Thursday, April 29, 2010

Famous Novelists, and the Paradox of Satire

A few weeks ago, I visited Titcomb's Bookshop out in East Sandwich, MA, on the Cape, and walked out with a copy of How I Became a Famous Novelist, a novel full of irony and satire by Steve Hely, who was a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman and American Dad. In this novel, a young Boston man named Peter Tarslaw decides he can beat some very commercial novelists at their own game, so he writes a complete crap novel and watches as it makes its way higher on the bestseller list, often for completely bizarre reasons having to do with marketing, bad media, and author notoriety. (The made-up books on that list are pretty hilarious, by the way, including "Cap'n Jay & Us by Matt McKenna (Osprey, $22.95) A newspaper columnist and his daughter learn lessons from a mischievous squirrel" and "Jockstraps Aren't for Eating by J. D. Preggerson (St. Martin's $29.95) The former Mississippi coach offers advice and anecdotes about football and life.")

Obviously Hely includes plenty of satire about writing and publishing, some of which is spot-on and some of which is a bit dispiriting. I mean, I don't want to think creative writing is a fool's game, and some could walk away thinking as much. But the jabs at the NYC publishing industry are biting and amusing, if sometimes cheap.

For example....

Pete Tarslaw has a friend who is an Editorial Assistant at a big publishing house owned by some British company. He sends her his novel and she knows it's crap, but thinks this is the crap that will sell, and before that, will get her promoted. When she says she's sure her company will publish it, he asks if she thought it was good. "I can't tell anymore," she whispers to him. She then goes through the sheer size of the slush pile, and then says no one knows what's good anymore (forgive me for condensing this, from pages 124-126):
"I can't tell. I thought I could. I thought I knew good from bad. I'd find these incredible, touching books, and I'd say how great they were, and the editors would toss them. Or they'd publish them, and they'd sell like fifty-four copies. Literally. Fifty-four copies... The bad ones! These bad ones - terrible ones, ones that don't even make sense and have adverbs everywhere and made-up words - they sell ten million copies and they make movies out of them. I used to cry, every night, literally, I would get a milkshake and put vodka in it and cry because I thought I must be stupid... And I thought I was gonna quit. But then I sort of got it. Nobody knows. None of them. Editors, writers, agents, nobody. You know like when a kid is just screaming and screaming, and the mom just keeps throwing toys at it, but the kid keeps screaming, and it looks like mom's about to cry to?... That what it's like! The editors are the mom! Readers are the kid. And the editors just keep throwing stuff at them, but they don't know what to do!"
She then goes on to say her boss makes her do ridiculous things in an effort to find new authors.

You see what I mean, though? Part of me can laugh and recognize some small part of that, of not getting what works according to the editors in charge, and then part of me can laugh at the fact that big commercial NY houses are struggling to find the next big thing - kitties in libraries! old people mentors! - and publishing some utter tripe in the process. Then part of me gets a little bit sad at the state of things being satirized here.

I suppose satire always has that double edge, of humor but also actual impact. Hely pulls this off pretty well. But I may need to read a new book now that reminds me of people doing good work in publishing, to remind me why so many us stick with it!

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