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The Woman Who Wrote Six First Novels

January 15, 1989|MORRIS PHILIPSON | Philipson, a novelist, moonlights for the Customs Department. and

Perhaps these notes ought to be called a public service announcement for career counseling. What they reveal comes out of a job-related experience. As a passport control officer at a major American city where international flights arrive and every incoming passenger must be cleared through customs, I have occasion, day in and day out, to look at the way people describe themselves on the line in their passports where they're asked to supply their "occupation."

The majority of answers are what you would conventionally expect: Women declare themselves housewives and something else like gourmet cooks or fashion specialists or interior decorators; men name some profession or technical competence that confirms their place in the hierarchy of earning powers in our social Establishment. But, now and then, there are surprises.

Writers make up a peculiarly interesting group. Some call themselves "creative," others "free-lance"--I suppose depending on their godly or devilish associations. Those who identify with more specific powers enlist as novelists, playwrights, short story writers, essayists or film writers. But I think I've seen everything now that a woman appeared just the other day who handed me her passport where I read, as her occupation, the phrase "first novelist."

I asked: "Does that mean you've just written your first novel?" I must have said it with a strong sense of surprise because, given nearly professionally radiant makeup and a truly handsome wardrobe, she appeared to be a creature somewhere between the ages of 30 and 50; anywhere between 30 and 50.

"Oh, no," she replied. "I've written a number of first novels." She said it with unconcealed satisfaction.

"What number?" I asked.

"Six. I've written six first novels during the past 12 years."

"Forgive me, madame, but how is that possible? You sound like a mother who's telling me she's had six first babies. You can't have a first child except the first time you give birth to a baby."

"Well, let's say that is a semantical point. It depends on what you mean by you . When you are known by a particular name and you use that same name on one novel after another, then, no, you are right. You can't have written six first novels. But if you change your name for each novel that you produce, so that you seem to be a person who has never written any other novel before, that you is able to write a first novel each time she has a novel published--as I do."

"Isn't that like misrepresentation? Doing business under illegal conditions? Doesn't it get you into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service every income tax time?"

"Oh, no, no." She was comfortable about her role. "It's perfectly legal, just like a large corporation taking out a different trademark for each different product that it creates and manufactures. It doesn't matter by now if Philip Morris cigarettes is responsible for Kraft Cheese, or is it Kraft Cheese that is responsible for Marlboro cigarettes? Those various goods are considered strictly on their own merits, each by itself, and in no way benefit from or are undermined by association with other products from the same owner."

"But literary artists don't like to think of their writings as comparable to what a Campbell's Soup Co. might put out, do they? Don't they take pride in a whole career rather than just one of their books now and then?"

"Well, that's the way it used to be. There was a time--it lasted for about 200 years, and ended about 20 years ago--when there were publishers who brought out whatever an author would write whether it was poems, stories, plays, essays, or novels. Such a person was a man of letters and such a publisher published whatever he wrote, as it was his intention to bring out his collected works, his oeuvre, the body of an entire writing career: For such a writer was thought of as an author, an authority, a genuine creative artist. Moreover, there were readers who wanted to read whatever such a genuine author created.

"But those days are long since past. At least 20 years past. There is no concealing the fact that in the Western world today writing is divided the way the food we eat is divided, between gourmet literature and junk literature. But for both kinds no author is authority enough for a publisher to take a gamble on anything--that is to say everything--that he or she writes. Therefore each thing (story, play, novel, essay) is judged by itself on the basis of whether it will be a 'hit' on its own or not."

"But then how can a writer make a name for himself?"

"Neither he nor she can, anymore. We're conditioned so our maximum attention span can accommodate one TV commercial every few minutes. I guess the future of literature lies in the aphorism. In any case, neither the publisher nor the audience--the book-buying public--has the attention span to finish a whole novel let alone follow a whole career."

"Is that why writers keep changing publishers?"

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