Five minutes ago, I was in my car on my long drive home from work in Geneva, Switzerland, to the French side of Lake Geneva, and reflecting on my year in reading while listening to a literary podcast. In an interview between two of the best writers of the last 20 years, I heard the older writer, the interviewer, ask the novelist who had just published a new novel the question dreaded by most authors: What are you going to do now? Take a break? Or are you like Anthony Trollope who, legend has it, upon finishing writing a novel, would relax for an hour, and then write the first sentence of his next novel?
Then it hit me: I am so not Trollope. In 2015, I had the best year in my literary life. Actually, no need to front: It was the best year of my life. A novel I’d written lustily and fairly quickly, and then bitterly struggled to find a publisher for, was published to nice reviews from my favorite writers and media. And then the book took a life of its own and found new audiences and fans in communities of readers around the world. During the 11 months of touring 12 cities in six countries in two continents on a budget so small a shoe-string budget would find it insulting, I had lived out a dozen novelist fantasies and experienced some surprises that were so cool and weird they deserve novels of their own, or, prudently, should be taken to the grave.
I could die now, I said one night in bed, saturated with bliss.
No, you can’t, my wife, and mother of my two children, sharply reminded me.
Yet there was one thing I had no interest in doing: writing. At first the lack of interest was mild, the result of extreme exhaustion, a mere reminder that, yep, I wasn’t 22 anymore. That dysfunction quickly dissipated. I had energy, a story, and the usual vampiric schedule and sleeping patterns to go for it again. The problem was I didn’t know what “it” was. Or what the point of it should be. Second novels are less linear a progression in one’s life than getting a bachelor’s degree after graduating high school or getting a master’s degree after seeing how far a bachelor’s will get you, which is not very far at all.
So for the first time in 45 years, I checked out life outside of a life in letters. I taught myself how to swim. I let my New Yorker subscription lapse. I took a non-teaching job. I worried about Hillary Clinton’s chances. And I enjoyed my children. I mean, really enjoyed them. The stories of their days were not stories to be heard for problems to be anticipated or solved, but for each child’s humor and pleasures. Our routines of meals and tickle-fests and movie-watching and chaperoning to practices and parties and dates (Yeah, dates. They really do grow up too fast.) were no longer duties to be carried out during pauses in between writing the next chapter or paragraph or email to my agent. They were the jazz, the stuff, the boom and the bap, life itself. I became so at ease with the modest pleasures of non-writer life in our bucolic corner of the world that I left town, like, only twice.
And get this: I barely read any books. Oh, I bought them as frequently as usual, and I read them too. But I didn’t read them read them. I didn’t read them as a novelist mining source material or looking for that turn of phrase that blazes my literary id like those third down Eli Manning passes that won the Giants Super Bowls. The books I read weren’t foreplay before an evening of writing, the main reason I’d read thousands of comic books, novels, magazines, and newspapers since childhood. I’m not one of those writers who discovered I would be a writer gradually as teachers, girlfriends, editors, and readers’ praise trickled in. I was a writer since sentience. Or better yet: I was a insatiable reader who had to write because the end of Farewell to Arms and the Death of Phoenix saga and Pulp Fiction were so amazing that I felt duty-bound to have a go at giving a reader a variation of those thrills. The rest of life were the things I did to pass time, to please my elders and neighbors in between curling up with a good book and firing up a fresh page on MS Word. My writing was where I hollered, and howled, at my ancestors.
Curiously, my Year of Not Reading ended not after I read a fantastic feat of literature. (Nice try, Colson.) But after I took the kids up to Paris to see “Color Line: African-American Artists and Segregation,” a retrospective of African-American political art at Quai Branly late in the fall. The show knocked me up with literary possibilities. Of the many disturbing and wondrous pictures, collages, and paintings in the small and pointed showcase of African-American artists’ responses to Trumpism’s historical antecedents since the “end” of slavery in the late-19th century, the painting that slayed me was a colorful canvas, “Rendezvous” by Wilmer A. Jennings. It show a guy casually lighting a cigarette with his back turned to a black preacher firing up the faithful while that preacher’s own back was turned to an advancing cavalry of Ku Klux Klansmen, carrying the flaming cross that signaled their promise of sadism.
My God, that painting, that moment, that wit, they deserve novels.
