Sunday, January 30, 2011

A publicist's lunch is never free

K. looked at me with those big mahogany-colored eyes and said, "That's the way it is, you stop having sex, you get fat." In the restaurant's back room, a fire crackled in the hearth. There was a big holiday party back there giggling and squealing. "Lately I've been getting these nosebleeds, I think there's something really wrong with me." She looked a little like Rosie Rivera in the seventies, Kewpie doll cheeks, honey-haired and freckly. She'd been fired almost a year ago and still hadn't found work. Human resources, an effin joke.

"It's the principle of the thing." Now she was talking about being a vegetarian. "I saw this documentary on chickens. It's unbelievable what they do to them." I thought to myself, one should not be considering the welfare of livestock when sitting down to eat lunch. There are already too many moral decisions to be made during the day. I couldn't take having to make one more. "My brother agrees with me that it's wrong to eat meat. He tries to stay vegetarian but it isn't easy in the Army. He's stationed in South Korea." She showed me a photo of the young lieutenant. The Korean War ended the year I was born. I'm fifty-seven. We're still there. Amazing what we citizens accept as normal, the reach of the American military.

K. loves her brother. What we have in common are books, the odd intimacy of reading the same authors. Woolf, Murakami, Sebald, Geoff Dyer, Alice Munro, John Berger. A mutual befriending. Inhabiting adjacent rooms in the same imaginarium. It's not easy to make an articulate case for the authors we love -- too often we resort to gushing, hyperbole, or bald declarations of fealty -- but K. has got the knack. She can make a pitch as literate and subtle as the work she's pitching. How many book publicists are capable of that? Maybe a handful on the whole island of Manhattan.

"I've always felt there's a direct inverse relationship between the amount of hype surrounding a book and the quality of the book itself. The worse something is, the more bullshit you have to use in selling it." I agreed. "That's not just books you're talking about. It takes a huge marketing budget to get consumers to buy a certain brand of toilet paper."

We'd been through this before. The publicist's lot is difficult: too many books, not enough time to read them, unrealistic expectations, egotistical authors, a distracted, fractured media, a grim lack of resources. "We can't compete with Hollywood. It's a miracle that books get noticed at all, given the public indifference and the miniscule sales we generate. When I was with the big house, we had to lick our own stamps, for goodness sake. Most of the books I worked on got a galley mailing with a pitch letter written in less than half an hour. That was it! The whole department had one assistant. There was zero follow-up." K. needed to talk through her reconciliation to the fact that she was no longer doing the thing she loved doing. There wasn't room for her passion in the job. Clumsy middle managers were able to exploit her, then sack her, just as they have so many genuine book people.

"People think things have to be this way. That's there's some Darwinian imperative at work. Some force of history. That it's all technology's fault." I thought to myself, how many of those people have read even one word of Darwin, let alone Hegel? I said, "These people are boors and dolts, but they've got the culture of profit-at-any-cost on their side. The pendulum has swung in their direction and they're riding high. Even the Democratic President is talking like Reagan." Paradigm shift, my arse.

K. ordered the wild mushroom ravioli, I ordered salmon. We split a pinot blanc. The crowd in back was still making merry. Outside another snowstorm was gathering over New Jersey. "I'm thinking of going to law school. I don't think there's a place for me in publishing any more. I'll have to find something else to do with my love of books." It was sad, but there was no way I could disagree with her. All I could do was pick up the check and thank my lucky stars for the fat years back in the nineties.

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