After two years of college I dropped out because it was a waste of time and money. Since boyhood I had known I wanted to be a writer — a real writer, a novelist — and after 14 years inside classrooms I’d come to the conclusion that I needed to get out into the world and start harvesting the stuff novels are made of, a substance so vital and valuable that it became the title of a memoir by the great Martin Amis. I’m talking about experience.
By the time I left college I had worked any number of jobs, which are a form of experience in that they send us into the world and force us to figure out how to survive there. Beginning at an early age, I had delivered newspapers, caddied, worked as a bar boy, a dishwasher, a busboy, a bartender. But now I believed I needed something more daring, something more artistically remunerative. The way to have something worth writing about, I reasoned, was to have adventures. This meant two things: plunging into unfamiliar worlds and traveling.
I wasn’t the first aspiring writer to come to this conclusion. Surely Ernest Hemingway couldn’t have written his stories and novels if he hadn’t fished the rivers of northern Michigan, seen combat in the First World War, lived and loved in Paris, hunted big game in Africa, watched the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and battled marlins off the coast of Cuba. Hemingway’s fiction lives on the page because it’s grounded in physical worlds he knew intimately and was able to describe with spare beauty. Other writers I admired had pursued lives of action, from Herman Melville to Jack London, Joseph Conrad, and even Henry Miller, though his adventures were decidedly more seedy than swashbuckling.
Given all this, I was delighted to land a job as a farmhand in Vermont a week after dropping out of college. The place was a sort of nursery for broken-down thoroughbred racehorses from nearby Green Mountain Park, the last stop for many of these nags before they were turned into dog chow or glue. The huge, jittery horses terrified me, but I found I loved the manual labor — baling hay, digging post holes, cleaning stalls, putting a roof on a barn — and above all I was thrilled to be accepted into a raffish blue-collar crew that consisted of a ham-faced Vermont farmer, a hard-drinking cowboy with a broken leg, a petty-criminal greaser who had his eye on the foreman’s hottie teenage daughter, and a gifted old black trainer who nowadays would be called a horse whisperer. I knew I wouldn’t have met any of these people if I had stayed in school.
When the racing season ended I pocketed my $500 life savings and drove my wheezing ’54 Chevy pickup cross-country, then proceeded to work a string of odd jobs up and down the West Coast, in kitchens and vineyards, dairy farms and orchards. At night I worked on my apprentice novel — a murder story set on a Vermont racehorse farm. I threw the manuscript out, of course, but the experience wasn’t a waste. It taught me how far I had to go before I would be able to consider myself a beginner, and it led me to ask myself if I wanted to spend the rest of my life working minimum-wage jobs to support my writing. The answer was no.
It was at about this time that I discovered a remarkable non-fiction book by the short story master Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, which stunned me with this insight: “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not be merged in it.”
This turned my world upside down. If I wanted to become a novelist, according to no less an authority than Flannery O’Connor, I didn’t need to wander the world harvesting experiences. I needed to figure out a way to get paid to contemplate experience and then write about it. The best way to do that, I guessed, would be to get a job as a newspaper reporter and serve my apprenticeship in the typhoon of a daily paper’s city room. My father had done this. So had Mark Twain, Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Tom Wolfe, and countless others. But this was the aftermath of Watergate, and I knew it would be impossible to land a coveted reporter’s job without a college degree. So I sold my ’54 pickup, took a bus back across the country, and returned to college to finish my final two years.
It ended up working out — eventually. After graduation I spent five months knocking on doors at newspapers until I got my first break, a cub reporter’s job on a Gannett daily in a Pennsylvania tank town, starting pay $140 a week. I was, just barely, a professional writer. More newspaper jobs followed, as a reporter and columnist at bigger papers. I kept writing fiction on the side, sometimes giving up the steady newspaper paycheck to travel and work as a magazine freelancer, a New York City bicycle messenger, a construction worker, a Nashville disc jockey. Once, when particularly hard up, I even worked as an “actor” in a porn movie. As justification for this dubious career move, I turned to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer:
Then one day I fell in with a photographer; he was making a collection of the slimy joints of Paris for some degenerate in Munich.He wanted to know if I would pose for him with my pants down, and in other ways. I thought of those skinny little runts, who look like bellhops and messenger boys, that one sees on pornographic post cards in little bookshop windows occasionally, the mysterious phantoms who inhabit the Rue de la Lune and other malodorous quarters of the city. I didn’t like very much the idea of advertising my physiog in the company of these élite. But, since I was assured that the photographs were for a strictly private collection, and since it was destined for Munich, I gave my consent. When you’re not in your home town you can permit yourself little liberties, particularly for such a worthy motive as earning your daily bread.
My apprenticeship wound up lasting a lot longer than I’d expected: after my college graduation, 16 years passed before I finally published my first novel. When a second followed, I quit my last full-time newspaper job and supported my fiction writing with freelance assignments from anyone willing to pay me — daily newspapers, glossy magazines, college alumni magazines, this and other websites, the rich friends of a rich dead man in need of an upbeat obituary. It has been almost 20 years since I saw my last steady paycheck, and in that time I learned that no writer can afford to be choosy when it comes to earning his daily bread.
