Friday, December 2, 2011

Interview With Author Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt is the author of Lightning Rods, a controversial but hilarious novel that offers a creative solution for companies to avoid costly sexual harassment situations.  Her story proposes that companies  subscribe to an escort/prostitution service to service the needs of its employees as a preventative measure. Her book is published by New Directions. Here is what one  reviewer said:

“In the long-awaited follow-up to Ms. DeWitt’s debut, The Last Samurai, a fickle vacuum cleaner salesman (who isn’t very good at selling vacuum cleaners) finally decides he’s struck gold with his new business venture: a monetized glory hole installed in every office, where a pool of “lightning rods” has anonymous sex with sexually frustrated employees. Ms. DeWitt’s deadpanned humor makes this slim book into a complex story that works as both surrealist metaphor and corporate parody.” (Michael H. Miller - New York Observer )

After seeing her book reviewed by the NYT I interviewed her. Please see below:

1.                  Are you surprised at the attention your new novel, Lightning  Rods, is getting, including a review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review?  I really had no idea what to expect.  My first novel, The Last Samurai, was very well received - it was reviewed by A S Byatt for the New Yorker, Daniel Mendelssohn for the NYRB, Janet Maslin and Myra Goldberg for the NY Times, Sven Birkerts for the Boston Globe; Betsy Gleick covered it for Time's issue on innovators in storytelling for the new millennium.  (Jonathan Burnham, my former editor, is a wheedler extraordinaire; A S Byatt should really not have had to suffer for my art to the point of undergoing torture by New Yorker.)  But it was certainly not a publishing phenomenon like The Corrections, The Virgin Suicides, White Teeth, Everything is Illuminated . . . if it had been, Lightning Rods would have been snapped up years ago. 

As it was, agents and editors were very leery of the book, which is certainly quite different from Samurai. My UK editor HATED it. Lois Wallace, DeLillo's agent, told me I might want to publish under another name. Jonathan passed on it twice before changing his mind and making an offer in 2001; I wasn't really sure he got the book, so hired an agent who said she would introduce me to new editors -- and promptly made a beeline for the negotiating table. (Which did not suggest much confidence that it would find love elsewhere.)  I finally closed a deal with Jonathan for two books in 2003: a poker book would be published first (he guaranteed collaboration with designer), LR second. The designer failed to materialize, I called off that half of the deal, Jonathan decided he did not want to publish LR after all.  (The book was stranded with Miramax for years before the rights reverted.) Bill Clegg offered to represent me in 2009 and sent the book out; 17 editors rejected it as too controversial to publish.

Long story short, the consensus of the industry seemed to be that it was a very dodgy proposition. So it's a bit startling to have so many acute reviews and interviews, for the most part extremely enthusiastic; to have Rolling Stone select it as a Hot Book, and so on.  And the only reason it got into print is that I happened to meet Jeffrey Yang of New Directions on a trip to New York last year, he said he'd like to see the book and loved it.

