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05/10/2004

Comments

the Literary Saloon

I'm a bit uncomfortable that this particular post at the Literary Saloon has gotten so much attention -- the focus really was meant to be on the fact that Wylie's piece misstates certain facts, which suggest he doesn't have a sound sense of the book business. (In fact, other things he states -- particulaly about his manipulation of publishers (and their allowing themselves to be manipulated) into paying huge advances, which then mean they have to publicize the books, etc. -- are also disturbing, but it was the "Peyton Place" discussion that was the most obviously wrong.)

"Peyton Place" is a bad example because it was/is such a phenomenon -- sure, it's trash, but it sold better than almost any book ever published. Hence our recommendation that any publisher choose it over any other work. We don't think: "book publishing is all about the opportunity to "print money"" -- but when an opportunity such as this presents itself (and "Peyton Place" was a once-in-a-decade opportunity) any publisher would be foolish not to take advantage of it -- even if only to use the profits to publish 'less commercial' literature (or do whatever else they wanted with it). We were only favoring Metalious over Calvino insofar as her's was the obvious title to print first (our words were "publish (or re-publish) the Metalious-title before they tackle the Calvino" -- emphasis on 'before' (not 'instead of')). The Metalious success could have bankrolled not only the publication of all of Calvino, but many authors besides (not that that happened ...) And again: it's an unfortuante example, because there are literally only a handful of titles ("The Da Vinci Code" is the most recent) about which we would say the same thing -- blockbusters so big that the money comes pouring in like this.

Part of the problem -- one of the biggest parts -- of contemporary publishing is that most books touted as such blockbusters don't even come close to "Peyton Place" success -- and with the huge advances paid out nowadays publishers lose tons of money on big-name and supposedly popular (in all senses of the word) authors who don't quite meet expectations (much more money than they lose on so-called "literary" works, which they don't invest much in in the first place.) Unfortunately, Wylie (and others) have also driven up advances for so-called literary authors to stratospheric levels, some of whom deserve them (insofar as they sell enough copies to cover the advances), but many of whom don't. The concentration on a few names (recall Martin Amis' endless publicity tour in the US for his most recent flop in the US, "Yellow Dog") detracts from the true quality literature that is out there.

There's no question that over the literary long term Calvino and Faulkner will prevail over Metalious -- but in the literary long term we're all dead, and fifty years certainly seems long enough to make a preliminary assessment (and Wylie's point was which publishers made the right decision -- a point that's irrelevant over the true long term (who cares who Dickens' publisher was ?).) (That said, I do suspect "Peyton Place" will always outsell Faulkner's "The Town" -- another unfortunate example Wylie chose. Like certain 19th century penny-dreadfuls that keep getting reprinted, "Peyton Place" will always at least be a curiosity, while most readers would likely have to make their way through half a dozen Faulkner titles before they would bother with "The Town".)

I do take issue with your suggestion that book publishing is not "cut to fit capitalism's trim" -- though that would require a much longer discussion to fully explore. But the success publishers can and do have -- with everything from "Peyton Place" to real literature -- suggests it can function as a business. I think one of the reasons it doesn't so often is because publishers are very foolish in their policies of what they publish, how they publish it, and most of all what they pay upfront to publish it.

I don't think: "that books like Peyton Place keep the "book industry" afloat" -- by inflating advances for copy-cat titles they probably do more to sink it. (Again: "Peyton Place" is a very bad example because it is almost unique in its success.)

And I don't believe that there will be a time: "When the ability to read is finally so coarsened that even Peyton Place is too much for the "general" reader" Bad books are not harbingers of the apocalypse (though bad publishing practices may very well be). I don't subscribe to the idea that reading is per se good, but neither do I think that because people read bad books their reading-habits are being coarsened to the extent that they can't appreciate the good. And I don't think one terrible book's success cannibalizes sales (and readers) from good books. But Wylie getting advances for his (admittedly often very good and "literary") authors which then aren't earned back certainly is bad for book culture -- taking resources away from more deserving titles (and putting publishers off making 'literary' gambles)

M.A.Orthofer, for the Literary Saloon

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