Balzac, William Cooper, Howard Jacobson and the Rest of Us on Publishing

"Lost Illusions' illustration by Francis Mosley

“Lost Illusions’ illustration by Francis Mosley

Let’s allow the publishers their fatuous make-believe:  they never do read any books, otherwise they wouldn’t publish so many!”–Balzac’s Lost Illusions

Balzac, William Cooper, and Howard Jacobson have written satirically in their fiction about the publishing business.

Lucien, the up-and-coming hero of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, abandons his literary talent for the instant gratification of journalism:  publishers in nineteenth-century Paris pay newspaper editors for good reviews, and if they don’t pay up, the reviews are negative. This journalistic power seems normal to Lucien, who can grind out 30 articles in a day under pseudonyms to support his gambling habit and high-society incursions.

Joe Lunn, the novelist narrator of William Cooper’s charming 1983 novel, Scenes from Later Life, explains that the success of a book, and especially his new book, “was more likely than not decided long before it was actually published,” because advertising is as necessary as reviews and his publisher won’t advertise.

Zoo TimeGuy Ableman, the novelist narrator of Howard Jacobson’s boisterous publishing satire, Zoo Time, blames book groups, three-for-twos, and the internet for the death of reading.  His books aren’t available in bookstores, and he is arrested for shoplifting one of his own books from Oxfam.  His publisher commits suicide, depressed by the new dependence of success on “blags” and “twits.”

Over the centuries, thousands of writers have inveighed against the publishing industry.  Of the three I mention, Balzac’s accusations are the most outrageous, but the even-tempered Cooper is also cynical about the future of literature, and witty Jacobson blames the gullibility of readers as much as he blames publishers and editors for trying to market books to readers on the net.

We feel like insiders when we read novels about writers and publishers.  Aha!  So that’s how it is.

Edouard Monet Woman writingNewspapers are folding, publishers merge, e-books outsell books, writers have to tweet to sell books, and desperate literary writers invest in a “Freedom” app to keep them from surfing the internet when they should be writing.

Books are our most precious artifacts. Have they gotten worse? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

I don’t have the faintest idea what goes on in New York and have no ax to grind, but I have struck out with a couple of new short story collections this spring, cannot imagine what my friend sees in the latest “literary masterpiece” by X, and think of permanently reverting to science fiction, a genre which “is what it is,” and which I say I like but read remarkably little of.

On the other hand, there are still Michael Chabon, Margaret Drabble, Hilary Mantel, A. M. Homes, Amitav Ghosh, and countless other great writers.  So, as Dorothy Parker put it, and this is out of context: “You might as well live.”

It is much easier in the Back of Beyond to understand the decline of journalism than to understand book publishing.  We are all witnesses to the death of the American newspaper.  And for a number of years I freelanced, so I was an insider-outsider.

It happened accidentally.

After attending a writers’ conference where the acclaimed teacher/writer forbade the use of adjectives, adverbs, participles, relative pronouns, flashbacks, and exposition in fiction, my short stories read like action-packed telegraph messages but my style was well-suited for journalism.

I began to write what I call “bubble-gum journalism.”

There was no pressure, because it was not immortal prose.

In the course of many pleasant years, I wrote charming articles about poetry slams, frozen custard, winter camping, bike messengers, birdwatching, bookstores, book-touring writers, gentrification, sculpture gardens, and farmers’ markets.

The editors were kind, if gloomy to a Dickensian degree.  Generally they were sensible, but you had to watch your back.   If they forgot to change the jokey title of your article on edgy fashions from “Courtesan Couture:  Lay Lamé Lay” to a more acceptable headline, you would find yourself apologizing to the hysterical mother of the 40-year-old woman who had worn the gold lamé tube top and hot pants to the Elton John concert.

With so many newspaper writers fired and early-retired, approximately four people now write the entire paper here.  It is said to be like the House of Borgia, without Borgias.

I love books, newspapers, and magazines and don’t think about them in terms of the publishing business.

But we will all regret it if the business kills the publications.

Let’s hope it won’t.

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