Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Scenes We'd Like to See #7: At the Publishing House

It’s the big Tuesday afternoon acquisitions meeting, and the whole editorial department, editors and junior editors, have gathered around the big conference table to try and convince the Sales and Publicity department to buy Turns in the Wauwinet Road, a new novel by Desmond Harris, whose last novel Panacea failed to live up to the promise of his smash debut, the 2004 Bascomb Prize-winning The Virgins of West Fourth Street.

Turns has a number of strikes against it, from the point of view of the sales mandarins: it’s long, almost twice as long as the accepted length -- 200,000 words, or around 550 pages, even with wide margins and small print. Paper is expensive and this is the age of the 140 character tweet: no one wants to read a long book any more. Any exception the editorial staff wheels out – A Suitable Boy, Lonesone Dove, Infinite Jest, A Man in Full will be contemptuously dismantled as the one that proves the rule. Besides – Harris is no Vikram Seth, no Larry McMurtry , no David Foster Wallace … and especially no Tom Wolfe. His last book flopped! It didn’t even earn out its advance! It’s been a long time since Virgins, which only took off after the movie version, anyway. No one made a movie out of Panacea (Cancer victims touring the third world looking for folk remedies and witch doctors? Please.) No one is going to make this sappy romance into a movie, either. One of the editors, the new guy, Paul Antonowsky, jokes, “Right -- it’s Bridges of Madison County meets To The Lighthouse.” But the bean-counters have never heard of Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece and think the editor is talking about some travel book. It’s not worth trying to explain, especially since Seth Glazer (the irritable new editor in chief) is glaring at him: a stare cold enough to frost a magnum of champagne, which he doesn’t have and isn’t likely to need any time in the near future. But Antonowsky has already kicked over another rock and there are more sales-related problems squirming around under there.

Doug Cranepool, the Head of Distribution and Sales, sums it up:The book is fancy. It’s confusing. It’s full of flashbacks and flash forwards and a flashbacks inside flashforwards – or something. The sales team can’t figure it out. They can’t sell it. The woman is a chain-jerking bitch, the hero is a spineless wimp. “No one’s gonna wanta spend three weeks reading about this geek who spends twenty years chasing some one- night stand he should have dumped the morning after he met her.”

Then Carol Toscana starts talking. She loves the book. It made her laugh and cry – sometimes in the same sentence. “That’s what I’m saying.” Cranepool pounces. “It’s confusing. Make me laugh. Or make me cry, You do both at once I don’t know what the fuck is happening. Pardon my French.”

“I had no idea you spoke French,” Carol says.

Seth Glazer gives her the stare.

She tries another tack: “It’s a book club book. It’s an Oprah book.”

“There aren’t any Oprah books anymore. That train left the station a year ago.”

“Okay, okay, but I mean – it’s a book women will love and talk about and give to their friends.”

“But we want people to buy it, not share it around. This little doorstop is gonna have to sell fifty thousand copies just to break even. And that aint happening.”

This all feels very familiar. Every editor at the table has had a favorite project shot down by this same crass calculus; and some of them have seen the rejected novels and memoirs go on to be huge successes for rival publishers. But that doesn’t seem to diminish the power of these squinting, passionless little pessimists, who everyone suspects never actually read at all.

Still, something is different today and that something is Seth Glazer, a recent hire from some little University Press, an author of a book on writing called “Hear Yourself Think” and before that a beloved and embattled Professor of English literature at Brandeis. No one is quite sure how he got the job, but he’s managed to scare everyone in the editorial department and all the editors are hoping he’ll do the same for Sales. They’ve been waiting for a month, but he’s been in Europe, at the Frankfurt Book Fair among other places. This is first acquisitions meeting.

And the wait is over.

“That’s enough,” he says. “I think we’ve gotten off on the wrong track. We’re all a little confused about our jobs. So I’m going to clear that up for you. The people on this side of the table are the editorial department of this venerable publishing house. They read through the hundreds of agent submissions we get every year and choose a few titles they think are worthy to be published. To do this they exert the full force of minds shaped by decades of word besotted reading, and top flight liberal arts educations, their critical acumen sharpened by the composition of critical theses and Doctoral dissertations on books like To the Lighthouse, which, I should like to make clear at this juncture, is not a picture book guide to Coastal Cape Cod. In short: they pick the books. Your job, gentlemen is to sell the books they pick. You are salesmen. You are neither professors nor critics. You job is not to analyze or interpret. Your job is to move merchandise. This is not an MFA workshop. It’s a business. When you tell me ‘I can’t sell that book’ you are saying that you expect to fail. Well, I expect you to succeed. The paper in front of you details our spring list, including Turns in the Wauwinet Road -- all 200,000 confusing pages of it. Your mission is simple: go out and sell these titles to bookstores. If you can do that, you will be good salesman, and I’ll make sure you get handsome bonuses at the end of the year. If you can’t do that, you will prove to me that you are in fact BAD SALESMEN and you will be fired. That is all. Go out and do your jobs. And never ever again pretend for one moment that you can do mine.”