In those years I also published a third novel and finished several that haven’t found a buyer. Writing hasn’t made me rich or famous, but I’m still alive, I’m still paying the rent every month, and I’m still writing every day, which is the thing I most love to do.
My big mistakes, I now realize, were to equate adventure with experience and to believe that the writer’s job is to be merged in experience. There’s nothing wrong with adventure, for writers or anyone else, but as Flannery O’Connor taught me, it’s unnecessary for a writer. She rarely left her home in Milledgeville, Ga., and Marcel Proust rarely left his bedroom. They understood that the writer’s business is to contemplate experience, and, just as important, to realize that all experience, no matter how seemingly trivial, can be put to use. The experience of spending a day alone in a jail cell would hardly qualify as an adventure, for instance, but it’s an experience that could make for a rich short story or novel, in the hands of the right writer. The point is that action and adventure — harpooning a whale, say, or getting cut down by shrapnel — are not impediments to writing, but they aren’t prerequisites either.
And then there is what Martin Amis called “main-event experience” in his memoir Experience, the ones that put us through the emotional meat grinder. I have experienced my share of these, including the death of both parents, a sibling locked in a fight with addiction, lost friendships and loves. These are not uncommon experiences but they’re powerful, and they’re definitely worth contemplating, for writers and everybody else. The reverberations of main-event experience are the gold mine.
There’s also nothing wrong with including the experience of work in fiction. The wheat-threshing scene in Anna Karenina comes immediately to mind, as do the gorgeous horrors the poet Philip Levine found inside the Detroit auto factories where he worked as a young man. But as I look back at my checkered résumé, I see that the only job that directly fed my published fiction was my time as a bar boy in a suburban Detroit country club during the summer of 1968, a year after the city was ravaged by a vicious race riot. My experience of working amid rich, white auto executives and black waiters from the inner city made its way into my third novel, Motor City Burning. That’s not much of a return on an investment of so many years. All writing is in a sense autobiographical, but the point is that unless you’re writing baldly autobiographical fiction à la Henry Miller or Proust or Karl Ove Knausgaard — which I am not — you will probably not profit much from your work experience. Your job is to contemplate all of your experience, then set loose the dogs of your imagination.
Come to think of it, I wish my résumé wasn’t nearly as long as it is. Given how little I’ve been able to use my work experience in my fiction, I’ve come to see all those thousands of hours of working to pay the rent as time that could have been more profitably spent writing, or reading, or contemplating my experience. But few writers are born rich, and few people who are born rich become writers, so I realize I don’t have any right to lament my middle-class fate. It’s hardly unusual, and it could be so much worse.
All I can do, all any writer can do, is figure out a way to get someone to pay me to write. And keep contemplating my experience. And keep writing about it, every day.
Image Credit: Flickr/Kevan.
We are living in a Hesiodic golden age for biographies. Name your favorite dead person, and I will give you the ISBN of a good biography of him written in the last 20 years. The obscurity of your enthusiasms be damned: I assure you that someone has written at least a short, competent life. Even the quixotic British parliamentarians Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, two of my favorite post-war politicians, have received the deluxe, 600-plus page treatment. (As I write this, a sly rogue named Rory Stewart is working on a joint biography of both men, having doubtless figured out that there are enough of us Powellite cum Footians to ensure that a few thousand copies get moved.) We now even have biographies sans bios, lives of non-living things: cities, chemical compounds, sex organs. For whatever reason people seem to read — or least purchase — biographies.
Unfortunately the biography boom has also proven the occasion of some very mean hack-work. People familiar with the facts who cannot write, and people unfamiliar with the facts who can, sign on with major publishers every day. The rise of the authorized or official biography, in which the subject or the subject’s estate cooperate, and I suspect in some cases even collaborate, with the writer producing the book, has seen a parallel phenomenon emerge: the unauthorized life. This is something like the shabby adjunct instructor to the authorized biography’s professor emeritus: it achieves what it can with it’s got, and considering the low pay, sometimes does a damn sight better than anyone would have expected. See Lord Jenkins’s 2001 biography of Churchill, which makes for much better reading than the single book abridgment of Sir Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume official epic. There are, of course, reasons (in some ways I am continuing my academic analogy here) why most unauthorized biographers never find better gigs: lack of requisite qualifications, impoverished Rolodexes, and, above all, a flooded job market.
Richard Bradford is a good example of an unauthorized biographer. He has found a sort of cottage industry writing unofficially about the lives of major figures in 20th-century British literature. Certainly one cannot blame him for having wished to improve upon Eric Jacobs’s dreadful Kingsley Amis biography, but the publication of Zachary Leader’s excellent (and authorized) life has made Bradford’s 2001 book superfluous. As for his more recent go at Philip Larkin, I can only say that, dissatisfied as I am with Andrew Motion’s sprawling (but authorized!) hatchet-job, it remains in many ways the better book, and that it is unlikely that a more successful biography of a man as private as Larkin shall ever be produced without further help from his estate.
