From an Editor’s Desk: It’s Not Who You Know…Really It Isn’t

As music editor for Rowman and Littlefield, I receive any number of proposals for memoirs from musicians that tell not so much their story as that of the musical luminaries with whom they worked. Unfortunately, the aura of fame often extends only as far as the actual celebrity. As I wrote one agent regarding a possible book by a temporary drummer for a once famous act:

I know the uphill battle you will be facing when pitching a book of this sort, which I commonly refer to as the “memoir of the greatest sideman you've never heard of.” It’s tough to place books about the near famous rather than the famous. As Mel Brooks once quipped: “There are two types of people in this world: the famous and the near famous. The famous are just what you’d expect—president, popes, Hollywood stars. The near famous are those who want to be near the famous.”


Not long before this proposal, I had received another from a prospective author that was to be brazenly titled Confessions of a Shameless Name-dropper. Unlike other memoirists who try to sneak this stuff by, this author was refreshingly open about the matter, and even though I had to credit him with his bravado, I had to school him in the realities of the market (which he took with remarkable grace). Here’s what I wrote:

Since I handle lots of music titles—and of all sorts, including memoirs of the type you’re proposing—I wanted to follow up. I tend toward the brutally honest, so, as I warn some of my authors, put on your elephant skin. Here we go…

You are not the first and not by any means the last author who has proposed a book about his adventures in the music business and the many great names with whom he may have worked. The problem is a simple one: names of note in a book do not translate into sales when the book itself is not written by one of those noted names. Even forewords and endorsements by “big” names are no substitute for the real deal. A book about one’s working relationship with Renee Fleming or Mick Jagger is simply not the same as a book by either one of them.

The net result is that these titles don’t ever do nearly as well as their authors predict. Sometimes they don’t even do as well as we predict—and we at least have access to good sales data about this kind of thing.

The bad news is that star-power-by-association is a bit of a myth, and unless you are one of those rare behind-the-scenes individuals who made those stars into stars rather than just someone who worked alongside them—think Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records or Motown producer Berry Gordy—a book documenting one’s musical career through the great artists whose paths crossed yours is a tough sell.

I should note that this isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions. But those exceptions are few and far between. If the story told is so compelling or uniquely wrought that the work shines almost in spite of the name-dropping, a book editor might sign on. But in that case the sign-on is not to the dropped names but the literary quality of the work itself.

Of course, another possible approach is if the book editor not only thinks the story compelling enough to publish but also believes that real marketing muscle (and real editorial attention) will overcome possible lack of interest. In this scenario the book is, you might say, forced upon the public by being oversold or sensationalized. A case in point is Chicago Review Press’s publication in 2005 of I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. Following in the wake of this sexual tell-all, which CRP managed to get behind well enough, author Pamela des Barres was able to write a follow-up and even publish an anthology of confessions from other groupies.

But, my, my, how quickly this kind of self-pumping confessional—groupies as muses…really?—ages when you look at how autobiographies of this ilk now clutter the world of the self-published. After Warren Zevon’s wife, Crystal, published her tell-all—since we now swim in a sea of spousal memoirs that are hardly better than shoulder-rubbing memoirs (or more than shoulders, if you opt to work from des Barres’ playbook)—it is not surprising that there should follow a self-published confessional, too, about Zevon’s illegitimate child with Rae Murphy or Anita Gevinson’s self-published expose of rock stars she bedded (most prominently…Warren Zevon).

A great deal more could be written about the sociocultural pressures to take advantage of celebrity. After all, there are any number of so-called celebrities whose only real talent is their ability to celebritize (yeah, I made that word up), from Paris Hilton to the Kardashians to the reality TV personalities who will then reappear on Dancing with the Stars. Because celebrity is now so cheaply bought on cable and online, it had created the illusion that there is, in fact, an audience of readers who want to know about the people who knew famous people. And there might be: for free. But a paying audience?  That’s a different matter, and it’s where I, as a book editor, often draw the line.

