BMW got huge publicity and probably sold a few cars with their BMW Films campaign a few years back, in which the company commissioned several famous directors to create short films that featured various BMW models. Now BMW is trying again with BMW Audiobooks, “a unique series of specially-commissioned short stories showcasing the work of some of the finest contemporary writing talent.” A new story will be available for download every two weeks. Now, this being BMW, I’m sure the product placement will be done in a classy way, but I can’t help but think that this does little more than turn “some of the finest contemporary writing talent” into shills writing ad copy. And lest BMW think they are being innovative, it should be known that another car company was seen paying an author to get characters into its cars less than two years ago.
I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch, and it surprises me when someone is afraid of me. Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of The New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas. Relax, I wanted to say. I don’t make a habit of correcting people in conversation or in print — unless it’s for publication and they ask for it, or I’m getting paid. We copy editors sometimes get a reputation for wanting to redirect the flow, change the course of the missile, have our way with a piece of prose. The image of the copy editor is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers. I suppose I have been all of these.
But good writers have a reason for doing things the way they do them, and if you tinker with their work, taking it upon yourself to neutralize a slightly eccentric usage or zap a comma or sharpen the emphasis of something that the writer was deliberately keeping obscure, you are not helping. In my experience, the really great writers enjoy the editorial process. They weigh queries, and they accept or reject them for good reasons. They are not defensive. The whole point of having things read before publication is to test their effect on a general reader. You want to make sure when you go out there that the tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up — unless, of course, you are deliberately wearing your clothes inside out.
When the opening chapters of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist ran in The New Yorker, I got to OK it. It was immaculate, partly because we were working from the galleys of the book: copy editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux had already been over it, and, once a piece is in that form, authors, agents, and editors are reluctant to change a ligature. I went over it, giving it all I had: sometimes copy departments at publishing houses miss something, just as we sometimes miss something. As it happens, I noticed a small inconsistency in a passage that was quoted from a children’s history book. It was a long quotation, set off in small type, and it was repeated at the end, with some slight variation. I marked it and gave my proof to the fiction editor, Bill Buford. Later, Bill’s assistant came bounding up the stairs and delivered to me a color Xerox of the first page of my proof, on which Buford had written in blue, “Of Mary Norris, Roth said: ‘Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?’”
Up to that point, I’d read only Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. Helen Stark, who was in charge of The New Yorker’s editorial library, had been all atwitter when The Ghost Writer ran in the magazine — she saved it for herself to index. Now I bought the audiobook of I Married a Communist and listened to it on a drive back from Ohio. It was read by the actor Ron Silver, and I almost went off the road during an ecstatic passage where the stars were furnaces: furnace of Ira, furnace of Eve. It seemed so warm and passionate. The book was funny, too: the hero is forced to schlep his girlfriend’s daughter’s harp all over town, and I had a harpist in the family, so I knew what a pain the harp was — there is nothing heavenly about a working harp. I subsequently had a year of Roth: Patrimony, The Facts (“Reader, I married her”), all the Zuckerman books. When Exit Ghost came out, I went back and read The Ghost Writer. I was on a trip to Amsterdam and saw Anne Frank’s house and reread her diary while staying in a hotel on the spot of one that burned down during the war. I was so sorry when I ran out of Roth to read.
I did speak with Roth on the phone once, closing a piece about Saul Bellow, and saw him at a New Yorker Christmas party. I have been smitten ever since the proposition on the page proof. I suppose all he wanted was a housekeeper, someone to keep track of the details. But if he should ever read this I just want to say I’m still available.
Excerpted from Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. Copyright © 2015 by Mary Norris. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Perhaps you’ve heard the recent news that Random House is suing to recover a $300,000 advance from P. Diddy for an autobiography he failed to deliver back in 1999. In the Guardian, Blake Morrison argues that Random House’s litigousness represents a departure from gentlmanly publishing practices of the past. It is most certainly the only article that I’ve ever come across that manages to find what P. Diddy and Marcel Proust have in common.Of course, P Diddy is not a poet starving in a garret. In fact, thanks to his business interests, which range from ownership of Bad Boy Entertainment to the Sean John clothing line, he could probably afford to buy every garret in Manhattan – and still have something left over. Moreover, Random House could put that £160,000 to good uses – to encourage a first-time novelist, for instance.Still, a worrying precedent is being set here. What will the world of literature come to if every late-delivering author is held to account? Authors have been slow to deliver ever since Moses came down from Mount Sinai with his tablets of stone (40 days and nights late, according to his editor). In the 19th century, those who failed to produce their promised magnum opus ranged from Coleridge and de Quincey (both of whom suffered an opium habit) to Casaubon in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, with his grandiose plans to write a scholarly Key to All Mythologies.In the 20th century, it was Proust who set the appropriate tortoise pace.Link
I thought I was a decent member of the literary community. I read local writers; I buy books at local bookstores; I go to at least one literary event a week. Then my own novel came out. Mountains crashed; music rang out; and I was flooded with the awareness that I’ve been doing a whole lot wrong.
