Monday, October 05, 2009

Barbarians at the Gate

Liz Hastlethwarte smiled genially when she appeared on the nationally televised morning program. She was an editor with a major publishing house, and was appearing on TV to promote the latest opus by the publisher's most popular name-brand author. The book was a vampire-themed romantic techno-thriller about symbols in famous works of art and international architecture. The novel was considered a "roller coaster ride," as well as "rollicking good fun." It had a first printing of 1.5 million copies.

"So, do you have any new up-and-coming writers we should watch for?" the bubbly morning show host inquired.

Liz looked at her, blank. "No."

As the car service delivered Liz back to the publishing house headquarters -- she enjoyed thinking of it as a "house" even though it was actually a ten-floor office suite in a ninety story fortress-like skyscraper -- she pondered the TV host's odd question near the end of the otherwise successful interview.

New . . . writers? The concept struck Liz as strange. The only writers she'd ever worked with had been publishing for as long as she'd been alive. The only authors the publisher handled were those whose names filled half a dozen slots on the bestseller lists of any given newspaper on any given week of the year. When Liz thought of those authors, the only words that came to mind were brilliant, eminent, erudite, and a couple who were feisty with a hint of devil-may-care about them. But new was not a word she associated with writers.

When she returned to the marble walled office, Liz took a few minutes to sit at her desk and re-acclimate herself to the rarefied air. When the slight buzz induced by "outside" air had passed, she decided to seek an answer to this strange question about "new writers."

She didn't dare ask any of her peers for fear that any sign of weakness would give them a competitive edge as they all clawed their way toward becoming senior editors, and thence on to VPs and other assorted executives in the company.

Liz started with the company's Web site. It took some searching, and ultimately she had to refer to the Site Map to find the link to "Submission Guidelines." When the page came up, she chuckled seeing that the guidelines essentially told vulgarian scribes not to bother submitting at all. Of course, the language was dressed-up to read "We do not consider or accept unsolicited manuscripts," but the message was clear.

"Of course we don't," Liz mumbled to herself. My gosh, can you imagine what would come in the mail if we did? she thought. The collected works of rest room wall graffiti perverts, lists of dirty jokes, filthy limericks, the ravings of lunatics. She bristled.

After exhausting the scant information on the company Web site, Liz went out of her office.

I'll bet people still submit manuscripts to us even though the Web site is crystal clear on the matter, she thought. Like people who don't come to a complete stop at a STOP sign, but just roll through.

She went down to the mail room.

The first thing she noticed about the area was the noise and the heat. There was the squeak of gears and pulleys and the bang of metal collapsing against metal. It was like a workhouse setting in a Dickens novel.

The immediate area Liz entered looked ordinary enough where gray-faced hourly-waged workers sorted letters. She approached one of the smaller, wan female sorters. "Have you ever handled a package that contained a manuscript?" she asked. The moment the words were out of her mouth, Liz regretted the question. This poor dimwit probably has no idea what a "manuscript" is.

But the girl pointed to a double-doorway that led toward the area from which the heat and noise emanated. Liz cautiously made her way over there.

The heat in the dimly lit area was sweltering. The heavy clanging noise came from a set of steel doors that slowly opened and banged closed like a giant mouth. Hordes of shirtless, sweaty men worked before the door with shovels, loading large manila envelopes in the giant mouth. Each time the doors slowly opened, massive flames came forth like ravenous, monstrous tongues.

A man wearing a shirt and holding a clipboard approached Liz. She was grateful. She couldn't take another moment in that hellish scene.

"Are you lost?" the man shouted over the noise.

"No," Liz shouted back. She was ready to retreat, but figured she may as well ask her question while she was here. "I'm looking for the area where manuscripts from new writers come in."

The man shook his head. "This is where we deal with unsolicited manuscripts. You should check with HR."

Liz was surprised she hadn't thought of that herself. She thanked the man and hurried back to the elevator, haunted by what she had witnessed.

The Human Resources department directed Liz to the fourth floor, to an area called Acquisitions.

She was met at the door by a person whose gender she could not determine. The person was bald, had no eyebrows or eyelashes, and wore a formless metallic smock. The person had large, intense eyes and spoke with a voice like Muzak.

"Welcome," the person said. "I am Radian. How may I help you?"