The Good Will of Books

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with John Donatich, director of the Yale University Press at Yale’s Graduate Club on Elm Street, where we swapped stories from our respective careers in publishing. (I did most of the talking, to be honest.) In the course of conversation, we discussed the state of academic publishing. I had recently completed a research project for an overseas press looking to expand its English-language publishing program in philosophy. Since I had an amateur’s interest in the field and more than a decade in scholarly publishing of one sort or another, it was a perfect project for someone with my inclination. During a tete-a-tete, one item that caught my attention was John’s comments on the state of book publishing in the field of literary criticism. In brief, it is not an area that is doing especially well nowadays. This isn’t to say that it’s on life support. But in terms of raw sales figures—number of units printed and sold—it’s a less-than-ideal area of publication.

Reasons for the decline of "litcrit" sales are legion. Humanities-based book publishing programs have taken a real pounding. The elimination of university press subsidies has hurt, as has the steady migration of scholars to digital venues. Moreover, the overproduction of books in response to tenure pressures has produced a flood of publication that academic library budgets can no longer accommodate. And then there is the ontological problem of scholarly specialization, which automatically limits audience size and book sales.  This tailspin in academic monograph has thrown into question the future of humanities research, begun to reshape criteria for tenure, and obliged scholars to rethink the place the “book” in literary criticism.

Alas, solutions are not legion. Many publishers seem resigned to plodding on, producing works of literary criticism regardless of how much interest there really can be in the or .  But even where there is interest--hell, even I'm interested in these topics--that interest will be be nominal at most and fleeting at best. Books of this ilk will take not 2nd or 3rd place on my reading stack; they'd be lucky to take 20th or 21st. Indeed, the fact that I’d have to re-read Paradise Lost before taking on a whole work devoted to a “dramatic reinterpretation” of it makes me queasy just thinking of the required page-turns.

Is it any wonder that literary criticism is on the ropes? And, yet, literary criticism done well can offer true pleasure.  This certainly occurs to me when I look at the litcrit section of my personal library and consider the characteristics that make for a good litcrit read. What matters is not any critic's purported insightfulness or even her work's importance to the history of literary exegesis. No, what stays with me is something different, something crystallized by my recent exercise in slimming down this part of my library.

It is now 15 years since I received my doctorate, and it is unlikely I will ever return to academia to teach or write literary criticism. So when my wife recently demanded that I reduce the size of my library, I decided to rake out the litcrit collection I had amassed in graduate school. Refreshing is the only word I can use to describe the experience. My academic career behind me and none ahead, I saw no  need to retain works that supplied so little satisfaction but had stayed on hand solely for the purpose of teaching or quoting. Now I could forthrightly assess the quality of the reading experience of this part of my collection, no small matter for a discipline excoriated during my graduate days for loose thinking and impenetrable writing.   The standing of works of ostensibly "breakaway" originality, held in high regard then by litcrit professionals, dissolved instantly before a fierce resolve to keep what I had enjoyed and eliminate those academic aspiration had obliged me to have."  Works that were once "hot" now seemed trite, belabored, ostentatious, or overindulged.  I bathed in the freedom of putting front and center new, more personal criteria: readability, narrative drive, force and clarity of argument, playfulness of voice.

So what sailed away to the local Goodwill? My collection of essays by Paul de Man, which, despite their presumptive brilliance, never shined for me as his extended explicationes de text all drove to the same tiring conclusion  that every text is a morass of contradiction, a perpetual shooting of one’s own feet; Walter Benjamin’s essays were also cast overboard, I never having found them all that compelling or even that well written; several of Foucault’s works—which were not even literary criticism but were so heavy-handedly adopted for  litcrit purposes that they ended up in this area of my library regardless—were boxed up, particularly the overlong Order of Things and the unnecessarily abstract Archaeology of Knowledge. Nor were all my rejects of the “theoretical” kind. Ihab Hassan’s Contemporary American Literature, 1945-1972: An Introduction was a rather pedestrian affair as introductions go; Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending was never going to get read; Cleanth Brooks’ Well-Wrought Urn, a series of essays illustrating how “close reading” of poetry ought be done, left this reader's experience of the poems entirely parched; Rene Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature was neither readable nor useful, more a dryly written period piece; Terry Heller’s Delights of Terror, Clayton Koelb’s The Incredulous Reader, Joseph Grixti’s Terrors of Uncertainty were all well written and well argued, but took up shelf space only because of my now long-forgotten dissertation on the American gothic tradition; and then there were the multi-author essay collections on feminist criticism and theory, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and God knows what else.

