Friday, 28 September 2012

Follett’s Folly: The Selling Of The Writer

Book Publishing is in the midst of some serious buffeting. The American Booksellers Association didn’t miss a beat as it held its annual convention in the world capital of Non-Reading Glitz, Las Vegas. And (what made my tired old eyes boggle) a certain “Ken Follett” is paid $12.5 millions up front for his next two novels, not yet written or even plotted.

Ken Follett? Yet another hole in this reader’s experience. (I’ll plug that later in this rumination. But first the facts.)

Let a late-summer lead piece in the Wall Street Journal’s “Marketplace” section (Aug. 2) be your tutor: “To increase sales of Pillars of the Earth, his latest novel in paperback, he agreed to be part of the prize in a contest advertised in thousands of bookstores. Pillars is about the building of a medieval cathedral, and the winner of the contest will get a free trip to England and a tour of Westminster Abbey guided by the author.

“And that’s not all: At his publisher’s request, Mr. Follett wrote a romantic short story, ‘The Abiding Heart,’ that takes place in the present but uses the same medieval cathedral as a backdrop. Good Housekeeping magazine got the story free for its current issues. In return, Follett’s publisher, a division of Penguin USA, received two full pages advertising the Pillars contest just before the story.”

Contests? Spin-off short stories? Cathedral tours? It’s a far piece from Matthew Arnold, a lot more advertising anarchy than literary culture.

One wishes those well-paid Duke deconstructionists could do a little demolition in the Follett’s folly sector. But they’re too busy putting each other down, I suppose, to be concerned about the McDumbification of our literary institutions.

But where do you draw the line? Or does it even matter? The hustle is both endemic and protean. Arthur Hailey recently appeared on the J.C. Penney TV Shopping Channel to flack his latest institutional, The Evening News. Bottom line? The QVC book shopping channel (format: the author and the host in a studio, extolling the latest product) claims Rosamunde Pilcher sells 100 to 50 books a minute. Rosamunde Who?

What greater love hath a writer than to flog him or herself on behalf of the latest title? Joan Didion modeled a turtleneck for Gap clothing stores. Even my hero Jimmy Carter confessed to the lustiness of his book promotion when he took journalists on a fishing trip to promote his An Outdoor Journal several hypeful seasons back.

But the flog that’s most beguiling is Baltimore reporter Leslie Walker going on a talk-show circuit with the brother of the murderer she had profiled—until her fraternal evidence was himself jailed for murder. (Takes one to sell one?)

Perhaps the distance we’ve traveled can be gauged by contrasting octogenarian James Michener’s curt “It’s disgraceful” with 30-something Tama Janowitz (who touted Slaves of New York with a video of herself at parties with Andy Warhol): “You do what you have to…and as long as someone is moved to read your book, it’s worthwhile.”

The late Walker Percy refused, despite repeated entreaties, to go on the Dick Cavett show, then considered the hottest medium for book-publishers. Poor old-fashioned Dr. Percy believed his job was writing them, not selling them.

Keen young Ken Follett (he’s just turned 40), on the other hand, once took a course on how to do TV makeup and consulted a “color analyst” so “I would wear colors that make me look attractive.” Yuck.

His first, best thriller, Eye of the Needle (Arbor House, 1978), is not an unintelligent exercise as befits a philosophy major who learned to be demotic on the London Evening News. “Timely,” too, in the sense that a generation after World War II there were millions ready to take a nostalgic look at a key incident preceding the D-Day invasion—whether the Allies would enter France via Calais or Normandy, and how the German General Staff would deploy its diminishing resources along the Channel.

The key player is a Nazi secret agent known at home as “Die Nadel” (“The Needle”) for his penchant of dispatching those who get in his way with the stiletto he keeps hidden in the sheath on his forearm. He must have been doubly appealing to his British readers for his curmudgeonly oddball contempt for Nazi authority.

The man who leads the British chase is a medieval historian on loan to security services. The other principal is a beautiful wife of an RAF Spitfire pilot whose legs (and chances for heroic war effort) were sheared off in an auto smashup on their wedding day.

I really relish the cat-and-mouse details of the chase, especially the Needle’s preternatural skills at anticipating the enemies’ moves. Surely, the pleasure Follett has given me in the reading earns him the last word: “I’m sure there are things I wouldn’t do, like promoting cigarettes. I understand there are writers who are deeply, deeply serious about the creative work they do and who feel promoting themselves would sully that. But it would be pretentious to feel that way about entertainment fiction. The way I look at it, I’m an entertainer.”

Fair enough. But the Infotainment Era makes it harder and harder for the bunch of us to think consecutively about social options or to palaver with each other about what policies ought to come out of our palavers.

Maybe the mistake is believing that there’s any connection between hard covers and hard thinking. Billions of books don’t necessarily add up to sane and life-enhancing behavior. With or without color analysts.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, January 23, 1991

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