertaining pacing and the question of How Human Beings behave.

All The Gargoyle has going for it--based, again, on just that first chapter; I haven't read the whole book, but then again neither did the money men who approved the million-plus-dollar advance--all The Gargoyle has going for it is some extra European history, the always-appealing Madman theme, and a strained parallel to Dante's Inferno. (Check out the part in Chapter One about how putting your hand on the stove is like being burned by the Nine Rings of Hell, because there are nine rings on a stove burner! Although that's not actually true.)

This is not a cynical pander-to-the-idiot-masses-ha-ha-look-at-them-with-their-summer-blockbusters-and-their-Dan-Brown editorial pick. The Gargoyle, from synopsis and summary alone, has all the ingredients of a Modern Big Masterpiece. Based on the first chapter, I judge that it is consciously written with the tastes of Magic Max Perkins and his saintly modern heirs firmly in mind. It is written for Literary Posterity and the extent to which it does this is the extent to which it fails and appears ridiculous. (Cross-gartered, Malvolio!)

So one of two things must hold.

- The editors at Doubleday believe that the public, being stupid, will in significant numbers mistake this book for Midnight's Children or something else that involves magic and crazy folks and stuff like that.
- The editors at Doubleday have mistaken this book for Midnight's Children and seriously believe that they will make back the one and a quarter million dollars that they have already spent on it.

I kind of hope (1) is true, because it means that the staff at Doubleday is just openly evil. Openly evil people are at least consistent and at least have tangible goals--money--that you can sometimes profit from by association.

But if (2) is true--if the editors at Doubleday mean well by throwing money at this book--then we're perhaps doomed as far as having a large, globe-spanning copy machine and distribution service goes.

In conclusion:

- The world of literary publishing is throwing million-dollar advances on masterpieces-by-numbers because they trust the judgment of their editorial staff.

- Editors are collaborating because they want to be Maxwell Perkins.

- Writers are collaborating because they want to be loved by Maxwell Perkins.

When you are dancing at a wedding it's because you're drunk and you're desperate and for a few moments you don't care; you're going to have a good time. The quality in your dance is the only valuable quality. Somehow in the world of literature this valuable quality has been assigned an actual value, thanks to the work of Max Perkins and a thousand modern literary critics. Careers and millions of dollars depend on us all being willing to honor that made-up value. But if we can't sustain it, then it was a mistake to value it the way we did in the first place.

And it's a mistake to make an editorial career depend more on finding genius regularly than on buying books that can sell modestly and promoting them modestly, on financial responsibility and making sure that the copy machine brings in more money than it pays out.

Posted by future on Tue, 23 Sep 2008 13:22:33 -0400 -- permanent link

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