A writer, a critic, an agent and a publisher – complicated relations

It is always pleasant for me, due to some book, to look into the respectable living rooms of the middle of the last century and listen to the clever conversations about book publishing, and there is so much of it in the novel “Two-Thirds of the Ghost” by Helen McCloy.

New York, New York … Offices in Manhattan and country houses in Connecticut, fifties, mentions of a very recent war, publishing business …
The narrative unfolds in such a way that in each new scene a kind of new dimension arises, and everything turns out to be not at all what it seems. The important becomes insignificant, and something completely different comes to the fore. And thus, with a sinking heart – and with pleasure – we are waiting, where will the carefully verified idea of ​​the author lead us?
If we understand by a detective the usual patterns of plotting such as Agatha Christie or the monotonous coordinated actions of the teams of brave cops in some TV series, then in this case the crime here is rather non-standard – it only adds a zest to the already tangled intrigue. Outwardly unremarkable conversations take on an ominous connotation if you are trying hard to guess who is the very villain who is hiding under the guise of decency, cold-bloodedly targeting the next victim.
It is hard to believe that the author is a woman, since the book is written in the traditional brisk, dryish American manner, when there is no excessive psychological and emotional depth, but at the same time there is a kind of cynical touch of knowledge of life and its economic component, and, I repeat, there are many interesting details of the literary life, which are familiar to the author “like the back of his hand.”

How to promote a book? (In the middle of the twentieth century, of course, it was only about print runs and about the classic three “writer – agent – publisher”). Can any book be promoted? What should a book have to become a bestseller? Does the text of the book reflect the personality and biography of the author?

The book returns to all these questions from different and, what is especially pleasant, paradoxical points of view.

Since there is no exact criterion, the publishing business smells of speculation. From the very beginning, the manuscript is judged subjectively depending on the tastes and whims of the publishers. The literary success can be predicted , but the commercial success can never be predicted at all . The highbrows at least have a literary fashion. The public doesn’t have that either.

The novel cannot be considered purely American, it reads well, as they say, “on both sides of the Atlantic” and contains references, for example, to the song about Roland, Lord Byron and to the writer’s fate of Proust and Stevenson.

By the way, one character in this novel is compared to Kaspar Hauser (the Nuremberg child). Indeed, in the middle of the twentieth century, mankind still remembered Kaspar Hauser, this was an important metaphor for him. Now there is such a surplus of information in the world that against this background the history and image of Kaspar Hauser have long lost their special expressiveness.

Ellen McCloy crowns her novel, like an icing on a cake,with a detective solution, hidden not somewhere, but … in a literary quote from an English classic, known not to uneducated young generation, but only to educated people of that time. And the motive for the crime arises due not to anything, but to the peculiarities of the literary process – oh, this is an extremely sophisticated literary plan of the author, in my opinion!

And although one of the characters is grumbling about writing detective stories:

“Anyone can write a detective story. It’s the same job as a locksmith or a carpenter. I’ve always believed that detective authors should be paid a salary, not a fee.”

nevertheless, I will note that “We do need such detectives” 🙂 (It’s paraphrase of Russian catch phrase arised from hockey commentator Nicolay Ozerov’s “We don’t need such kind of hockey!” in 1972.)

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What should be the author’s biography on the book cover?

Recently, once again I became convinced that the eternal desire of readers to identify the author of books with the fictional characters by him often serves as a reason for jokes … Or, more precisely, it is about the fact that readers regard a fascinating writer biography as a part of the very book product that they are to acquire.

Here’s a conversation I stumbled upon recently in Two-Thirds of a Ghost by Helen McCloy between writer Amos Cottle and his girl friend and in conbination – the wife of his publisher:

“You never told me about your past”.

“But it’s written on the cover of my novel book,” Amos said, and tossed the book to her.

Phillipa laughed. “I know how Tony writes things like that.

“But I gave him the facts,” Amos retorted sharply.

Philippa sat down on the bed and began to read – for the umpteenth time! – a biography of Amos on the cover of The Passionate Pilgrim.

Amos Cottle was born in China in 1918 to a Methodist missionary family. After finishing school at the mission, he entered Peking University. Life later became a rich source of plots for Cottle. Cottle changed many professions, was a sailor, bartender, reporter in Hollywood, cowboy, chemist, construction worker. During World War II, he served in the Pacific. Memories of this period of his life formed the basis of the novel Never Call to Retreat. Thinking, Philippa put down the book. Smooth, banal phrases told her little about the real Amos. He never spoke of his childhood in China or his wanderings.

Undoubtedly, we all know that a person with a rich life experience can tell the so-called “hunting stories”.
I involuntarily recall an episode from the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, when the administrator of the dating site invites the hero to write something unusual about himself, so that women would become interested in his profile and the number of winkings would increase.

And in “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies it is no longer about a writer, but a magician, but nevertheless the idea of ​​inventing a life story to increase interest from the audience still remains the same. So, for a magician who has become famous, his producer invents the writing of a special biography … And ironically, this is entrusted to the very person who knows the magician from childhood and spent the first years of his life with him in a small, unremarkable town in Canada.

“Every magician publishes his autobiography for sale at the theater and elsewhere,” Lisle continued. “For the most part, these little books are absolutely terrible, and they are all written by someone else’s hand – by ghostwriters, if I do not confuse the expression”.
“Well, then think about what you are asking me. This is not just a biography, the book must be completely spinned out of nothing . I hope you don’t think the audience will swallow, without choking, the sophisticated gentleman born in the bear’s corner of Canada into the family of a Baptist priest … “

We agreed in general terms that he is the son of snowy expanses, fed by gnome-like Lapps after the death of his parents, polar explorers, possibly Russians, perhaps aristocrats.
People who in their lives did not devote even an hour to hard work read excitedly how young Magnus practiced his card and coin tricks for fourteen hours in a row, bringing himself to such exhaustion that he could not even eat later, but only drank a huge glass of cream, flavored with brandy. When Isengrim perfected his natural hypnotic gift, his every look, even the most casual one, was so charged with energy that beautiful women fell in bundles at his feet, like unfortunate butterflies, irresistibly drawn by an incinerating flame- and how excited the people, who knew love only in the most dull, uncomplicated manifestations of it, were to read about it.
I wrote about a secret laboratory in an old Tyrolean castle, where he designed equipment for his rooms, casually hinting that there were cases when a not quite well-oiled installation malfunctioned, seriously injuring one of the charming assistants; of course, Isengrim went to any expenses to fully restore her health. I painted him like a monster, but a charming monster, not very monstrous.”

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