Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Rules of the Game

I was sitting at a writers group meeting a couple of weeks ago, when one of the members, let’s call her Jane, began telling her idea for a story she wanted to write. It was about a woman and her experiences in the city—New York City, of course, what other city was there—growing up and maturing through various jobs and relationships (actually the character sounded quite similar to Jane herself.) After Jane finished summing up the story, a another member of the group asked, “well, what’s the conflict of the story?”

You could almost see Jane’s brain screech to a halt. I was sympathetic to the hard truth. It’s not always about beautiful words flowing from the author’s head on to the page—there are rules to follow.

I realize it’s pretty obvious, you need a conflict in a story. But the idea of rules in fiction is so, um, industrial.

Slate recently ran a long article about MFA vs. NYC literary culture, based on another book by Mark McGurl. It was fascinating, but what unnerved me was the way the author of the article summed up New York novelists (aka, writers trying to sell their novels to publishers) and their work so concisely:

“The best young New York City novelists go to great lengths to write comprehensible prose and tie their plots as neat as a bow. . . she doesn’t worry about who might read her work in twenty years; she worries about who might read it now. She’s thrown her economic lot with the publishers, and the publishers are very, very worried. Who has both the money to buy a hardcover book and the time to stick with something tricky.”

As someone who works in publishing, I don’t want to believe it. Nobody wants to write anything truly original—perhaps mold-breaking—because big publishers won’t go for it? I'd like to think that every novel, especially those that I’d want to publish, are as unique as snowflakes swirling in the air.

The idea that novels are all the same, and the call for something new, was the topic of David Shields' manifesto Reality Hunger. It’s actually pretty funny if you think about it. The way novels can be described. James Wood in The New Yorker wrote about the rules of mainstream realist fiction: “the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual details (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; and ambulance yelped by”). Okay, so it’s true.

I recently asked some friends, what was the last book you read that was really different? Some said Tom McCarthy. Or David Foster Wallace. I felt like going back to the writers group and telling Jane—write it how you want it! Be different. Start with the end and finish with the beginning. Don’t listen to anyone.

But I can’t forget that a lot of readers—I’m thinking of those who buy every new Grisham or King—buy a book because they know exactly what they are going to get. And they are happy doing it. It’s like getting on Big Thunder Mountain for the 24th time. It’s going to be fun.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Whee! The countdown to the holiday break has begun and, in the offices of publishing houses and agents all over town, normal routine is slowly sliding by the wayside. These final weeks of the working year bring with them a feeling of excitement and anticipation that, despite its annual recurrence, never ceases to take me pleasantly by surprise.

Some of the first signs of the season appear overnight in our office lobby: two giant wreaths, two menorahs, a gaggle of poinsettias, and four life-size Nutcracker soldiers. Some might say it's childish to admit that their presence gives my step a little extra spring in the morning, but that's the truth. And I think that I'm not alone--the front desk folks and the elevator attendants seem to smile more brightly, and it feels natural to exchange a grin with a coworker as we wait for the elevators below a garland shimmering with gold.

Sadly, our floor doesn't go in much for collective holiday decoration. With my string of lights and single card, I'm probably the most outlandish celebrant here. But as I walk down the halls, I can detect the sound of Wham! singing "Last Christmas" through more than one person's headphones. I rock out to holiday music all day on Pandora, too--it's much more fun to do all the end-of-the-year catch-up work while internally crooning along to Bing Crosby.

Even though we lack tinsel and giant baubles, you can still tell what season it is by the number of gift packages and bags that start arriving. Most of them collect along the publicity corridor, which for this month becomes a regular diversion on my route around the office. You would not believe what they collect: chocolates, cookie plates, cakes, cheeses, and all kinds of fancy candy. Right now there's even a box of gift bags containing half-bottles of Moet et Chandon, which I unfortunately don't think is for the collective taking. Production gets a fair amount of love too from all the printing companies and photo agencies, but I have slightly less of a pretext to be wandering around their hallway, so I haven't had a chance to assess their haul this year. Disappointingly, Editorial tends to be the most barren of all unless a good-natured author happens to see the light and send something along; usually, a few cards from agencies constitute our seasonal gifts.

I think the personalities of different literary agencies emerge most clearly around the holidays. Just as it's revealing to see what cards your friends and acquaintances choose to send, so it is to examine how each agency chooses to acknowledge (or not acknowledge) the holidays. Some don't send anything, whereas others mail elaborate cards, signed by the entire office, that turn into calendars. A lot of agencies choose to throw parties around this time, too, which is even more interesting from an anthropological perspective. Some of the bigger boutique operations hold formal bashes for the big editors: they send official invitations, hire a bartender, and have the food catered. Others pride themselves on their informal get-togethers, where assistants are welcome and everyone pours their own wine and helps themselves to a Trader Joe's cookie assortment.

