Tuesday, November 20, 2007


The other day I “hit the jackpot” on the Internet and “won” a $500 shopping card at Target. This turned out to be a “catchpenny strategy” as Michael Allen would put it, and I’ve been flooded with spam -- NO shopping card. But Michael Allen offered to send readers of his blog “grumpy old bookman” free copies of his books and he DID!

The one I was after was “The Truth about Writing: An Essential Handbook for Novelists, Playwrights and Screenwriters” which comes from his long experience in all these media. His Table of Contents suggests his approach: Ch. 1: What do writers want? and Ch. 2: Are they likely to get it? He’s quite serious about both questions, recommending deep introspection in the first case and serious scepticism in the second.

But the chapter I found most crucial was “How the Publishing Industry Works or Not, as the Case May Be.” Since I’m staring “or not” in the eye, this is highly useful. Luckily, it’s also amusing if one doesn’t mind a little bitterness. Consider the case of the author whose book had just gotten to the bookstores: he hadn’t seen it yet and early readers remarked several times, “Up to your usual standard -- but the ending is rather unresolved.” Turned out that the printer had left off the last two chapters in every single copy and the publisher never noticed.

Allen’s basic premise is that NO publisher knows what will be a best seller, therefore they print what’s most like the last success they stumbled upon or else work by people they know -- and simply hope for the best, which is not what happens. Meanwhile, because of the public’s conviction of the omniscience and power of publishers leading to marvelous rewards, the proposed manuscripts come tumbling in the door in floods, rarely to be read or even noted. It’s all simply an illusion. The glamorous model of Maxwell Perkins taking an interest in creating a classic novel out of Tom Wolfe’s haystack of impressions is a hoax.

The gradual realization of this basic fact is causing publishers to erode, disperse, and gobble each other up. In the meantime, the failure of schools is causing manuscripts to be unreadable even if anyone ever tried. Allen notes that publishers are saving money by out-sourcing the discovery of talent to agents, often editors who lost their jobs. What he doesn’t note is a little hustle I ran across: the agent who “has a friend” who will play Maxwell Perkins and “clean up” your book for you -- at a price.

To Allen, best sellers are created by word-of-mouth and w-o-m is created by emotional response in READERS -- not in the author or even the characters. If readers feel moved, they tell others. He has some practical ideas about emotion in writing. He has no use for the hierarchical notions of “high” literary writing versus “low” genre and no doubt that there’s a phallocratic element at work. Fine art is the work of gentlemen and trash is the messy product of women. Isn’t that right?

Two chapters speak directly to practicalities: “How to Find the Energy for Writing” and “How to Find the Time to Write.” I was quite moved that his authority figures in these matters included Adele Davis and her recipe for “Pepup” which I tried myself in the Sixties or Lakein and his recommendations for time management, which I internalized long ago -- but ignore now that I’m retired.

The near-last chapter is the one that is most eloquent for me now: “Success varies according to Circumstance.” And no one has control of circumstance, whether it is the chance reading of the manuscript by a person who appreciates it or the Bush-triggered erosion of the dollar that is confusing sales across the 49th parallel at the moment -- to say nothing of indignation already introduced by buying books on-line with no regard for national origin, thus ignoring the “gentlemen’s agreements” that have always loaded Canadian airport bookstores with US bestsellers while absolutely stopping all Canadian lit at the border.

My own predicament is so complex that it gives me stomach pangs to think about it. Consider:

1. The Montana Historical Society desperately needs a new building. Their choice of where to build is being forced by Jan. 31. They will be very much tempted to raid the Scriver Estate for money, which means they’d just as soon everyone forgot all about him or thought of him as “minor”. Since they’ve neglected to even unpack the estate, they were well on their way to blanking him out. Don’t admit you read the book!
2. The CM Russell Museum was tricked out of its share of the Scriver estate. They are sore and very curious as to clues about how this might have happened. Read the book and take notes!
3. Because I am the third ex-wife of Bob Scriver, followed by an alcoholic common-law wife who was the widow who conveyed the estate, the potential for imputing motives and mischief to me is high. But the fact that I was an ordained minister for ten years rather compromises that. Being a Unitarian has some potential for character assault, but the founder of Great Falls, Paris Gibson, and many other sterling Montana characters were also Unitarian. Read the book and cherry-pick the stories.
4. The Blackfeet complicate everything and they are central to this story. Read the book and assume they won’t.
5. Since both the stock market and real estate appear to be tanking, art is hotter than hot as an investment. Should a person invest in Scriver bronzes? Read the book.
6. Maurice Chaillot, Bob’s brother-in-law by the second marriage, remarked at Bob’s death that his reputation would sink for ten years -- then he would be re-discovered and crowned a genius. That’s just about how long the interval has been. Just buy the book -- who cares if you read it?

Stuff like this will definitely affect sales. Clearly, people who have read the manuscript found that it evoked emotions. It is not “high lit” nor is it trashy tell-all. So that part is probably sound. But is no guarantee. The business model is the weakest part of the Circumstance: a small academic press badly overmatched by a digitizing and much less Anglophile world than they expect. One of Michael Allen’s successes has been workshops for teaching publishing staff what their jobs are supposed to accomplish. I fear this is doing to be what authors need to do for a while. Until we figure out how to self-publish and market.

In short, I found that I had a strongly postive emotional response to this book (I laughed -- I cried!) and my word-of-mouth recommendation is to get it, even if you have to buy it. www.grumpyoldbookman.blogspot.com


Whisky Prajer said...

I've been mulling over your throw-away provocation, re: the phallocratic element at work: "Fine art is the work of gentlemen and trash is the messy product of women." I realize you're just being cheeky, but even as a joke the equation struck me as so incredibly wrong I had to scratch my head to figure out my (non-plussed) reaction to it. Consequently I now propose that the Canadian Literature Theory is the exact reversal of this sentiment. Up here we don't have one male author whose work is acknowledged across the board as "litter-at-choor." Three Dead Guys -- Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley and Mordecai Richler -- once qualified, but they've been consistently re-evaluated to the point where no-one up-and-coming consciously seeks to emulate their example. Up here it's all women, all the time: among the living we still have giants Mavis Gallant, Alice Munroe and the ever-present Margaret Atwood -- recognized not just by our local-yokels, but by our snooty former colonizers, too. In other words so far as Canadians are concerned, writin' is wimmins work. Men are welcome to give the crime genre a try, but unless they're gay, their work doesn't stand a chance at gaining public acclaim.

prairie mary said...

Whisky, I got a similar reaction from a woman in Calgary, who gave me a list of fine female writers.

But the truth is that in Western Canada, the read and revered writers are mostly men: WO Mitchell, Wiebe,et al. Maybe they aren't so exciting recently. Still, I think the Toronto vs. Prairie factor is as strong or stronger than gender.

Prairie Mary

Whisky Prajer said...

Zealous to get in the last word (or just to produce words for their own sake) I went ahead and quoted you entirely out of context, then repeated the favour for Mr. Allen, and ran with it here. If you two decide to take me to court, give me a little advance notice and I'll take you out for dinner/drinks afterwards.

prairie mary said...

Prajer, given the distances involved and my newly ascetic diabetic dietetic practices, your penalty is entirely too self-serving!

I sentence you to writing a fresh new short story that a woman might enjoy!

Prairie Mary