I admit then to opening Bradford’s new biography of Martin Amis fils with some apprehension. Biographies about living people are always very suspicious affairs, especially when the subject is a writer. Amis may live to write many more novels. (Much of the preface to the American edition of Martin Amis: The Biography is devoted to Lionel Asbo, which was published shortly after Bradford’s book came out in England.) A living writer’s reputation is often far from settled. (Matt Novak recently dug up a 1936 poll that named James Truslow Adams and James Branch Cabell among the American writers we were all supposed to be reading in 2000.) Besides, the subject’s death and obsequies are usually among the most memorable parts of a great biography: see Michael Shelden’s Orwell or Churchill’s own Marlborough: His Life and Times.
Literary biographies published when their subjects are alive tend to be either hostile or overindulgent. In this case, Bradford is adulatory throughout Martin Amis: The Biography, even to the point of defending Yellow Dog (“The book is not flawless or unimprovable — nothing is — yet it is none the less ambitious and original.”) and The Information (“a novel of extraordinary complexity”), books that virtually no one liked. This is unfortunate. Amis’s reputation will eventually require sorting out, and it would be nice if The Biography (notice the authorized-sounding definite article?) offered us some kind of reasonable starting point.
While there is some excellent new material here (I was intrigued, for example, to learn that Amis did not read his father’s Lucky Jim until he was 18 years old), there is also a great deal, especially in the first half of the book, that has been handled much better elsewhere, particularly in Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis, in Kingsley’s Memoirs, and Martin’s Experience. Bradford also writes very badly. His first two sentences —
What makes a writer? Being born into what would strike most as a scenario suitable only for fiction might play some part.
— do an excellent job of establishing his book’s tone: awkward, overblown, imprecise. He has a strong ear for mixed metaphor (“someone whose magnetic amusing social persona belied a well-protected seam of hapless despondency”), tautology (“He was promiscuous and unfaithful”), and he tends to choose very strange adverbs (reviews of The Rachel Papers are “unflinchingly complimentary,” Northrop Frye is “quixotically impressionistic”). Even selecting the right conjunction gives him trouble: “The parallels between Martin’s and Kingsley’s first novels are tempting and misleading [italics mine].”
He is also very lazy. Paragraph after paragraph appears seemingly unaltered from conversations with Hitchens and Amis, who at one point cannot recall the name of a Kafka story. On page 63, Bradford quotes a letter from Amis to his father in which the 17 year old suggests that Gerard Manley Hopkins “doesn’t stand up to analysis” and calls Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” “almost my favourite poem”; on page 64 he tells us that “Martin at least thought ‘La Belle Dame’ a redeeming piece and enjoyed reading Hopkins despite the fact that under analysis he seemed incomprehensible.” At least a quarter of the book is given over to plot summaries, which should at least make it useful for reviewers who want to pretend that they have read all of Amis.
Bad writing often gets dressed up rather prettily: attractive cover art, “deckle edge,” a nice crisp font. A bit more work on this front might have gone a long way for Martin Amis: The Biography. First, there’s the cover. Here something is clearly wrong with Amis’s skin: either the picture was taken under a 15,000 watt lamp or the subject of this biography has a severe case of sunburn. The quote from The Spectator that appears on the back of the dust jacket has been lifted out of context from a negative review, and almost all the other blurbs refer not to Bradford’s biographical achievements but to Christopher Hitchens’s conversational prowess. (Hitchens, by the way, is mentioned as if he were still living throughout.) The paper on which the book has been printed is too thick for me to roll Gambler cigarettes out of but far too thin (and foul smelling) for a hardcover book. Type 50 or so spaces: that’s how many appear inexplicably between the words “terms” and “of” on the seventh line from the bottom of page 35. The Spectator review contains a catalogue of misspellings which I won’t bother to repeat here.
“My biography of Martin is not a hagiography,” Bradford told an interviewer. True enough, one thinks, but then again he didn’t set out to write a saint’s life, did he? Martin certainly comes across as a sort of smug jerk. But he is also treated as the author of a half-dozen great novels when one great (Money)and two very good (Time’s Arrow and Night Train) novels would be a more accurate figure. Oh, well. Better, I suppose, for Bradford to love Amis than nothing to have loved.
Could anyone keep up with the Hitch? Was there another writer on the planet who could churn out a few essays, dispatch a book review, quell a bloated pastor, give a lecture in New York, get beat up by fascists in Beirut, and still find the time (and stamina) to empty a bottle or two — before getting down to do some serious work?
I ask because in practically every tribute printed in the days and weeks after Hitchens’s death last year, a prodigiously long lunch in the late writer’s company was dimly recalled, and the attendant week-long hangover spoken of in hushed tones of corporeal humility. To wit, Hitchens’s friend Christopher Buckley:
One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit.