The other ubiquitous gathering of the season is the hosted party. Young editors or agents who work together will often pool their resources and industry contact lists to jointly host a shindig in the reserved back room of a reasonably trendy bar. These are a bit less nerve-wracking than agency parties, as there's less of a professional agenda; the crowd is usually comprised of people climbing through the various ranks of assistanthood, and although you are there to "network" the guise of the holidays and the neutral location make things feel more socially genuine. With the prospect of the break ahead, everyone is usually feeling quite jolly and ready to have a drink (or three), and an authentic sense of fraternity often sets in as you begin comparing stories of servitude with other party goers.

These numerous side events notwithstanding, the November/December party carousel is always centered around some kind of official bash. It seems that the improved fiscal outlook of 2010 has spurred publishing houses to be more extravagant than last year; there are reports of one company-wide blow-out at Gotham Hall, a house that decorated each floor of their building with a different theme to host a grown-up version of "Around the World," and more than one dinner-drinks event at a rented restaurant. Individual imprints and groups also celebrate informally with happy hours and lunches. And, despite the essence of forced festivity that always lingers at the fringes of these mandated office celebrations, I think I might enjoy them most of all. And here's why.

It takes a village to make a book--editors, production managers and editors, designers, publicists, marketers, and salespeople. During the stress and chaos of the year's span cycle, it's all to easy to lose track of the big picture, of the real scope of achievement. However, there's something about December that brings everything back into focus. Our slowed schedule, the release of cumulative "best of" lists, and a collective holiday spirit unite all the separate departments together in a community celebration of accomplishment. Looking back at what I, my imprint, and the house I work for have done this year makes my little heart swell with pride. Sure, there has been sweat (try hauling boxes of books and manuscripts around), blood (oh, the paper cuts), and more than a few tears, but at this time of year--particularly when slightly inebriated on the company dollar and surrounded by my closest co-workers, many of whom have become friends--it all seems more than worth it.

As you may have discerned by now, I'm kind of an emotional lush at Christmas. It gets to me, all this baby Jesus-ing and "Joy to the World" caroling. If I go on, I'll just get worse. So let me just say, "God bless ye merry publishing people," and more importantly, "God bless ye merry readers." Happy Holidays to all, and to all a good and safe break.

XO, Hannah

Monday, December 13, 2010

Long Live Fridays at Five!

About three years ago, on my way to the bathroom in our offices late on a grey, dismal Friday afternoon, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a very welcome sight: my good friend Katie Freeman (also a contributor to this website) with an open bottle of red wine and a half finished glass in her hand as she busily and efficiently went to town on the emails filling her inbox.

“Um, Katie what are you doing?”

“It’s been a long week. I thought I’d celebrate the weekend with a glass of wine.”

“Are you gonna drink the whole thing?” (My not-subtle way of asking if I could partake in her brilliant idea.)

“I hope not.”

“Okay, I’m hitting the bathroom and then I’m coming to join you.”

It was the most historic and fateful sentence I would ever utter with the word “bathroom” in it.

Maybe it was because of the positioning of her office (smack dab in the route to the bathroom, right at the corner of a bend that made it difficult not to peak into her office as you were passing); maybe it was that Katie was friendly with everyone here, from the mail guys to our fearless leaders; maybe it was because of how cozy and warmly decorated her office was; maybe it was because she just kept buying wine. Whatever the reason, Katie’s office quickly became home to the beloved tradition of gathering with co-workers every Friday afternoon, ready to celebrate the dusk of a week hard-worked.

The process evolved over time. At first it was at four, but because these gatherings came to resemble actual celebrations instead of a few chummy people getting cozy, we moved them to five, once the work day was officially over. At first we worried that our older, more senior members would frown at the tradition, but before long they were making cameos to see what all the fuss (and noise) was about. (I once co-hosted a Friday at five with my boss.) At first it was solely a few bottles of wine and maybe a half bag of chips someone had lying around from lunch, but before long Katie started bringing in mouth-watering, home-baked delicacies, and gourmet cheeses with an impressive variety of spreads and crackers. People started trying out recipes on the group, and before long we were as culinary as we were fermented. At first I would grab a single glass of wine on my way to whatever Friday engagements I had on the calendar, but after enough instances of having to drag myself away from the festivities, I started limiting all big weekend plans to Saturdays and Sundays.

