Harry Potter and me

Posted on

Harry Potter and me
By Tom Engelhardt

8.5 million. Absorb that figure for a minute, or if it overwhelms you, try the more modest 5 million, the number of Harry Potters sold the first day of publication, not the total first printing. That single-day 5 million is nearly twice the sale of last year’s leading bestseller, John Grisham’s The Summons, for its full hardcover life in the stores. That qualifies Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, volume five of J. K. Rowling’s prospective septology as a phenomenon — when it comes to books, in fact, fantastically, stratospherically beyond a phenomenon. Still, there’s something in this event we can all recognize, something that (for all the paeans to children brought back to the book) has next to nothing to do with reading.

Just for the sake of honesty, let me make an admission here. I haven’t read any of the Potters. I would have, mind you, if they had come out years earlier when my kids were young. Then I read all sorts of novels to them — books I loved like Danny, Champion of the World or Watership Down, and books I gritted my teeth through like The Hobbit. (Sorry all you Tolkien fans, but I prefer my aliens with tentacles and on other planets, not under my feet.) On the Potters, though, I guess I’ve just passed beyond.

Still, however good Rowling’s books may be, I don’t need to read them to know this: it doesn’t matter where the phenomenon comes from. It could be a toy, an animated cartoon, a movie, a sports star, a sports car, a video game character, you name it. But whatever it is, it bursts the bounds of its category and rises into the transnational entertainment heavens. There, in the First World of entertainment, it’s eaten alive, digested, and spit out transmuted, via a web of companies and a whoosh of synergy, into every other form imaginable. If it isn’t a movie, it becomes one. If it isn’t a toy, it becomes one. If it isn’t a book, it becomes one. If it isn’t pajamas or sheets, or a puzzle, or a video game, or a mug, or a T-shirt, it becomes them all and probably part of a happy meal and a behind-the-scenes promo video and a series of ads for whatever, and a staggering publicity/media blitz, and, and, and … The list never ends. Harry Potter has risen, as no book has quite done before, into these heavens and there, whatever Rowling may once have intended, it’s become (as someone on NPR said recently), the Harry Potter Franchise, a global Brand. Harry is now the Michael Jordan of the world of fantasy, only he leaps higher. Like the famed cheese of children’s rhyme, he stands alone today atop the First World of publishing.

In the almost thirty years I’ve been a book editor, I’ve watched the triaging of my world as small, independent publishing houses and then larger ones were engulfed one after another by giant entertainment conglomerates trying ever more desperately to scale those global heavens product in hand. The book is such a modest object (even if its goals — to take you into another universe — are immodest indeed), and because the effort that goes into breaking the code of any good book, of turning those squiggles of ink into worlds of being, is so intense, the book sits uncomfortably in today’s entertainment package, where the codes are generally already broken for you. Because, Harry Porter and his ilk aside, publishing is not really a mass medium, publishing houses now exist more or less in the sub-basement of the entertainment conglomerate. They are mostly relegated to the Third World of our noisy culture and in the chain book palaces — those “destinations” — which now pass for bookstores, most books turn into wall paper. They fill the shelves and then, after a brief period, they disappear.

I’ve existed at the edges of this world for decades watching as the gap between the anointed books and the rest of them widened (think of the U.S. versus Argentina or maybe Malawi) and as all authors were increasingly forced to perform their works in translation (so to speak) just to get people to attend to them. For years I’ve been in attendance at the feast, watching the corporate cannibals eat their fill. And now I’ve turned it all (plus a good deal else) into a small novel, The Last Days of Publishing.

When did I first sense that my modest world of publishing was actually being transformed? I do remember an odd moment, actually. A small, easily forgettable moment. It was probably in the very early 1980s after the first wave of chain bookstores, the Daltons and Waldens, had flooded into the malls of America. I was in a large bookstore somewhere in California when I noticed one of those little displays of books just then sprouting at the fronts of stores that said something like, “Our staff picks.” You know, “Mary” recommended Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge and “Joshua” urged Eugene Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery on you, and so on. I had seen them before and they had always seemed like a pleasant development to me, but at that moment I was taken aback. I suddenly realized that in good bookstores, all books displayed were the owner’s and staff’s “picks.” The very decision about what went in the window or face out up front reflected a bookstore’s vision of what was curious and worth noting in the world of books.. So, I wondered to myself, if these were the “staff picks,” what was the rest of the store all about? I sensed for the first time that, somewhere behind those little displays, something was changing. A couple of decades later, when you walk into one of our chain book palaces what you see is not even the shift from individual taste to corporate taste, but from individual taste to advertising because so much of the face-out space has been sold to the highest bidder.

