Wednesday, December 21, 2011


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 Khan.

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.


lestin said...

It seems a damn shame that such a system stands between people who love to write and people who love what they've written.

Matt said...

What copy editor uses white out? That may be the oddest thing I've heard all week.

Helen DeWitt said...

Well, this was way back in 2000. These days they normally use the comment feature in Word - so of course it's straightforward to save your own final version after you've decided whether to accept or reject changes. And, to be fair, it makes it much easier to have a dialogue with the copy-editor, so they can understand why you've made the decisions you've made. But back then the copy-editor just went through with a red pencil, and I marked up her mark-up. Unfortunately I made a special trip to New York to discuss the final version with my publishers, in case there were any problems, and did not have time to make a photocopy for myself before handing it in - which other writers have since said I should obviously have done.

leoboiko said...

Yesterday I just start reading Robin D. Gill’s delicious anthology/treatise on sea-cucumber haiku, Rise, ye sea slugs! (more than 1000 bilingual haiku about sea cucumbers, what’s not to like?) (the introductory chapters/sections/parts include a few short essays on why he chose to translate namako/holothurians as “sea slugs”, instead of “sea cucumbers”; these short-essays/discussions often are wholly cointained in footnotes; some pages have more footnotes than body-text).

Anyway, what I wanted to comment on was the fact that Robin D Gill’s book is published by paraverse press, a publishing-house owned by Robin D. Gill, manned by Robin D. Gill, and which has published some ten books by Robin D. Gill (and nothing else).

Robin D. Gill says in Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! that it was typeset in Microsoft Word, and (though he pushes it to do things I never though Word was capable of) it shows. At times, surprisingly, the typesetting can be beautiful. More often than not it’s clunky, amateurish, busy, rogue, weird. But what it never stops being is delightful, every page of it; everything’s so full of energy and enthusiasm.

I’m guessing a large part of this enthusiasm comes from the fact that Robin D. Gill didn’t have to deal with the literary-industrial establishment.

[Aside: Somehow I’m reminded of computer science giant Donald Knuth, who single-handledly created one of the most impressive and powerful software systems ever, the TeX typesetting system, because at the time there was nothing that could typeset math his way.]

Here’s what a site on the Internet specializing on “company profiles” says about Paraverse Press:

> Current estimates show this company has an annual revenue of $49,000 and employs a staff of approximately 1.

Here’s what Paraverse Press says about itself:

> At present, we – which is to say, I – have a backlog of dozens of books, no money to speak of and no employees whatsoever, so please do not send any inquiries or manuscripts, unless they are accompanied by a bilingual volunteer or the money to buy me the services of one!

Richard Sutton said...

I read a couple of excerpts, a few months ago, of a Raymond Chandler story of some note, posted by his wife. She posted both what he had written; then, by comparison, the marked up version (edited by an editor of some renoun), of what was eventually published. The nuance and intent of the author were lost. What remained was a serviceable entertainment. The published story was, of course, applauded. It was touted by critics as an example of the author's genius at describing the human condition. But, by comparison, it was a twisted, dumbed-down version of what Mr. Chandler had actually written. I was impressed by his wife's loyalty to his memory and his craft. I was surprised by the scores of people who commented to remind us all that it was the published story which added to his reputation, achieved through the efforts of his venerable editor. I applaud Ms. DeWitt for her loyalty to herself and to her art. It's all too easy to forget that before there is a product to be sold, there is creation. Creation of a unique entity that never lived before in exactly this way. The Reader market may change. Its pressures may disrupt a respected industry. Publishing may reel under the weight of the waves toppling it, as it tries to right itself. It may maneuver in many ways, finding new formats, new outlets, new formulas for making money, but it will always rely upon writers. Without writers it's only a vendor with an empty pushcart.

grantabanter said...

Is it not possible for a literary publishing house to agree to outsourcing typesetting to a related imprint which publishes linguistic or mathematical textbooks? 'Rise, ye sea slugs' is an impressive achievement but as I flicked through it I knew the ugliness of the type wouldn't convince me to part with the mere 1500 yen the shop asked. Yet my first year Introduction to Phonetics book (jammed full of IPA and forign characters) looked beautiful.

Helen DeWitt said...

leo -- I expect it would be possible to self-publish; I have InDesign, and have used LaTeX, so either way the books would probably look all right. I think Edward Tufte lives in Connecticut with a big barn or garage or something where he can store books; finding storage space wd be more of a challenge than the typesetting.

gb -- I don't doubt that a commercial publisher could do as you suggest. The fact is, there may very well BE publishers who cope handily with challenging texts; editors, production managers, typesetters vary in the way they approach a project. That was exactly why I was hoping an agent could advise me; I assumed an agent would know who was good at this sort of thing and tell me if asked.

Richard Sutton said...

This is an indication of something that has been brewing for some time. Author's work has become a commodity to be bought and sold and used in any way the gatekeepers see fit. IN the process, the entire concept is so denigrated that the author is left with nothing but contempt for their own work, or a highly protective attitude. Any industry that so abuses the creators of its products as well as their consumers will fail, and we are seeing the signs everywhere. This conflict dating back to 2000 shows the seeds have been sown for quite some time already.