Art and Packaging

by Jonathan Wallace

Whenever I am writing about a topic in which I have any kind of a hidden personal interest, it is my rule to tell you at the outset of an essay. An important subtext of this essay is success and failure in art. I am fifty-two years old. In my life, I have published a couple of nonfiction works, one of which got an excellent review in the New York Times but didn't sell quite well enough to warrant a second printing. I have written half a dozen novels, which got some favorable feedback from agents, publishers and one well known playwright; but none have ever been published. I have written plays, many of which I produced on stage myself, one of which was a finalist for a prestigious local award, and one of which received a production as part of an annual New York City theatre festival. This last received three reviews in less influential media than the Times, ranging from one calling it a unique and compelling script (in a failed production) to one which was a complete, rather nasty pan ("more turtle soup than drama"). I have also published The Ethical Spectacle for fifteen years, earning a lot of mostly favorable email, republication of some essays, links on other people's sites to many more, and a few enjoyable writing gigs which came in as a result. As a child, I daydreamed of being a famous novelist; but none of my writing activities have ever made me a household name, nor have I earned above thirty or forty thousand dollars total from writing activities across a quarter century of effort, while always working at another full-time job.

So the possibility certainly exists, and should be evaluated by you, the reader, that the following is just a lot of disappointed whining.

Many years ago, there was an article in The New York Times Book Review in which a young editor, responsible for reading the "slush pile" of unsolicited manuscripts for a major New York publishing house, rather testily and angrily denied that any talented author remains undiscovered as a result of never mustering the connections to get an agent. In fact, the slush pile is one of those morbid, funny topics that literary newspapers and magazines are drawn to write about every few years. Another essay, years earlier, by a slush pile reader, revealed some of the horrific material he received unsolicited every day (a novel beginning, "Yesterday I killed my father by driving a large nail into his head"). Meanwhile, aspiring novelists have always exchanged stories of sending in manuscripts with a page turned upside down, or with a hair placed between pages 263 and 264, and receiving them back the same way, with a form rejection letter.

I figured out years ago that the first step to publication of a novel is not the slush pile, but finding an agent to represent you. A necessary, but not sufficient condition, seems to be knowing an agent, or someone who knows one. This first led me to some initial, unfocused insights about the packaging of writers, because it began to seem that it might not actually be enough to be talented. In order to find an agent, you might also need to work in publishing, have a parent or relative who is already a published novelist, or take an MFA program or at least a writing course where your professor decides to be your mentor and refers you to an agent. Amusing the great, performing little services for them, and sometimes having sex with them, certainly does not hurt. If you can write, but can't satisfy any of these other conditions, your chances of getting an agent, and getting published, just decreased radically.

There is a saying that, while you are unknown, you can't get anything published, no matter how good; once you are known, you can get anything published, no matter how lousy (I most recently saw this aphorism in a review execrating Martin Amis' latest novel). A variation on this theme, is that if you are packageable as an author, you can get anything published; if you are not packageable, you won't see anything in print, even if it is well-written.

As a young reader, I believed in--really worshipped--a paradigm as follows: 1. Unknown young author, such as Thomas Wolfe, sits in a garret somewhere and produces a remarkable novel, which he sends to 2. enterprising, vigilant editor such as Maxwell Perkins, who notices the talent radiating off the pages and 3. secures him a famous publisher, after which 4. everyone gets rich and famous. In a changed industry in which it is often noted (in another one of those recurring essays you see in lit crit publications every years or so) that editors package books but don't really edit any more, the reality has changed (if the paradigm ever was real). I am not sure any editor deems herself very qualified today to detect what is "good" in writing, nor even that that is an important goal. In our fragmented, postmodern literary world, where the concept of "talent" or of good writing has exploded into shards, the main driver has got to be what kind of fiction will sell, and I think we end up trying to decide what will sell by the charisma, and therefore packageability, of the author. Walk into your local Barnes and Noble and spend ten minutes looking at the jacket photos of new novelists and you will ascertain that they are mostly very good looking. (One notable exception is the pleasantly ugly Bruce Wagner, who looks something like me. While I am happy to know he is out there, he makes up in family Hollywood connections what he may lack in looks.)

