Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lunching Toward Gomorrah

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


I've been reflecting on the state of publishing, and I suspect these reflections also apply to movies. As these industries go through their endless dance of mergers, acquisitions, re-structuring, down-sizing, and bankruptcies, becoming newly "re-booted," and "leaner, meaner, and now (finally) relevant!," has anyone noticed how deeply they've all descended into self-delusion?

In New York, there once was half a hundred truly independent publishers producing distinctive books. Today are there even twelve? The editors for those earlier publishers had their own viewpoints, and their books were sufficiently recognizable that an astute observer could tell you who published a book based solely on its description. The editorial prototype was Maxwell Perkins, a guy who was known for developing writers from raw talent into colossal literary figures. If there was anything close to a film-equivalent it might be a studio head like Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, or Darryl F. Zanuck, though those guys were notorious in their distrust of writers. John Calley, Robert Evans, and Alan Ladd, Jr. might have fit the bill in later years. Lately, they've been replaced by producer/directors (Steven Spielberg, for example), MBAs from the Ivy League schools, and, as always, former agents.

But who've we relly got in publishing today? The book business has gotten so in-bred I suspect only rarely does an editor even have time to emerge before the inevitable down-sizing, lay-off, buy-out, or jump the other way, to becoming an agent. As a former literary agent who did not come from publishing, I once chased the CEO of the largest publisher in the world across a golf course by phone to get a decision during a book auction. He won the book for mid-six figures. Next thing I knew he was an agent. The only constant is change.

Some bright cynics in the media like to portray the public as lemmings happily following the one in front as he, too, blithely chases his fellows off the cliff. Others see a slightly different video: editors waddling, lemming-like, after one another, through the doors of the latest over-priced eatery, eager to find out what they're supposed to think today.

In movies it used to be, that you were "only as good as your last picture." Now it's "You're only as good as your next!" "Your last," apparently, is such ancient history that nobody gives it any real credence. So now, fortunes are made on the hype alone.

In publishing, editors go to lunch. That's true for development execs in movies, too. There, these titans of consumer entertainment hold forth, discussing "the business," asserting "their" ideas and opinions, even as they gather those of their colleagues for re-statement at tomorrow's lunch. In fact, I wonder how much new opinion really gets on the tables in these lunches. Recycling seems to be big when it comes to editorial judgment, based on what I keep hearing everyone is "looking for." Warner Brothers was once the studio for hard-hitting contemporary drama and suspense, MGM for musicals and family fare. And, in publishing, Random House was known for cutting edge literary quality. Today who can say who does what? Everyone is so busy re-using that opinion from yesterday's lunch that no one says what's really on their mind: finding some way, any way, to keep the job.

But it's okay. We can always go to dinner, and then lose ourselves in the next superhero flick. Who reads books anymore, anyway?#


Lee A. Matthias

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