ND, admittedly, has a secret weapon - Tom Roberge is a publicist of genius - and everyone has been very energetic in getting people excited about the book. They don't normally publish new American fiction, so when they decided to make an exception I think people paid attention.  And I've had enormous support from the blogosphere - there's a cameraderie among those of us who (ahem) fritter away our time on blogs, and an amazing number of people have been generous in making that freak of nature, a DeWitt interview, fit for public consumption.  But it's still strange to have this kind of reception given the obstacles to publication.
2.                  The book spurs a unique discussion about sexual harassment. It seems timely, given the news is filled with stories regarding inappropriate sexual contact.  What is your book’s solution to this issue? Well, Lightning Rods offers an extremely elegant, tasteful solution to this perennial problem.  A solution which would, no doubt, have spared many public figures a great deal of embarrassment.  A luckless salesman has various sexual fantasies that involve penetration of a woman from behind while her upper body is on the other side of a wall.  Could this, he asks himself, be the solution to the specter of sexual harassment in the modern office?  Suppose bi-functional personnel were recruited to fulfill normal office duties and provide sexual release to results-orientated individuals with a testosterone imbalance!  Via an installation moving through a panel in the wall between the disabled toilets in the Men's and Ladies'! Such that anonymity was preserved!  Sales is a numbers game; 999 out of 1000 potential clients turn him down flat, 1 agree to give it a try, and the rest is alternative history.3.         Though the topic is of a sexual nature, why did you choose not to include graphic or descriptive sex scenes in your book?  I don't know that this was a choice, exactly.  I was depressed when my first book failed to find a publisher after 18 months of ineffectual representation; was sitting in my room, depressed, when this luckless salesman with his fetish for walls came into my head.  He started having a fantasy about a game show in which contestants were penetrated from behind, while pretending to the panel that nothing was happening; on one show the studs were three college guys called Jeff, Shane, and Duane who had called the studio 800 number after a frat party.  I started laughing out loud; it was as if God was beaming tasteless jokes into my head. Then this salesman, this loser, came up with an idea for turning his fantasy into a business proposition; maybe getting diverted from an efficient masturbatory program into a story about three guys called Jeff, Shane, and Duane was not a sign of weakness and lack of purpose, but the secret of success! It was like watching an X-rated cartoon.  That particular kind of humor seems separate somehow from the messiness of actual sex, which I take it is what you get with what one might call graphic sex scenes.
4.                  Is the job of a novelist to merely entertain or is it to provoke a thoughtful dialogue? Depends on the book.  If we think it is the job of a novelist to provoke thoughtful dialogue, Leave it to Psmith ("the p is silent") is a complete wash-out.  But surely the world would be a poorer place without it. The Producers (leaping blithely across media) is a complete wash-out if we think it is the business of a film-maker to provoke thoughtful dialogue - but "Springtime for Hitler" is sheer genius.  (Lightning Rods was inspired, I should perhaps mention, by the peerless Producers.) Socrates is said to have said that the true poet (sc. writer) can write both tragedy and comedy; if Plato thought this worth putting in the mouth of Socrates, we can at least entertain the possibility that the truly great writer could write both To Kill a Mockingbird and Blazing Saddles.5.         What do you love about being a writer and published author? The best thing about being a writer: you think of something you've never seen, something you'd like to see, and you can write it yourself.  There's nothing like it.  Best thing about being a published author? Well, the answer I'd like to give is, the money you make from writing gives you time to write new books you haven't seen and would like to see.  Which has not been the case so far -- even if you make a lot of money, you can't normally cash this in to get time to write. (Not to rain on the parade, but I HATE that.) So the best thing (this will sound dangerously like Princess Diana) is probably the readers - getting e-mails from readers who say a book changed their life, saved them from suicide, or just made them laugh out loud when they were feeling down.  And once in a while one of these readers is someone funny and brilliant you would never otherwise have had the chance to meet.
6.                  Where do you see book publishing, as an industry, heading? I think where it's heading now is probably not where it will end up.  Huge subject, but I'll touch on a few possibilities.

Stage setting:

In Moneyball, Michael Lewis talks about Billy Beane's use of statistical analysis (the sabermetrics pioneered by Bill Jamaes) to transform the performance of the Oakland A's.  Beane realized that if players were correctly valued by the market he would always lose: the cash-strapped Oakland A's could never afford a team that could beat richer clubs.  His only chance of winning lay in the possibility that certain qualities in a player were undervalued.  He determined that a player's on-base percentage was an important, undervalued metric - in particular, that walks were not valued - and was in fact able to put together an extraordinarily successful team.  In Blind Side, Lewis talks about the development of the passing game by Bill Walsh: Walsh was coaching the Bengals, a very weak team, realized he could make passes significantly more productive, using tightly choreographed receivers, short, highly accurate passes which got the ball behind the line of scrimmage, running after completion to achieve extra yardage. This ultimately led to an increase in value of the quarterback, hence re-evaluation of the left tackle (quarterback protection). Walsh identified, in other words, a systematic opportunity in football which had not been exploited, and used it to transform the 49ers; now all NFL teams use some version of Walsh's rhythmic passing game.

In each case, necessity was the mother of invention - but many other teams, after all, were subject to the same necessity.  There were many other poor baseball clubs.  There were many other weak football teams facing apparently unbeatable talent in the opposition.  In each case an individual spotted a possible solution and was in a position to implement it.

Some publishers are very poor; all are worried about money. The big chains give a new book a tiny window of time before returning it; many independent bookstores have closed; Amazon imposes swingeing discounts; good reviews no longer guarantee sales for literary fiction; papers give less space to book reviews, or sometimes eliminate the review section altogether . . . one could go on and on.

So far we haven't seen a Billy Beane or Bill Walsh (Jonathan Karp's Twelve and Bob Miller's HarperStudio were not game changers.)  But maybe there's a Bayesian lurking in the wings.  Someone who sees that information is not being properly exploited to improve the odds.  So, ideas.

