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The book business as fiction

The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel, Tom Engelhardt, University of Massachusetts Press: 216 pp., $24.95

June 08, 2003|Herbert Gold | Herbert Gold is the author of many novels, including "Fathers," "The Man Who Was Not With It" and, most recently, "Daughter Mine."

Tom Engelhardt's "The Last Days of Publishing" can't possibly be libelous. Granted, it's a satisfyingly virulent, comical, absurd, deeply grieving true portrait of how things work today in the sleek factories of conglomerate book producers, but hey, it's not libelous, it's just a story. Still, some readers may find it curious that this skillful novel of manners -- of very bad manners -- is published by a university press, not one of the major New York houses for whom the author labored as an editor. Probably just a coincidence.

I can recall when publishers were bigots and egomaniacs, like film producers in tweeds. And those were the good guys. In those days, the Scribe was still a treasured commodity, to be treated with honor, even if it was purely business. Engelhardt begins his story remembering the sacred calling of the stylus wielder in ancient times, recalling an iconic statue in Pompeii. Rumor has it, of course, that many writers now use computers, not the stylus, having run out of clay to be dug out of their backyards; personally, I no longer inscribe my hard copy commandments on papyrus. Nowadays, the Scribe is asked to be a camera-ready performer and the publisher is often an MBA representing owners in Alphaville.

Rick Koppes, the protagonist of this novel, "still felt ready to be used by anyone whose words mattered to me, just not by what had come to pass for an editor's life." His ex-wife has come to be his boss and she has written a book of stories that she wants him to edit, informing him triumphantly, "I hate to disappoint you, but you're not in it." Oh, sadness, not even to be worthy of mention in an ex-wife's thinly veiled autobiography.

Koppes has a host of troubles. Another superior is a smart and smarmy ex-hippie-radical "transnational" mogul; Engelhardt captures the smartness, the smarminess, the mogulness. He knows how it feels to be at the top of the skyscraper, submitting to a mogul's "fatherly squeeze." He also remembers that better world, pre-Vesuvius, before publishers' catalogs announced "next season's offerings, signed up long ago by editors laid off by a management no longer in place for a house that, in all but name, may no longer exist."

Coming into midlife out of the druggy communard '60s, he is nostalgic for the camaraderie of Vietnam War protests. There is a painful scene in which a colleague goes berserk on the proprietor of a Vietnamese restaurant -- old chickens or, in this case, Peking ducks coming to roost. An old lover asks the sophomoric question, "And you, Rick, are you happy?" -- youthful questing makes a middle-aged guy squirm. The bass beat of '60s nostalgia throbs beneath a seething satire of how it's all turned out in the word trade. Once, the sap ran fresh in a young person's veins; now, the saps run things. Once, Koppes remembers, "midlist books" would merely have been called "books." Now, for the conglomerateurs, they're just a drag on the bottom line.

Contracts, agents, bidding wars, ego and sexual duels, royalty accounts, advances, has-beens and buzzing would-bees -- Litbiz still shocks new writers from the hinterlands (personally, I still consider myself a new writer from the hinterland). But there's another breed that likes to pitch "my faction novel" or "my very personal memoir." Through my telescope from the hinterland, I can almost recognize some of the real people who come in for a few tickles and stabs in Engelhardt's telling.

Alcohol and frustration fuel the occasional fistfight in these angelic spheres. A veteran editor is fired by the "personnel communications manager" and then led to her desk -- she's to be out of there in 45 minutes -- by a guard called a "communications retainer." Graciously, he allows her to go alone into the ladies room to dry her tears. Compassion lives.

Another episode depicts a dinosaur expert pitching a book to Koppes with a lecture on dinosaur sex with humans, including an evocation of dinosaur breath (bad) and dental problems (fluoride toothpaste still only a Pepsodent dream). The term "high concept" reminds us that the movie biz is near and dear to publishing. Engelhardt also shows us a writer rashly submitting a manuscript without an agent, which has become as odd a notion as a knight entering "the field of battle on foot and without armor or a sword."

Grieving, he clings to his faith in "the book as a thoroughly modest object meant to break you into immodest spaces." The tone of amused, wistful Manhattan romance, like that of an F. Scott Fitzgerald brought up to contemporary speed, enriches moments like this evocation of Koppes' former wife: "An aura clung to her, a faintly misty, spiritual look I now associate with missing contact lenses." And a harder edge, as when a bookstore clerk suggests that a book about the atom bomb and Hiroshima might be found in the travel section. Or when a publishing executive avoids the word "history" in favor of "back story." Hello, Century City script conference.

Though this novel can be read as an anatomy of the publishing business, year 2003, and a lament for better times -- somewhat better times -- the characters depicted are not mere stick figures or roman a clef gossips. The scenes are vividly set, and this writer, made of stern stuff, was laughing through his tears. Engelhardt manages to tell us that the love of literature persists even in these frantic times.

It's essential to good reading to recognize that novels are true lies -- truer and more philosophical than history, as Aristotle said about poetry. The episodes in Engelhardt's account emit a sense of autobiographical anguish, seasoned with an ironic notch at one corner of his mouth.

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