The sales staff, dazed and humbled, shuffle out of the room. The editors break into spontaneous applause. Maybe they’ll have some use for that magnum of champagne after all.

Mildred Pierce: Masterpiece in the Making

The critical consensus on the Todd Haynes Mildred Pierce HBO miniseries that began on Sunday night (and continues for the next two weeks) is that it’s slow and plodding and unimaginatively faithful to a corny and old fashioned book. The critics unanimously prefer the 1945 movie, directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and starring Joan Crawford (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). The black and white film zips right along, they agree, not despite but because of the drastic changes wrought by Curtiz and a team of screenwriters that included an uncredited William Faulkner. They gutted the first half of the story and threw in a lurid murder to keep things moving. I guess they thought that Mildred’s story just wasn’t compelling enough to stand on its own, and today’s critics seem to agree.

For my money, they’re all wrong, all the way down the line.

I’ve only seen the first two parts, which take us about 125 pages into a roughly 300 page novel, but so far it’s spectacularly good, rigorously faithful to the James M. Cain novel yet visually gorgeous and flawlessly cinematic. There’s a general sense in Hollywood that being overly true to a n adapted book doesn’t work. Film versions of books as diverse as 1984 and The Great Gatsby and Sophie’s Choice seem to bear this out. But Cain was made for the movies. His dialogue snaps like a starched shirt in a stiff breeze. The blistering exchanges in the miniseries come directly from the book without one word altered. This exchange with Mildred’s neighbor Mrs Gessler, for instance, on the subject of Mildred’s recent divorce:

“I don’t know. I feel as though I’d picked his bones. First the kids, then his car, and now the house and -- everything he’s got.”

“Would you kindly tell me what good the house would do him? On the first call for interest he’d lose it, wouldn’t he?”

“But he looked so pitiful.”

“Baby, they all do. That’s what gets us.”

With her husband gone, Mildred needs a job and winds up working as a waitress. Her real skill is cooking – she sells pies and cakes out of her house. But she can’t make enough with small time catering to support her two children, Moire (called Ray) and Veda. Ray is a little spot of sunlight and the girl who plays her in the miniseries, Quinn McColgan, is fresh and funny and delightful She seems like an actual child, without the crust of precocious self-awareness that hinders so many other professional kids. Ray doesn’t even appear in the original film, so there’s no comparison to make in her case. But the rest of the cast shines in comparison to their predecessors. Guy Pearce as Monte Beragon makes his dissipated playboy both sad and glamorous in a way that Zahary Scott never managed. But of course the real casting coup of the new version is Kate Winslet.

Winslet is the opposite of Joan Crawford: where Crawford was cold, Winslet is warm; where Crawford was self-contained and calculating, you can see every emotion rising up inside Ms. Winslet and blooming on her face. You were a little scared of Joan Crawford; you fall in love with Kate Winslet -- and that makes all the difference.

This passion and transparency sharpens the scene where Veda confronts her mother about her job. Veda, a blithe arrogant little snob at age eleven, has given her mother’s waitress uniform to their house-keeper. The cruel, baiting justification: it couldn’t be Mildred’s, so why not give it away and put it to some use? They fight, Mildred spanks her, they both apologize and then you literally see the idea forming behind Winslet’s eyes, as Mildred realizes, in a dangerous flash of inspiration, the only way to win back Veda’s respect: she’ll start her own restaurant. Veda loves the idea; she knows there’s money there, and nothing else matters to her. Mildred is on a roll: she took the waitressing job to learn the business –- it’s research! And the funny thing is – she has learned the business. Watching Mildred become a skilled waitress has its own specific exhilaration. The second installment of the mini-series begins with her practicing the art of carrying four plates at once in her bedroom , her own plates weighed down with stones.

