How Envy May Save LA's Book World in 2014

MAILANDER’S LA-Making a good book popular is mostly an act of faith; making a bad book popular is mostly an act of logrolling.  But when you're trying to keep score of what is driving what, within the logrolling subparticle but corporate universe that is the bookselling trade, it's hard to know.

I know, for instance, that one of Skylight Books most popular locally set novels of last year was Diana Wagman's "The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets."  Wagman is a nice woman I have known for a while whom I also know is entirely uninterested in my own work, as so many of us are uninterested in each other's work.  I only tell you that to assure you I'm not interested in rolling any logs with her.

One of the top lit events of the past year here in LA was when Wagman, a longtime LA Times Book Review fixture, confessed to an envy of the success of some others.

Wagman took to the Los Angeles Review of Books--the kind of antiqued, derivative, long-toothed, perpetually begging site I am not interested in at all, even as Wagman and so many at that site profess to be uninterested in me--to scribble a plaintive screed about two top commercial writers who recently padded their illustrious coffers by penning books on writing.

On first glance, Wagman's essay seemed not only too honest by half, but also even over-coded green with envy. 

In the essay, fetchingly titled "A Hotel Bel-Air Suite of One's Own," a half-review, presumably after Virginia Woolf, of Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett, Wagman admitted, "Envy, envy, envy. I’m not proud of it, but I admit it ... Look, I know I have a chip on my shoulder. I know my lack of book sales and writerly poverty has made me uncharitable to those more successful." 

She also acknowledged that "at the risk of jeopardizing my teaching career, I have never — until now — read an entire book about writing."

Now, don't you dare even think of drawing any relationship between Wagman admitting to not reading a single entire book about writing and her self-described envy of those with big book sales.  After all, "an artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional," as Scott Fitzgerald reminded us. 

I had also noted very early in 2013 Wagman's own book most recent book had been quietly knifed back alley style in the New York Times, which everyone seems to pay more attention to than they should, and also seems to know that they do.

Oh, it wasn't a broad daylight knifing.  No, the wound was administered in the usual Times style: from the blindside, in near perfect darkness, in a way that kept the blade hidden through the trauma.

"These men mean to mean well, but suffer from a credibly rendered lack of impulse control that finally results, often half-accidentally, in the violent death of women," a critic there wrote of some of the men in her latest book.

That kind of stuff may appeal to some, but it slips a dagger in a book for me, and I'm sure a large contingent of other men who imagine themselves to be at least occasionally elevated beyond lemur-level too. "Oh, no!" you're prompted to think after such a sentence.  “Man-hating woman who thinks men are here only to bumble their way into abusing women--fatally!"

As readers, men are not entirely important or unimportant, but they still do read.  They even help make or break the reputations of books, and reputations certainly fuel sales.

I don't think Wagman dismisses men as hopeless bumbling rotten killers to the degree the review suggested.  But that kind of line in a review just kills the book for almost all unknowing men.

Both Wagman and I write right here, in LA, and we can either roll a log or pretend we don't exist at all, or tell our scattered truths and let things get messy, as we do indeed know that we exist and are helpless to always ever after do so.  We can carry on our suspicious monologs about commercial mills that rarely become dialogs even if the New York commercial mills would rather  simply continue to fill orders for their seventy-year-old vision of LA noir; a genre I have long expected exists not because it describes LA but because it describes what New York editors would like to describe LA to the country as, to keep their own competitive lit edge. 

But Wagman's analysis and experience and personal reaction to it is indeed expressive of so much of the problem of the LA lit-scene.  Never mind the fact that the whole concept of there being a lit-scene at all may be a delusional drinking of an ultra-sweetened Kool-Aid, controlled from White Plains and target-marketed by Madison Avenue to one household in every thousand. Whether we're envious of it or pander to it or simply ignore it, the behind-the-scenes goal of the national lit market is too much and too ruthlessly ruled by corporate profitability. And profit increasing means profitable only for the top hit records, the corporate shareholder backers, and the occasional ancillary market.

As for me, writing and domestic economics are two domains I keep separate, like church and state. You really have to, to keep yourself free to write precisely what you want.  But not everyone in writing has the same expectations.  Many expect, as Cheever expected, that a writer should be able to make a living doing what she does.

Equally plaintive as Wagman's column was a recent moan from Rodger Jacobs, whom both Wagman and I know, about a perceived lack of notice for his 2013 book "The Furthest Palm."

Jacobs is the writer whose book "Invisible Ink" I wrote of in this space a year ago as The Most Exemplary LA Book of 2012.  But unlike Wagman's book, "The Furthest Palm," which is even a little better than "Invisible Ink," and certainly competes well with "The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets," received no notice from either our own usual suspects our their corporate mobster New York bosses, perhaps because it had a decidedly non-corporate publisher.

I wrote to Jacobs that "The Furthest Palm" did not fail; the only "problem" was in his expectations that it make him the kind of income he would like, and on his  own timetable too. It's a failure that's built into the commercial mill system of squishing all comers. And he, Wagman, me, &c. are among all comers.

Last I saw, the Los Angeles Review of Books was persistently begging for money. Their straits seemed to me far more dire than either Wagman's or Jacobs'.  They were looking for Internet clickety-clicks that might help them gaining a grant.  Then I think they went Kickstarter for something else.

And around town, the picture presented by the self-declared arbiters of taste isn't much prettier.

The Times own Book Review was living off its assets but cutting cutting cutting because the present occupants of the house don't seem to know how to make it profitable.

The LA Weekly tried to name some books as being better than others and got rewarded by being obliged to drop its page count in subsequent issues to the lowest bottom of the post-'93 Internet era.

These publications are the publishing equivalent of prodigal trust fund babies squandering the small fortunes their parents' made and not knowing how to make one on their own.

Whatever else can be said about LA's lit scene, I think the evidence is clear that whatever corporate media are doing, it is not succeeding.  It is not succeeding either for local writers, local readers--or even local corporate media themselves. 

If some scribes' self-declared envy of the way things are helps prompt a more meaningful embracing of such facts, envy may not turn out to be the sin we have it as after all.  I hope more folks put their heads together about this.


(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.





Vol 12 Issue 1

Pub: Jan 3, 2014