||Literary Loss Leaders, Or The Obsolescence Of Writers
by Joel Yanofsky
In his essay collection, The Gutenberg Elegies, critic Sven Birkets confesses to keeping a file called “the reading wars”. In it, he accumulates evidence all pointing to the same unsettling conclusion: books are becoming obsolete. In our electronic age, Birkets argues, “the old act of slowly reading a serious book” is losing ground—and fast.
Nowhere, it turns out, is the ground eroding faster than in the world of publishing, according to Michael Korda’s engaging and gossipy memoir, Another Life. Korda is in a position to know. He’s been an editor at Simon & Schuster since the late 1950s, and editor-in-chief for much of that time. In a way, Another Life is an elegy to an era when publishers weren’t corporate suits or, at the very least, weren’t answerable to a corporate mindset which tends to view a book as a product and writers as a necessary—for now, anyway—nuisance, a kind of literary loss leader. “It was always a common joke among publishing people that ‘this would be a great business if it weren’t for writers,’” Korda says, “but by the mid-seventies publishing was beginning to be run by people who at heart believed that.”
Corporate takeovers, of course, were the reason for the change in attitude. There was a time, as Korda describes, when publishing houses, even the biggest ones, were essentially run by individuals—families, actually—who took a hands-on approach and who cared about books, even if they were lousy books. With mergers, buyouts, and acquisitions, all that has changed. Publishing is no longer a cottage industry, Korda says, it’s just plain industry. Bottom-liners are in charge: “Instead of being at the top, those who actually published and edited books found themselves gradually relegated to the bottom, reporting to managers who soon constituted a whole separate and more powerful element within the house. Rather than to books, these people were dedicated to proving to the owner (of the parent company) that the publishing house was being run like a serious business and in compliance with the parent company’s demands, rules and expectations.”
Korda was born into show business aristocracy, the nephew of legendary filmmaker Sir Alexander Korda, and is himself a best-selling author of novels and non-fiction. So he is not adverse to having, spending or making lots of money. He has had no qualms either about acquiring, editing, and championing trash—as long as it was best-selling trash. But he also knows, through some forty years of experience, that you don’t sell books the way you sell widgets.
What screenwriter William Goldman once said about making movies in Hollywood—“nobody here knows anything”—applies equally well to publishing books, whether you’re doing it from a big house in New York or a tiny one in the boondocks. Every book is subject to a variety of elements: timing, publicity, choice of title and cover, the way the author comes across on TV, or just plain dumb, unfathomable luck. There are no sure things, no safe bets—aside from income tax guides and What to Name the Baby books, Korda points out. The mold is broken each time out.
If Korda is a little nostalgic for the good old days, he’s entitled to be. He came up the hard way, at least as hard as it gets for someone with Korda’s family connections. Nevertheless, he’s done the grunt work, waded through the slush piles, flattered authors’ egos, and put up with their complaints. He’s also handled his share of the hard cases.
Someone once said that an autobiography is a great vehicle for telling the truth about other people. In Another Life, Korda seems somewhat incredibly unaware of his own motives. It is left to the publisher of S&S to point out to him that he has risen quite high, quite quickly. Korda insists this is no Machiavellian plot. The publisher is disbelieving: “‘Listen, if all this comes naturally to you, you’re way ahead. The best way to get ahead is not be obvious about it.’”
In fairness, though, Another Life is not intended to be about Korda—good thing, too, since he spends more time talking about horseback riding than he does the breakup of his first marriage—but about all those hard cases he’s dealt with over the course of his career. The subtitle of Another Life is “A Memoir of Other People”; but it could just as easily have been called “Authors are Nuts”. Tenessee Williams, for example, came to Korda’s attention late in the playwright’s unhappy life, and Korda’s remembrance of Williams, who was continually complaining about the same sinus cold and drinking vodka and swallowing pills to combat it, provides an affectionate, but ultimately very sad, glimpse of the deterioration of talent.