Liz stared at the person, vaguely wondering if he or she was even human. She quickly regained her wits. "I'm looking for the area that accepts manuscripts by new authors." Liz spoke like a child asking for confirmation that newborn babies were, actually, the result of sexual intercourse.

Radian smiled warmly. "Yes, this is the place."

"Really?" Liz said. "May I look around? Is there someone who can tell me how it works?"

"Certainly," Radian said. "I will answer your questions."

As they walked through this portion of the publishing house, Liz was struck by how dissimilar it was to the other offices. There were no corners, no right angles anywhere. The walls, floor and ceiling were white, and merged into one another with soft, rounded gradients. It was like moving through tunnels, rather than corridors.

"I know that we don't accept unsolicited manuscripts," Liz said. "Which only makes sense. But how do we find the authors we do publish?"

Radian led Liz through an archway that gave onto a large, pod-like room. There was a clear pool in the center of the room in which five beings who looked like just Radian lay. They appeared to be naked, but had no nipples or genitals. They lay motionless with their eyes closed. The only movement was their chests slowly rising and falling with breath. From their bald heads rose bouquets of wires that disappeared into holes in the flooring above them.

"Here we have the solici-psychics immersed in amniotic fluid," Radian said softly. "They transfer psychic impressions to the main data collecting server, which filters out impurities and compiles lists of authors we should approach about writing books for us."

"Where do they get their impressions?" Liz said. "They don't look like they've ever been outside."

Radian smiled its beneficent smile. "You don't have to go into the world to find books that will sell." Radian walked back into the hallway/tunnel.

Liz was taken to another large room where the floor was covered by an enormous map of the country. Once again, people who physically resembled Radian populated the room. They walked, slowly, back and forth across the map holding what looked like dowsers, or divining rods.

"You are correct," Radian said, though Liz had said nothing. "Those are divining rods."

Liz looked at Radian, flustered. "How did you know that's what I was thinking?"

Radian smiled.

"What are these people doing?" Liz asked.

"They divine areas of the country the soli-psychics should focus on for their impressions."

Radian led Liz to yet another room. As they walked, Liz thought that she could no longer be shocked by what went on in Radian's area. She was wrong. This time, she had no difficulty identifying the beings populating that room -- they were chimpanzees. Liz and Radian observed them through a window. Inside, the chimps stood to one side of the room and hurled darts at pages affixed to the opposite wall.

"What are they throwing darts at?" Liz said.

"Those are lists of recent graduates of MFA creative writing programs. The names and locations are cross-referenced with data cultivated by the dowers and solic-psychics. Once all of the data has been filtered and collated, we run lists of authors from whom we solicit manuscripts."

Liz looked at the busy chimps. Psychics . . . dowsers . . . and chimps . . . of course, she thought.

"Would it be possible for you to give me the name, or possibly the manuscript of a new author?" Liz asked.

"Of course," Radian said.

Liz returned to her office with the manuscript by a heretofore unpublished author. The novel was scheduled for publication with great fanfare next quarter. It was a vampire-themed romantic techno-thriller about symbols in famous works of art and international architecture . . . with a twist.

She couldn't wait to read it.

Before she did, however, Liz made arrangements to return to the nationally televised morning show to promote the book the day of its release.


Anonymous said...

This confirms my suspicions; the comments made in that interview reveal publishing to be a "profession," if it is even that, filled with people who would fail in any other industry. The major publishers are something like invention marketers who do not accept materials regarding new inventions. They instead expect to forever be saved by a few series "authors" like Dan Brown. This plays a part in the death of the public intellectual; there are almost none of any merit. What has taken their place can barely be said to involve thinking at all, just as the fiction published by the majors can hardly be called writing...including their "literary" lines. The best thing that could happen for writers would be that the next terrorist attack strike publishers row.

JD said...

One of the books my sister sent me in a care package is by a Pulitzer winning author. On the back, there are no excerpts or no synopsis telling me what the book is about, only blurbs from the media or other writers crowing about its greatness. So, it seems, publishers are relying on hype (and not merit) to sell books. In my experience, the more blurbs there are, the less substance there is to the book, as if they hope noise will drown out any reader dissent.

SusanD said...

Awesome, Matt!

ab said...

If any writers having difficulty getting published want to torture themselves, have a look here:

They should offer a prize for anyone who reaches the end of chapter one without a break