This Reuters article describes how the British publishing house, Jonathan Cape, was forced to release Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday, early because the Evening Standard broke a publicity embargo and ran an interview two weeks to soon. Naturally, other newspapers, not wanting to be scooped by the Standard, also ran stories about McEwan’s book too early. Suddenly, Saturday was getting tons of press, but the books weren’t in stores, and now Bertelsmann’s Random House, which owns Jonathan Cape, wants the Standard to pay for the lost revenue that resulted from the runaway publicity chain reaction. The subtext to all of this, especially if you consider the story in light of the creation of the new made-for-tv Quill Awards, is that publishing companies, most of which are now owned by media conglomerates, are trying to market and sell books in the same way they might market and sell movies or music. In Hollywood, the financial success of many a film is determined by the opening weekend, or even the opening night, and all the marketing resources go towards getting people into the movie theatre on the opening weekend. The primary – though unstated – purpose of awards shows is to convince people to see the movies or buy the music that is being honored, not simply to honor it. My experience as a bookseller tells me that books don’t work this way. The book is the ultimate “word of mouth” product. The desire to read a good book is many times more likely to be initiated by a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader (or bookseller) than by a piece of clever marketing or even a prominent review. It’s my opinion that publishers shouldn’t be pushing for the huge first week numbers – forcing a book to boom or bust – but they should give books a chance to survive and thrive on their own merits… the way McEwan’s last book, Atonement, did.
The movie of Eat, Pray, Love commences with the kind of moment that, depending on your outlook, leads you to find memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert either deeply appalling or appealing. In a chatty voice-over, Julia Roberts tells us the story of her psychologist friend, Deborah, who’s daunted when asked to counsel a bunch of recently deposited Cambodian boat people.
The boat people, Julia tells us, have suffered “the worst of what humans can inflict on each other—genocide, rape, torture, starvation, the murder of their relatives before their eyes.” How can a privileged American—a mere Philadelphia shrink—possibly relate to their suffering?
But luckily for Deborah, boat people have no interest in discussing their years in refugee camps or having to feed expired fellow travelers to the sharks. Instead, their worries comprise a sort of deposed-dictator, PTSD season of The Bachelorette: “I met this guy when I was living in the refugee camp, and we fell in love. I thought he really loved me, but then we were separated on different boats, and he took up with my cousin. Now he’s married to her…”
At this punchline, the audience at my screening chuckled at the oh-too-truthiness of it all. It’s not surprising Hollywood chose to launch the movie thus. It is a moment pure Gilbertian, exactly the kind of psychic pass those troubled by uniquely unspeakable acts require.
Sure, life is filled with nasty inconveniences like rape and having to pitch a corpse or two overboard when you least expect it! But never fear. At the end of the day, all we all really care about is if that guy is going to call.
For those of us who’ve watched Gilbert transmute from a National Book Award nominee (for The Last American Man) to an author who breathlessly hears God declaim, “YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW STRONG MY LOVE IS!!!!!!!!” (formatting Gilbert’s), watching her cinematic transformation is even more fascinating. Yes, Oprah tended to elide the side of the beloved spiritual rehabber that shipped a set of Gibbon in advance of her journey to Rome. But Hollywood has circumscribed even this Oprah-approved Gilbert entirely, rendering a zippy over-formatter with a direct line to our creator a passive rom-com goddess.
While a real-life Gilbert and Eat, Pray, Love’s protagonist were avowed globe-trotters, when we meet Julia Roberts’ Gilbert, she is entirely landlocked, wandering her sterile suburban home in darkness and leafing through a sheaf of withering maps of places she’d like to go. (How did this chained wife finance said home? The filmmakers punt this headscratcher by referencing callow junkets to Aruba.)
For this Elizabeth, one’s love life lives in lockstep with self-discovery, and each phase of her spiritual and physical journey is simply a means to further her romantic one. To this end, the screenwriters haven’t simply emphasized parts of the memoir. They’ve created entirely new plot points, ones that effectively hold together the movie’s lovesick Gilbert but have little to do with the memoir’s one.
Gilbert of the memoir barely mentions children. But for Hollywood’s Gilbert, the specter of motherhood looms like Alcatraz in the distance, the impetus for setting off on the journey of a lifetime, not a lifer. Now, a crappy Dear John email in the memoir is buffeted by a discourse on a descent into Rome’s Augusteum. The memoir’s uneventful stay in an ashram (what do you want? It’s an ashram) suddenly contains not only a real wedding but a ghostly wedding dance with Gilbert’s ex on the ashram’s roof. (I cried. Sue me.) There’s even an official meet cute. In the memoir, Felipe and Gilbert simply run into each other at a party. But now, her future husband plows into Gilbert on her bike, running her off the road before he bangs her in real life.