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I went to work for the film industry in 1994. I’d never done it. Oh, I’d dabbled — as a teenager, I’d worked in the mailroom of Creative Artists Agency for a summer — but past that, not really. I was a child of Hollywood, my father was and still is a successful talent agent, and my mother was a well-produced screenwriter. Everybody I knew, every last person I’d grown up with, it seemed, had dutifully entered an industry that’s much like the Mafia in this respect. Casa Nostra runs in the blood. Having scrupulously avoided the movie business for most of my 20s — I was a schoolteacher, in San Francisco, had exiled myself in search of work that had meaning — I found myself in that most cinematic, and criminal, of positions. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Director of Literary Acquisitions. That was the title I was offered. It came about, I think, because I had a reputation among my family’s friends for being well-read, and because there was a moment — it’s a little hard to remember it now — when books were a particularly hot commodity in Hollywood. Adaptations were the wave of the recent past (The Firm), and so, quite possibly, the future. I was approached first by Francis Ford Coppola, for whom I’d once read a handful of scripts. He had the somewhat nostalgic notion that 1940s films had often been predicated upon short stories, so why not do the same thing now? Soon after that, I began talking to Danny DeVito, whose company, Jersey Films, was producing a soon-to-be-released movie called Pulp Fiction. Might I consider moving to New York to scout books? Robert De Niro piled into the mix as well. Surely one or all of them could persuade me to take a 200 percent pay raise to move to New York City and read? My 20s had been full of difficult decisions, but this was not one of them.
I went to work for Danny and De Niro, combined — they partnered to hire me, while Francis went on to revise his idea, eventually, into the magazine Zoetrope: All Story, which would launch in 1997. But for a moment it seemed plausible to believe literature and film were in alliance, that one could simply pounce on books — there were so many of them! — that would “make great movies” and have at them. After all, what did you need besides a bankable box office star to make this happen? (I was, indeed, green.) I figured I had the ear of two of such stars. What was going to stop, say, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History from hitting the big screen now?
Before I left, however, I was given a word of advice. One of DeVito’s partners, a shrewd, literate woman who’s since enjoyed a highly successful career of her own, called me into her office.
“You have excellent literary taste,” she told me.
“That’s not entirely a compliment,” she said. “Remember. Great books make bad movies. And bad books often make great ones.”
Hmm. I’ve since heard this bit of folk wisdom from many sources over the years — it isn’t untrue — but at the time it was new to me. I left the room thinking, Ha. So I’m supposed to be looking for bad books?
Once again, and not for the last time, I’d underestimated the film industry, and the elegance of the people in it.
This is not a story of the injustices of Hollywood. I’ve heard that one before, and honestly, there’s no need to reiterate the notion that the movie business rewards mediocrity, treats excellence with contempt, and that producers, specifically, are idiots who don’t read. Occasionally, this is true, but no more true — and no more often so — than it is in the world of finance or accupuncture. What people don’t really consider, I think, is that people in film are gambling with vast amounts of money. If the $80 million were your own, would you feel comfortable staking it upon something you simply felt was “good?” Or would you look for patterns of past performance? Confronted as I was with a dispiriting number of books that were described to me as “Die Hard in a ______” (i.e, “Die Hard in a submarine;” “Die Hard in a public school.” The idea being that something was set to explode and someone was set to stop it, the basic pattern for Jerry Bruckheimer’s blockbusters at the time), I found my bosses more receptive to those than they were to, say, Rick DeMarinis’s The Year of the Zinc Penny, or Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus (which nevertheless did get made several years later). They weren’t foolish, though, or vulgar. They just understood what I didn’t. That making a movie is a ground war, and an enormous risk of capital, and that it’s just as hard to make a big, dumb thriller as it is to make an intelligent film of quality. So why not put the effort, at least most of the time, where the reward is more likely to equal or exceed it? Why work harder for less?