The poet Craig Raine:
I stayed with him in Washington when he was married to Eleni Meleagrou. I was reading at the Library of Congress. As Eleni and I were having tea, Christopher came in, fresh from California, reeking of fags and booze. He had been debating with Alexander Cockburn. “Drink?” I said I never drank before a reading. “Gosh,” he said and poured himself a big brandy and Campari. For the next two hours, he put it away. Then we went to the Library of Congress. Afterwards we went to several bars. By 1 a.m. I was speechless with drink and Hitch was in spate…I don’t remember going to bed. I got up at 7 and found my way to the bathroom, wary as a seal, in case my headache exploded. Hitch was in his study, at his desk, a glass of brandy and Campari to hand, a cigarette immolating itself in the ashtray. He was writing a piece.
And finally the writer Benjamin Kunkel:
“An orange juice,” I said to Hitchens in the Old Town Bar, where when I arrived he’d been amiably baiting an occasional cartoonist for The New Republic. “I’m just getting over the flu.”
“Fuck off!” he replied — he later wrote a paean to the expression for Slate — and ordered me a Johnny Walker Black […]
I emerged from the Old Town Bar in a barely ambulatory state, Hitchens and I embraced each other on a street corner like parting lovers, and we never saw each other again. I asked him once if I could use his name in a pitch I wrote as a young freelancer on the make, and he said by all means: “May you flourish!”
You get the picture: a lunch with the Hitch was an unforgettable honor for which, if you couldn’t keep up (and who could?), you paid the price. This was his public image: the long-lunching orator, the scotch-swilling scrivener, the fag-smoking provocateur. After paying Hitchens a visit in Washington D.C. in 2006, the Danish journalist Martin Krasnik confessed to feeling almost physically in love with his host. I know the feeling: I met Hitchens at the 2010 PEN World Voices Festival. Filling in for Sherman Alexie, Hitchens had jetted up to New York from D.C. to deliver the Arthur Miller Lecture in Cooper Union’s Great Hall (the same venue where, two years later, I was lucky enough to attend Vanity Fair’s Memorial Service for him). After a typically engaging talk, and an equally entertaining on-stage conversation with Salman Rushdie, Hitchens milled about among fans and friends off-stage. I caught him there and introduced myself. “It’s an honor to meet you,” I quivered. “If you say so,” he quipped. I went on to explain that I was from Denmark and wanted to thank him for his very vocal support of the Danish cartoonists back in 2006. He leaned in and put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t let them fuck you around,” he said, before wandering off.
As an orator and rhetorician, the Hitch was notorious. Martin Amis recalls that when he was in Cyprus to be best man at Hitchens’s first wedding in 1980, he would spend his mornings decamped by the pool, whereas Hitchens would often show up in a suit and announce his immediate intention of going to the bar to find someone to argue with. “Ideally my day will include at least five arguments,” he told Martin Krasnik. It was a compulsion, as the proliferation of Hitchens’s appearances on political talk shows and news hours in the last decade of his life showed. There he was — debunking the inflated achievements of crooks like Jerry Falwell, picking fights with pious men of faith, or calling for the arrest and trial of war criminals like Henry Kissinger. (Once, as Kissinger was delivering a lecture in Pittsburgh, Hitchens used a fellow journalist’s press pass to enter an auditorium and heckle the audience with cries of “Toads! You’re all toads who’ve come to listen to a toad!” before getting himself thrown out by security guards.)
Despite these shenanigans, Hitchens was inspired and formed by his descent, in the early 1970s, on literary London, where he met a glittering generation of fellow English writers — novelists, essayists, poets, playwrights, journalists — with whom he formed lifelong friendships based on mutual admiration and a shared brew of private jokes and word games. It was there in the pubs and bars and editorial offices that Hitchens first got a whiff of his career as a political man of letters. As he tells it in Hitch-22:
If ever anyone was “hooked,” it was me. The network of streets and lanes and squares roughly between Blackfriars Bridge and Ludgate Circus and Theobalds Road and Covent Garden had me in thrall. So they do still, in their way. This was the district that stretched from the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkwell Green to the British Museum Reading Room where the old boy had done his best work. Extending itself a bit to the north and colonizing Charlotte Street up to Fitzroy Square, it became the area where Anthony Powell had located some of his more louche scenes of pre- and postwar literary interpretation. Looping around itself and doubling back via Shaftesbury Avenue, the neighborhood might be said to “take in” Soho, with its little grid of streets and alleys, containing the offices of Private Eye and New Left Review, and then Gerrard Street, now “Chinatown,” in which Dr. Johnson’s “Club” of Burke, Gibbon, Reynolds, and Garrick had met (and near the corner of which I was later to take my last glimpse of my mother). In these and other purlieus was manufactured the journalistic small-arms ammunition that was to be hurled against the gigantic (but inaccurate and poorly commanded) batteries of Fleet Street’s Tory newspaper establishment, located farther east as a sort of bulwark to the City of London.
