November 23, 2015
The greatest TV show ever made about book publishing
by Liam O'Brien
It’s nigh-on impossible to find realistic portrayals of any job on television because television is (supposed to be) entertaining and actual jobs are boring. The most common professions depicted on TV—cop, lawyer, scientist, politician, and doctor—are jobs that are endlessly exalted in our collective mythos, but can be, in actuality, tedious and mundane.
But TV shows about your own job have the opposite effect. Shows about your own job provide an escapist jolt, as well as something to safely and brutally ridicule. This is why I (try to) watch every show that even remotely depicts book publishing—precisely because they are all wildly inaccurate, hilariously exaggerated, and, therefore, great.
This is why I watch The Affair.
For those of you who don’t: The Affair is a critically acclaimed drama currently airing its second season on Showtime. The plot focuses on two married couples, Noah and Helen Solloway (played respectively by Dominic “McNulty from The Wire” West and Maura Tierney), and Allison and Cole Lockhart (played by Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson).
The premises: Noah, a Brooklyn schoolteacher, is spending the summer with his wife and four children at his father-in-law’s mansion in Montauk while attempting to write his second book. Unsurprisingly, he’s suffering from crushing writer’s block, only exacerbated by the open disdain showed to him by his father-in-law, a successful novelist played by John Doman (who previously played Commissioner Rawls on The Wire).
Noah soon begins an affair with Allison, a local waitress who’s outrunning a tragic past. This affair causes both of their lives to spiral, which eventually leads to a murder (as seen through a series of cryptic flash-forwards).
I genuinely enjoy this show because the casting is impeccable, the performances are fantastic, and the creepy opening theme is by Fiona Apple. But none of those things matter. Most importantly, it is the greatest TV show about book publishing ever made, and here’s why. (Spoilers ahead for both The Affair and Fates & Furies.)
1. Noah Solloway
Noah Solloway is an eminently hateable, improbably successful character. He is what would happen if you collected and printed every tweet about navel-gazing white male authors, and threw the whole stack into the machine from Weird Science. He’s like Nathaniel P without the self-awareness.
Here are some more true statements: Noah’s first book is titled A Person Who Visits A Place. It was published by “Windchime Press,” through a “handshake deal” rather than an actual contract. This is not how books work, and anyone who allows a title such as A Person Who Visits A Place to be printed on an actual book deserves to be thrown in jail.
Noah ends up writing his second book after he’s been banished to his school’s rubber room for having sex with a fellow teacher in an empty classroom. During his sexprisonment he writes a novel about himself and the affair he ends up having. It’s called Descent because The Affair is already the name of the show.
Descent is about the “death of the american pastoral.” (This is the first Philip Roth reference the show makes. It will not be the last.)
Everyone who reads the book immediately praises it, including his agent/editor. Here are some bits of the book we get to hear:
He lifted her skirt just an inch. He paused. They listened together to the sounds of the marina, hearts shaking in their skin.
They were driving fast. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw an old boat painted blue, resting on the side of the road, dilapidated, rotting as if the air itself was corrosive.
She was sex. The very definition of it. She was the reason the word was invented.
I’ll let that sink in.
After Descent becomes a bestseller and is optioned by a major movie studio, Noah does a standing-room-only book event at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Library (we can only assume he hit the Barnes & Noble in Union Square during pub week). Which leads me to my second reason why I love this show…
2. Book publishing is a goddamn goldmine
Noah’s father-in-law Bruce Butler is a rich, cigar-loving novelist who writes indeterminately literary but definitely bestselling novels, sort of like if Richard Ford wrote a book and handed it off to James Patterson’s marketing team. Bruce is so loaded that his Montauk house has “a swimming pool, two tennis courts, and a sauna.” Bruce is so loaded he bought his daughter a $4 million Brooklyn brownstone. He speaks exclusively in phrases like:
“I read your book…enjoyed most of it. Could have used a decent editor. But. First novel by an unknown writer? I’m sure you didn’t get to pick.”
“Everyone has one book in them. Almost nobody has two.”
“First he was a writer, then he was a blogger, now he waits tables in Astoria! I shit you not!”
“Well, it’s not the Pulitzer. But at suppose it’s something.” (upon accepting an award at the Hamptons Literary Festival)
Also, his long-suffering wife ghostwrites his novels. He’s basically a racist Long Island Lotto Satterwhite. But Bruce does Noah a mitzvah and introduces him to Harry, a nattily dressed super-agent, who immediately decides to take Noah on as a client. Again, Harry is introduced by Bruce as “my agent.” Which brings me to example #3 of the show’s greatness, which is:
3. Agents are editors
Despite being an agent, Harry somehow also works for a publishing house. This is never explained. He’s eager to work with Noah because, as he tells him at their first breakfast meeting,
“I never get the chance to meet serious young writers anymore. These days it’s all fantasy or memoir or cheap detective shit or everyone is self-publishing online and wasting their talent.”
This is the kind of non-insight into book trends that you might hear from a well-meaning relative at Thanksgiving.
Here’s how the conversation between Harry and Noah plays out—this is also when the show launches into Tommy Wiseau heights of avant-garde:
Harry: It’s extraordinary.
Noah: Do you want to publish it?
Harry: Yes. I want it in stores by next fall. I think I can get you something in the low six figures. You really should have found yourself an agent, who could have sent this out to a few of us at once and created a bidding war. I’m gonna do it for you. I’ll get Helena, my assistant, to start a rumor internally that HarperCollins is also reading it and maybe we can up it to half a mil.
So, Harry, who was introduced several episodes prior as an agent, has now transformed into an editor who wants to crash a novel by a little-known author for a $100K advance, while also creating a bidding war so the publisher he works for can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a manuscript that has no other bidders.
We are through the looking glass now.
In the next installment on why The Affair is the greatest TV show ever made about book publishing, I will discuss Ruth Wilson’s character arc in the second season, as well as the level of research that was probably done by the show’s writers (who have their characters refer to “Michi Kakutani, who hates everything,” make jokes about the length of Infinite Jest, and reference Jonathan Safran Foer’s divorce).
Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.