Monday, March 7, 2011

Publishing Movie Myths Debunked!

In the last decade or so, the film industry has given us several movie gems set in or about the publishing industry. Not surprisingly, they range from the laughably far fetched (Lindsay Lohan’s Labor Pains) to the fairly spot on (Suburban Girl and The Last Days of Disco). Even less surprisingly, the number of conversations about these films had by young people in the publishing business far outweighs the number of films. After five years of hearing our corridors light up with excited chatter about both publishing-centered movies that have just been unleashed upon the world and those that are now classics, I decided to have something of a movie marathon and see what all of the various fusses are about. Below, the things the movies in question got right, and the touches that are solely Hollywood’s!

The Wonder Boys

In this touching and very funny Michael Chabon adaptation Robert Downey Jr. plays Terry Crabtree, an editor who makes a sojourn to Pittsburg to visit Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), his star writer who is struggling to finish his second novel. (His first was met with a cascade of acclaim and put Terry Crabtree on the map as an editor.) Though discovering one great writer can indeed launch the career up-and-coming editor, that well-played acquisition usually leads to others. Being in a position to acquire is the key (as opposed to finding anything worth acquiring), and once you’ve jumped through all the hoops in front of you to acquire your first masterpiece the process usually tends to become easier. If Crabtree was hungry enough to sign Tripp up, it feels unlikely that he wouldn’t have found other manuscripts to further build his list. His being desperate enough to make a house call to a writer felt like a bit of stretch. That said, the sophomore slump can, sadly, be very real for successful debut novelists, and the movie gets the snarky writing workshop environment spot on!


The most obvious weakness in this light and fun rom com starring The Gilmore Girls’s Alexis Bledel is the premise that there’s a thriving book publishing industry in Los Angeles. Determined to take the publishing world by storm, Bledel’s Ryden Malby starts the movie thrilled that she has an interview with an editor at Hepperman and Browining, “the best publishing house in all of LA.” My “Um, what? There’s more than one?” was quickly followed by, “Wait, there’s even one?” That said, the details of a young assistant’s life are pretty accurate (we do tend to keep late hours, and manuscript reading is usually done on your own time unless you’re in the middle of a blissfully slow period), but in true Hollywood fashion, the diva-ish ways of those we report to are embellished more than a bit. (No, I’ve never had to scrape gum of the bottom of any editor’s shoe. Most editors keep all personal favors—even the humane ones—to a minimum.) Probably the most spot on is the detail that Ryden gets the coveted job months after she applied for it. The publishing world is so small that often times if an editor likes a resume or candidate who’s not quite right for the job in question they’ll save him or her on file for future openings, or pass them along to friends. Often times the job offer call comes when you least expect it. Sadly also true in that vein is the scene in which Ryden waits for her interview in a room full of other qualified and eager candidates. There are more aspiring editors than there are jobs!

Labor Pains

This movie also had the questionable premise of a publishing house based in LA, but because of all of the other details of the film that seem to be inspired by a magical world far far away from this one, it was less noticeable. This one pretty much gets everything wrong—publishing, human nature, comedic timing. In the weak plot, Lindsay Lohan invents a pregnancy to prevent her three headed monster of a boss from firing her from her editorial assistant job. I’m pretty sure it’s not illegal to fire a pregnant woman (especially one as inept at her job as Lohan’s character seems to be), just horribly villainous and heartless, which the boss in question certainly is. The other thing that sets this one apart from all the others that had at least a modicum of truth imbedded in their tales is that in every other movie here there was whiff of the glamour in the fledgling publishing careers on display. Sure, the protagonists worked long hours and struggled with the rigid hierarchy, but there was the sense that they were pursuing a dream that made the pitfalls worth it, not slumming it. Here the office feels a little bit like a desert version of the one featured on Steve Carell’s The Office, filled with unambitious nine-to-fivers who find most of their joy outside the work place. While not everybody in publishing is a beauty queen, the homeliness of Lohan’s co-workers and their simple, shoddy wardrobes seemed to be an intentional part of the plot, as if it was one of the defining characteristics of the business. While there’s a smiley acceptance of just about any clothing style in our offices (one of my favorite details of the work environment here) the vast majority of the office doesn’t find their wardrobe at vintage seventies thrift stores. Given that this is a Lindsay Lohan movie that went straight to video, none of this should be terribly surprising. The only real mysteries here are how they got so many real comedians to co-star (everyone from Creed from The Office to Janeane Garofalo has a bit part or cameo), and more importantly, how Amazon found people to give the DVD rave reviews. Seriously, check out the Amazon page and see how they glow! Really, America?