Since his death, people have wondered why Hitchens never wrote a novel. After all, he was a great lover of fiction and poetry who for many years reviewed books regularly for The Atlantic; and as the passage above illustrates (though I’d like to quibble with the word “purlieus”), his command of prose was something worth envying. But the consensus among his friends — the novelists Martin Amis and Ian McEwan in particular — was that sitting alone by yourself conjuring up imaginary people and events was not something that suited Hitchens’s temperament: he wanted to be near the action, on the front lines, fighting in the streets. They might have added that a novelist, in order to just sit there all day, must be tirelessly self-conscious. The interior life (the novelist feels) is where the real action is; everything outside of that, everything beyond the fictional, is somehow not enough. As Martin Amis puts it in his memoir Experience, real life is “thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending…”
Christopher Hitchens was not this kind of writer; he rarely sallied forth into the realm of the personal. Even his memoir Hitch-22, with the exception of the moving and painful portraits of his parents, is less a memoir than it is a tribute to his vocation, and to the many people he met pursuing it (he was a great teller of anecdotes). Put it like this: the Hitch was not a subject of urgent interest to the Hitch. Everything else was. In the foreword to Unacknowledged Legislation, his formidable and essential collection of essays on “Writers in the Public Sphere,” he claimed for himself Orwell’s desire to “make political writing into an art.” And just to illustrate his success in this regard, let’s take a gander at the final paragraph of his book on Orwell, Why Orwell Matters (2002):
If it is true that le style, c’est l’homme (a proposition which the admirers of M. Claude Simon must devoutly hope to be false) then what we have in the person of George Orwell is by no means the ‘saint’ mentioned by V. S. Pritchett and Anthony Powell. At best it could be asserted, even by an atheist admirer, that he took some of the supposedly Christian virtues and showed how they could be ‘lived’ without piety or religious belief. It may also be hoped that, to adapt the words of Auden on the death of Yeats, Time itself deals kindly with those who live by and for language. Auden added that Time ‘with this strange excuse’ would even ‘pardon Kipling and his views’. Orwell’s ‘views’ have been largely vindicated by Time, so he need not seek any pardon on that score. But what he illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.
The critic James Wood read this passage aloud at Vanity Fair’s Memorial Service for Hitchens, and justified his selection by claiming that, like all good criticism, this bit was really about the critic himself.
Detractors of Christopher Hitchens might want to keep that passage in mind as they go about their business of reproaching him for his “views” on, for instance, the war in Iraq. You could disagree with those views, like his close friends Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, James Fenton, and Salman Rushdie did, but the principle of anti-totalitarianism on which those views were founded seem to me worth a good deal of respect, and even admiration. In any case, a man who wrote so well and so thoughtfully, and with such Hazlittean “gusto” — his words, in writing and in speech, had that “double relish” — cannot easily be reduced to the summation of his political views, which often contradicted themselves anyway. James Wood wrote of Orwell not long ago that “contradictions are what make writers interesting. Consistency is for cooking.” The same applies to the Hitch: as Martin Amis pointed out in his eulogy at the Memorial Service, Hitchens was so argumentative, was such an auto-contrarian, that it often seemed as though the only person he thought it worthwhile to argue with was himself.
The diagnosis of esophageal cancer in June 2010 forced self-consciousness on Hitchens. The product, Mortality, a slim but courageous volume of dispatches from “the land of malady” originally published in Vanity Fair, came about reluctantly. In a moving afterword, Carol Blue, Hitchens’s widow, tells us that “the first time Christopher went public and wrote about his illness for Vanity Fair, he was ambivalent about it. He was intent on protecting our family’s privacy. He was living the topic and he didn’t want it to become all-encompassing, he didn’t want to be defined by it. He wanted to think and write in a sphere apart from sickness.”
The delightfully Hitch-like solution is to treat his illness as he would any other subject: with verbal flourish and twanging wit. “I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation,” he writes of his diagnosis, “taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of the malady.” And though this new land is “quite welcoming in its way,” it has its predictable lacunae of comfort: “the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited.”
True to character, and as though his superb mental acuity were impervious to incorrigible bodily decline (made throat-cloggingly visible by the book’s author photo), Hitchens artfully cleaves his way through thickets of illness-related delusion. He dispenses with self-deceptions and “facile maxims” shortly after his diagnosis (one of his last articles was a tear-up of Nietzsche’s claim that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) and, like J.P. Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne — a novel Hitchens admired — refuses the false comfort of religious belief to the very end: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
Best of all are the jibes and swings that illuminate the many ironies of the illness business. While at a hospital in Texas, for instance, Hitchens persuades the chaplain’s department that it is “slightly idiotic not to boast of a thirteenth floor but instead to skip from twelve to fourteen.” He even proposes a “cancer-etiquette” book after a tiresome encounter at a book-signing (a female reader, mistakenly assuming that Hitchens is interested in her cousin’s diagnosis with cancer, frustrates the author and the many other people in line to get their books signed). “I have hardly been reticent about my own malady,” Hitchens allows. “But nor do I walk around sporting a huge lapel button that reads, ASK ME ABOUT STAGE FOUR METASTISIZED ESOPHAGEAL CANCER, AND ONLY THAT.”
