June 9, 2015

Two for Tuesday: Let’s write a novel about publishing together!


This is a composite image of us writing the Next Great Publishing Novel

This is a composite image of us writing the Next Great Publishing Novel

Topics discussed: Thomas Pynchon, our Thomas Pynchon petition, the huge success of our Thomas Pynchon petition, liking books, loving books, #amreading, the We Love Books Party, the Constitution Party, arsenic, the Art of the Novella series, Obummer, Mike Huckabee, J.D. Salinger, Ancient Greece, Random House, Knopf, FSG, Jonathan Galassi, Fifty Shades of Grey, robots, Amazon, Jeff Bezos, Upton Sinclair, Evelyn Waugh, Scott Walker, the Toyota Camry, BookCon, Goose Island, disruption

If you would like to help us write a novel about contemporary publishing, send your ideas to [email protected]!

Alex: Hi Mark! Hi Two For Tuesdayers! What a lovely day it is. Tuesday. A beautiful word. Have you adequately recovered from successfully getting Thomas Pynchon invited to The White House, Mark? (And by “successfully” I mean “successfully having only 99,900 signatures to go.”)

Mark: It’s amazing. Who would have thought that in just under a week, we would have attained 0.1% of our goal? 0.1%! That’s extraordinary. It really speaks not only to the massive constituency that exists for sending Thomas Pynchon to the White House, but also to our own remarkable ability to effect popular change. We should probably start a political party. We could call it the Books Party, because we both like books. What do you think?

Alex: Mark, I think you’re dead wrong. I don’t “like” books, I LOVE BOOKS. I love books. My entire identity is built around my love of books. #amreading

Mark: Alex, you’re so right. I’m sorry. That was an embarrassing mistake on my part. If you’ll forgive me for underestimating your feelings toward books, I suggest that we create a party called the We Love Books Party. That should be pretty unambiguous, right?

Alex: That is very unambiguous. I will only join parties that truly love books (which is why I’m currently a card carrying member of the Constitution Party), and I think you’ve sold me. What is our policy on the Estate Tax? Is it that “Everybody should inherit all the books”? On a related note, if I ever use the construction “all the _____” again, please tase me.

Mark: The We Love Books Party believes that the Estate Tax is a Death Tax, and that Estates, like Death, should not be taxed. Death is a tragedy, and while it will soon be eliminated–for those of us who deserve to live forever–it is wrong to tax it.

The We Love Books Party also believes that all regulation should be outsourced to relevant industries. So if Melville House decides to use arsenic-based inks in our Art of the Novella series, no one will be able to stop us. Arsenic! It’s nature’s sharpie.

Also, the We Love Books Party will tax “takers,” not “makers,” and it will use the revenue collected to buy many books for America’s sad, oppressed children of the ultra-rich, whose lives are very hard because of how much Obummer has been forcing them to think about their privilege. It’s not their fault, after all, that their parents have, for the most part, acquired their fortunes through criminal means and a systemic effort by the American right to enforce a permanent oligarchy! The We Love Books party will buy America’s sad, oppressed children of the ultra-rich books that will make them feel proud of their privilege. Books like Mike Huckabee’s God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

Alex: Well, that got weird fast. Though I do agree that we need to close our borders to anchor books, who only want to enter this country so their sequels can steal our book deals. (Please tase me again.)

Let’s set our terrifying rightwing politics for a moment and just focus on our charming, if one-dimensional love of books and publishing. Like Ancient Greece (and also contemporary Greece) the publishing industry is fixated on its own mythical past. For many, the supposed “golden age” took place over a two-to-five decade period that ended when Random House went public in 1959 and acquired Knopf in 1960. For most, the opposite of the Golden Age is right now because right now is terrible and every other time was much better because right now is really terrible and Jeff Bezos will devour us all, like the shiny-headed Kronos that he is.

People in publishing love the past, which helps explain why legendary FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi recently wrote a book about its mythical past, “When men were men and women were women.” (That’s an actual quote from the first page of the book.) People love talking about and writing about the past, Mark. But they do not like talking about the present—unless they’re talking about how bad it is or are paid by an app company to talk about how this is actually a great time. (If you were wondering, my take is that things are pretty good and that they could be better but they could also be worse.)

