Monday, April 4, 2011

The Dinosaur in the Living Room

IN her remarkable new novel, Started Early, Took My Dog, Kate Atkinson includes a scene in which one of her major players, a lady cop, is told with some rancor/bitterness by her superior how the world has changed since they both started in police work.  Being who she is, Atkinson pounces on the situation, whereby her lady cop has some ironic, even cynical things to say about the nature of such change, how "things" have evolved (some of them, by the way, quite wonderful).

At late breakfast this morning, you found yourself in what you will call a dinosaur conversation with some publishing chums, noting how the same sense of change pervaded the conversation to the point where you went so far as to observe, "We've become the dinosaurs in the living room."

You were with the former editorial director of Bantam Books and the former sales manager.  Your paths crossed on the occasion of you having been involved with hardcover properties you acquired, then tried to sell off so-called sub (for subsidiary) rights to Bantam, which was at the time the major massmarket reprint vehicle.  There were others, but you always started at Bantam, then went elsewhere if the offer was soft or non-existent.  At the gathering was also your literary agent who, at the time of the most serious details of the day's reminiscences, was promotion and publicity director at Bantam.

The notion of "The Filter" was prominent after a time, by which trope you meant how when you were all back in the game, the materials you saw had been filtered for you without your knowledge by a stream of agents and assistants.  Even the materials you saw from not-so-hot agents was a step or two above the tidal waves of material being produced and sent forth, thus your own speculation this morning that "back in the day" you could have picked almost any project from the filtered file, published it, and sat at the table with a greater than fifty-percent probability of it earning out.  A nice term writers do not wish to hear.  As all writers think well of themselves, none, you included, are comfortable with the thought that a particular project might not earn out, meaning it would have paid for itself, paid off its advance, kept you on a first-name basis with your publisher.

Yet another term or concept you bandied about was the one of taste. Never mind that if your "taste," which is to say your editorial judgement, did not reflect a preponderance of black ink, you were invited to take that long walk down that long hallway from the editorial department to the street.

When you'd said farewell to your dinosaur chums and were taking Sally to a well-deserved romp in some country terrain, you began wondering how much effect your having been an English major had on your taste as compared to how your taste was given shots of steroid by the "injections" of all the unfiltered manuscripts you'd read while on the way up.  It came to you as well that you'd been in a real sense exercising judgements gleaned from reading eighteenth- nineteenth, and early twentieth-century novels on your accept or reject decisions of the unfiltered manuscripts.  Made you wonder how you'd write about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, were you an English major now, your thoughts going back to those two archetypal English novels, Robinson Crusoe, and Pamela.


When you were starting, it was "So many books to read, so little time to read them."  You've just been awarded dinosaur points.  "So many books to write, so little time to write them."

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