There is so much to admire in this short volume that, paradoxically, you occasionally forget it was composed en route to death — so coolly does Hitchens face the approach of his own end. I for one find such acceptance of death incomprehensible (when I have a cold, I lay sniveling and whining in the fetal position for a week, calling piteously for refills of Nyquil and whisky), and stubbornly share Nabokov’s urge to “take my rebellion outside and picket nature.” But to think seriously or at length about one’s death — well, as Philip Larkin put it: “it rages out / in furnace-fear when we are caught without / People or drink.”
Larkin also said that courage is no good, yet the moral import of Mortality is precisely the courage displayed by Christopher Hitchens as he fought, not against the cancer (he knew he was dying: “the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five”), but to keep writing for as long as it was mentally and physically possible. Being brave lets no one off the grave — but Mortality, as an act of writing, is an act of defiance.
Defiant unto death: how suitably Hitch.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Writers often make cameo appearances in films based on their stories. Occasionally, they play themselves in movies. Some playwrights, by nature of their proximity to actors and the theater, are almost better known for acting than for their writing (Wallace Shawn and Sam Shepard, for example).
There are writers, however, who act in films that have nothing to do with their own writing. Who are some of these authors, and how do they fare on the big screen?
1. Calvin Trillin – Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
In his debut performance as Uncle Milton in Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy, Calvin Trillin can be called subtle. The author of Tepper Isn’t Going Out and About Alice is doing one of the things he does best: eating dinner. He is also relatively avuncular, if your uncles are, like mine, the sort who basically ignore you. (You can catch most of his performance here starting at 1:05.)
Trillin followed up his Sleepless in Seattle performance with a role in another Nora Ephron film, Michael (1996). As the sheriff who throws the eponymous archangel and his entourage in jail, Trillin has a few lines, but he appears acutely conscious of the camera — and determined to turn away from it. How like a writer.
2. George Plimpton – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The late editor of the Paris Review auditioned for the role of himself in Paper Lion (1968), based on his book of the same name, but the part went to Alan Alda. However, Plimpton brought his transatlantic honk to many movies. He made his film debut as a Bedouin running across the desert in David Lean’s epic and went on to make 18 more big-screen appearances. He donned a cowboy hat in Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo (1970) and partied with club kids in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998). He logged bit roles in The Detective (1968), L.A. Story (1991), and Good Will Hunting (1997), among others.
3. Jerzy Kosinski – Reds (1981)
George Plimpton appeared as an editor in Reds (1981), which also featured writer Jerzy Kosinski as Grigory Zinoviev, the Russian revolutionary-turned-bureaucrat. Kosinski’s portrayal of Zinoviev is cold, furious, and authentic. Before filming began, Kosinski also convinced director Warren Beatty that the latter was having a panic attack. Beatty says, “I found that for some reason my feet were sweating profusely…Kosinski was hiding under the table pouring hot tea into my shoes very gradually.”
Plimpton and Kosinski also had cameos in A Fool and His Money (1986). Plimpton played God. Kosinski was a beggar. Literary Brat-Packer Tama Janowitz made a brief appearance as a talk-show host. By all reports, the film is terrible. Pre-Speed Sandra Bullock had a small role. She is featured prominently in the re-cut trailer.
4. Maya Angelou – Poetic Justice (1993)
Poetic Justice was directed and written by John Singleton but Maya Angelou supplied the poetry recited by Justice, played by Janet Jackson. Angelou also had a small role as June, one of three sisters whom Justice encounters at a family reunion. Angelou also played a woman named May and read her poem “In and Out of Time” in Madea’s Family Reunion (2006). The writer is comfortable on camera, impressive and sonorous. Really, though, Maya Angelou plays Maya Angelou, even when she’s ostensibly a character named after a month.
5. Martin Amis – A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)
A very blond, 13-year-old Amis appeared in the film based on Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel. The story has been described as The Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan. British children who are being sent to England for schooling find their ship commandeered by pirates. The pirates prove juvenile, while the children find their blood lust awakened by the plundering and pillaging. Amis describes the making of the movie in his memoir, Experience. Puberty hit the future writer during filming, forcing filmmakers to overdub Amis’ voice with that of a young girl’s.
6. Salman Rushdie – Then She Found Me (2007)
In the film based on Elinor Lipman’s book of the same name, the author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children plays physician to a pregnant Helen Hunt. The film is filled with off-puttingly familiar mugs: Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Colin Firth. Most distracting of all may be Rushdie’s. He tries his best, but let’s face it: SALMAN RUSHDIE, fatwa survivor, ex-husband of Padma Lakshmi, plays an obstetrician who is not using enough gel while operating an ultrasound machine. Disbelief has not been suspended if the audience* starts yelling, “Use more gel, Rushdie! Use more gel!”