A few weeks in, I’ve assembled a list of my top epiphanies. As you can see, First Novel Karma blends classic karma, the golden rule, the pirate code, and old-school business ethics. Still, I’ve been shocked by how completely this Way has taken root in me; how seemingly obvious it (now) is; how, in most situations, there really is a right way and a wrong way.
Respect the author
Do you have any idea how hard it is to publish a book? First, an author invested years of her life to create a story out of nothing; then she had to plow through hundreds of rejections to convince seasoned industry veterans that the story is actually valuable and land a deal—or, harder yet, do it herself; then she had to go bang the drum to get readers to actually care about the story enough to pay for it, all while emanating grace and gratitude and the goodwill of all humanity.
Books aren’t slapped together over the weekend; they’re built on years of love. Ignore the snarky reviews and trust that love.
Read books from living authors only
This one’s easy: Hemingway’s grandkids are swimming in cash, whereas hustling artists need whatever they can get. That $10 purchase actually does make a difference for writers like me. Respect life.
A guy from my college rap group (long story) just Facebookmailed me to tell me he liked my book. I hadn’t talked to him in person since he mysteriously disappeared after my junior year, presumably to become a plumber. But he bought the book, and may tell more people about it, because he saw it on Facebook.
Facebook feeds your high school boyfriend, your dentist, that girl you used to play tennis with, the friend of a friend who laughed at your jokes at a wedding four years ago. Wading through Farmville gifts from that weird uncle is absolutely worth the hassle. Also, I might be a little spammy for a while, but it’s worth taking that risk—and my friends understand.
Shut up and buy books from people you know
A month ago, when acquaintances put out books, I’d balk at buying em. I have a Kiliminjaro book pile I’m never going to finish, and life’s too short to read books you don’t want to.
Now, when I see friends slishing out of the book sales line, I know I had it coming. From here on out, I’m shelling out for at least one copy. That means sometimes buying a book I know isn’t my style—but on the plus side, an autographed book always makes for a bad-ass gift for somebody.
Don’t talk shit
Not that I’m a particularly big shit-talker, but I have opinions and enjoy sharing them frankly and generally like people who do the same—that’s what makes them interesting.
From now on, I’m only dishing the positive opinions in public. While I remain fervently anti-boring, pissing in the literary pool only enrages the swimmers, and the world’s short enough on civility and tact. If I ever feel an unquashable need to shit-talk, the plan is to let loose on dead guys.
Channel jealousy into solidarity
Did you see the front-page rave in the New York Times for John Brandon’s Citrus County? Every striving writer in America did, then checked John’s meteoric Amazon ranking (I saw it top out at #33).
After 30 seconds of furious envy, I knew I would become an advocate for John—not only do highly reputable people vouch for John’s chops, he’s with a local bad-ass publisher and he’s hustled for years. By god, he has earned it. And the more terrific writers who catapult into mainstream success, the better it is for all of us.
Sell with charm – and by hearing no
My publisher booked me at a “Pre-Bastille Day Happy Hour” last week. Though it sounds intriguingly festive, the event actually consisted of a thin crowd of tourists enjoying a quiet glass of wine. I was already there, so I went for it: during lulls in conversation I politely introduced myself to each table, offering to leave as soon as they said the word. I noted that the Pre-Bastille Day Happy Hour was furiously gaining steam, handed them a copy of a recent review, and offered to read whatever chapter they liked, or tell a joke, or dance for them. An alarmingly high percentage of patrons bought copies immediately; two people went on to buy me drinks. It was a pretty awesome afternoon.
Still, people didn’t like saying no to my face. Identify the code words—“maybe,” “let me think about it,” “I’m out of cash”—and exit with dignity.
Never relax, tastefully
We have so many terrific distractions clamoring for our time—not just millions of well-written books, but also movies, family, bands, sports, The Daily Show and iPads, Twitter and the new hot ice cream shop, not to mention old-fashioned walks on the beach and phone calls and sex. Gambling eight hours and $12 on a first-time novelist is a significant request. I’m a little too aware of this and spend most of my free time figuring out how I can get the word out to people who might care enough to take the dive.
There’s a gourmet restaurant storyline in my book; I’m lining up tasting/reading events with foodie organizations. The book’s an allegory for the French Revolution, so I want to throw down with every Francophile organization within driving distance. I’m in touch with my alumni association, have activated my workplace, and am hitting the neighborhood garage sale. I’m absolutely hustling, but I’m trying to hustle the right way, with thank yous and confirmation emails, eye contact and the extra phone call, every interaction loaded with what I hope comes across as charming and respectful writerly energy.
Most folks probably know that Pulitzer-winning Kavalier & Clay author Michael Chabon had a hand in penning the script of this summer’s blockbuster movie, Spiderman 2. It turns out he’s been working on some books, too. As is mentioned in this article, keep your eyes open for a new novella in the Sherlock Holmes vein coming out this November. It’s called The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. He’ll also be editing another installment of the McSweeney’s “Thrilling Tales” series entitled McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. Finally, in the more distant future look for a new full-length novel. “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in a parallel world in which the Jewish homeland was set up in Alaska rather than Israel, something that president Franklin D. Roosevelt considered during World War II.” Happy Labor Day!Update: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union