By Ray Sawhill
Pity the poor publishing professional. She — and these days, three out of four publishing pros on the editorial side are women — was lured into the field by her love of books. Yet she spends her work hours as caught up in commerce and bureaucratic politics as any office drone. She hoped to have regular encounters with art, thought and glamour. Yet what she runs into more frequently is the fact that she’s earning far less than friends who went into squarer fields. She expected to continue her life as an eager reader. Yet she spends her reading time wading through manuscripts, review copies and buzzed-about but lousy new books. “You hate your work, you wonder why you’re doing it, you think you should quit,” an editor said to me recently. “And it really does cut into your reading enjoyment.”
Perhaps as a consequence, there’s little that makes people in publishing as wistful as talking about what they’d like to be reading. They sit back, they smile a little and their eyes search the ceiling — this is a question they still really care about. What answers do they come up with? Suspecting that there might be something to be learned here, and with as few preconceptions as I could manage, I asked a dozen publishing people how their reading habits would change if they never had to read out of obligation again.
One journalist who covers publishing said happily, and with no hesitation, that she would “read Colette in French — but first I’d need to learn French, which I’d also love.” An editor of science books said that what he’d most like to do is “line a wall with photography books,” while a fiction editor confessed that he’s happiest reading books about science. One marketing person said that she’d love to finish “Paradise Lost,” which she struggled only partway through while in college. “Now that I know something about defeat and frustration, I keep thinking about how Satan got cast out of Heaven,” she said. “In college I couldn’t relate. Now I can.”
But some patterns did emerge. Many of my respondents would, with relief, simply give up reading most new books and head straight back to the classics. It was chilling to learning what some people in publishing haven’t read: “The Odyssey,” Dickens, Tolstoy, Gogol, “The Aeneid.”
It was when I asked my interviewees to specify what they’d be happiest not reading that the surprises began. (The wittiest answers: Publishers Weekly and the New York Times Book Review.) John Grisham, perhaps predictably, topped the list. But after him came writers from among today’s most respected literary figures. Salman Rushdie (“boring and pretentious”) and Toni Morrison shared top honors. Don DeLillo (“he’s homework”), Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Tom Wolfe and Martin Amis trailed close behind. (To be fair, each of these writers also had a fan or two.) In fact, of the dozen publishing people I polled, only three would still be devotees of what passes today for literary writing if it weren’t part of their jobs.
The list of living writers my subjects would willingly continue to read was much more varied. The winners among literary figures, with three votes each, were Alice Munro (“the best writer of short fiction alive”) and Janet Malcolm (“the best journalist of my lifetime”). But named just as often were a handful of genre writers: Elmore Leonard, Tony Hillerman, Donald Westlake, Susan Isaacs and Carl Hiaasen. William Trevor, David Foster Wallace, Anne Tyler, J.G. Ballard, the sci-fi writer Connie Willis and the humorous novelists Peter Lefcourt and Charles Portis were each cited approvingly as often as Thomas Pynchon was (i.e., once). For those of you on the lookout for tips, here are some fairly recent books that my respondents also enjoyed: Daniel Menaker’s novel “The Treatment,” Florence Rubenfeld’s “Clement Greenberg: A Life,” Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works” and Patti LaBelle’s autobiography. “She put all her dirty laundry out on the street,” my interviewee giggled.
It’s enough to remind you of the (true) story of the architect who, as a professional, designs thorny modern buildings, but prefers to live with his family in a rambling old country house. And it brings up a question: How can we account for the widespread illusion many of us have of an ongoing literary world? In architecture, it’s an open secret that the buildings that are sold to us as “architecture” (as opposed to mere “building”) aren’t the ones that people find comfortable, delightful, pleasant or well-built. Instead, they’re the buildings that photograph well and that give critics and journalists plenty to write about. With books, could it be that many of the writers who win the most enthusiastic coverage aren’t the ones whose books are enjoyed most by knowledgeable, educated readers, but are instead the ones who, whether consciously or not, write to get literary notice and win literary prizes?
What would our reading lives be like if they weren’t preoccupied with, or nagged at by, the dream of literature? My poll suggests that in such a world the reader who finds Toni Morrison a hectoring drag and Salman Rushdie a radical-chic blowhard wouldn’t hesitate to say so. We would give serious thought to the argument that, for example, Elmore Leonard is more likely to be read 50 years from now than Martin Amis. Preferring Rikki Ducornet and Dennis Cooper would be fine, too. In any case, it turns out that, even if your reading stash looks like a disorderly heap of magazines, mysteries, celebrity bios, a classic or two, fiction by a couple of literary figures you’ve grown attached to and books about your personal interests — whether it’s birdbaths or the nature of consciousness — there’s no reason to feel shame or guilt. Nobody can read everything. And, besides, you’re already reading like the pros wish they could, if only they had the chance.
- Buy Patti LaBelle’s autobiography.
- I’ve loved a lot of books by Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake. Why not start with this Elmore and this Westlake?
© 1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.