Thursday, August 04, 2016

Books 56 and 57: It's not what you write, it's who you know.

There's little in common between the subjects of The Nest and The Racketeer.

The Nest is the story of four overprivileged-ish kids who were awaiting an inheritance when the youngest turned 40; each in his own way had more or less built a life around waiting for the money, but when the eldest, Leo, gets into a car accident and has to pay off the young waitress who lost her foot as a result (he was fooling around with her and drunk), "the nest," which is the kids' shorthand term for their "nest egg" is used (mostly) to pay off the waitress.

The book jumps from kid to kid and barely touches on each enough to give a real glimpse into their life: Melody, the youngest, has two daughters and lives in an overpriced suburb and wants to pay their tuition to private colleges. Jack has mortgaged his and his husband's vacation home to make ends meet at his antique shop and they're going to lose the house if he can't pay off her loan. Bea, the writer, doesn't really need the money at all.  It's pretty low-stakes stuff, and ultimately the loss of the money doesn't really have much of a negative effect on any of the kids, or the friend of Leo's who [SPOILER ALERT] becomes pregnant with Leo's baby.  What tension there is is built around whether Leo will pay them back using some money he squirreled away, but even that is never really in doubt. [SPOILER ALERT: he doesn't.]

There's more tension and heart in any short story by John Cheever than there is in this entire novel, and even though there was some good stuff here to work with -- the side story of a fireman who stole a statue from the 9/11 ruins, based on a real incident, is good but similarly works out with a sort of they all lived happily ever after feel -- it never amounts to very much. It's pleasant, ultimately meaningless stuff.

Grisham's book, which was a spacefiller for me -- I couldn't find an audiobook I liked and finally just picked out this one from Grisham -- is similarly unimpactful. It's the story of a wrongfully-convicted lawyer (he was caught up in a money-laundering scheme) who hatches a plan to get himself and a friend out of prison. The plan is built around the mysterious murder of a federal judge, and for a story that has murder, intrigue, high-stakes lawsuits, FBI agents, witness protection, drug gangs, yachts, etc., the story is remarkably dull and slow. It feels half like a treatise on federal regulations, and half like a how-to for scheming, as though and IKEA instruction manual got translated into a thriller. I never really cared much about any of the characters, found myself poking the occasional hole in the plot or skeptical about motivations (the lawyer's sadness over his son, who he lost contact with during the five years in prison, comes and goes as needed to add 'emotional depth' *air quotes*), and when the final plot twists take place they feel almost completely unconnected to what has come before.  It took 44 chapters to get through this book, but it felt like 440.

Neither book was awful. I didn't hate read them or give up on them. They just... weren't good. It was hard to see why they were published, at all, unless you really think about why things get published.

All businesses exist to make money. That's a given. Whenever someone writes off something as "oh they're just in it for the money" that person demonstrates how naive they are. I do what I do -- help people save their homes and avoid harassment by debt collectors -- to make money. Everyone does what they do to make money, publishers included.

That said, there's ways to make money and there's ways to make money. My line of work is rare; there are only a handful of lawyers in Wisconsin who do more or less what I do, and most of them don't do it on my scale. I face an uphill battle in many of my cases and most of my clients have trouble paying me.

I could do what many lawyers do, and sell people what they want. That is: I sell people foreclosure litigation, which is something many people don't know exists and if they do they think they can't afford it. I could, instead, sell them the kind of law many lawyers practice: personal injury law, or divorce law, or something. There's a ready-made market for those.  Legal services are a product like any other, but I choose to try to find a market for the kind of services I want to provide.

Publishers have two options, too. They could try to find a market for new, interesting, exciting, intriguing books. Some publishers do this: McSweeney's is one that makes some amazing books and tries creative things, but they don't make a lot of money at it, and don't employ a lot of people.