But it’s Gilbert the observer whose absence is most striking. Eat, Pray, Love was studded with sharp buds of cultural critique, including a clever discourse on Italians’ skill at Il bel far niente—the beauty of doing nothing. Hollywood, puppeteer, delivers this recitative entirely through the mouths of others while Gilbert nods and looks on. It’s practically a reprimand. Gilbert the author was a vivid tour guide, showcasing the grapes of Rome with “champagne-colored skins as tight as a showgirl’s leotard.” But Julia Roberts’ Gilbert simply sits and absorbs, dutifully sipping her delightful espresso. This character won’t describe squat to a reader. She is her reader.
But it seems unfair to blame Hollywood for divesting Gilbert of her authority when it’s her author’s ruling shtick is to pretend she has none. (As a writer, Gilbert is a bit like a brainy professor who distracts you from her intellect by asking if her skirt matches her shoes.) She’s left the screenwriters no choice but to put a plot, any plot, in place. For it is the great irony of this soul-baring epic, one whose epigraph reads simply Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth, that the cagey author leaves us entirely in the dark as to how the Gilbert sausage gets made.
Gilbert may make her living talking, like, to God, but you cannot get her to tell us about love or money—well, for love or money. This begins, of course, with the elision of the book’s impetus, which was, of course, not a bolt from God but a book contract. (You know—the thing writers live on.) We have no idea who financed this trip. Was it an advance, or help from her uncle and aunt? (The acknowledgments seem to suggest the latter, but travelers on “Eat, Pray, Love” pilgrimages would probably benefit from a ballpark figure.) On the dissolution of her marriage she remains assiduously mum. Is she legally prevented from talking about what happened? If so, why not be Zen and tell us? (Especially when the edict, whether spiritual or legal, doesn’t prevent her from clarifying the petty ex demanded their house, pied-a-terre, retirement accounts, and a stake in her future earnings.) Eat, Pray, Love closes with her commitment to Felipe, but readers of her follow up, Committed already know how loath Gilbert is to reveal anything about the actual marriage.
But why is Gilbert so tight-lipped about the vicissitudes of her actual reality, and why are readers under the impression she’s anything but? In a recent, much popularized TED talk, Gilbert tells the audience what it’s like to go from an unknown writer who everyone was sure would fail to a mega-bestseller that everyone knows will fail, because she’ll find it impossible to ever have a follow-up as good as Eat, Pray, Love.
Gilbert refuses this responsibility. Nowadays, she argues, artists are driven into suicidal depressions by such expectations. Once, we had a muse we could blame for our failures, and it’s time to bring the muse back. If she never has a book as successful as Eat, Pray, Love, she tells us, so be it. She’s refused to “leak down that dark path.” Her mind is safe because, she puts a “safe distance” between herself and the risks of creativity.”
But one must wonder if it’s the crisis of creativity that’s hounding her, or simply the crisis of actual self-exposure. Gilbert’s ex, Michael Cooper, recently canceled a book deal that was supposed to be his own version of Eat, Pray, Love. He cited as his reason that publisher Hyperion wanted it to be more “racy,” while he wanted to focus instead on his “decades-long commitment to humanitarian relief and human rights work.”
Despite their divorce, this couple still has something in common: a wish to avoid gritty details. (After all, could you give away a book on “humanitarian relief and human rights work”?) But Gilbert, as in her marriage, is a more skilled elider. Eat, Pray, Love’s premise—to journey around the globe and the self—is appealing to the quiet desperado in all of us. Handed a memoir that does the first so engagingly, it’s hard to notice the author hasn’t really done the second.
And while we bicker endlessly on Gilbert’s self-involvement or lack thereof, talent or lack thereof, patronizing white hegemonic superiority or lack thereof, we miss the point. Because Eat, Pray, Love’s author has actually managed to hide everything: her skill in prosody; her depth as a reporter; her talent for research, and—most important—the reason why the book came to be in the first place. She’s her own Cambodian boat person, nattering on about love to avoid whatever wreckage lies in her wake.
We won’t know until Oscar season how well Julia Roberts has fared in the role. (For the record, I was shocked to find her scene crying in the bathroom quite moving—I don’t know if Roberts has evinced such convincing distress since her coma in Steel Magnolias.) But it doesn’t matter. For my money, as guru, writer, and spiritually evolved truth-teller, Elizabeth Gilbert still turns in the best performance of herself.
