Thursday, February 02, 2012

Rushdie on the state of writing

Yesterday's main reading was not crime fiction, though the author has notoriously had a price on his head.

Step Across This Line collects Rushdie's nonfiction from 1992-2002, and there's more to the man than his love of U2, a subject with which he deals frankly in an essay called "U2."

I especially liked what Rushdie had to say about the state of writing and not just because he says of his experience judging a competition that
"There was a group of son-of-Kelman Scottish novels in which people said `fuck' and `cunt' and recited the names of minor punk bands. There was, too, the Incredibly Badly Sub-Edited Novel. I remember one set in the sixties in which a Communist character couldn’t spell `Baader' or `Meinhof' (`Bader,' `Meinhoff”'. Many of the entries read as if no editor had ever looked at them."
More to the point, he wrote, publishers were publishing too many books because
"in house after house, good editors have been fired or not replaced, and an obsession with turnover has replaced the ability to distinguish good books from bad. Let the market decide, too many publishers seem to think. Let’s just put this stuff out there. Something’s bound to click. So out to the stores they go, into the valley of death go the five thousand, with publicity machines providing inadequate covering fire."
It may surprise you to learn that the essay from which these passages are taken is highly optimistic about the state of the novel. The creative, bold, skilled, and sensitive writers are there. The people whose task it is to get those writers to us, he says, were not doing their jobs.

How does this jibe with your view of the crime-fiction market, especially if you have trouble finding the kind of crime fiction you like to read?
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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53 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I havent read the essays but Rushdie seems misguided on a number of fronts.

1. U2 are hacks and have always been hacks. U2, Coldplay, Snow Patrol et. al. are bands for people who don't really know anything about pop music.

2. Rushdie has got it exactly arse about face when it comes to publishing. Too few books are being published. It would actually be a good thing if publishers tried a couple of dozen new writers every season in the hope that one will make it. In fact their accountants and marketing departments have them pick one or two of the latest Brooklyn hipsters who run a zine or a couple of very pretty girl who look fantastic on a jacket.

3. It would also be helpful if publishers didn't waste their marketing dollars on ageing dinosaurs like Rushdie, Roth etc. who did their best work 25 years ago and whose contemporary novels are a shade of the genius they used to show.

February 02, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

an obsession with turnover has replaced the ability to distinguish good books from bad. Let the market decide, too many publishers seem to think

What kind of jackass thinks editors in publishing houses can tell good from bad?

William Goldman's phrase about Hollywood, 'nobody knows anything', can just as easily be applied to the publishing business, and is vastly more sensible than Rushdie's inanites.

Decca Records famously turned down the Beatles. How many great books and bestsellers have publishers turned down? Damn, I can't count that high.

February 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I used the past tense advisedly because Rushdie's essay is at least ten years old, and much has happened i publishing since. I'm guessing, though, that some of his disdain for the way books are marketed might still be timely, the about "inadequate covering fire," for instance.

I read the U2 essay for fun. Rushdie seems to have take seriously Bono's aspirations to seriousness, but I quite enjoyed his defensive aspiration of the criticism that he would receive: that Bono was grasping for credibility (though he uses "fred" -- and he does put it i quotation marks) and that Rushdie was starstruck. I'm not sure he does a great job deflecting the criticism.

February 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, anecdotes like that about Decca and the Beatles abound. I have heard them about Bob Dylan and Star Wars.

February 02, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Rushdie was an adman before he was anything as a novelist, so he may not be the best judge of all this.

He also seems to have a hard time keeping a marriage going.

Nevertheless, he's a great writer and I discount all his other failings in light of that.

Jonathan Franzen has also gotten himself in trouble again declaring himself pro book and anti ebook. I know what he means, but it comes out sounding entitled.

I don't believe that you should tell people to stop writing just because they are old. You could easily say they should stop writing because they are too young, and that would be right most of the time too. But not always.

Coming to the end of James Joyce's birthday here. Another writer who was not without his faults, but who is or should be forgiven for them.

February 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that Rushdie essay collection begins with a rather long meditation on and analysis of The Wizard of Oz. Rushdie's recollection of the movie's role in is life is interesting, and he makes an exciting leap toward the end of the piece. But the essay is, as I said, rather long.

I'd never read his fiction, so I have Midnight's Children lined up and ready to go.

February 02, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I actually have a little book of his thoughts on The Wizard of Oz. It makes for a short book, but it would be a long essay. I haven't read it, though I started it and liked it as far as I went with it.