Major publishers have to make major money. So they can't take a lot of risks, any more than most movie studios or networks can. Places like Netflix and HBO can take chances on TV series because people pay them to exist, through subscriptions. Netflix doesn't have to sell advertisers on its stuff; it has to sell you.  NBC has to convince advertisers to pay it to run a TV show, so the TV show can't be very small.

At a certain point, businesses become too big to take a major risk; a big risk could result in destroying the business. So they stop experimenting, or if they do experiment, it is done in the safest possible way.

Which brings us back to why The Nest and The Racketeer got published. It's obvious in Grisham's case: Grisham, like Star Wars and Stephen King and The Avengers and McDonald's, is a brand: you know what to expect from him, and while he's ventured into other territory (as J.K. Rowling, another brand has done) he still churns out The Racketeer. (I commented to Sweetie that the book felt like he'd done a choose one from column A, one from column B thing: "Let's see, wrongly accused, corrupt judge, drug dealer, and oh, sure, why not a uranium mine lawsuit?") The Racketeer felt, reading, like how a McDonald's cheeseburger tastes if you wait to get home and eat it when it's cold: still recognizable, not really what you came for.

But it still sells. The Racketeer was the 8th-best-selling book in 2012. Eighth. It debuted at number one and has already been optioned for a movie. It did its job, and was well-regarded by some critics, who apparently like stale burgers, I guess.

The Nest is a bit harder puzzle to crack, but the introduction gives a good clue. The author thanks a variety of people for helping get this book off the ground. Those people include, as recognizable names, Amy Poehler and John Hodgman. Lesser-knowns I had to look up include Kate Flannery (Meredith from The Office), Belinda Cape (a New York bigshot), Paul Yoon (a well-regarded author with two books already published), and Jill Soloway (a director of, among other things, Six Feet Under.)

In other words, the author of The Nest appears to be pretty hooked into the entertainment world if all those people (there's more than I listed) helped her with the book.  The Nest was reviewed all over the place, including by big publications, like The Atlantic. The author, Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, got a million dollar advance on it, for her first novel.  In the article where I read that, I learned that her husband is Conan O'Brien's head writer.

Simply being all hooked into the New York entertainment industrial complex wouldn't guarantee a book getting published, but it can't hurt, right? And it explans why such a meh of a book got such a great critical reception. Oh, and it's being made into a movie... with Jill Soloway producing it, big surprise.

Basically, the book was guaranteed to be a big hit. It had a huge industry backing behind it and was almost certain to get reviewed by all the right publications, and after the publicity of paying her a million bucks upfront, and the ad push to make sure everyone heard about The Nest it was almost certain to make the money back, because once you buy a book you can't go back to the publisher and say excuse me I don't see what all the fuss is about can I have my $29.99 back? 

Neither book hurts the world by existing, except for the fact that they kept two other books from being published, or at least noticed, by their own existence, and except for the fact that they lower expectations of what a good book is.  Publishers have to make money, sure, but if they're going to keep churning out the same stuff day after day, at least make it better. Some movie studios have gotten the point: those Marvel movies are generally pretty good, and some obvious care went into things like them and The Force Awakens. Publishers should stop bemoaning the loss of profits they think was caused by Amazon, and start paying attention to the fact that a lot of what they put out simply isn't worth the effort.

Not everyone has to make quirky weird books about squid or whatever. Fast food has its place, and thrillers by John Grisham do, too. But even fast food places have to try to produce something people want;  publishers seem to have moved away from trying to do that, as evidenced by these books.

It reminds me of Jerry and George's pitch to the networks for their TV show on Seinfeld.

"Why will people watch it?" the network head asks.

"Because it's on TV," George says.

People will read these books, because they are books. But they shouldn't: the books shouldn't be, and people shouldn't read them.


Liz A. said...

I heard of The Nest. It was reviewed somewhere. Yes, it is who you know. Unless we can find another way in...

Andrew Leon said...

Most people can't read things that will challenge them. On any level. Not because they don't want to or because they won't; they actually can't read it. It doesn't make any sense to them.

I have an anecdote about that, but I don't have the time to write it out, right now.