Bonus Link: File Under: Self-Realization in Women
It is hardly news by now that Broadway theater has become a high-priced museum of its former self. This year’s Broadway season, which kicked off earlier this month, will feature a few new plays, including a limited run of Outside Mullingar from Pulitzer-winner John Patrick Shanley in January, but for the most part Broadway theaters will host the usual disheartening mix of jukebox musicals, retooled Disney movies, and revivals of hoary classics populated by downshifting movie stars.
For those who care about theater as an art form, it is this last category, the endless stream of revivals of classic American plays populated by movie stars, that really hurts. Sure, there are theaters off-Broadway and in other cities around the country that still commission and produce new plays, but the Broadway revivals, like the production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones that opened earlier this month, show that there was once a time when serious new plays found favor not just with a small, theater-loving elite, but with a broad cross-section of middle-class America.
My own grandparents, like many educated young people in the 1940s, loved culture and fine things, but they lived in an isolated mill town in Southern Virginia without good bookstores or restaurants, much less a vital theater scene. So, like thousands of their fellow Americans, once or twice a year, they hopped a train to New York to eat a few decent meals, shop at the department stores along Fifth Avenue, and “see the shows,” which for them meant Broadway. This was, for a generation of American provincials like my grandparents, the height of sophistication and an annual ritual that sustained New York theater for decades.
Now that golden age of serious, culturally ambitious drama is gone forever.
Or is it? Certainly, given the sky-high ticket prices and the emphasis on circus-like musicals catering to baby boomer nostalgia, the next generation of great American dramatists like Tennessee Williams or Lorraine Hansberry, whose 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun is being revived this spring, won’t be returning to Broadway any time soon. But in fact we have a platform for serious, character-driven drama in this country, and it is more popular and broad-based than Broadway ever was. It’s called cable television.
The inexorable slide of quality theater from the cultural mainstream and the rise of cable TV as the defining dramatic art form of the 21st century is a prime example of technological “creative destruction” at work. The theater of Broadway’s Golden Age was indeed terrific stuff, but as a consumer product it was wildly inefficient. Because shows were live and unrecorded, they could be seen by a limited number of people, many of whom had to travel hundreds of miles to get to the theater. Successful Broadway shows spawned touring companies – as hit musicals still do to this day – but such tours are costly to run and audiences in the smaller cities inevitably get a watered-down version of the real thing, with lower quality actors and production values.
Cable shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, which airs its series finale this Sunday, are cheap and easily accessible to anyone with a subscription to cable or Netflix. More importantly, though, thanks to a complex set of market forces, all the incentives push cable channels to hire top-drawer actors and writers and allow them the artistic freedom to create compelling characters and story lines, much the way the best Broadway plays did half a century ago. This fragile cultural moment won’t last – more on that later – but for now it seems clear that if Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry were writing today they would be showrunners for a cable series, because that’s where the audience is.
You can measure the Golden Age of American theater in many ways, but I would mark it from the 1944 debut of The Glass Menagerie to the opening night of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1962. There were, of course, serious American playwrights before then – Eugene O’Neill is the best-known, but there were plenty of others – but those writers always seemed slightly ahead of the popular culture of their time. Likewise, many great American plays have debuted since 1962, and a select few, like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, became part of the wider national conversation.
But for a short time after the Second World War, American commercial theater hit that elusive sweet spot where popularity meets ambitious social and artistic agendas. In his fascinating 1987 autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller speaks of this era as
a time when the audience was basically the same for musicals and light entertainment as for the ambitious stuff and had not yet been atomized…So the playwright’s challenge was to please not a small sensitized supporting clique but an audience representing, more or less, all of America.
Miller explains how this broad-based, yet culturally hungry audience shaped the work of the era’s two greatest writers, himself and Tennessee Williams. Both men were, to differing degrees, outsiders to American culture – Williams because he was unapologetically gay, Miller because he was a Jew with strong radical beliefs. In another era, Miller says, they might well have slanted their work to please a minority audience that already agreed with them, but suddenly in the postwar years there was a mainstream audience waiting to hear what they had to say, and being both great artists and profoundly ambitious men, they opened their work outward to a mass audience.
To do that, they didn’t preach to their audiences like Clifford Odets did in his political plays of the 1930s or bash the viewer over the head with a bleak vision the way O’Neill too often does in his plays. Instead, Miller and Williams created characters – indelible, psychologically complex protagonists like the struggling salesman Willy Loman riding on a smile and a shoeshine or the tragic, half-mad Blanche DuBois forever depending on the kindness of strangers. These characters had to be psychologically complex and indelibly drawn because that’s how you appeal to a heterogenous audience not already united by social background or political outlook: you get audiences to care deeply about a character, to see themselves in someone who may not be in any outward way like them. Once you’ve done that, an audience will follow you anywhere.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the movies that put an end to Broadway’s Golden Age. Hollywood’s own Golden Age, stretching from the advent of sound in the late 1920s to the late 1950s, roughly overlaps that of Broadway. No, it was TV that killed the Broadway of Miller’s era – that and probably the jet plane. At a time when the only viable home entertainment was radio and all but the stratospherically rich traveled by train, car, or boat, Broadway theater was part of a broader leisure industry that catered to Americans like my grandparents yearning for cultural experiences they couldn’t enjoy in their own hometowns.