I sound like a corporate stooge. I was a schoolteacher (and I am a novelist), so I know perfectly well why. Because aesthetics and ethics both matter, and if all you’re trying to do is profiteer off a steaming pile of crap then you belong in a different business, if not in prison. The difficulty was, during the 1990s, there was no business to which this condition didn’t seem to apply. I worked cheek-to-jowl with people in publishing, in fact my job had a great deal more to do with the world of publishing than it did with the world of film. I saw my bosses in Los Angeles a couple times per year. I spent every day on the phone with literary agents, all my free hours taking editors and writers to lunch, drinks, and dinner. I witnessed the rise of the “literary thriller,” and saw first hand the explosion, the wild proliferation of the gargantuan advance for stylish, usually young, writers unlikely to earn out. Just weeks before I started working for my two actors, Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer stirred up an enormous sensation by selling, on the basis of a slender proposal, for $3.15 million at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In other words, the book business, that fabled bastion of intellectual integrity, seemed to me to behave exactly as the film industry did. To be driven by hype, and hot air, and to involve the placement of outsized bets on individuals perhaps a little more glamorous than they were talented. It was the nature of business, and not even any particular business, that it be so. The ’90s were of course a decade of mergers, and so a number of independent publishing houses were smushed together under one German umbrella. I saw this too. Eventually, I got picked off by a corporation. One of the studios invited me to come work for them instead. More money, bigger office, better furniture: why would I say no? And when I noticed that my new digs were in the same building as one of the Big Six publishers, this didn’t surprise me either. We were owned by the same multinational conglomerate, and played by the same rules.
Is there a moral to all this? Well, even today, people seem to complain about Hollywood. Or, they’ve given up complaining, because the patterns by now are so established. Every Memorial Day, and throughout the summer, studios roll out their tentpoles: films based on comic books and graphic novels, sequels to superhero franchises and adaptations of popular children’s stories. The beginning of the year is a dumping ground for Jason Statham and Mark Wahlberg movies; Judd Apatow gets two or three comedies salted throughout the next 12 months, and come November there’ll be “quality” from Spielberg, Scorsese, and at least one director named Anderson. It hurts to sound so cynical, but I can’t imagine anyone wonders anymore what’s coming. The movies roll around, the same ones, every year. So what’s left to learn from Hollywood? (Besides, you know, you’d best re-develop that spec into a pilot script while you can.)
During the last of my time at the studio, I went to a corporate retreat. I’d been dispirited by my time as an executive. It was a fun ride, and I seemed to be endlessly promoted precisely because I had no fear of being fired, but I was tired of doing a job that had no need for me to do it: my own sensibility never came into play. I was ready to quit, but I had no plan for what I’d do after I did. But first, I listened to a speech — no, an admonition — from the head of the company. He told us, the assembled executives of the three feature film divisions of the studio, that we were permitted to make a certain kind of inexpensive movie. The Full Monty, which had recently been a big hit, was the example he used. At the other end of the spectrum, it was okay to spend big on epic spectacles. Titanic was set for release at the end of the year, and he argued that this was a good bet. In-between, however, were the middling expensive vehicles for not-necessarily-bankable stars. “Middle class movies,” he called them. And we were not to pursue those under any circumstances. Forty, 50 million dollar budgets? The kiss of death.
“No more middle class movies,” we were told. “Never. Ever. None.”
I will admit that this assertion sent chills through me. In part because I understood that my own job (which I still needed) would soon go. But also because I understood what it meant for the culture. If there were no more “middle class” movies, then in what other arenas would an ostensible middle class suffer? Publishing, for sure. But what about . . . everything else? An economic disparity, which was being sketched out for us in terms of what we could spend, seemed to have an obvious corollary in terms of what we, or at least the movies, could hope to earn. Or rather, the “middle class movie” was being told it could no longer justify its continued existence. It wasn’t difficult to extrapolate from there. After all, the movie business had already proven itself a reliable bellweather for the behaviors of other sectors.
It turns out the movie business, just like the rest of it, has survived. The wealth gap has gotten about as wide as it possibly can — I suppose Occupy Wall Street can stretch itself to accommodate the 99.5 or the 99.75 percent if it must. Art has fled to television (it’s no accident that the well-heeled novelists who used to moonlight for studios now do so for American cable networks), and Hollywood gimps along in bloated and predictable fashion. But it would be wrong to imagine the lessons of the industry have finished, even if, as the writer Michael Tolkin remarked when I asked him why the movies were so terrible, “they’ve run out of myths.” No, these lessons are sadly ecological in nature. They apply to every system, and every business, and have something to do with a finitude of resources. You can build your blockbusters — and your skyscrapers — ever higher, but as you do they sustain fewer people. And eventually, of course, they will come down. Bad habits die hard, apparently, but customs? Truly fossilized institutions? These, it would seem, die even harder.
Image Credit: Wikipedia