As for Midnight's Children, I just recently came across this blog post which mentions a group read of the book starting in March. I'm contemplating reading Midnight's Children again because of this, but I don't know that I really have the time.

February 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like the delight Rushdie takes in his own nerdishness when he stops the movie, freezes frames, takes notes, and so on. And the essay's climactic realization, that there's no such things as home, is pretty thrilling. But much of the essay is random observations, not all of equal interest.

I think he takes as his model a travel essay in which the writers holds forth on everything that interests him, big and small. But the Wizard of Oz may not be as a thrilling a destination as Oxiana or Constantinople.

February 02, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Well, I suppose it depends on who you are.

February 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The movie was a big deal for Rushdie, and quite like his observation that for all the hoopla over the movie's colorful splashiness, it was nothing especially gaudy by Bollywood standards. And he repeats some funny stories about the licentiousness and mayhem of the midgets who played the munchkins.

February 02, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

If you read Midnights Children and Blood Meridian in 2012 it will be a reading year well spent.

Seana

I'm not saying he should stop writing, but I do think a more equitable division of publishing resources away from the Rushdies of this world would be a good thing. And I still stand by what I say regarding his talent. Rushdie's first three novels are brilliant. His last three have been barely readable.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I agree on the publishing resources, for sure. So far I've stopped at Satanic Verses, so I can't argue in his defense.

Philip Roth's American Pastoral was not written in his youth and I will defend that.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I don't know about American Pastoral. As I remember it it took him the first 120 pages or so to get to the point of the story filling up the pages with a lot of boring stuff about glove manufacturing that he had recently learned and was determined to inflict upon us.

Incidentally have you read A Suitable Boy? If you liked the glove manufacturing scenes in American Pastoral you'll love the entire chapters in Suitable about tanning and leather making.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I am currently writing a post about pig iron so I think that may be the answer to that.

A Suitable Boy--wobbling around on the top of my TBR pile, and basically crushing everything underneath it.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Suitable Boy is fantastic. Start it tonight. You will not be sorry. I have one problem with the novel which I cant tell you because its a spoiler but I basically love that book.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

You have a problem with a text? Usually you are so lackadaisical about small errors and foibles.

I don't know about starting it tonight, but I will say soon.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Damn me, I've ever read C. McCarthy, either.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, all those scenes about tanning and leather-making, and in verse yet!

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Verse?

The Golden Gate, yes.

A Suitable Boy, no--thank the lord.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I won't start Midnight's Children Tonight, but I will continue reading Danube.

Went to my local secondhand crime fiction bookstore tonight looking for Ted Lewis and Christopher Brookmyre. Instead, I walked out with Jacques Barzun and Evelyn Waugh.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Well, you're in very good company, then, Peter.

February 03, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I thought Rushdie sounded a tad behind the times, but otherwise I agree. We got piss-poor service from publishers 10/11 years ago when I first started with them. No editors and copy-editing was farmed out. Cover designs came from freebies listed under Google images. And no promotion.
But things have changed again since then, because of the e-book explosion. Publishers are now fighting for their survival via strong-arm tactics involving e-rights, controlling their authors, and possibly also agents.

They keep on only authors who continue to bring in money. That means much cutting of the midlist. And that affects crime fiction.
At the moment, only authors who continue to earn good money (advances and royalties) are happy with their publishers. And that means best selling authors and those with established careers.

February 03, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Solo, anecdotes like that about Decca and the Beatles abound. I have heard them about Bob Dylan and Star Wars.

Anecdote, Peter? Surely, you jest. You could if you like listen the January 1962 Beatles audition for Decca Records on YouTube, with Pete Best on drums. Anecdote? Good one, Peter!

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, make that "anecdotes that match in striking detail your scrupulously researched and unimpeachably verified fact about the Beatles."

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I guess I can't fake and pretend to once have started reading "A Suitable Boy." The novel may not be in verse, but Wiki tells us that:

"At 1349 pages (1488 pages softcover) and 591,552 words, the book is one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume in the English language. A sequel, to be called A Suitable Girl, is due for publication in 2013."

The print must be pretty small.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, good company with my new acquisitions, you mean? I agree, though I was hit by a sinking feeling on the way home that I may already have a copy of the Barzun (From Dawn to Decadence). If so, some unsuspecting person may get a fine gift one of these days.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., no surprise that Rushdie would sound behind the times; the essay is at least ten years old. As an outsider, I could never understand why a publisher would go the the trouble of signing an author and publishing a book, and then not spend money promoting it. As for publishing today, "and possibly also agents" carries with it a hint of illegal restraint of trade, doesn't it?