But once the desire for entertainment could be satisfied by a magic box in the living room and a desire for horizon-broadening travel could by satisfied by plane trips to Europe and beyond, Hollywood and Broadway had to adapt or die. They did so by splitting their audiences – “atomizing” them, in Miller’s terms – into high and low. After a decade of trial and error, Hollywood reinvented itself in the 1970s with ambitious, director-driven films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and money-spinning summer blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. Broadway did much the same thing, filling the bigger houses with crowd-pleasing musicals like Cats and A Chorus Line while supporting more adventurous, writer-driven work by the likes of David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Wendy Wasserstein.
This worked for a time, thanks in large part to off-Broadway and the regional theater movement, which allowed playwrights to grow their careers at subscription-based resident theaters around the country and then bring their most popular work to New York for a money-making Broadway run. This system, low-paying and outside the mainstream as it was, still made for some pretty terrific theater. Shepard, sustained by a long-running affiliation with San Francisco’s Magic Theater, introduced audiences to his singularly bleak and funny Western vision, while August Wilson, who premiered most of his plays at the Seattle Repertory Theater, opened a window onto working-class black characters quite nearly invisible to the mainstream.
But while regional theater provided an audience for more adventurous fare, unlike in Arthur Miller’s day, it was no longer the same audience that went to see the big musicals. Mamet, Shepard, and Wilson, talented as they were, were no longer writing for “an audience representing, more or less, all of America,” but for the “small sensitized supporting clique” that Miller saw as an artistically narrowing force. And then, lo and behold, the free market worked its magic. As Broadway ticket prices escalated to pay for ever more lavish, spectacle-driven musicals, it became harder to persuade theatergoers, even the ones who like the more ambitious stuff, to risk several hundred dollars on a new play.
Enter Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano. Gallons of ink have been spilled, and thousands of terabytes expended, trying to explain why audiences have become so obsessed with characters on modern cable shows, but as Adam Davidson demonstrates in a December 2012 New York Times “It’s the Economy” column, the answer has more to do with business models than any quirk of culture. When there were only three major networks, programming success depended on producing a great number of shows that were just incrementally better than what was on the two other networks, which inevitably led to the creation of a vast wasteland of expensively bland mediocrity.
But once cable blew up the TV dial, giving viewers hundreds of channels to choose from, programmers had to shift their strategy. Now, it wasn’t enough to be just a little better than the competition; now, your shows had to be a lot better. You didn’t have to come up with a huge number of great shows, just one or two at a time would do, but they had to be so good that viewers would become obsessed with the characters and story lines to the point that they would shun cable providers that didn’t carry the channels where those shows appeared.
In other words, out of the morass of network TV, the very technology that ended Broadway theater’s Golden Age, came a sort of small-screen Broadway in which a few big talents – David Simon of The Wire, Lena Dunham of Girls, Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad, and so on – have been given wide artistic latitude to create characters and stories audiences will care about. Because cable providers often operate as near-monopolies, the average cable bill has doubled in the past decade, and viewers pay close to $90 billion a year for cable service. That is a huge pot of money, and for many cable companies nearly half of their revenue is pure profit, so there is an enormous incentive to get the formula right.
But as Davidson points out in his Times column, this fragile model is already fraying at the seams. So far at least, cable subscribers aren’t canceling in large numbers, but as piracy becomes more pervasive, fewer younger people are signing up for cable in the first place. “When people in their 20s move out of their parents’ house or dorm room, they are less likely to get into the habit of paying for cable,” he writes. “If they get addicted to Breaking Bad, they’ll often download it free through file-sharing services like Bit Torrent or wait for it to come out on iTunes.” To make up for lost revenue, cable providers have to jack up rates, which drives more new viewers away, setting up a vicious spiral that, according to one industry expert Davidson spoke to, could cause the entire edifice to collapse as early as 2016.