My book, published by a small university press, represents the world of the lowest bidder, the non-bidder actually (and that, like a do-it-yourself weblog, has its own beauty, I assure you). Make the comparison and it’s simple: Harry Potter, 8.5 million; my book, The Last Days of Publishing, (with a small early reprint) has now reached 4,000 in print. There are all sorts of wonderful university presses like my publisher, the University of Massachusetts Press, and small presses like Nation Books (which I consult for), but place their sales against the big six or seven publishing outfits, or just place them against Harry, and you’re comparing an anthill to Everest.

With books like mine, we descend into a world far closer to the one in which publishing began in Europe centuries ago when print runs were commonly around 1,000. Books were then sold by peddlers. At 58, after almost three decades as an editor in mainstream publishing, I’ve written my first novel about it. Here’s the amazing thing, communities disappear but they can also be recreated. Old ways go, but they reappear in new guises. Think of me here, then, as an internet peddler, selling my own book by electronic “hand.”

So here’s the scoop from the Shameless Plug Department. By now, even if this tomgram has been delivered to your email box, you’ve had to click to my weblog. If you look to the right of the screen and scroll around a bit, you’ll find an image of the cover of my book — probably the only “edited” cover in history (designed by the fabulous Louise Fili). Just below it, you have various options. You can click on “author interview,” and read an “interview” I wrote with myself (and had great fun doing) where you’ll learn a little more about my publishing background, experiences, and thoughts. Soon you’ll also be able to click on “reviews and blurbs,” but since that’s not yet operative, I’ve included below novelist Herb Gold’s recent review of the book in the Los Angeles Times and one other review as well in case you’re interested. Or you can click on “first pages of the novel” and check out for yourself my invocation of the lost city of Pompeii and a scribe (think of him as an editor) who was buried under not-yet-transnational pumice and ash that fiery August day nineteen centuries ago — then, if the mood strikes you and you’d like to experience a different aspect of my writing or maybe simply amuse yourself on a summer’s night, you can click on “buy” and go to Amazon to purchase my novel on line, or of course you can wander into your neighborhood independent bookstore and order a copy.

A final note: Anyone out there who reads this and produces T-shirts or coffee mugs or thinks there might be a market for Last Days of Publishing paraphernalia of any sort, don’t hesitate to contact me. And, of course, video game rights remain available. I imagine quite a violent game actually, involving literary agents who cut you dead, media moguls who take you down, publishing directors who remainder your book, the odd novelistic terrorist, and maybe an editor who looks just a tad like either Donkey Kong or Laura Croft. Tom

The book business as fiction
The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel, Tom Engelhardt, University of Massachusetts Press: 216 pp., $24.95
By Herbert Gold
The Los Angeles Times Book Review
June 8, 2003

Tom Engelhardt’s “The Last Days of Publishing” can’t possibly be libelous. Granted, it’s a satisfyingly virulent, comical, absurd, deeply grieving true portrait of how things work today in the sleek factories of conglomerate book producers, but hey, it’s not libelous, it’s just a story. Still, some readers may find it curious that this skillful novel of manners — of very bad manners — is published by a university press, not one of the major New York houses for whom the author labored as an editor. Probably just a coincidence.

I can recall when publishers were bigots and egomaniacs, like film producers in tweeds. And those were the good guys. In those days, the Scribe was still a treasured commodity, to be treated with honor, even if it was purely business. Engelhardt begins his story remembering the sacred calling of the stylus wielder in ancient times, recalling an iconic statue in Pompeii. Rumor has it, of course, that many writers now use computers, not the stylus, having run out of clay to be dug out of their backyards; personally, I no longer inscribe my hard copy commandments on papyrus. Nowadays, the Scribe is asked to be a camera-ready performer and the publisher is often an MBA representing owners in Alphaville.

Rick Koppes, the protagonist of this novel, “still felt ready to be used by anyone whose words mattered to me, just not by what had come to pass for an editor’s life.” His ex-wife has come to be his boss and she has written a book of stories that she wants him to edit, informing him triumphantly, “I hate to disappoint you, but you’re not in it.” Oh, sadness, not even to be worthy of mention in an ex-wife’s thinly veiled autobiography.

Koppes has a host of troubles. Another superior is a smart and smarmy ex-hippie-radical “transnational” mogul; Engelhardt captures the smartness, the smarminess, the mogulness. He knows how it feels to be at the top of the skyscraper, submitting to a mogul’s “fatherly squeeze.” He also remembers that better world, pre-Vesuvius, before publishers’ catalogs announced “next season’s offerings, signed up long ago by editors laid off by a management no longer in place for a house that, in all but name, may no longer exist.”

