Friday, April 6, 2012
Meg Wollitzer has a piece in the NYT about the rules of literary fiction for men and women. I really don't pay enough attention to what's published to know whether she is generally on the right track, but I did think being a woman was a handicap in various ways when my first book was published.
When my editor bought The Last Samurai he told me it was essentially a love affair between the mother and the little boy. Well, I was strapped for cash, and it didn't seem to matter desperately if the editor misread the book in this way - but as it turned out this meant that neither he nor anyone on his staff took seriously the formal aspects of the text. As I've said (this really is getting old, sorry), when there was a disagreement over punctuation I drew attention to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; my editor explained that "That was a very special book," and he said it in the presence of his production manager, who seems to have thought this gave her license to override the terms of my contract. (It seems unlikely that Cormac McCarthy got this kind of response to The Road.)
The problem was not really getting the book taken seriously as a work of literature; the problem was the consensus among all concerned that the author was a jumped-up secretary who was lucky to get into print and whose time had no value. No one could be made to understand that it was a matter of pressing financial and professional urgency to finish the books that were in progress when the offer of publication was made. This is presumably obvious to everyone now, after a gap of over 10 years, but it was obvious to me back in 1999; since I was just a secretary who was lucky to get a deal no one paid any attention. Mere financial reasoning was useless in the face of this compelling assumption. I tried to hand the book's 26 permissions over to my lawyer, who must presumably have had clerical staff; he firmly handed them right back. I pointed out that I had just been given a $75,000 advance; if I had to clear permissions this would delay completion of other books, surely an expensive use of my time. To no avail. The book was taken to the Frankfurt Bookfair and caused a sensation; now it had allegedly netted another quarter of a million dollars or so; it made no difference.
My impression is that it wasn't simply that all these hot shots were as one in patronizing the author; certain tasks relating to publication had been polluted by the feminization of certain kinds of labor. A hot shot likes to sail grandly above the minutiae of textual housekeeping; he does not want to clutter up his mind with seeing that these are properly managed, he wants to talk man-to-man to a man like himself. He wants to make tough noises on the phone about advances and percentages and subsidiary rights. Laying on a competent member of staff to handle permissions would in itself clutter up the keen legal brain.
Anyhoo, this is all horribly tedious. The thing is, though, that if you have worked with people who refuse to take financial arguments seriously, if they have an absolutely unshaken belief that this is your little hobby and it's thrilling just to see your name in print, this has a knock-on effect when you come to other professional relationships. I never wanted to go through that again. So I wanted to be very selective about the people I worked with, which meant an obsession with relevant information - and this in turn caused endless problems with agents and others who could not understand the damage of such toxic encounters.
I once met a woman who had met an editor in some kind of online sex chat room; they arranged to meet. The thing that turned him on, she explained, was a scenario along the lines of the scene in 9 1/2 Weeks where Kim Basinger gets down on her hands and knees and crawls after money that is thrown to the floor. Well, look, I'm sorry, he may get it out of his system that way, but if you're a woman I really don't think you want to be in a professional relationship where you are financially dependent on someone seeking that particular thrill. I tried to explain all this to Bill Clegg, and this was really the start of all our problems - he dismissed information about editors as mere gossip, and really did not want to discuss it. Loooooooong story short, it's not simply that things were very bad once; trying to avoid that kind of problem falls foul of a system that expects authors to sell to anyone who wants to buy.