The Proposal

The office views found in this one are familiar (our offices, too, have walls of windows that look out on the Manhattan skyline), the author and publisher names they toss around like confetti are legit (with the exception of the imprint that ├╝ber-editor Sandra Bullock and her assistant Ryan Reynolds work for), and yes, it really is THAT big of a deal to land Oprah. Less accurate is the power Sandra Bullock’s character holds over the entire floor, controlling and ruining lives en masse. While some big name bosses can demand a lot of personal attention and sacrifices from their employees, there’s no one person that everyone reports to directly. (And it must be said, some bosses are a dream to work for—I never once saw a super supportive mentor boss in any of these films, and they do exist!) No, Ryan Reynolds’s character is not too old to still be an assistant. There are very few jumps to make along the publishing ladder, even over an entire career (editorial assistant, associate editor, editor, senior editor), so you’re at each one for awhile. Also, the bigger the name you work for (or the more powerful the editor) the longer it makes sense to work for him or her. Despite the absurd (but hilarious) premise and Bullock’s wild twist as villain, the details ring pretty true.

The Last Days of Disco

It’s a bit tricky to evaluate this one for accuracy as a publishing novice in 2011, given that it’s set in the publishing world of the seventies. Perhaps a more interesting question than what is accurate about this and what is made up is what from that now antiquated world has remained in our current one. Believe it or not the typewriters that line the sets of this movie are still typing strong along senior editor row in 2011. It’s only recently that some of our legendary veterans and path pavers have made the switch from typewriters to computers. While crafting a reader’s report is no longer as communal an effort as it seems to be in the film, the dream of all young assistants seems not to have wavered from then to now: an associate editor gig is what we’re after. Perhaps most interesting is that in the movie—which came out years before the James Frey scandal—the protagonist’s dream book that she is finally able to sign up turns out to be fraudulent. The author made it all up and presented it as fact. Looks like the non-fiction Pinocchio problem that rears its head in a major way every few years is a tale as old as time. Despite the publishing details and their veracity or lack thereof, this is a fabulous film that I’d recommend to just about anyone, not just those interested or invested in the business.

Suburban Girl

This one is based on a handful of stories from Melissa Banks’s collection The Good Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which is one of my favorite books about publishing, or just about anything, really. The opening scene, in which the young associate editor protagonist named Brett Eisenberg (yes, named after that Brett, and played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) moves copies of her latest book to the front of her neighborhood book store didn’t ring quite true only because book placement is a detail managed by the marketing and sales departments as opposed to editors. The only other slight veer off course was a scene at a book party, in which the rude and legendarily literary host pushes the young Brett aside to speak to her older and more established suitor. Though it’s not uncommon to be the youngest person by about twenty years at the book parties we assistants attend, I find that the older and more established writers and editors are rather embracing. (I’ll never forget when Gay Talese approached me at a book party just to find out how things are going in the publishing industry these days, and what it’s like to be a young person in the trenches.) Seeing a younger set nervously clutching a champagne flute in the corner reminds them of their early days, I imagine. Some of my best conversations and contacts have been made at parties just like the one featured in that scene, and with people just as large in stature as the famous host. The rest of the film, though, is filled with deliciously spot on touches—everything from the copyediting marks that Brett scribbles across her manuscript pages to that magical moment when you see someone reading a book you’ve spent the last year working on; the reality of reader’s report insecurity and second guessing your opinion, and the conviction that at the end of the day you just have to trust your gut. Small touches like mentions of real life legends like agent Binky Urban also went a long way. Perhaps most notably, though, the movie is quite lovely in its capturing of the nostalgia that permeates our industry. Those who have been in this business for years love to talk about the legendary moments that dot its past—encounters with larger-than-life and infamous writers now long gone; the discovery of a book that went on to change the canon—almost as much as those of us just starting out love to hear them.

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