Coming into midlife out of the druggy communard ’60s, he is nostalgic for the camaraderie of Vietnam War protests. There is a painful scene in which a colleague goes berserk on the proprietor of a Vietnamese restaurant — old chickens or, in this case, Peking ducks coming to roost. An old lover asks the sophomoric question, “And you, Rick, are you happy?” — youthful questing makes a middle-aged guy squirm. The bass beat of ’60s nostalgia throbs beneath a seething satire of how it’s all turned out in the word trade. Once, the sap ran fresh in a young person’s veins; now, the saps run things. Once, Koppes remembers, “midlist books” would merely have been called “books.” Now, for the conglomerateurs, they’re just a drag on the bottom line.

Contracts, agents, bidding wars, ego and sexual duels, royalty accounts, advances, has-beens and buzzing would-bees — Litbiz still shocks new writers from the hinterlands (personally, I still consider myself a new writer from the hinterland). But there’s another breed that likes to pitch “my faction novel” or “my very personal memoir.” Through my telescope from the hinterland, I can almost recognize some of the real people who come in for a few tickles and stabs in Engelhardt’s telling.

Alcohol and frustration fuel the occasional fistfight in these angelic spheres. A veteran editor is fired by the “personnel communications manager” and then led to her desk — she’s to be out of there in 45 minutes — by a guard called a “communications retainer.” Graciously, he allows her to go alone into the ladies room to dry her tears. Compassion lives.

Another episode depicts a dinosaur expert pitching a book to Koppes with a lecture on dinosaur sex with humans, including an evocation of dinosaur breath (bad) and dental problems (fluoride toothpaste still only a Pepsodent dream). The term “high concept” reminds us that the movie biz is near and dear to publishing. Engelhardt also shows us a writer rashly submitting a manuscript without an agent, which has become as odd a notion as a knight entering “the field of battle on foot and without armor or a sword.”

Grieving, he clings to his faith in “the book as a thoroughly modest object meant to break you into immodest spaces.” The tone of amused, wistful Manhattan romance, like that of an F. Scott Fitzgerald brought up to contemporary speed, enriches moments like this evocation of Koppes’ former wife: “An aura clung to her, a faintly misty, spiritual look I now associate with missing contact lenses.” And a harder edge, as when a bookstore clerk suggests that a book about the atom bomb and Hiroshima might be found in the travel section. Or when a publishing executive avoids the word “history” in favor of “back story.” Hello, Century City script conference.

Though this novel can be read as an anatomy of the publishing business, year 2003, and a lament for better times — somewhat better times — the characters depicted are not mere stick figures or roman à clef gossips. The scenes are vividly set, and this writer, made of stern stuff, was laughing through his tears. Engelhardt manages to tell us that the love of literature persists even in these frantic times.

It’s essential to good reading to recognize that novels are true lies — truer and more philosophical than history, as Aristotle said about poetry. The episodes in Engelhardt’s account emit a sense of autobiographical anguish, seasoned with an ironic notch at one corner of his mouth.

Herbert Gold is the author of many novels, including “Fathers,” “The Man Who Was Not With It” and, most recently, “Daughter Mine.”

A starred Kirkus Review of The Last Days of Publishing:

An ex-editor laments the death of the book–by writing a wonderfully observant novel about an editor whose career and way of life are both coming to an end.

Having been a senior editor at Pantheon for 15 years, unsurprisingly, has given Engelhardt an easy command of the tone and texture of the publishing world, but the graceful abilities he also demonstrates in bringing character, place, and mood achingly to life must be the gifts of the man alone. Engelhardt’s narrator, Rick Koppes, has also been a New York editor for many years, at Byzantium Press–which has just been “swallowed up” by a huge media giant, the Desmond & Dickinson Publishing Group. For Koppes–aged 56, cultivated, sensitive, thoughtful–this beginning of the end of life as he’s known it contains also an unusual personal element; namely, that his own ex-wife of 20 years, Connie Burian, is one of the new firm’s top people and sees the future of the book in far, far different ways than does Rick. Only at story’s end will the true sorrow of Rick’s life–and his love–be revealed fully, but along the way there will be forbodings galore, some so simple as lunch with another editor, a decades-old friend who’s been “remaindered”; a call from a hustler agent that, wonderfully, brings about a trip to the American Natural History museum and an unflinching consideration, among other things, of extinction; and, in the tiny hours after one odyssey-like day, a visit to the shabby West Side walkup of the conscience-ravaged daughter of one of the airmen who bombed Nagasaki–and who wants Rick to publish her “book.” Conscience, indeed, may also be Rick’s most notable trait, helping determine what he sees and what he “thinks” about what he sees–from the look of the new Times Square to the loathsomely smug boy-emperor and boss of Desmond & Dickinson.

A brilliantly realized ‘cri de coeur,’ pulsing throughout with life, sorrow, and thought.”