February 17, 2015

Two for Tuesday: the pseudonyms are transparent!


This is Mark Krotov and Alex Shephard writing as Alex Shephard and Mark Krotov present Two For Tuesday as written by Mark Krotov and Alex Shephard.

This is Mark Krotov and Alex Shephard writing as Alex Shephard and Mark Krotov present Two For Tuesday as written by Mark Krotov and Alex Shephard.

Alex: Hi Mark! How was your Presidents Day? Mine was great. I spent it doing what I do every Presidents Day: looking for confirmation of my various theories about Jon Snow’s parentage in the special features of my Game of Thrones DVDs and buying books about ISIS from Barnes & Noble. Oh, also who is your favorite president? Mine is Polk. He seemed cool.

Mark: Hi Alex! I always spend every Presidents Day thinking about the presidents who *aren’t* commemorated on this glorious holiday–I’m speaking, of course, about company presidents. Why don’t the leaders of our nation’s great corporations get their own holiday? A day that acknowledges the unique and unparalleled contributions of people like Verizon Wireless president Dan Mead, or Hobby Lobby president Steve Green? If corporations are people (which they are), then aren’t the presidents of corporations superheroes? It was those superheroes whom I spent twenty-four hours honoring.

Alex: I only honor the shareholders, the men and women who really have the power. Company presidents are patsies. I control Mars, Inc. because I own shares of M&Ms. Or I own M&Ms—lots of them! They’re in my pocket and my backpack right now. That makes me a shareholder, right?

I am not good with money. Anyways, what happened last week in publishing/media? Michelle Malkin made fun of you on Twitter for writing this, which was pretty great. Jon Stewart announced he was leaving The Daily Show to spend more time with his collection of oversized black leather jackets. Jonathan Franzen did an interview and people had opinions about it because Obama passed that law in 2009 and this is the world we live in now. Am I missing anything? What do you want to talk about?

Mark: You know, I quite liked your post about Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show–and what it does or doesn’t mean for publishing–but you forgot to mention a crucial fact: namely, that there are few things more painful to watch than Jon Stewart’s short-lived MTV show, clips of which are on YouTube. My girlfriend and I watched a few of these a day or two before Stewart’s announcement, and I’m convinced that these two facts–our encounter with Stewart’s embarrassing past and his announcement–were not unrelated. If I were Stewart, I would have considered retirement every time someone stumbled onto one of these clips. The way he rests his leg on the table while interviewing guests–an extraordinarily strained attempt at affectless, brash, ninetiesness–well, that leg thing will haunt my dreams.

Alex: Have you read his book? It’s pretty funny. Some of the better stuff reads like proto-Mallory Ortberg, if I’m remembering correctly.

Mark: I hadn’t thought about Naked Pictures of Famous People in a long time! I think I bought it at Media Play and read it voraciously in high school, because I was a loser, but yes, it was pretty good, and you’re right–it was a kind of a less savvy version of the insane, amazing things that Ortberg somehow manages to write multiple times a day. I think she’s a robot.

I’m disinclined to talk Franzen, but as you said, the law is the law: as content creators, we must opine on Franzen. So let me say one thing and one thing only about the man, whom I love and with whom I don’t really disagree: I think that he would have very different things to say about social media if he were familiar with Weird Twitter. Could you imagine Franzen reading @dogboner, @Bro_Pair, and @PTCruiserUSA? I bet he would love them.

Alex: Well, it depends on the day. If he caught them on one when they were delivering sick Franzen-burns, maybe not so much. Franzen seems a bit sensitive to critics of Franzen. Jennifer Weiner, as that interview makes abundantly clear, is obviously under his skin and that is not a good look for him. (And not just because he has a human person living under his skin.) His inability to take her seriously or engage with what she’s had to say has been a persistent black mark for a while, and it’s only gotten worse. So maybe J Franz just doesn’t take criticism particularly well?

But who knows. Maybe Franzen knows all of this shit because he was @utilitylimb and quit when he just couldn’t take all the bull shit. In either case, Franzen definitely has a myopic view of social media while at the same time being a pretty decent critic of the internet. I can’t tell if I want people to talk more about what he has to say on those points—and actually engage with them—or to talk way, way less. I don’t have anything else to say though, so I guess I’ll be the change I want to see in the world and shut up.

One last thought (watch this transition): if Franzen IS @utilitylimb do you think he will eventually publish those tweets under the moniker “Jonathan Franzen as @utilitylimb?” (That is me handing you the baton, like I used to do when I was the 3rd leg of the 4×400 relay.)

Mark: I have to say, if there’s one thing that Two for Tuesday has proved to the world, it’s that you’re a master of the transition. I can just imagine you out on a date: “Oh, that was an interesting thing you said about something other than me, which reminds me: me. Let’s talk about me.”