I love reading memoirs about the mythical publishing past, but I wish there was more written about what’s happening right now! What are we going to do about that, Mark?

Mark: I think there’s only one thing we can do, Alex. We have to write our own novel about publishing in 2015! Let Galassi (my old boss (or, really, my old boss’s old boss)) keep the Golden Age. We’re going to write the great novel of the the Pretty Good Age, In Which Things Could Be Better but Could Also Be Worse. This is going to be a stirring novel about The Way We Live Now, if by We I mean like a couple hundred people, and by Live I mean work in publishing, and by Now I mean . . . well, actually, by Now I do mean Now.

Oh man, I’m so pumped about this novel! Let’s start plotting it, shall we? The book opens in an un-air conditioned Amazon warehouse. Our protagonist, a robot, is picking copies of the new Fifty Shades book from a shelf . . .

Wait, do we want a robot protagonist? Should our great publishing novel be hard sci-fi? Our should it be more of a literary fiction thing, with lots of adjectives and descriptions of sorrow?

Alex: Our protagonist should be a robot, but maybe his or her goal should be to become a bot. To break out of the Amazon warehouses and ascend to the heights of publishing automated, but brilliant novels that perfectly encapsulate The Way Robots Who Displaced Human Workers Live Now. (First step: acquiring an agent.)

But there should be another protagonist, a foil for our nascent robot novelist: an editor. This editor should be everything the robot is not: rich, well-connected, and well-educated. (Because people in publishing are usually bratty rich kids.) The editor is white, but that is besides the point, because we are talking about the publishing industry.

As the robot worker tears through pallets of Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian, our young editor is scouring Twitter and Tumblr for The Next Big Thing: a book of hashtags, or perhaps baby photos with ironic captions. He’s cynical, in other words, and has fully internalized the boom-or-bust mentality that has dominated the publishing industry for the past several decades. Who is the villain? Is it Jeff Bezos?

Mark: The villain is Jeff Bezos, and also capitalism. Most novelists have tended to represent capitalism as a character (in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, for example, capitalism is depicted as a big jungle), but this novel needs to appeal to a more experimental crowd, in addition to its intended readership, which consists of you, me, and people who will receive bound galleys of it for free. So for the sake of the avant-gardists, I suggest that we portray capitalism literally, as a man named Arthur G. Capitalism.

Arthur is a book blogger, and he’s obsessed with metrics. Obsessed! Seriously, Alex. He’s obsessed. Arthur believes that book publishers are inefficient, but unlike Bezos, who sees inefficiency as a reason to destroy the publishing industry, Arthur G. Capitalism wants to destroy only the portions of the publishing industry that are inefficient. On his blog, Arthur names individual editors, publicists, cover designers, production editors, and marketers who he believes are keeping publishing from attaining full efficiency.

One morning, as Arthur is compiling his daily list of offenders, he stumbles on the young editor’s name. Despite his ambitions to publish the Next Big Thing, the editor has, thus far, only published one book–a well-reviewed literary novel he inherited from his predecessor. The editor (what’s the editor’s name, Alex? You should name him) couldn’t give a shit about the novel he inherited, but Arthur doesn’t know this; literary novels, after all, are a drain on everyone’s resources, no matter who publishes them! So the editor makes it onto Arthur’s Offenders, and . . .

Alex: The editor’s name is Mark Krotov. Just kidding! The editor’s name is Jayden Lish. He’s a Yale man. No, Harvard. No, Yale. Brown? Harvard. He’s a Harvard man. Just kidding, he went to Wesleyan.

Jayden is an up-and-comer, having done three years in the trenches at Stroker, Mensch, and Guffaw as an editorial assistant. Now, he’s on his own: an editor at Stanchion Press, a division of Peculiar House. (I have always aspired to write a watered down Evelyn Waugh novel and I think this may just be my chance.)

Mark: The day Jayden appears as one of Arthur’s Offenders is also the day his assistant, Evelyn Waugh (sorry, I’m bad with names. Maybe Michael Schaub would have been a better name? Nah, I’ll stick with Evelyn Waugh) receives a mysterious package addressed to Jayden. While young, Jayden has fully absorbed the hierarchical culture of big publishing and thus refuses to open his own mail, pour his own coffee, or press his own kale juice. Evelyn does these tasks for Jayden on a daily basis, while also editing manuscripts under her boss’s name. (Yes, I’m aware that Evelyn Waugh was a man. I learned that from Lost in Translation.)

