There's No Accounting for Taste; or: "'Subjectivity' for $500, Alex"--Mad Max Finally Speaks in His Own Defense
Or perhaps I should say: broccoli rabe, collared greens, zuccini. Because, while there is (to my knowledge) no individual or coalition thereof who couldn't find something satisfactory in a presentation of peaches, pears & chocolate eclairs, I can think of at least one such--namely, me--who'd choose creamed corn over broccoli rabe & co.
I know, I know: this doesn't reflect well on me--which is exactly the point. There's no accounting for taste.
As much as I want to like collared greens, know that I should like collared greens, and tend to scarf up everything else that appears on the same plate as collared greens, the truth is, I'm not a fan. Zuccini and eggplant? My mother, who was not gifted in the practice of the culinary arts, compensated for lack of skill (especially where these vegetables were concerned) by sheer volume, and so zuccini remains, essentially, a lost cause. [I must gratefully acknowledge, however, that my wife's exquisite (slow-cooked) eggplant parm has removed at least one topic of discussion from the psychoanalytic checklist.]
Broccoli rabe? Anthony Bourdain himself couldn't turn the tide.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER (?)
But food is not the topic today. Today's goal (from my perspective, anyway) is to finish at last a "post" I've been working on (but, for a variety of reasons, have been unable to finish) for days; and by now so many people have weighed in on the subject that the comments I'm prefacing now are almost entirely beside the point. But--hey!--I wrote this stuff, what am I gonna do now, just gonna toss it out?
LATE-NIGHT SURPRISEOn Jan. 18 '05, M.J. Rose posted on Buzz Balls & Hype a literary writer's honest assessment of her experience in publishing. Despite getting wonderful reviews and having several New York Times Notable Books to her credit, she had nonetheless become marginalized by her publisher(s), as payback for her having committed the unpardonable sin of writing serious literary fiction that never won the Oprah lottery. This was complicated by the firing, over time, of two editors who had been terrific advocates for her work. She refused to wallow in self-pity, and expressed real generosity toward the best intentions of her editors; and her remarks struck a chord with me. I wrote what I'd meant to be a sympathetic, empathetic response that I posted here sober dopeat BookAngst 101.
The next night she responded to my comments (M.J.'s Jan. 19 '05 entry) in ways that surprised me and which seemed, on first glance, to be a complete misreading of my meaning—which is to say that the “generosity” I'd so regally bestowed (high-powered editor speaking to discouraged author) turned out to be (from her perspective) nothing of the sort. She inferred from my comments that the real problem with work that doesn’t succeed in the marketplace is that it’s just not good enough.
I read this at 1:30 in the morning at the end of a day full of frustration and petty disappointment, and was quick to don the martyr’s robes unapologetically. Huff, thought I: Her bitterness hath bent the eye. In retrospect I realize what troubled me more was that her response undercut notions of myself I’m quite attached to: that I am an editor of the Old School, someone keenly attuned to the hardships of the writing life, a patron, a kindred spirit, et cetera, ad nauseum. It also introduced the possibility that my unconscious motivation hadn’t been sympathy/empathy per se, but rather to use the opportunity to present myself in some sort of grandiose/self-aggrandizing light… [Look up grandiose in the dictionary, somewhere in there you’ll see the phrase “self-aggrandizing.” But if the shoe fits…]
With fresh eyes, and the guidance/insights of a number of the “comments” posted by other readers, I was able to see this from her perspective. Was I high-handed, patronizing, self-congratulatory? Perhaps I was all these things.
In the time it's taken me to respond to her comments, she has written another, friendly clarification of her views, and lots of others have posted their comments, here and at M.J.'s site. Here at last, for what it's worth, is my reply.
DEAR ANONYMOUS LITERARY WRITER:
I'm sorry my comments missed their mark so awfully. I confess it has taken me some careful scrutiny (aided by the comments of other readers who have helped identify where I misspoke) to understand how you came to infer from my comments that the many
"powerful and beautiful and excellent books published that do arouse passions all along the yellow brick road, and which still do not succeed"in the marketplace are in any way a reflection of the excellence of those books. For all the reasons you detail, and for perhaps a dozen more besides, the universe of bookselling is a horror-show, a source of disappointment and frustration for virtually every writer I know. A million things can, and usually do, conspire to derail a worthy publication; and, for the most part, it’s virtually impossible to predict ahead of time what they might be—only that they will.