We talked about books—what we were reading and what we wanted to, and gave each other passionately espoused recommendations. We weighed and debated the merits of various jacket possibilities we had seen for upcoming titles, oohing and ahhing over our favorites, and traded notes on work loads and the most efficient way to battle the bumps in the road we all encounter at some point in this line of work. The point was never to continue working during these sessions—rather to take a deep breath after shutting of the computer for the night—but some of the most valued and fool proof tricks I have up my sleeve for my work here I gleaned during these off-hours gatherings. During our best, loudest, and longest lasting Fridays at five, senior editors would come by and regale us with tales from bygone eras, and encounters with legendary, beloved writers and passed on to us some of our imprint’s most charming bits of history. Most of the good stories I have about this place’s distant past are also by-products of Fridays at Five.

Not everyone showed up at five—sometimes big projects or looming deadlines kept us. But as there was a steady stream of entrances and exits at each week’s meeting, we never really worried—we knew some chapter of the group would be waiting whenever the last t was crossed. Every person’s arrival, no matter how late or early, or how predictable due to regular attendance, was met with a welcome cheer. It was always clear that people were happy to see you whenever you made it. About a year into the tradition we started celebrating birthdays, new arrivals and departures to other jobs as part of the tradition, which only deepened the sense of community.

This past Friday was Katie’s last day here. The publishing world is lucky enough to keep her—she’s heading over to Farrar Straus and Giroux. Like all million dollar ideas by the great minds that litter our past, Katie’s founding of Fridays at Five will outlast her time here, hopefully all of our time here. We’ll continue to gather every Friday to discuss the things that plague and delight us in this business, and the books—and of course people—that make it all worth it. With a little luck, Katie will continue to cameo every now and again, and during the weeks she’s tied up at her fabulous new job, you can be sure that at least a few of the stories shared will feature her as protagonist and star.

Because most milestones are recognized with a toast in the Land of Friday at Five, it’s only fitting that we should send Katie off with one. So here’s to you Katie—for creating a work place so lovely and inviting that nine to five, five days a week just isn’t enough, and to co-workers who become family. We miss you already.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Publishing State of Mind

Every year round December time, our company's employees gather in an upstairs hallway, Dixie cups of wine all around, and take stock in the year just past, hoping that the year to come will be less precarious and more profitable. Our editor-in-chief then takes a few minutes to acknowledge the milestones that employees have reached--those who have been with the company 5, 10, 15 years, calling each one up to thunderous applause to receive recognition and a warm handshake. It's a big to-do, and it's more than a little bit aspirational--especially when the long-timers get up. 25 years, 30 years, 45 years, and once even 55 years . . . whole lives dedicated to one company, a lifetime of work. What can you call that except a legacy?

It's an often-repeated fact that people today may change careers--not jobs, careers--two to three times in their lives. People shift around, their thoughts on what they want change, and their lives bring new challenges that may take them to new locations. The number of unforeseeable factors that may force a change in career are endless, and so it absolutely amazes me that I know people who have spent their entire years--twice my time on earth--at the same company, in the same function, and never tired of it. And despite advancing age and changing times, they are intellectually as sharp as they ever were, with energy to spare and continued optimism about the future of book publishing.

There's a lot of debate right now about whether certain artistic inclinations can be taught--can an MFA ever truly teach someone how to become a novelist? Can you buy the instincts of a bestselling writer? Does honing your craft in graduate school mean limiting yourself commercially in the future? These are all valuable questions, and worth asking given the boom in literature, self-published and non, and the steady depletion of the reading community. But an additional question begs asking: can you, and how can you, teach people to be publishing-minded?

Obviously working for a commercial publisher requires a different set of skills than writing a novel--you're not marketing books in solitude, you're not designing a book jacket solely for yourself, and you're not seeking out paper vendors and overseas printers by way of your local Staples. But nevertheless, the skills of someone who works in publishing--a mind for both high art and low commerce--doesn't always come naturally. There are a handful of certificate programs, as well as some graduate degrees, that are meant to provide you with a "Master in Publishing." Programs like The Columbia Publishing Course (of which myself and another TKers are alumni) often provide access to industry leaders, giving participants the opportunity to ask unlimited questions and engage in exercises designed to teach you the mindset of the trade publishing world. (At CPC, we were split into teams to run our own imaginary publishing houses over the course of two weeks. I was serving as my team's CEO, and nearly had a breakdown because my editors couldn't get their shit together, having their ideas shot down over and over by real-life publishing insiders. After the exercise was over, however, I felt much more informed about the different elements of making a book imprint function.)

Clearly programs like these, where 6 weeks of participation (and a chunk of tuition) give you an enormous amount of information, qualifying as a kind of publishing boot-camp. But are they more valuable than real-life experience? Will you get more out of 6 weeks of seminars than you would out of a 3-month internship at a publishing house? It's hard to say, as everyone's experience is different. But either path will show you a few aspects of what ultimately become a lifelong calling, a 45-year commitment to making literature. I've only been in this industry about 4 years, but I have to wonder if I'll make it to my 45th, to that handshake and that applause, to the knowledge that I've built a life for myself inside this profession.