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Writing for Dollars : BESTSELLER. By Olivia Goldsmith (HarperCollins: $25, 514 pp.)

September 22, 1996|Karen Stabiner | Karen Stabiner's upcoming book is "To Dance With the Devil: The New War on Cancer" (Delacorte)

Olivia Goldsmith leads the professional life the main characters in her book, "Bestseller," want to lead: the international book tour, the big promotional campaign, lots of advertising, feature interviews, movie sales. She is one of the elite, the 15% of published authors whose successes subsidize the other 85%, the merely mortal ones, the ones whose royalty statements always have brackets around the total, a discreet reminder that the author still owes the publisher for money he was advanced against his eventual royalties, were the publisher so rude as to demand payment.

Luckily for us, if not for her, this was not always the case. Two books back, Goldsmith was the late-blooming author of a manuscript nobody wanted to publish, called "The First Wives' Club." But then Hollywood intervened, and the ensuing bidding war made her that most formidable of creatures, a commercial author. The publishing industry rushed to catch up, and now Goldsmith, who has a rather wicked sense of humor, has decided to look at what happens to a handful of characters who hope that lightning will strike them.

When Goldsmith is good she manages a nice balance between the sly and the sincere. She has created a sampler of aspiring stars--Terry O'Neal, who hoards rejection slips the way some people save coupons; Judith and Daniel Gross, the former a hard-working writer, the latter her exploitative husband; Camilla Clapfish, who wandered into this book out of an E. M. Forster novel; Susann Baker Edmonds (note the spelling of that first name), blockbuster author who's lost some of her luster; and Gerald Ochs Davis (notice those initials), a publisher and would-be bestseller who's paid himself too much money in advances.

They fall into two camps, essentially: those who write for love and would like merely to be published and those who write for money. Goldsmith's best portraits are of the members of the first group, betraying the time she spent there. When O'Neal decides to destroy what she thinks is the last copy of her 1,000-page novel, it is almost impossible not to shout "don't do it" aloud, accompanied by a grim little chuckle at the hideousness of her impassioned life. When Clapfish, having finished her manuscript, wakes from a naive fog to realize that the next step might be to have it published somehow, you want to laugh and cry at the "artist's" shortsightedness. As for Judith, the hard-working wife-writer, suffice to say that she comes perilously close to deserving her rude awakening.

Goldsmith has a genuine affection for people who are driven to write. She saves her venomous pen for those who consider writing the road to riches, who seem in advance to have figured out what luxury each chapter is supposed to pay for. Daniel Gross surely qualifies as one of the most wretched spouses in contemporary fiction (if he is based on anyone Goldsmith really knows, he'd best pray that his anonymity is maintained), a master of psychological intrigue and abuse. The two characters famous enough to deserve three names--the bestseller, Edmonds, and the publisher, Davis, are in fact the least interesting of the crew, both of them stale, grasping and clearly headed for a fall.

Which is where Goldsmith gets bogged down--and into trouble. This is clearly meant as one of those insider novels that rips the lid off a particular industry, in this case, publishing. But when Goldsmith is bad, she is superficial. Pam, the editor with a fondness for spiked Snapple, is a brittle caricature who seems to exist only so that we can laugh at her; she lacks the complexity of some of the other villains. Even Davis, the foolish publishing scion, seems to be walking through his paces.

And worst of all, Goldsmith fails to exploit a gorgeous, golden opportunity when she takes us to a party peopled by publishing insiders. Dropping real names into a fiction may make for fun chat at Manhattan cocktail parties (and God knows, the ethnocentrism of the Big Apple lit set makes that seem like an end in itself), but those of us out in the boonies want a little more meat on the bones. Goldsmith wastes her assets; you wish for a little more Tom Wolfe, and a little less Liz Smith.

But the truth is, Goldsmith has a loftier ambition. She may talk about satire and sales figures, but she really wants justice--which is why she's writing fiction. It becomes clear just a few chapters in that the writers who write for the sake of writing are going to find happiness (her novel certainly succeeds in giving her mother a new lease on life), wealth and romance (it's fairly obvious, but I won't ruin the slight surprise for you). The writers who write to make a killing lose their reputations, their status and/or their financial security.

That is, the meek inherit the Earth. The bad guys slink out of town. Which makes the question of whether this is a bestseller beside the point. What Goldsmith has written, really, is a wicked little fairy tale.

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