I hesitate to say more about the story itself, since despite the critical rap that the show is slow paced and uneventful, the first two hours feature a wild cascade of events, some thrilling, some tragic, with the highs and lows sometimes only moments apart. But events are just the superstructure, the rebar of plot. We care what happens to Mildred and her daughters because of the vivid characters, rendered through crackling dialogue, profoundly nuanced performances and meticulous direction. Todd Haynes shoots much of the movie through window glass or reflections in mirrors, keeping us at a crucial distance. We need to step away from the tragic parabola of Mildred’s life, it’s so much like our own – as lovers, as lonely divorced people, as parents, as workers struggling with an economy just like the one in the film. It’s eerily familiar that Mildred’s husband made and lost his fortune in a housing bubble grotesquely similar to our own.

We’re only two fifths of the way through the story. If Todd Haynes can maintain this level of passion and artistry and I suspect he can (Veda is about to grow up into a truly appalling Evan Rachel Wood), then HBO will be successful – Emmys for everyone -- and I’ll be happy. We’ll have a new version of record to replace the trashy Michael Curtiz version. And best of all -- James M. Cain would be proud.

Hate Month

March is Hate Month on Nantucket – miserable weather and cranky people and not enough money and too much to do.

That’s fine with me. I hate everything these days. I’ve become a hater. Hate is the new love. Hate is the new black. I hate republicans, wholly owned by corporate interests, who make obscenely rich greed monsters richer, I hate the greed monsters and their spoiled children and overweight entitled friends who make waitresses cry when their steak is over-cooked. I hate the steaks themselves, even though I eat them, and the industrial cattle processing with its sick cows and antibiotics and its lake sized waste pools.

I hate the corporations who take the tops off of mountains and the corporate spokesmen who explain why It’s okay. I hate the drugs they advertise on television with their freakish lists of side-effects and the doctors who prescribe them and the druggists who sell them and the suckers who ask their doctors if Dipraximil “is right” for them. The price is right, that’s all that matters.

I hate Democrats who pretend to be better than Republicans, and then do the exact same stuff because they’re owned by the exact same people. I hate the stupid reality shows on television and the bad comedies and the jaded pukes who write and direct them, and the fools who watch them. I hate other people’s dogs, crapping on the sidewalk. I hate my dog crapping on the rug.

I hate stupid people who think they’re smart and dull people who think they’re interesting. I hate people who think they can write, and people who think they can sing and people who think they can drive. Newsflash: your stories are trite, your song is off key and you’re supposed to signal before you switch lanes and cut me off. I hate the cars choking every highway in the country and I drive one so I hate myself, too. But not enough to ride a bike.

I hate 24-hour cable news channels that can only tell one story a day. There was a tsunami in Japan, but there was also a 100,000 person rally in Madison Wisconsin yesterday. I hate Scott Walker, taking out his tax breaks on working people and Chris Christie doing the same thing and all other politicians working like wage slaves for the top 400. I hate the top four hundred individual people who own half the wealth of this country. Let’s just give it all to them and they can be Pharaohs, with a nation of slaves. We can build their pyramids.

I hate the South. I hate the bigots who wish they still had slavery, and the slimy rhetoric they use to cover that up. I hate the Supreme Court. I hate Scalia and his lapdog Clarence Thomas especially. I hate all branches of government now.

I hate cops and I hate criminals. I hate everyone who gets a perverted kick out of exercising any little trivial power they have over someone else. I hate insurance agents and DMV clerks and elementary school crossing guards. You don’t get a pass because you’re protecting the children, asshole . I hate the new religion of protecting the children. I hate the body armor they have to wear just to ride a bike. I hate new parents who think they did something special. You didn’t. You did the most ordinary thing on the face of the earth. I hate people abuse kids and people who neglect kids and people who brag about their kids and people who encourage their kids for doing nothing, “Oooo, what a good breath you took, Bobby! You’re the best breather in the whole world! You’re going to get a big gold breathing star and some cake!” I hate cake, and all the stuff that pretends not to be cake, like muffins. Muffins are cake. Corn bread is cake. Don’t eat it for breakfast. I hate eating. I hate the tyranny of it. We’re all addicts. “Oooo, if I don’t get more food I’ll die.” I hate grocery stores with that blood-sucking lighting and over air-conditioned climate control, and seeing all the people I don’t want to talk to in the vegetable aisle. I hate the industrial vegetables they sell and the waxed fruit. When was the last time you got a decent apple at the grocery?