Graham Greene, who wrote screenplays for Korda’s uncle, never allowed his talent to slip. He wrote precisely 500 words every day and was remarkably prolific. When it came to politics, though, he was a loose cannon. For most of his life, Greene was convinced that J. Edgar Hoover was keeping a running and voluminous file on him and his left-wing sympathies. At one point, Greene asked Korda to track down the information on his behalf. Greene was sure the book he would get out of this material would be a bombshell. There was a file, it turns out, but not much of one. What it made clear, most of all, was that the FBI barely knew who Greene was and Hoover didn’t know at all. It was, Korda relates, a devastating disappointment.
There is, in Korda’s portraits of Williams and Greene, both affection and admiration. Harold Robbins, author of best-selling trash like The Carpetbaggers, was more inspiring of dread. Korda tells how Robbins, a notoriously lazy writer, delivered one half of his new novel and then, to collect his advance, delivered the second half of another novel.
Korda knew Robbins could not be talked into doing any more work, so he was prepared to fix the mess himself. He told Robbins this and Robbins ordered him to leave the manuscript alone. When Korda explained that readers would have no idea what was going on and would complain, Robbins said, “‘F—‘em.... I’ve been working my ass off to write these books for years, trying to figure out plots and characters... Let the readers do some work for a change.’” Incidentally, none of Robbins’ readers noticed.
You could call Jacqueline Susann, who published The Love Machine with S&S, a more dedicated writer. After all, she went to the trouble of getting herself a pink electric typewriter and working exclusively on pink paper. She also bought a new wardrobe for her upcoming book tour. She did not, however, like being put on hold. When a junior editor at S&S did, Susann insisted the young woman be fired.
For all her tantrums and vulgarity, Susann was a quintessential tough broad—Truman Capote said she looked like “a truck driver in drag”—and Korda developed a grudging respect for her. He also realized that despite her singular lack of literary talent, she could do what most writers couldn’t: tell a story that people wanted to read.
A running gripe of Korda’s in Another Life is the inherent snobbery of the literary world. He criticizes book reviewers, in particular, for acting as if popular fiction barely existed. If, Korda correctly points out, a movie or theatre critic at a newspaper or magazine did the same thing, they’d be fired. But for Korda, this is all part of the widening gap between the popular and the literary novel: “The 20th century division of fiction into two artificial and opposing camps—high culture and low culture—left a lot of people who liked novels with a real story having to content themselves with lowbrow fiction.... By and large, the novels that reviewers and the intellectual elite took seriously were ignored by people who read fiction for entertainment.”
(This is a valuable point to have made, though Korda doesn’t mention the latest phenomenon: so-called literary books that are also turning out to be hits. Unfortunately, this isn’t always a good thing. The unexpected commercial success of novels like The English Patient and its soul sister in plotless portent and pretension, Fugitive Pieces, has only encouraged writers to indulge all their lyrical whims and do away with plot and character entirely. The genre for the next century, heaven help us, may be the 300-page prose poem.)
Korda doesn’t have quite as much tolerance for the celebrity author as he has for the Jacqueline Susanns of this world. Still, he is an inveterate name-dropper. Besides, it’s his rubbing shoulders with mobsters, movie stars, and politicians—all of them with book deals and big advances—that is the main attraction of Another Life. And Korda tells us about all of them, even those who never ended up writing a book, like Claus Von Bulow: from Ronald Reagan, who, not surprisingly, happily delegated the telling of his life story to others, to Joan Crawford, who was not a writer but who immersed herself in the role of playing one. Crawford convinced herself, even after a ghostwriter had been hired for her, even after the ghostwriter was at work in her apartment, that she was doing all her own writing.
Despite the gossip, Another Life is an essentially good-natured book, which cheerfully skips, and occasionally bumps, along the surface of events. Korda doesn’t give us much insight into the real work that goes into editing a book, but maybe he’s figured out that, as with sausage-making, we’re better off not knowing. Still, Another Life has its sobering moments, like Korda’s acknowledgment that “you could publish hundreds, perhaps thousands of ... first novels... for less than it costs to produce one celebrity autobiography.” Korda would not be surprised to learn that critics like Birkets may turn out to be wrong after all. It’s not books that are becoming obsolete, it’s writers. •
Montreal-based writer Joel Yanofsky is the author of Jacob’s Ladder.