Your conclusion jibes perfectly with Adrian's, a highly unfortunate state of affairs. Publishers' nervous conservatism is depriving readers of some good books.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I mentioned somewhere that Rushdie cites Danube, and I also recommended Fernand Braudel. Danube, it turns out, cited Braudel's conceptions of time in history. I'd call that a good recommendation for Braudel and for Magris.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I've loved both the other things I've read by Seth, which is the only reason I'd consider it.

Well, if Adrian's recommending it, it's probably good.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm abashed to admit that I bought Golden Gate based on an enthusiastic review in The New Republic when the novel first appeared, but that the verse was not compelling enough to take me far into the novel. Or maybe I was just too immature or impatient to let the verse excercise its spell.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I don't know if it is great verse, but it is ambitious, and actually a very moving story. And as it's my neck of the wood, or a little north, I really liked the observation of the natural world. He captured the landscape around Stanford.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, I do remember thinking that the verse had a sing-song quality to it. Maybe I'll pick it up again and browse.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I think I would skip it if the verse bothered you and read An Equal Music instead.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, A Suitable Boy sounds good and might be a good companion piece to Midnight's Children as well.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I think so.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Speaking of an Equal Music, two guys at a table at the Pen & Pencil Club were jabbering away about music last night, puntuating the conversation with bits of humming. As they left, I discovered that they were the principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and his associate.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Very nice. Better than some of the crowd you've mentioned at the Pen and Pencil.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, I like telling a good P&P story now and then. The club is near the halls where the ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra play, so the club gets a fair number of musicians. I may have mentioned the funny story about how I met one of them and received an amusing remider that musicians are people, too. If I have not mentioned the story, I will glasly do so if asked.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But yes, listening to the musicians jabbering, and then finding out who they were, go me thinking about the the dedication and intensity necessary to performing on that level. Of course, the musician in the as-yet untold story that I mentioned above generally presents a more relaxed demeanor, though this could be because I see him when he's not in the company of other musicians.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I may have heard it, but don't recall. Tell on.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I remember Mary Holmes talking about professional musicians once, and how they didn't hear the music in the way a lay person would hear it. It is all extremely technical for them. Which seems kind of sad in a way.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A musician/bartender friend said, "Peter, this is ----. He plays in the Philadelphia Orchestra."

I was thrilled, because I'd recently been listening to more classical music, and I said, "I'm pleased to meet you. I'd love to talk about Carl Nielsen some time."

He looked at me, took his cigar from his mouth, and said: "I'd rather talk about chicks."

"I'd like to talk about Nielsen's Third Symphony," say I.

"Nielsen's Third Symphony -- played by naked chicks," says he.

So the man is obviously prepared to accommodate an opposing point of view.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, to hear these guys humming, they sounded just like two regular schmoes saying, "You know, the song that goes like this," and then going into their da-dee-da-dee-da. And, to an outsider at least, exaltation and mathmetical precision can meet, at least in Bach's music.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

The unnamed musician sounds like a born entrepreneur, and possibly just what the shrinking classical music world needs.

Gotta think outside the box sometimes, I guess.

...The previous has been my more charitable observation of his character.

February 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"...The previous has been my more charitable observation of his character."

Of course it has. You thought he was a pig, as foul as the cigar smoke he belched. In fact, I've had conversations with him that were far more idealistic than that. And I don't think orchestra management lets him smoke his cigar while he plays.

February 04, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

No--I'm long past getting outraged about what men say to each other about women when they think they are alone. It's what they say when women are present that's revealing.

And cigars remind me of my dad, as he smoked them for awhile when I was very young.

February 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I've never heard this guy say anything like that or conduct himself like a jerk in a woman's presence.

He sometimes does hang out with the cigar guys, about whom I've written unflatteringly from time to time. But he seems like a decent sort nonetheless.

February 04, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

He seems to be what you might call adaptable to his social surroundings.

February 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, he can probably play Charles Ives and also Bach. I don't normally hang out with loudmouths, but his remark was so at odds with what one expects from somebody who makes his living bringing to life some of the highest products of the human spirit that I think the story is worth repeating even at the risk of offending some listeners. It was the remark's author and not its content, in other words, that made it memorable.

February 04, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

If there is anything I've learned from Joyce it's that the "high" and the "low" go inextricably together.

February 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Though I think it's mostly exponents of the high who say that.

February 04, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Maybe. It doesn't really matter what anybody says.

February 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

True. I don't think about the issue much. I take my aesthetic exaltation where I can get it.

February 05, 2012  

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