I hate the seasons, and I especially hate the change of seasons. I hate daylight savings time. I just lost an hour of my life again. So I get it back in the fall? Who cares? Daylight Savings should be for those industrial farmers only. I hate winter, it’s cold and miserable. I hate summer just as miserable but hot. I hate spring -- it makes me want things I can’t have any more. I hate autumn -- it reminds me of death, and I hate death more than anything. I hate snow, it’s just about shoveling and trudging and watching little kids have fun and feeling old. I hate rain, it just means leaks and floods and water down your back and wet socks. I hate sunny days, too, Blue skies – is that really the only color they could come up with? Sunny days make me want to stay home from work and play; rainy days make me want to stay home from work and read in front of a fire. So I guess I hate work most of all. And I hate being lazy, but I don’t have the energy to change.

I even hate ranting about how much I hate everything. Hate is exhausting, I don’t know how all those ‘hate groups’ manage it. Hate is a full time job. The pay is terrible. No benefits. No overtime. No vacations. To hell with it. I quit.

I’ll start loving things again. I’ll start over, starting now. I’ll start with good coffee and some high speed internet.

We’ll see how long it lasts.

American Idol: The Good, The Bad and the Off-Key

It was a long slog tonight on the 'big stage', with good singers choosing bad songs and bad singers making random noise that involved dramatic runs, emotive squinting and trite gestures. The gap is widening between the talented singers and the stage weight.

The nadir of the evening had to be Thia Megia sounding pathetically clueless, calling Carlie Chaplin Charlie "Chapman" and obviouslyhaving no idea who he was. He wrote the song you're singing, sweetie. He also happens to be one of the most significant figures in the history of film ... which does extend back before 1990.Tough to believe! But most of these kids have never even heard a Beatles tune. As far as her singing goes ...Thia has a pleasant, unremarkable voice. I can hear Simon snarling "Forgettable".

I'm writing on Wednesday night because I'm sure I'll forgotten most of these kids' performances by tomorrow morning.

The other losers -- Ashthon Jones, singing a tedious Diana Ross song in a dress so unflattering it belonged on the red carpet at some interminable awards show; Karen Rodriguez wheezing through an unintelligible Selena number, Pia Toscana singing some generic song in a generic dress looking generically pretty and bringing to mind e.e.cumming's famous adage, "The opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic.Pia was a major shot of novocaine last night ... which came in handy when listening to Stefano and Naima. Stefano sang a bad Stevie Wonder song, prancing around the stage with moves he must have learned by correspondence course; Naima was even more energetic but she seems to have learned the lyrics phonetically. She did make me appreciate the difficulty of singing and dancing at the same time -- a problem many professionals solve by lip-synching. Alas, Naima wasn't permitted this option.

I don't even know what Paul MacDonald did, or what he was singing, but it looked bizarre and sounded original, which is more than I can say for most of the other singers. The jury is still out on this oddball.

Lauren Alaina was fun, singing a throw-away Shania Twain song (She's really your favorite singer? That's tragic) and Haley covered a La Ann Rimes cover of a little known Patsy Cline tune. To her credit, she seemed to know that. She even knew who Patsy Cline was. Good for her.

Scotty Mcreery chose to perform a Garth Brooks dirge. Too bad because Garth Brooks is just bad -- or, not even bad, just boring and mediocre and over-rated. How about some George Jones next time, Scotty? Or Willie Nelson or Hank Williams? Or anyone other than Garth Brooks? That was a waste of talent, and unlike the judges, I sensed that Scotty felt uncomfortable up there for the first time.

Jacob Lusk sang a forgettable R Kelly song, with a full chorus. He's obviously a show favorite; and he's good, but he too needs better material.

The clear winners were Casey Abrams and James Durbin, both doing Beatles songs. Casey sang "A Little help from My Friends" and chaneled Joe Cocker, right down to the arm gestures. Durbin did McCartney and sounded great.

So ...an uneven group with a clear top six who need to find some decent songs next week. And the judges need to get tough. Even Iovine, who was supposed to be the imported hard-ass, has nothing but mild praise for everyone. It's sweet enough to put the average viewer into a diabetic coma. Simon Cowell was the insulin, and I need an IV drip after this love-fest.

Apparently the show wasn't live tonight. No one was 'ready', they said. Who cares? Some chaos and mistakes would have livened things up a little.

Go live, or go home.

Most of all don't lie about it. The kids struggled like professionals tonight.

The amateurs were behind the camera.

Trickle-Down Economics, the Weather Channel & Me

It seems like a trivial matter, but the Weather Channel has changed it’s format: “Local on the Eights”, at least in my locality, has become “National on the Eights” with high tech graphics, glittery rhomboid flip screens, statistics about every city and section of the country … everything but the one thing I watch the Weather Channel to see: my local weather. Wind advisories, tide charts, sunrise and sunset times and what the chances are for a snow storm tomorrow. I have no idea why the geniuses at the Weather Channel made this change, though it seems to fit in with several general patterns: new is better, shiny video is more fun than information, and the problems and even the weather of any given small community just doesn’t really matter.