1. When a book is acquired for publication this is always a gamble. A few look like a sure thing (a new Dan Brown, J K Rowling . . .); most don't. What is certain is that, if a book does very well upon publication, a new book by the author within a year, at most two, would be highly desirable; having a finished book in hand, of course, gives the best chance of acting on this. Having two or more finished books in hand gives an even better chance: reviews or readers may have responded most strongly to a particular element in a book, one might like to follow up with the book in which this is most strongly represented. Which is to say that, once the offer of publication is made, all work in progress automatically has a higher potential value; the challenge is not simply to do whatever is necessary to improve the accepted MS and see it into print, but to do this while maximizing the author's time to "get men on base" (finish other books).  The editor who takes five months to send editorial comments to a debut novelist, while the novice drinks heavily instead of writing; the copy-editor who makes gratuituous changes or even overrides the author's mark-up; the typesetter who take six weeks, the proofreader who takes two months -- these are all liabilities, slashing the publisher's chance to make best use of the book being published if it's successful.  So a small, poor publisher could outbid a rich one, for instance, by offering a "time-rich" deal - one that guaranteed the author a clear 9 months, say, between signature and publication; a rich one that published many books could dramatically improve its results.

2. We might note the high cost to the industry of the culture of secrecy, such that it is virtually impossible for writers to get accurate information about editors. Why not digitize editorial and copy-editorial comments, make available behind a paywall -- the market for the information being, after all, not only the publishable but the much larger number of aspirant writers? On the one hand good fits between editors and writers would both more common and expedited (if a book has an audience, a delay of a decade before publication comes at an obvious cost). On the other hand, the inexhaustible slush pile would in effect bring income into the system, instead of being only a constant drain on resources. (We can get some sense of the market for this information - what people would rationally be willing to pay - from the immense cost to me, for instance, of a delay in 4 years of publication of my first book, delay of 11 years before the second.)

3. The cohort of MFA students (about 6000 graduates a year, I think) could be used to extend distribution. The old practice of having reps get books into drugstores and other non-book-selling outlets has dwindled; if every MFA student got one new account opened a year, for sale of books he or she admired, we would have much less of a monoculture.

4. Secondhand sales.  Have venue where readers could make a donation to the author, if desired, upon making a secondhand sale or purchase; encouragement for such donations printed in book.  If this became as culturally accepted as, say, tipping a waiter, it would not only (of course) improve authors' chance of making a living; would also give publishers a database of contactable readers.  (In the case of my first book, I've made about as much from the generosity of readers as from royalties in the past two-three years; not as far-fetched as it may sound.)

5. [For literary fiction, at least] - Appropriate art market structure.  Have an "opening" at the launch of a book, with drafts, notes, clippings, sketches for sale - the kind of thing that could appreciate in value of the author turns out to be the next Faulkner.  (One might feel, for instance, that the early typescripts of DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy are missing in action.)  The financial viability of a "literary" writer for agents, booksellers, etc., would clearly be very different if a MS could sell for $1 million auction five years from publication . . .  It's now possible to bet that 10,000 or 100,000 or 1 million people will each give the publisher a cut of a few dollars off the sale of indistinguishable copies; it's not possible to be that 1 person will pay $10,000 or $100,000 or $1,000,000 for unique items - why restrict the range of speculation?

6. Suppose we step away from the industry for a moment and look at a model of self-publication that has no direct means of bringing in money but is extremely good at building an audience.  If we look at the world of web comics, we find a particular pattern repeated many times over: the artist posts a few web comics, sends links to friends who pass these on to other friends, word gradually gets out. If the artist continues to post regularly, readers keep coming back and new ones make the discovery.  So, for example, A Softer World and Dinosaur Comics were both launched the same week in 2004; ASW now gets slightly over, DC slightly under 100,000 hits a day. (More precise analytics available on Project Wonderful. [Through which, by the way, the punter can take out an ad on, as it might be, ASW for as little as $5 a day . . .])  Randall Munroe began posting sketches online in 2005; I believe XKCD gets about 1.6 million hits a day. Money is made by selling merchandise and/or advertising.  Instead of the publishing model (author writes, army of intermediaries "clean up" the work for presentation to the public, big gaps between presentations of commodity to public, much of author's time spent negotiating the clean-up process or selling the artifact rather than writing), the artist presents work directly, regularly to the public, spends most of his/her time on the work.  Hence scope for much more idiosyncratic work, much more variety among web comics than is seen among published books.  We might ask whether the role of publisher does not come at a higher cost than previously understood; whether the model of curated, punctuated releases, dependent on virtually overnight success, is really the best way forward.  

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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