Thursday, July 02, 2009

Aesthetic Anomie: Why Good Books Don't Get Published

A lot of good books go unpublished. Of course, many more bad books meet the same fate. Ninety percent of the books submitted to agents and publishers are inept and unreadable and their oblivion is well deserved. But what about the other books? The good ones that don’t make it? Is there a reason, or is it just a matter of a too many submissions and too few readers to sort through the mass of material?

I think there’s more to it than that. Publishing professionals (and their peers in the movie industry) no longer trust their own opinions. There’s a famous story about Herman Mankiewicz having dinner with uber-mogul Harry Cohn. Cohn was explaining that he knew a film was too long because his posterior began to ache – and so would everyone else’s. “Imagine that,” Mankiewicz famously replied, “The whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass!” Those were the good old days, and Harry Cohn’s test was probably more reliable than all the audience testing and focus groups studios use now. A more appropriate story for today’s world involves the agent who receives a script, takes it home over the weekend and receives a call from the writer on Monday. Their now-legendary (possibly urban-legendary) conversation:

Writer: What did you think of the script?

Agent: I don’t know. I’m the only one who’s read it.

So have industry professionals just lost their independent judgment? No, it’s something else, something more insidious. Harry Cohn watched a movie with a certain aesthetic innocence – he styled himself as one more member of the audience, who felt more or less like all the others, as the comedy writer assumes the audience will laugh at the same lines that crack him up while he’s working. Maybe it’s because the stakes are so much higher, or the audience has become so fragmented, but that connection has broken down.

In 1893, French social scientist Emile Durkheim devised the concept of anomie. It defines a kind social deregulation. Life becomes more urbanized and complicated, old mores break down and people no longer knew what to expect from one another. What we face now is a kind of aesthetic anomie, where an editor cannot simply read a book and experience it as a reader, with the simple, even carnal pleasure that brought him (or her) into the business in the first place. That initial response becomes obscured by layers of speculative venality: conjectures about the salesman in his or her own company and beyond them, desperate, intuitive guesswork about the mass audience. Hence the famous rejections based on false suppositions: science fiction was “dead” until Star Wars came out. Westerns were extinct until Dances With Wolves brought them back to life. Michael Korda, the Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Shuster, rejected a novel of mine, which he claimed to admire, because his sales staff “couldn’t sell it.” I got this second-hand through my agent, but my immediate response was – maybe you should fire your salesmen instead of letting them over-rule your judgment. When even someone like Michael Korda abdicates to the bean-counters, the cancerous anomie in our creative life has clearly begun to metastacize.

Thirty years ago, Darcy O’Brien was sending out a novel called A Way of Life Like Any Other to publishers and getting rejected everywhere. One editor wrote back that he couldn’t see who the audience was for this particular book. O’Brien wrote back that identifying potential audiences wasn’t his job. His job was finding good books and publishing them. The man wrote back, with this memorable phrase: “Your letter fell point first on an exposed doubt.” Then, in a heroic blow against the forces of aesthetic anomie, he published the book. It’s still in print.

It was a lonely gesture, and it seems more isolated and even bizarre every year. But until agents and editors – and film producers and studio executives – stop trying to divine the unknowable taste and opinions of an unimaginable crowd of strangers, and begin again, simply responding to the story in front of them, it’s only going to get worse.

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