But back to the baton. Last week, the Times published an article with a rather remarkable headline: “Richard Price Finds His Pseudonym for The Whites Annoying.” Price’s latest novel, The Whites, is credited to “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt”–a “transparent pseudonym.” Price seems uneasy with the whole arrangement, which I can sympathize with. (Can you imagine if I made you and all of our colleagues call me Mark Krotov editing as Alex Shephard, or Mark Krotov e-mailing as Alex Shephard, or Mark Krotov tweeting as Alex Shephard? That would be pretty frustrating.)

But one thing the article left out was that none of this–other than Price’s annoyance–is particularly new: the announcement about the transparent pseudonym was first made in 2010, when Price sold the novel that would become The Whites to Holt. Only at the time, the pseudonym was Jay Morris, rather than Harry Brandt. (Of course, all of this may have bothered Price this whole time.) Still, I think we can all agree that if you’re going to use a transparent pseudonym, Harry Brandt is way, way better than Jay Morris.

Alex: Harry Brandt is way, way better than Jay Morris and I am great at dates precisely because I always make it about me. (I am great.)

The Times piece itself is a bit odd and hagiographic—deservedly so, because Price is odd and also a genius, but still—but there are a lot of interesting nuggets in it. One is just that writing for a quick buck, as Price intended to do has always fascinated me. The most famous example, I suppose, is Graham Greene, who separated what he did between “entertainments” (most of which were pretty good!) and more serious work (a lot of which actually reads as being rather pulpy!) I don’t know which side Brighton Rock falls on, for instance, but it’s great. And The Third Man was an “entertainment” that inspired the greatest film in movie history. It’s a fine line.

But mostly transparent pseudonyms just confuse the fuck out of me. I get the intent of creating SOME separation—i.e. Price clearly didn’t (initially at least) want this to be seen as a “Richard Price joint” or whatever”—but “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt” mostly just makes me think “The fuck?” I do like thinking about other applications of this—Jeff Lynne at the Grammys was there with “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” but ELO has always pretty much been Lynne and never more so now, so what if he just went by “Jeff Lynne as ELO”? That would be fun. I would like to start writing as “Alex Shephard writing as Spyder Clawford” because I am a big tough guy with lots of cool tattoos, including one of a spider web over my elbow.

My point is that this always seemed like a weird commercial decision. The J.K. Rowling thing is obviously not replicable. My question, before we talk about a different white guy is pretty simple: are there commercial advantages to a transparent pseudonym? I suppose a book by “Richard Price as Harry Brandt” would still attract more attention than one by “Harry Brandt” but less than one by “Richard Price”? Like, the Times piece has the feel of something cooked up in publicity, but “I didn’t want my name on this book and now I did and am sort of annoyed by the way everything has turned out” isn’t exactly the greatest sales line in the world.

Mark: I should say, first, that the Washington Post published a good article about some of these issues after Price/Morris sold his novel. (The article’s author is, appropriately enough, Dan Zak writing as Tawny Tipples.) (Tawny Tipples! Now *that’s* a great fucking pseudonym. Richard Price’s next book should be by “Richard Price writing as Tawny Tipples.) The article offers a good overview of the best-known contemporary writers who use pseudonyms–transparent and otherwise.

But to answer your question: you and I talk quite a bit about the importance of finding a “narrative” (ugh, sorry) when speaking about books. Imagine two debut novels. The author of the first debut novel spent ten years writing it in a dank cave and subsisted entirely on gooseberries, and the only things she had with her in said cave (other than a laptop and a jar (for the gooseberries)) was a set of Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs. The author of the second debut novel recently graduated from an MFA program and lives in Brooklyn and has never eaten gooseberries. Even if the second debut novel is much better, the first novel has the upper hand, because it comes with a good story. Is that story totally fucking stupid? Yes. But can it help? Also yes.

The transparent pseudonym thing strikes me as a milder–though perhaps equally desperate–version of the debut-novelist-in-a-cave-with-gooseberries phenomenon. The hunger for the story behind the story is fierce, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to differentiate one novel from another one. It shouldn’t be this way, but for a number of reasons (which I hope to talk about at a later date!), it is. So when you can create some kind of buzz–even if it’s weird buzz, even if it’s borderline nonsensical buzz–you don’t reject it out of hand. I can’t know, of course, if this is how the Price/Morris/Brandt saga evolved, but it’s not implausible to think that storytelling was on the publisher’s mind.

Oh, and I’ll just say one more thing about this, even though I said in the previous paragraph that we’d discuss this at a later date. It’s not at all clear to me that readers actually care that much about all of this business with narrative. Are you more likely to read a book because of its fascinating backstory, or because a friend told you it was good? I know where I fall–nearly every book I read for pleasure has been recommended to me by a friend or by a very trusted critic–and yet we can’t stop thinking about backstory. I don’t think we’re wrong, but at the same time, I’m not sure if it’s all that productive–or effective.