Anyway, the package contains a manuscript written by our protagonist, the robot worker. During scheduled maintenance, the Amazon robot has been writing a tell-all account of life inside the warehouse. It turns out that even the robots are mistreated! They are allowed to rust and very rarely receive software upgrades. The robot has written a passionate, insightful book about the American robotic precariat, and he sent it to Jayden because he happened to glance in the acknowledgments of the well-reviewed literary novel and see the editor’s name.

Evelyn writes a reader’s report about the manuscript and delivers it to Jayden, who faces a conundrum. Alex, do you know what the conundrum is?

Alex: Is the conundrum that Amazon—can it be Amazon or do we have to make up another company? Danube? Nile? GetFucked?—sells over half of peculiar house’s books, so they don’t want to piss off their biggest retailer? Is the conundrum that robots don’t have souls? Is it that they don’t have any rights, even after we elected the first robot President (Scott Walker) in 2016? Is it that the internal politics of Stanchion Press mean that Jayden will have to spend precious political capital on this book, even though there’s no guarantee that his bosses will approve the purchase? Is it that Evelyn falls in LOVE with the robot while reading the book, even though man-robot love is an abomination?

Mark: Oh, wow, you’re really good at plotting. I was just going to say that the conundrum is that Jayden finally has to read a manuscript, which he hasn’t actually done yet since getting to Stanchion. But yours are better. I like all of them.

Alex: Maybe I should be senior editor.

Mark: I think we should ask our bosses, but that’s fine with me. Then I’ll get to be Director of Digital Media! But only on the condition that I can turn the Melville House Twitter account into a Twitter account devoted exclusively to photos of American, British, and Japanese cars of the early 1980s. That’s a very underrated era in car design.

Alex: The Camry is a very nice car, yes. Anyway, we need love interests. I think the robot and Evelyn should fall in love. Should Jayden and Arthur also fall in love? Should Arthur and Jeff Bezos fall in love? If we’re being accurate, Jayden should date another editor from another house and then they should break up and then he should date a different editor from another house. Also, Jayden should be working on The Great Tinder Novel while all of this happens. Or maybe just editing it? (He bought the novel based on a proposal, but what was turned in was, to be frank, total shit, so he’s reworking it from the ground up.) Also, all of Jayden’s friends should work in publishing because, as far as I can tell, everyone who works in publishing is only friends with people who work in publishing (and occasionally media). These people should be very cynical, but also very earnest and they should be very obsessed with the inner-workings of media, which they think they are a part of. They should all have names like “Amanda” or “Alex.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. I think we may need some help to turn this into a reality.

Mark: I think you’re right. After all, we’ve got a brilliant plot, and some excellent characters, but we need more details, more texture. We need the stuff of life! We need eloquent descriptions of the very bad bars where our young publishing protagonists hang out–bars that have Goose Island on tap. Goose Island! Now that’s a telling detail. And we also need a chapter that takes place at BookCon. And food trucks. People in publishing love food trucks!

But I don’t know that you and I possess the imaginative range required to bring this world to life. I think I know some people who do, though, and those people are the readers of Two for Tuesday. So let’s turn it over to them!

Readers of Two for Tuesday: if Alex and I are stupid enough to actually write the great novel of publishing’s Pretty Good Age, In Which Things Could Be Better but Could Also Be Worse, perhaps you’ll be stupid enough to send us your ideas! Send us plot points, character descriptions, puns, and #disruptionspeak. This is a contemporary novel, after all, and we need this thing to sound fresh. Did I leave anything out, Alex?

Alex: One thing you left out is that yes, we know that Younger exists and also yes, we will be writing a lot about it over the summer. (More on this soon!) Basically, I want to hear all of your ideas. All of them. Send me characters. Send me funny names for people and presses and books. Send me the meanest shit you can think of. Make fun of me and Mark. Make fun of everyone. We’ll credit you! And we may even ask you to write parts of this. I am very serious about doing this, even though it is insane and very stupid. But that’s what this column is for!

Let’s build something together, Two for Tuesdayers. Email me your ideas: [email protected].