What really hit home, what made the issue seem so much more significant, was my response: I grumbled and complained and continued to watch. What was I supposed to do? Send an e-mail, write a letter to some monolithic media corporation owned by some other even more monolithic multinational corporation, and ask them to accommodate me? They have no interest in accommodating me. It’s a perfect metaphor , it sums up everything else, all the economic and political dead ends our country has built for itself since the end of World War II, when Dwight Eisenhower warned against the “military industrial complex”. Well, it’s the military-political-industrial-media complex now, with the same goals but with vastly more sophisticated tools at its command. I’m told to vote, but in my bones I know my vote means nothing and that even if I went in to politics and gave my liofe to the kind of change I long for, I would probably wind up like those Wisconsin Democrats, fleeing my own state to fight legislation I loathe and despise. Today I read that those brave legislators will soon return, the dreaded quorum will be achieved and Governor Scott Walker’s cruel, senseless union busting budget plan will be forced on the electorate of that bruised and battered state. And why? To solve a budget crisis? There would be no budget crisis if not for Walker’s scandalous tax cuts. But that’s the old voodoo economics, the trickle down hat trick: starve the beast. Suck the treasury dry with tax cuts then claim poverty and sacrifice the working poor to balance the budget. And this is no conspiracy, no secret plan hatched by a shadowy cabal in a back room. They brag about it!What did George Bush say at one of his fund raisers "The rich asnd the super rich ... or as I call them: my base."

The worst part is, I’m one of the few people in the nation who actually benefits from trickle down economics – these titans of economic fraud, these beneficiaries of global ponzi schemes, take their blackmail bailout money from the taxpayers and write themselves giant bonuses and spend the booty on – renovating their summer houses, among other indulgences. They hire me to paint the new kitchen and strip the floors of the new addition and so I find myself in the perverse position of rooting for them to stay wealthy and keep gutting the rest of the country. Supposedly 400 people have as much wealth and property as half of the rest of the population combined. What’s scarier than that statistic? Most of them summer on Nantucket.

And I make my living off of them. But my livelihood actually refutes the whole sleazy theory. These new hedge fund robber barons aren’t taking their ill-gotten gains and starting new businesses, and opening new factories and “innovating” and expanding the economy. They’re faux-painting the guest cabin on their new yacht. Like a dog’s favorite tree, I happen to be in the direct line of fire of that famous trickle. Everyone else just continues to suffer with the dead grass, the poisoned soil and the reek of waste.

In other eras, this kind of wanton savage greed eventually brought down corrupt regimes whether it was the court of the Russian Czar or Louis the 14th. . But those oligarchs were crude and inept. They didn’t have KFC and flat screen TVs and the NFL. They understood the “bread and circus’ concept but could never perfect it in practice. They had propaganda, but they didn’t have the ubiquitous media chorus big money can buy today. It seems like they may have finally created the thousand year Reich. Only the total collapse of the system, when there is no more tax money to bail out the next mindless orgy of naked avarice, or when the ecosystem collapses from limitless abuse can bring this power structure down, and the sad truth is, it will take all of us with it when it goes.

The only hope I can see is to outlaw political ads on television, as cigarette ads were outlawed so long ago. This would put a chisel into the works of a finely tuned mechanism: if politicians could be independent if they didn’t need the millions and millions and millions of dollars they spend on grotesque attack spots like this one:

“Steven Axelrod says he’d ‘blog for free’ but he accepts ‘tips’ and runs ads between his posts! What else is he lying about? Steven Axelrod: bad for Open Salon, bad for the Internet, Bad for America. I’m anonmyous and I approved this ad.”

Without the cash sucking black hole of televion attack ads, politicians could campaign the old fashioned way and govern the country according to their actual beliefs and the needs of their constituents, not the whims of the Proprietors who hold the wallet and the remote.

But that will never happen. So I’ll just continue to scribble the occasional rant here, and watch the Weather Channel. It’s scary out there – lots of floods and hurricanes and tornadoes. Thank goodness for Jim Cantore and the gang. I have no idea what the humidity or the temperature is on Nantucket this morning, but it’s 56 degrees in Detroit and there’s a chance of rain in Atlanta.

I guess I’ll have to settle for that.