In looking at the jacket photographs, you will also notice that a large number of new authors are young, female, and ethnic as well as attractive. In recent years, the best thing you could do for yourself as a novelist was to be born female and Indian (Arundhati Roy, who is a very good writer, is a leading example) or Caribbean (Zadie Smith, not quite as good a writer, is another). While diversity in fiction is officially A Very Good Thing (I would shoot myself rather than read one more novel about a middle aged white professor cheating on his wife with a nubile young student at a New England college), it becomes less certainly good if the author has to fit some set of preconceptions before her talent can be perceived (or supposed). Because then we have just swapped one set of stereotypes for another.

Just when I was wondering if I was being really unfair to young Indian women, along came the Opal Mehta scandal. The young author was an Indian-American student at Harvard College, who had written a novel which she managed, through some sort of connection, to show to an agent, who pronounced it "too dark". However, because the author met the young, attractive Indian female demographic, the agent, rather than giving up on her, introduced her to a "book packager". The result was a novel, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Into College and Got a Life", which was published with great hoopla, lots of money spent on advertising and marketing hype. Within a matter of a few weeks, readers were spotting numerous paragraphs that were practically identical to prose in a series by a female author of young adult novels. Whereupon the author of "Opal Mehta" was called upon to fall upon her sword, admitting that she had read those books and must have "unconsciously" echoed them. But, as new plagiarisms were spotted too precise to have resulted from such "unconscious echoing", the publisher finally pulled the novel from shelves, and the author, a nine days' wonder, retired from the public eye in disgrace.

It is delightful to speculate that the plagiarism was committed, not by the young woman, but by the packager. I imagine a desperate, ill-paid, possibly part time scribe, or several of them, locked away in a back room in midtown Manhattan, racing to meet an imminent and grossly unrealistic deadline to produce a novel which can be pubished under the name of the young Indian female college student author. Plagiarism seems to be in most recent cases a byproduct of trying to write too much, too fast; people who are capable of writing perfectly competent prose on their own have turned to plagiarism to meet deadlines.

The young "novelist" then would have faced a very grim (but very amusing) dilemma once the plagiarism was revealed: do you stand up and admit you didn't write your own novel, or continue pretending that you did and try to explain the plagiarism away somewhat innocuously? Since you are dead in the water if you go down that first path, she chose the second, which also led to her inevitable destruction a couple of weeks later.

The final element of packaging a novel, or any other creative endeavor, is to be willing to spend a lot of money advertising and marketing it. This harmonizes well with the packaging of the author; if you are going to invest millions in marketing a novel in today's climate, you damn well better have a charismatic, good looking novelist who can go on television, and not some droning recluse who can't even look directly into the camera.

The importance of money in attaining fame and sales for novels is profound, of course. No book ever sells itself. My 1995 disquisition on Internet censorship, which received a good review in the Times and sold a respectable 15,000 or so copies, would have sold many times that (as well as received more reviews) if the publisher had spent more than a miniscule amount on marketing. (I remember only a single ad anywhere, and about fifteen thousand dollars spent on public relations). That is the nature of the beast. Large investments create large talents, not vice versa. But because of the amount of money in play, no one can take any risk. The same phenomenon which leads Hollywood to make only car crash and explosion movies led to "Opal Mehta".

The answer, in fiction as in Hollywood, is probably to go independent: self publish (as disreputable a reputation as that has), launch small publishing houses yourself, find marginal alternative presses willing to publish your stuff, and do your own hustling, marketing and advertising in order to avoid the very self-important, sanguine and rather stupid gatekeepers now creating the next "Opal Mehta".