Write What You Know


Books about writers and editors, like movies about filmmakers, have a built-in mystique that masks a multitude of sins—or so their authors hope. In reality, few scribes have the chops to imbue such material with universal significance, let alone broad appeal, and instead resort to duplicating the drudgery of writing or the circumscribed self-importance of publishing with numbing verisimilitude.

No shortage of these typically misbegotten tomes is imminent, though, if only because it’s such an interesting time to be writing about writing—or writing about writing for publication, anyway. Thus several recent entries in the books-on-books genre approach, with varying degrees of insight, similar prickly questions about the present state of lit, such as: Is there anything important left to write, or anyone perceptive enough to write it? And does anyone really care anymore, least of all the gluttonous media cartels increasingly footing the bills?

The latter question is addressed in The Last Days of Publishing, Tom Engelhardt’s wistful requiem for old-style publishing that’s savvy enough to avoid a definitive answer. Engelhardt, a onetime editor at Pantheon who resigned when S.I. Newhouse took over, finds little to praise in his erstwhile vocation. This presumably semi-autobiographical novel of personal and professional apocalypse begins on the day that editor Rick Koppes leaves his job at tiny Byzantium Press, which, in the latest of the imprint’s demoralizing buyouts, has been absorbed by German megacorporation Multimedia Entertainment. Koppes clashes with one of the conglomerate’s soulless “copyright oligarchs,” which leads to his career-killing decision.

Last Days maintains a detached, bemused tone throughout, ultimately making the loss at its center all the more bitter. Engelhardt’s unflashy observational style and rueful lit-geek koans (“To be a good editor has . . . nothing more to do with being a good person than saying ‘Polly wants a cracker’ does with being a good parrot”) are a treat for bookish types, and his Armageddon fixation is sure to strike a chord with middle-aged readers. For those young enough to wonder if Engelhardt is being too dire in his assessment, there is a note of hope. As Byzantium’s aging, white, onetime superstars struggle with writer’s block and waning ambition, Koppes meets a driven young African American man whose unflinching memoir he finds worth publishing. That Koppes takes the project on as a floundering freelancer, stripped of Byzantium’s cachet and Multimedia’s clout, makes the document both more precious and more precarious.

If only all editors were so lucky. Thanks, one assumes, to the topsy-turviness Engelhardt essays and the ensuing lowering of expectations, having little or nothing to say appears to be as good a reason to snag a book contract as any. Mark Sundeen’s The Making of Toro, Will Rhode’s Paperback Original (which Riverhead has temporarily ceased to distribute due to a mysterious legal infraction), and Michael J. Nelson’s Mike Nelson’s Death Rat! all take the schism between literary impulse and literary ability as their subject, if not their raison d’être, and the results are middling. So much for there being anything important left to write.

Sundeen is the keenest of the trio. His fictional account of a trek to Mexico to write about bullfighting, where he adopts the nom de hack Travis LeFrance, blows through a publisher’s advance, and requires parental rescue, at least has the virtue of irony. Toro pivots on Sundeen’s dawning awareness that the Hemingwayesque life of fuckin’, fightin’, ‘n’ writin’ that he envisions is a hollow, predigested fantasy, and his self-deprecation on this matter is disarmingly funny (and occasionally a downer). If his conclusion that “write what you know” isn’t necessarily a useless cliché seems trite, it does reveal a nascent maturity applicable to future literary forays.

Mike Nelson’s Death Rat!, a processed cheese product with no higher ambition than to poke fun at all things Minnesotan, eschews all forms of maturity. Nelson, best known as Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s human host and head writer, makes his fiction debut with this story of a neglected history writer who convinces a gormless he-man to pose as the author of his rodent-themed bid for bestsellerdom. Nelson’s gift is his ability to care about material that he doesn’t take seriously. Or is it vice versa? Either way, Rat! is a benignly smirky read that excels in potshots at thinly veiled North Star State cultural luminaries (including a demented, megalocephalic Garrison Keillor) and very little else.

A fresh batch of similar volumes has arrived—Martha Grimes’s Foul Matter, The Storyteller by Howard and Susan Kaminsky (writing as “Arthur Reid”), and Love Me, by the real, normal-pated Garrison Keillor—and it’s worth wondering where it will all end. Can we soon expect someone to write a book about someone writing a book about someone writing a book? More important, will anyone want to read it?

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