So what stayed?  Walter Kendricks’ Thrill of Fear, another dissertation source, stayed not only because it offered reasonably good history of the genre in literature and film but also for the pugnacious tone of its treatment of bad horror art. I gladly held onto Mythologies and S/Z by Roland Barthes as examples of original thinking, humorous observation (especially) Mythologies) and truly novel presentation (has there ever been another work of literary criticism like S/Z?). Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class? also stuck around for its clarity of prose, precision of thought, and force of argument.  I could not imagine letting go of fine introductory works like  Terry Eagleton’s tour de force, Literary Theory: An Introduction or the should-be-better-known Superstructuralism by Richard Harland.  Literary histories and works of cultural criticism that were compelling in their insight or unique in their approach—such as Lionel Trilling’s Liberal Imagination, David S. Reynolds’ Beneath the American Renaissance or Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Lighting Out for the Territory—I also retained. Finally, I do admit a penchant for writers on writing: essays (Language of the Night by Ursula LeGuin), criticism (Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster), manifestoes (For a New Novel by Alaine Robbe-Grillet), memoirs (One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty) or interviews (Lawrence Grobel’s Conversations with Capote). As works of criticism go, none of these amounts to much. But as commentary by craftsmen on the crafting process rather than the crafted object’s final effect, they are worth something.

All of these titles stuck with me because they interested me as a reader and not as a litcrit professional. And so I wonder if, in the end, this is the direction that literary critics will ultimately have to take to stay in the book—as opposed to the academic journal—business.  Doing so might require setting aside calls to specialize or even theorize and focus more on voice, originality of presentation, quality of writing, force and range of argument, and—finally—on the story their book tells rather than the stories that are the object of their criticism.

Secrets of a Publishing Addict

I like to tell this story, having told it many times before. Sitting at home, I receive a call from a friend asking if I had seen that week's copy of , for which she then worked.

"No, I haven't. Why?"

"Well, there's an interesting article about this guy who started a local book review, like the one you and I thought about doing years ago."

And, lo and behold, so it was. Where I no more than dreamt, another made happen. Thus was the born. Fortunately, for me, its was also a fellow member. So when he entered the lobby doors, child and stroller in hand, I approached him.

"I saw the article about the New Haven Review of Books. I'd like to help."

"Oh, that's great," he replied. "Do you write?"

Do I write? That was a tough one, actually. "Sure, I write a little, but I'd rather be your publisher"—if you'll have me—I thought parenthetically. I had served as the publisher of a Jewish literary journal in graduate school and I wanted to return to that more distinctly literary scene after years in .

"Our publisher? You mean like sales and marketing and stuff like that…"

"Yes, stuff like that."

"Great! No one else wants to do that!"

Thus was a partnership born, and I was joined at the literary hip to an editorial collective of individuals wiser and more talented than myself—and with infinitely better connections, too.

But this was all fine by me. I like the business of publishing, from handling the filthy lucre to freaking out over missing a print deadline. True that in this endeavor I would have less occasion for the give and take of reading and responding to the lucubrations of the published and hoping-to-be-published. But would it be all too sickening to admit that I like fiddling with our circulation database, hounding subscribers for renewals, holding out my greasy palm for potential contributions, even filling out the occasional nasty legal form? Probably, but what can I say? I love it.

Publishing, for me, is in the blood—all aspects of it, from correcting misplaced commas to panhandling in the street for new readers.

So, ready to subscribe?