Michael Miller has published a profile in the New York Observer, here. It's a curious thing.
If an industry is governed by a culture of secrecy, its public face looks very clean. If an agent sells a book for half a million dollars, it gets reported. If an agent kills a half-milion-dollar deal, it's not reported. If an agent sells the film rights to a high-profile director, it's reported. If an agent kills a film deal with a high-profile director, it's not reported. If a publisher buys a book for a big advance, it's reported. If the publisher won't pay the author, breaks its contract, tries to change the book behind the author's back, it's not reported.
If someone breaks the code, that's rare. So the question isn't really what Helen DeWitt thinks of the write-up - it goes without saying that Helen DeWitt, the subject of the profile, thinks it has not done justice to the sheer unutterable brilliance of Helen DeWitt. The question is, what do all the people think who have engaged in questionable business practice over the years? Because the thing is, every one of those people will read the piece looking for their name. Wondering what will come out.
Same old, same old.
Miller has had to grapple with an immense mass of material into shape. He was working to a word count and a deadline. He managed to set up an interview, make calls, read e-mails, write the thing up and get it into print, all within three weeks. This is very much to his credit. But I think a lot of people will read the piece looking for their names and feel very good.
I've given a lot of interviews lately; this was the first where I made a serious attempt to get the interviewer to understand why there is a genuine risk of suicide if too much work is disrupted and destroyed. I can't say I was terribly successful.
Miller is like most people in discounting what he doesn't see.
Assigning disproportionate value to what he can see. Which is actually
the single worst problem for writers dealing with Rest of World. Because
you better believe we believe in what we can't see. We believe in what
does not yet exist. We believe in it the way a parent believes in
the miracle of birth. How can we possibly not? Time t, a room contains
the following: man, table, paper, pen, ink. The man is Coleridge. Time
t+n, the room contains the following: man, table, paper, pen, ink, Kubla
So say a contract includes a clause giving the author last word
on usage: no changes to made without author's approval. Someone who
doesn't believe in the unseen, someone who does not believe that what
does not exist can exist, sees an author who is fanatical about every
aspect of the text, right down to the typeface. The clause is there to
protect the existing text. As long as the text is right in the end, there's no problem. But no.
The clause is there to protect the author's time. It is there to
protect work that exists only in the mind, or that will come to the
mind if there is a point when a line is drawn under the work that
already exists. The copy-editor has made recommendations; the author has
considered them, made decisions; now LOTTERYLAND, GIVE GOD A CHANCE,
YOU CAN TELL ME and their brothers can advance from 61,000 words, 21,000
words, 65,000 words &c to a state of completion.
I see five tables in a room in Chesterfield, each with a separate project - drafts, notes, clippings.
And I see a woman in Brooklyn at a table with a typescript and a bottle of Wite-out. In her hand she holds the cap to which is attached a narrow tube to which is attached a tiny brush. She dips the brush in the bottle, she moves the brush across
marks on the page. She dips the brush in the bottle, moves the brush
across marks on the page. She does this hundreds of times. She puts the pages in an envelope and sends
them to the typesetter. There is a sentence in a contract but it has no power. There are books waiting for their endings but they have no power. What does it take to connect the sentence in the contract with the woman in Brooklyn?
I see myself in an office in Midtown, putting a CD in the hand of the production manager. A CD with software with which Greek and Japanese can be professionally typeset. I see a girl in an office putting the CD in a drawer, importing the text into Quark, where it will cause problems for many many texts. I see too many things.
If you don't see the dead books, turning down a $525,000 deal looks strange. Looking obsessively for the right editor, the right agent, the ones who protect the books to come, looks strange. And if you have an actual living author sitting across the table from you in the Tik Tok diner, the chance that the body might have been at the bottom of a cliff in 2010 looks negligible. And getting Lightning Rods into print looks like a happy ending.
But this is stupid. This is the behaviour of an addict. I should do a programming course and think of other things.