*Okay, I was watching it alone in my living room. Still.
8. Norman Mailer – Cremaster 2 (1999)
Mailer acted, directed, and wrote many films (including Maidstone , in which Mailer’s character’s fight with his brother, played by Rip Torn, turns into a real-life brawl). But Mailer also received good notices for his role in Ragtime (1981), based on the book by E.L. Doctorow, in which he portrayed architect Stanford White, and as Harry Houdini in artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2 (1999). Barney’s avant-garde film was loosely based on the story of Gary Gilmore, who claimed to be the illegitimate grandson of Houdini, and was convicted of killing two Utah gas station attendants. Gilmore was also the subject of Mailer’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Executioner’s Song.
9. Gore Vidal – Gattaca (1997)
In 1971, Norman Mailer headbutted Gore Vidal in the greenroom of the Dick Cavett show (the on-camera portion of the spat can be found here). Clearly, the two writers shared a sense of theatricality which might explain their attraction to the cinema. Vidal enjoyed turns in Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts (1992) and the comedy Igby Goes Down (2002), among others. Vidal also had a supporting role as the sinister head of a space agency in the dystopian thriller, Gattaca, which also starred novelist Ethan Hawke.
10. Anita Loos – Camille (1926)
This 33-minute silent film loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, probably shouldn’t qualify for this list — it’s essentially a home movie of a drunken party — but the cast is completely insane. Paul Robeson! Clarence Darrow! Charlie Chaplin! Loos, writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes fame, played the title role. Essayist H.L. Mencken, and novelists Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and W. Somerset Maugham made appearances. Publisher Alfred Knopf also had a cameo.
N+1 editor Keith Gessen had a minor role in Andrew Bujalski’s mumblecore Mutual Appreciation (2005). Beat writer William S. Burroughs appeared in Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Essayist and This American Life contributor David Rakoff acted in Capote (2005) and Strangers With Candy (2005). And finally, novelist and professional egoist Ayn Rand, an uncredited extra in Cecil B. Demille’s The King of Kings (1927), probably spent her life wondering why she wasn’t the star.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
While writing my very first blurb recently – it was for an old friend’s new book about the creation of America’s interstate highways – I was delighted to discover that this otherwise very strong piece of work had just two weak points. One was the title, The Big Roads, which strikes me as a big snore. The other was the subtitle, a panting pileup of purplish prose: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.
Suddenly, every time I walked into a bookstore or read a review, I started noticing similarly breathless subtitles. What had struck me initially as an unfortunate decision by the publisher of The Big Roads now began to look like a full-blown trend. Two books in particular fed this dawning revelation – Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost At Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them; and Man Down!: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fun Managers, and Just About Everything Else.
After discovering dozens of run-on subtitles, I naturally began to wonder what was at work here. My initial theory was that this sudden gush of wordiness is a natural by-product of book publishing’s desperate times. In a marketplace glutted with too many titles – and in a culture that makes books more marginal by the day – publishers seem to think that if they just shout loudly enough, people will notice their products, then buy them. In other words, the run-on subtitle is literature’s equivalent of flop sweat, that stinky slime that coats the skin of every comedian, actor and novelist who has ever gotten ready to step in front of a live audience knowing, in the pit of his stomach, that he’s going to bomb. But when I asked around, my flop sweat theory started to hold less and less water.
John Valentine co-founded The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., more than thirty years ago. Since then he has helped build it into a beloved cultural institution in the so-called “Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, where there just might be more writers per-capita than in any other place on the planet outside select zip codes in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I’d say about three years ago I started noticing more words on covers, more buzzwords,” Valentine told me when I dropped by the shop recently. When I ran my flop sweat theory past him, he shook his head. “I think it’s driven by Search – with a capital S – whether it’s Google or Amazon or whatever. A lot of our customers hear about books on NPR, and when they come in the store they can’t always remember the author or the title. The more words a customer might remember, the more keywords we can use to Google it. If a word is rather unique, we’re more likely to find it. With the river of books – with the river of everything – most people want to have more unique words associated with their product.”
Most people, maybe, but not all people. Valentine has noticed another trend running counter to the run-on subtitle. “The converse of it,” he says, “is publishers and authors who feel confident. They tend to go small.” He waved at several examples on a shelf near the front of the store – Cleopatra: A Life by Pulitzer-Prize winner Stacy Schiff; Just Kids by Patti Smith, which won a National Book Award; Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan; Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III; and Life by Keith Richards. It doesn’t get much more concise than that. Maybe It by Stephen King.
And there are exceptions to Valentine’s theory. Simon Winchester, who scored a major hit in 2005 with The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, has just published Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. Maybe Winchester simply believes in sticking with a winning formula. Tina Rosenberg, who has won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, is out with Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.