At the risk of infuriating you further, though, I'll say again, emphatically, that I do believe the most critical piece of the equation is the excellence of the work itself. That's only part of the equation, though; and I didn't mean to suggest “that the book fails because it [is]n’t quite good enough to arouse the editor’s passion”; nor that the blame for a lackluster publication belongs to the author. The reason these positions--that A) the work matters most and B) the lack of success isn't some sort of "objective" accounting of the merits of that work--aren’t contradictory is this: the notion that there's an objective standard of excellence that articulates itself through the marketplace is bunk.
AND because [bear with me a moment longer]: if the quality of the work is the most important part of the equation, a close second is the chemical bond that forms between the author, her work, and the person who will chaperone it through the publishing process. And that person is your editor.
In your 2nd response (M.J.'s Jan. 21 '05 post) to my email, you said I'd implied that
“if a book arouses passion in the heart of the editor, and in other hearts along the way - that is, if the book is really good - then it will succeed. Declaring that a book will succeed if it's really good has an inverse corollary, that is, if it doesn't succeed, the implication is that it's not really good.”I do, of course, see what you mean, except for one thing: I wasn't suggesting that your book had failed to arouse your editor’s passion, not even for a second. To the contrary, I'm quite confident that it did; and I’ll wager that part of what makes your editors (as you say) “great” is because the strength of the bond between you, the confidence you have that they really have understood what you were trying to accomplish. They've read your books, they've loved them; perhaps they helped strengthen them in some ways editorially; they conveyed to you from time to time their admiration for your artistry and craftsmanship, and that they were proud to be publishing you and your work. You came to trust their judgment, to feel that (for the most part) they’d be there with you in the trenches—a true ally who had your best interests at stake.
[For the uninitiated, I’m not saying that editor/author relations are always peachy-keen; but that, most often (in my experience at least) the dust-ups and arguments that periodically transpire between author and editor reflect not essential antagonism, but a shared sense of the stakes, of the extent to which this thing--the book, and publishing it well--matters. There are sometimes disagreements about what the proper course of action might be at one time or another; but I’d argue that these arise from what is, ultimately, a shared desire.]Now I return to the importance of, and nature of, the close chemical bond that forms between the author, the work, and the editor; and to a couple of things I took for granted or failed to communicate clearly in my original, perhaps-not-so-sympathetic comments.
As I mentioned before, you took from my comments “that the book fails because it wasn’t quite good enough to arouse the editor’s passion.” Starting there, then, it's clear: my saying "the work itself [must] bear up again and again to the scrutiny of the many, many sets of readers along the yellow brick road to publication" implies that only the great books survive this scrutiny. That, in other words, there really is some sort of objective standard by which books are judged, and a book's success or failure in that regard is a direct reflection on its [somehow quantifiable] literary merits.
What I took for granted was that we all know this not to be true; that we all have far too much experience of the maddeningly arbitrary and quixotic nature of our business to believe there’s any real correlation between quality and success. Many worthy books get published (though there’s little doubt that the amount of truly literary work published by mainstream houses has diminished by a significant proportion in the past 15 years), but only a small proportion enjoy more than modest success.
In this way, of course, you’re quite right: few of the books that inspire an editor’s deep confidence and passion succeed. This, again, would seem to undermine my argument about the importance of an editor’s passion. But now we must take all that we know about the brutally arbitrary nature of what hits and what doesn’t; and then add to the mix something else that I perhaps took for granted in my original comments--
--that individual taste is a completely subjective beast.
This expresses itself in all sorts of ways*–which, if looked at from one perspective, is at the core of freedom of expression, democracy and all that other crap. (But that, as they say, is a whole nuther story.) An editor, perhaps moreso than the general populace, has to learn early—and sometimes even take solace in—the nature of this subjectivity; otherwise he would become incapable of making decisions, slowed as he is by doubts that this [manuscript, proposal, etc.] might be worthy, according to some objective standard. We must leave issues of “objective standard” to the academics; the only useful yardstick for an editor is his own personal judgment. What lights an editor's fire is some combination of intuition, admiration, recognition--things that (for me at least) are impossible to define. Which is why the notion of there being some quote science unquote to the publishing process is, in any number of ways, hogwash. From an editor’s perspective, at any rate, the only science that enters in is the aforementioned chemistry.
