What’s the pedigree of a bestseller? That’s the question the New York Times asked last week in an article that, despite the endless waves of political scandal, remained on their most viewed list for the better part of a week. The article reveals the seamy side of publishing: publishers have foresworn the metrics used by marketers to study their audiences’ buying habits, because they, much like Creationists, “don’t believe in them,” leading to an industry where million dollar advances are gambled on the Flying Spaghetti Monster of editors’ intuition. So is it any surprise that an article about the billion-dollar, high-stakes world of publishing, with its talk of big bets and horse racing, comes off sounding like a description of a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting? Won’t someone stop the insanity? (Very nicely summed up here, btw.)Enter Macmillan New Writing, the controversial imprint of the British publishing house Macmillan. New Writing was founded to promote works by unpublished writers, particularly writers who have produced the kind of experimental, unclassifiable or controversial books that are worth publishing, but might not have what it takes to become best sellers, in other words, books that don’t have mass market appeal. The imprint publishes one book a month and currently comprises twenty titles, all of which are prominently featured in Macmillan’s catalog. No agents are involved, the publishing house accepts direct submissions, and writers get no advance, but earn 20% royalties.Sounds good, no? But it’s not all upside. Not only are the writers’ contracts non-negotiable, but Macmillan receives all subsidiary rights to the book and a first look at the author’s second book. Critics have reacted strongly, calling the imprint “literary slave drivers” and “vanity publishers,” and indulging in apocalyptic predictions of the end of publishing as we know it. (As if that would be a bad thing. The submissions, at least, are entirely electronic.) The negative press was so strong that the founder of the imprint, Michael Barnard, felt compelled to write Transparent Imprint, a book defending his idea. (Which the imprint, of course, published. See how that works?)Why all the consternation? Sure, novelists lose their right to film rights, translations, and licensed merchandise (Ignatius J. Reilly trebuchets, anyone?), but is that so bad? Without an agent, they wouldn’t be able to sell them anyway, and apparently Macmillan has been doing a good job so far, bagging a movie deal for the thriller The Manuscript and a decent advance on a German edition of the fantasy novel The Secret War. What’s really at stake, it would seem, is the publishing industry’s ego. Despite the fact that their best work is guesswork, they like to believe they know what they’re doing when they get into a bidding war over a total unknown. The novelist Giles Foden, quoted by the Guardian, put it like this, New Writing’s list is like “putting a bet on every horse in the race – but without paying for any of the bets.” And that doesn’t make us feel very special, does it?But, if the New York Times is right, isn’t that what publishers are doing anyway? If advances are the big gambles everyone says they are, then they only serve to make publishers risk averse. Much like Hollywood, which instead of looking for fresh material, increasingly hedges its bets by turning out retreads of once popular comic books and old TV shows, the publishing industry is in a rut. Bestsellers are inherently unpredictable, and yet, if a publishing exec had to choose between a cutting edge novel and another Harry Potter knockoff, you can bet that “Parry Hotter and The Sorcerer’s Merkin” would be the one stacked on the front tables of Barnes and Nobles nationwide. By not giving writers advances, New Writing has found a way around this problem, allowing them to take a chance on a book, while reducing the considerable overhead attached. This system should be a boon for mid-list writers who, it’s often said, are not nurtured by publishing houses in the way they once were. Sure, you’ll hear writers grousing about being unable to make a living from their work, but, with the exception of the biggest literary stars, isn’t that’s how it’s always been? For my part, I’d much rather have my books in print, giving my readership a chance to grow with me. After all, readers will seek out a good writer’s backlist, and every book that sees print should increase royalties from previous efforts. And what a boon for those writers who don’t have the savvy, connections, or good luck to get an agent. Hell, some writers, John Kennedy Toole comes to mind, are literally dying to get published.It’s been over a year since New Writing put out its first book, and the imprint’s list of well-reviewed books seem to be proving the naysayers wrong. The writers’ seem satisfied with the deal (here and here), and if Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort (recently reviewed here at The Millions) is any indication of the quality of the books New Writing has on offer, they’re doing the literary community a real service. It might be time for the rest of the publishing industry to put down their dice and take notice.Bonus Link: The MacMillan New Writing titles currently available in the U.S.
In Sexual Personae, a landmark work in the field of pseudo-intellectual posturing, Camille Paglia claims that Da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa with him everywhere he went. To DaVinci, the painting was more than just a pretty smile, it was a power object, an “apotropaion,” a totem with the power to protect its bearer from harm. This sort of fetishization is hardly unique to Italian artists. Rather, it seems almost fundamental to human nature, perhaps even that which, in the final analysis, separates us from the animals. After all, what member of the animal kingdom would ever display the same unflagging devotion to an object as a child to its security blanket or would seek to define itself by its clothes? Perhaps the fact that dogs and monkeys don’t wear Armani (at least not consentingly) is definitive proof that they have no sense of self.Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort could easily be titled “Apotropian.” The protagonist is a marketing man (shades of Morris himself) who, after witnessing a suicide, begins to collect objects associated with tragedy in the belief that they have the power to protect him from disaster in his own life. A novel about materialism may sound, at first, cliche, but it’s carried off with a deft touch, the material presented in a way that is at once fresh and familiar. Morris plays a dangerous game with his narrative, constantly switching perspectives and focusing the action in each chapter on the relationship between a character and an object. The gambit pays off, as we’re shown the inner life of a multitude of characters, both incidental and essential to the main action of the story, a tactic that allows Morris a hard-to-achieve combination of introspection and brisk pacing. Inevitably, the objects the book fetishizes become part of the characters, even characters themselves. Everything from birth control pills to a coffee mug exert a powerful influence over their owners/users, contributing to identities that possess, in their reliance on the things with which they surround themselves, an alarming malleability.Whether these relationships are good or bad, Morris never makes clear. What is unavoidable, though, is his thesis that our relationships to things are meaningful, whether we like it or not. Although other authors, notably Brett Easton Ellis have sought to comment on the moral emptiness of modern life by describing their characters with brand names and designer goods, Morris’s characters’ relationships with their possessions rise above cynical manipulations, achieving something like poetry. Morris has a gift for spare, vital prose, and both characters and objects are described with the loving precision of a man who makes his living selling things. The book is written in the language of the marketplace, and it possesses an odd lyricism, ripped off of billboards and television spots, that in some ways predicts the future, a time when the low culture of advertising, god help us, merges with the high culture of literature (much to the delight of the late Andy Warhol, no doubt).Perhaps this is Morris’s greatest accomplishment, one that could have only been carried off by a marketing man: he makes us believe in things, not as mere manifestations of our material culture, but as incarnations of hope, desire, and courage. He makes us believe they’re important. By the sex scene in the middle of the book, even the body is, inevitably and with great power, reduced to nothing more than an object, over which the main protagonist’s girlfriend floats observing. With this epiphanic out of body experience, one of the book’s most stirring images, Morris makes it clear that our bodies themselves are nothing more than things, our possessions mere extensions of ourselves.Although the ending lacks the feeling of inevitability that distinguishes a truly masterful novel, Morris’s book is as good as, if not better than, most of the Booker and Whitbread (now Costa) winning novels I’ve read over the last few years (Life of Pi, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Vernon God Little come to mind) and deserves all of the attention that has been heaped on those projects.With his soon to be released second book, The Gentle Axe, a high concept thriller starring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich of Crime and Punishment, already garnering praise, Morris is a name to keep an eye on.