Thursday, September 6, 2012

wie immer

Increasingly, restaurants are recording whether you are a regular, a first-timer, someone who lives close by or a friend of the owner or manager. They archive where you like to sit, when you will celebrate a special occasion and whether you prefer your butter soft or hard, Pepsi over Coca-Cola or sparkling over still water. In many cases, they can trace your past performance as a diner; how much you ordered, tipped and whether you were a “camper” who lingered at the table long after dessert. 

Susanne Craig at the NYT, the rest here.

The cafés and restaurants I go to aren't that hi-tech - but wherever I go, the staff say "Wie immer?" ("As always?") I don't have the same thing everywhere I go, but in each place I have a preference, and the staff remember it. The reason I go so often, too often, is precisely because people I barely know pay attention to my preferences - they WANT me to come back.  Whereas in every interaction with the biz I get people doing whatever they happen to want to do, whenever they happen to want to do it.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, I care about my books a lot more than I care about my cappuccino & pain au chocolat, or my glass of rosé, or my green curry with tofu. In every single interaction on the path to getting a text out to readers (with, natürlich, the glorious exception of this blog), I have people blithely putting forward their OWN preferences for the text, and long-drawn-out arguments to reconcile said persons to sharing the (whisper who dares) author's preferences with the public. What would actually be so terrible about a publishing process where people were ANXIOUS to discover your preferences?

Be sane, be sane, be sane.


David McDougall said...

The difference is that, in the view of the publishing industry, you are the service provider for them.

Helen DeWitt said...

Yes. Exactly so. To the untutored eye, there is a distinction between, on the one hand, a publisher, who pays me, and, on the other hand, the various persons paid by me (agents, lawyers, accountants...). Not that mine is an untutored eye, obviously; I am aware, after all this time, that the latter would also find it deeply insulting to be seen as service providers for a lowly author. But this is what is wearying. (I have not really abandoned our other discussion, just somewhat worn down from getting my flat ready to sublet.)

Daniel said...

The idea, I think, is that the editor is supposed to be an objective reader, who hasn't been writing and rewriting the same sentences for months, or years. The editor can look at the book with a fresh eye, as the people who buy the book are going to do. And the editor isn't comparing the book to the ideal version in the author's head.

The problem with this idea is that no one is an objective reader. The other problem is that not every editor is an intelligent reader.

Helen DeWitt said...

I think it would help if there were a different system. First the author dealt directly with the typesetter and designer; when the result was the way the author liked it, it was printed and bound and the author given, say, five copies. Then the editor and copy editor (if any) would go over the text and make any changes they thought necessary for the benefit of the reader. The author would then have a reading copy of the book which was an accurate record of earlier work - something one needs sometimes when working on something new.

The problem with the present system is that it takes a lot of time that gets in the way of other work, and in the process one is cut off from one's instincts - it's hard to go back to other work and revive one's own feeling for what is right if one has had to spend a long time justifying a text.

M♥ said...

How can I follow your blog? I don't see a button on the site for it.

David McDougall said...

I tried to write a comment that doesn't criticize, well, capitalism as a whole, but seem unable to.

So, the problem is that publishers, not authors, own 'the means of production,' and they use them (as they are wont to do) generally to aim at profits and recouping investments. So in general, the system is concerned with maximizing profits and not with, say, 'artistic statements.' Now it may be that in the long run a successful artistic statement can be quite profitable, but it is a very risky proposition, and so the expected value of any attempt to place artistic success above commerce is undoubtedly very low, because an unsuccessful 'artistic statement' is likely to sell very few copies indeed.

Now, perhaps some publishing house might take a venture capital attitude toward artistic success, on the gamble that the lone hits - the Facebooks and Instagrams of artistic success -- can drive profits for decades. However even then the ephemeral blockbuster is likely to be a better use of development resources, in terms of downside investment protection (a bad thriller will more copies, by orders of magnitude, than a mediocre 'serious' novel) and expected value (especially when factoring in incentives like short-term career goals of publishers/editors and financial concerns such as the future value of money).

However, I sometimes wonder why writers don't more often release revised versions of their own work (as did Henry James, or Joseph Schumpeter, etc.), as films do with "Director's Cuts" -- wouldn't publishers jump at the chance to re-monetize an already sold novel?

Helen DeWitt said...

If publishing were a business pure and simple I would understand. There would be no distinction between commercial and literary fiction: the purpose of ALL books would be to maximize profit.

If the purpose of a book is to maximize profit, the role of an editor is clear. I spent 9 years at Oxford; I might write a book that appeals to close friends without assistance. With the help of an editor, I can adapt the text to a much large pool of readers, so that even people who have not graduated from high school can enjoy it.

I would very much like to have financial security; I would have no objection to writing a book with wide appeal, if necessary drawing on the expertise of an editor.

The fact is, though, that people in the biz do recognize literary fiction as a category. If I write a book designed to have wide appeal, this excludes both representation and publication by the people who deal with "literary" fiction.

Well, if "literary" is a category where value is not determined by sales, books that fall in that category should be published in a different way. I should be able to select collaborators who will give me the best chance of impressing persons of real intellectual distinction.

I perfectly understand that it doesn't work that way. What I don't understand is why.

David McDougall said...

Helen, forgive me if I tread with too little knowledge on territory that I don't fully understand, but I have always thought of "literary fiction" as a niche something like "independent film" -- from the perspective of the industry, this is a film for a niche (but not tiny) market that appeals to slightly different (but still very commercial) commercial sensibilities. Trop tôt, trop tard could never have played at Sundance, but Little Miss Sunshine was an ideal fit. If an editor's job is to turn a DeWitt book into something (say) Franzenesque, he can't be blamed for those incentives though the work itself be made much poorer.

Like "independent" film, the "literary" in "literary fiction" is a bit of a red herring, a stamp of middlebrow approval that rather sidesteps the frame of "artistic success" as I intended it above. It takes a courageous editor or producer to get something truly 'independent' or 'literary' released, and women and men of courage are in short supply.

Helen DeWitt said...

No, no. I'm probably the one who didn't understand. You're probably right that this is what "literary" means, but I didn't understand.