Alex: I only read books about ISIS—or books that trusted literary critic Michael Schaub tells me to read. (This is how I discovered my favorite book: The Collected Wisdom of Ziggy by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.)

All of this makes a great deal of sense to me—a lot of book marketing, historically, at least is spent avoiding talking about the actual book like the plague. There’s a hierarchy and backstory/blurbs/current events/comp titles usually take precedence over things like, “what the book is like.” That’s understandable—a book is a big investment of time and money and it’s not something you can adequately sample, so the challenge is getting someone to invest in something they can’t really understand—but it’s disappointing. One thing I want to get better at—and that I want the industry to get better at—is being a bit more direct than “For fans of…” or “This writer wrote their book while hanging upside down from a tree in Kuala Lampur (though that would actually be incredible, sign me up).

One thing that has become more important in the social media age, however, is brand identity—not just the “brand identity” of famous writers like Price, but that of their publishers. The declining cachet of publishing brands is something that people talk to me a lot about (and vice versa!)—the conventional wisdom being that no one gives a shit about most publishing brands or imprints and won’t do anything that these brands tell them to do. Or, to put it somewhat differently, for most big houses, the simple act of publishing a book has no narrative value. People won’t buy a book just because Scribner or Little, Brown, or Random House, for that matter, published it. (Maybe because Harper Perennial published it.)

Of course, that’s not true for all publishers—I think Melville House does brand marketing pretty well, though that may partly be because I play our brand on Twitter. In any case, I think brand marketing is a growth industry and something to watch in the industry as a whole.

I bet you didn’t think this was all an elaborate transition, but it was! Because Simon & Schuster recently bet on the brand of one of the publishing world’s biggest figures: superagent Bill Clegg by giving him an imprint. Well, they didn’t quite give him an imprint per se—they gave him a two-book deal and then launched a new imprint with the first of those two books. Clegg won’t be running the show or anything, but his presence is being used as a Grand Opening of sorts.

It’s definitely a bet on Clegg’s brand—an attempt to make a splash at launch. (It also is a small comment on the fact that the Big 5 is run as a cartel, so very, very few people often accumulate very, very large amounts of power—but most stories about Big Publishing speak to that.) Regardless, while I’ve never been a fan of Clegg’s writing (curt prose and I don’t get along), he has good taste—I like a lot of his clients’ work a lot.

Mark: It has been a few weeks since this Clegg news broke, and I’m still thinking about it–in part because I’m not sure if it says Something Meaningful About Big Publishing in 2015, or if it’s just a variation on the same old story, about the fraught, often anxious relationship between big money and literary prestige.

Four publishers bid on [Clegg’s] novel. One publisher, Jennifer Bergstrom, at Gallery Books, was so determined to get it that she offered a two-book deal and made it the lead fall title for a new literary fiction imprint, Scout Press.

Ms. Bergstrom said that she was immediately captivated by Mr. Clegg’s prose, but felt the book would be out of place at Gallery, which typically publishes commercial fiction and books about pop culture and celebrities.

“I thought, I need a new place to publish this, because Gallery is not literary,” she said. “Bill’s book made us rethink everything.”

She asked Carolyn Reidy, president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster, Gallery’s parent company, if she could start an imprint for literary fiction.

That’s from the Times report on the deal. What’s striking to me is that even if one takes all of this at face value, it seems like a lot of work for not that much payoff.

The launch of a new imprint is not a small thing! The designer has to design the colophon, the sales reps have to be notified, production has to create new templates, there’s some accounting to be done, and most importantly, Bergstrom and her colleagues suddenly have to start acquiring new kinds of books! That might be exciting, but it adds up to a lot of effort for peple who are probably already very busy.

And if, as you say, publishing brands are becoming *harder* to differentiate (even if brand marketing is a growth industry), what’s the best-case scenario for Scout Press? I’d argue that the best-case scenario is . . . a pre-publication article by Alexandra Alter in the New York Times, i.e. the piece from which I just quoted. But is this really going to improve the fortunes of Clegg’s novel? Perhaps it’s something Bergstrom has wanted to do for years, and this was simply a good opportunity to make it happen. But still, it’s hard not to see this as a kind of inside game.

Alex: Yep! And that’s what we do here at Two for Tuesday. Talk about the insider’s game. This was Two for Tuesday: Two White Dudes Talk About Three White Dudes. Publishing is white as fuck—and the need for a more diverse industry is, I’m sure, something we’ll be talking about in one of these soon because, well, the publishing industry is white as fuck. How white is the publishing industry? I am ending this piece with two classic hits from Todd Rundgren.