What comes after that? The short answer is nobody knows. It could get seriously messy there for a while, leading millions of Breaking Bad and Mad Men obsessives to bore their children with talk of the Golden Age of Cable. But if this history teaches us anything, it is that there is always going to be a sizeable audience that cares about quality drama enough to pay real money for it. After all, in the 1940s, Broadway’s principal competition was local amateur productions and guys on their front porches telling funny stories – a sort of analog version of today’s BitTorrent downloads and YouTube cat videos. My grandfather, who told some pretty funny stories himself, was willing to plunk down serious money to take his family to New York for a few good meals and a chance to see the best writers and performers of his age. I have no idea what entertainment technology will look like when my future grandchildren begin to hunger for something more edifying than a quick joke or a funny story, but my bet is they will be able to find it if they are willing to pay for it.
Image via studentrush.org
When I lived in Washington, DC, I remember there being a slew of excitement in the local newspapers and in local bookstores when a book like Primary Colors came out. Local interest is a big seller in books, especially when there’s scandal involved. Here in Los Angeles this means that books about Hollywood get top billing, and there are lots of them on the local bestseller lists at any given time. They come in a few different flavors. There’s the now-we-can-finally-make-all-those-juicy-stories-public, recent-history-of-Hollywood books. These books come out a generation or so after the action depicted in the book takes place. The main players have either died or they no longer wield any power so their stories are fair game for the reading public. Connie Bruck’s biography of Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, When Hollywood Had a King and A. Scott Berg’s biography of Katherine Hepburn, Kate Remembered are two recent examples. Then there’s the down-in-the-trenches, you-have-to-be-there-to-really-get-it, borderline-inside-joke, behind-the-scenes-entertainment-industry-workplace-dramas. Take David Rensin’s book The Mailroom, which, as far as I can tell, you would only want to read for one of two reasons. You once worked in Hollywood mailroom and you want to reminisce about those high-energy, low-pay days back before you became a high-powered agent, or you desperately want to become a high-powered agent and you want to read up about what it’s like in the mailroom, your first step on the road to glitz and glamour. Finally there is the true story thinly disguised as fiction like producer Robert Cort’s recent novel, Action!. I got to thinking about all of this Hollywood literature because of a recent review by Caryn James in the New York Times that assesses the latest crop of Hollywood lit. (LINK). Wading through big-selling tell-alls like Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures and Joe Eszterhas’ Hollywood Animal and all the rest, she finds a novel that transcends the Hollywood genre in The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters and also mentions that when it comes to books about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West is “unsurpassed.”
Michael Chabon provides an update on the progress of a movie version of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay on his Web site. Somewhat cryptically, he writes “The fate of this project–whether it will move at last from the nebulousness of pre-pre-production into really-truly pre-production, with a budget and cast and everything, will be decided on or around 12 July 2006.”He adds that Natalie Portman “is a strong likelihood” to play Rosa, and then provides some quick answers to what will and will not make it into the big-screen version of the book: “Golem: yes. Antarctica: yes. Gay love story: yes. Ruins of World’s Fair: no. Long Island: no. Orson Welles: no. Salvador Dali: yes. Loving reference to Betty and Veronica: no. Stan Lee: no.”Meanwhile, IMDb as of this writing has very few details about the film. Just that Stephen Daldry, director of Billy Elliot and The Hours is set to helm and Scott Rudin is the producer. Rudin was also behind the excellent big-screen version of Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys.On a somewhat related note, Chabon’s next novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is to come out in May of 2007.
I saw Million Dollar Baby last night and enjoyed it. As with most boxing movies, there are some cartoonish moments, but the acting is great. The film relies upon a good deal of narration supplied by Morgan Freeman, and much of that narration comes directly out of the book from which the script was adapted. Rope Burns – which has been rereleased as Million Dollar Baby to tie in with the film – is a collection of boxing stories written by F.X. Toole, the nom de guerre of Jerry Boyd, who, before the book came out in 2000, “had been a bullfighter, a bartender, a cement truck driver and, for the past 20 years of his life, a boxing trainer and cut man,” according to this profile/movie review in the Sydney Morning Herald. Jerry Boyd died in 2002, but before he did he sat down for this very entertaining interview with Terri Gross.I’ve decided I’m going to follow the story of the impending big screen version of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections because 1) I think The Corrections is one of the more important books of the last ten years, and 2) like Scott at Conversational Reading said a few days ago, I’m skeptical that “Mr. I-don’t-want-The-Corrections-lowered-by-Oprah is going to be cool with a full Hollywood version of his opus” So, here’s the latest casting speculation from the movie rumor site Dark Horizons: “The latest word is that it will be starring Judi Dench (playing Enid, the family matriarch), Brad Pitt (playing the central character Chip), and Tim Robbins and Naomi Watts playing the other two grown children of the family.” Brad Pitt as Chip? (shudder)