Therefore: it’s not an editor’s job to assess material from some sort of balcony of objectivity, but rather to find material that strikes a personal chord in one way or another, material for which the editor has an innate sense--of who its natural readers are, of how to market to those readers, and so forth. It doesn’t matter to me (though, in retrospect, it would likely matter a great deal to my boss…) if somebody else thinks COLD MOUNTAIN is a great novel. I didn’t; and had that submission come to me, the chances are very good that I would have passed on it—despite knowing full well that somebody else would fall in love and buy it…
(For the record, editors often do know this when we pass on a book—we can often recognize its merits, and know that someone else is going to buy it, and that there's the possibility that we're going to look like fools if this book turns out to be a huge success. It's a fear I can live with, because unless those merits organize themselves in patterns that set my heart pounding, I’m not the right editor for that book... There are, of course, many other occasions where I absolutely fail to recognize a book's merits, and have only my own subjectivity to blame… Think what you will about THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY—some editor read it, was moved by it, convinced her bosses to buy it, and wound up selling a bi-jillion copies…)At the risk of sounding like a mamby-pamby creative writing cheerleader, one can (if one choses) take some solace that even a slew of rejection letters doesn’t truly represent the actual, objective quality of a manuscript—it simply means that the right editor hasn’t read it yet.
ANYWAY: My thesis is this: the book's success is linked, in some alchemic way, to the quality of the manuscript--as understood/experienced by your editor! This isn't to say that s/he is responsible for the quality of that manuscript, or even that the manuscript is, in fact, more or less excellent--objectively--based on your editor's response to it. But it's an inescapable part of the calculus that your editor [assuming s/he is your editor by choice--circumstances in which an editor leaves and a project winds up being handled by someone else are extremely difficult, I recognize. That, too, is a topic for another day.] is your editor because s/he loves your f-ing work! If someone doesn't love your work? See above, under "subjectivity": s/he is not the right f-ing editor for you.
Does it seem I'm still laying the blame for an unsatisfactory publication at your feet? There's no guarantee that anything will ever go well--as you yourself put it,
"there are powerful and beautiful and excellent books published that do arouseI couldn't agree more! But more often what happens is that--even with the passionate support of the editor--the journey down this yellow brick road is perilous, and (because of the subjective nature of reading) very rarely elicits the same passionate response from a majority of those stationed along the parade route. But sometimes--and this was the lottery-like, pie-in-the-sky one-in-a-million circumstance you took issue with--sometimes it does happen.
passions all along the yellow brick road, and which still do not succeed."
Such is the case (so far, anyway) with a first (and very literary) novel I'm publishing, for which I paid a five figure advance, for which my publisher had (upon its acquisition) admiration but modest expectations. I then began to do what all editors worth their salt do--I set out to stoke the engine, to fuel the fire of the publishing machinery, through a variety of not-terribly-original initiatives, as I've done for every book I've ever cared about. In this instance, though, the response has been just a bit different, a bit more...coherent. In this case, with exactly one exception, every person who has read this book has come back to me dumb-founded, amazed, astonished, delighted.
Will this book succeed? Only time will tell. Experience warns me: don't get too excited, fella--you've been here before. Yes, I have--I've had books that, in one fashion or another, seemed poised to explode and fell somewhat short of doing so; to date I have no DA VINCI CODE or Nathan Englander or Jonathan Safron Foer or (name another runaway outta-the-blue bestseller) on my resume. There are, needless to say, MANY gauges of a successful publication besides having a runaway outta-the-blue bestseller.
But back to our original conversation: in this case, the book I allude to but don't name--a book that is still many months from coming into the public eye--in this case, I have no doubt that my passion for the book, combined with the extraordinary quality of the manuscript itself, seems to be making a real difference.
Will the cash register go k-ching? That's impossible for me to know. The only sound I recognize for certain is the pitter-patter of my heart.
Mad Max Perkins
P.S. I hope that my ending like this doesn't come across as yet another stroke of self-congratulation and/or insensitivity, rubbing my author's good fortune (and my own) in the wounds of those whose experience has been different. The fact that this book is getting great reads up and down the line is, itself, impossible to explain. I've published books I've loved as much, books I believed in as ferociously, books for which my own expectations--and my colleagues' expectations too--were as high or higher. Everything seemed to be in place--yet "IT" didn't all quite come together in the spectacular fashion every editor, and every author, dreams of... Contrary to popular opinion, lots of books (though admittedly a small proportion of all books published) get the passionate support of their editors AND are beneficiaries of real marketing muscle. Of those, one in a million becomes THE LOVELY BONES.
"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."
PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]
"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."
PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]
"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."
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