While not overly wordy, Rosenberg’s subtitle falls into what I call the “Tao of How” category – books that promise to show us how the world really works, and how we can use that knowledge to transform our humdrum lives into epic experiences full of bliss, friends, great sex, wisdom and/or bags of money. Recent efforts include Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think and Do by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler; and Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.
While working as an editor at Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Eamon Dolan bought the concept that eventually became The Big Roads. Dolan, who has since become vice president and editor-in-chief at The Penguin Press, contends that verbose subtitles have always been with us and probably always will be. He also believes that subtitles have become an especially valuable marketing tool in our digital age, echoing John Valentine’s theory.
“I’d say that subtitles are important enough to the success of a nonfiction book that hardly any such book is published without one,” Dolan said in an e-mail. “Traditionally (and still), the subtitle explicitly states the book’s subject and purpose and implicitly tries to signal who its audience is. In the 21st century, the subtitle has a more pointed intent as well – to offer keywords that might come up in web searches. While we do not design subtitles with this particular goal in mind, it is a use that suggests subtitles are as essential now as ever they were.”
Dolan doesn’t believe you can judge the effectiveness of a subtitle merely by looking at its length. Some pithy ones are perfect, he contends, while a long freight train can be just as effective. To prove his point, Dolan cites the very different subtitles on two books he edited. “A favorite subtitle of mine right now is the one for Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer – The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Its lyricism, clarity and faux-grandiosity beautifully and efficiently convey the book’s ambitious scope and endearing tone. Often the author, editor, publisher, et al, brainstorm and/or wrangle at length over titles and subtitles, but these came directly from the author even before the manuscript was complete. And we knew right away that we couldn’t improve on them. Brevity is often a goal in this realm because shorter subtitles enter the mind more readily and are easier to incorporate into a jacket design.”
That said, he added, “Another of my favorite subtitles is an exception that proves the rule. Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis was subtitled Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. It’s double-wide, to be sure, but it earns every inch of the real estate it takes up. I love how its two halves rub against each other in a way that sparks a reader’s interest. How could such lofty qualities as heartbreak, genius, etc., arise in such a nerdy arena as a Scrabble contest? To me, and to many, many other readers, this has proven an irresistible question.”
That sweaty wrestling match Dolan describes – the author, editor, publisher, et al, locked in a room wrangling over potential titles and subtitles – is familiar to most authors of non-fiction books, and to more than a few writers of fiction. But when Malcolm Jones, a culture writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, was getting ready to publish a memoir, the wrestling match was fairly painless. “On my book, we – I think this discussion finally involved my editor, agent and wife – we tried a subtitle but it just sounded like a second title,” Jones said by e-mail. “So we figured we’d label it ‘a memoir’ and let people work it out. This, of course, resulted in the stampede of sales.” The book’s cover is elegant in its simplicity, just the words Little Boy Blues: A Memoir and a photograph of the author at the age of 10 or so, reading a newspaper and pretending to smoke an unlit pipe, the picture of future literary sophistication. It echoes the beautiful economy of the cover of Experience: A Memoir by Martin Amis, which shows the author as a tow-headed pre-teen with a scowl on his face and a cigarette clenched between his lips. That scowl and that cigarette leave no doubt that this is one bad, bad lad.
Why is such gorgeous restraint the exception in contemporary publishing? “I’m tempted to go with your flop sweat theory,” Jones says. “Having made the initial error to publish way more than they should, publishers cravenly attempt at the last minute to adorn their hundreds of titles with some sham distinction in the baseless hope that, yes, this will attract a reader or two. Or maybe some of it has to do with playing to the computer’s power to aggregate. I wish this were more far-fetched than it sounds.”
Which brings us, finally, to Earl Swift, my friend who wrote The Big Roads. He describes the creation of the book’s title and subtitle not as a wrestling match but as a “collaborative process” between himself, his editors and the publishing house’s marketing people. In the end, they agreed on a title that they felt was less opaque and more self-explanatory than the dozens of possibilities they’d bounced back and forth.
“Some publishers go for short titles so that you can stack the words vertically on the cover,” says Swift, the author of three previous non-fiction books. “That allows you to go with bigger type and give the book more visual impact. But some short titles are so obscure or general that they require amplification.”
When it came time to compose a subtitle that would help readers understand what The Big Roads was about, Swift said his main goal was to debunk a common misconception. “I thought we had to telegraph to potential readers that they don’t know the story as well as they think they do. You say ‘interstate highways’ and most people immediately think ‘Eisenhower.’ So I thought we had to signal that the people responsible for those highways are people you’ve probably never heard of.”
And so it came to pass that author and publisher agreed on a subtitle that might have once sounded breathless to me but, on second thought, actually does accomplish what it set out to do. It alerts readers to the fact that our interstate highways did not pop fully formed out of Dwight Eisenhower’s vacuous skull. For that reason, among many others, I hope the book sells faster than Krispy Kremes.
(Image: Untitled from joost-ijmuiden’s photostream)