Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The publishing perplex as found in the secret diary of Aunt Edna

In communication, I have often found that analogies, metaphors, similes do more harm than good to understanding, but I’m as addicted to them as any other writer or teacher. Once, while guesting into a creative writing class, I quoted Raymond Chandler about there being only two occupations in which it is useful to know how to rob a bank, and one of them is writing; the instructor discovered afterwards that many students were offended because they thought I meant that they were such bad writers that they would never be able to make a living except by crime. Teaching lighting design, I used the familiar comparison that amperage is like volume and voltage is like pressure, only to have a student on an exam explain that we always tied cables up so the electricity would run downhill to the instruments and not puddle in the cable.

Some of the most useful plotting wisdom I ever acquired was from Barthes’s comparison between narrative and striptease. I was bouncing in a strip club at the time, a job I had gotten because I was dating one of the dancers (I hasten to add I didn’t meet her there), and oddly enough, the job was dull—unhappy middle-aged men don’t really want to fight anyone over the attention of a 22-year-old alcoholic, they just want everyone to think they would, so the bouncer’s job is to give them an excuse to back down before any actual punching happens. And like anything else, a few hours of a show you’ve seen before will usually cure your taste for it. The boredom left me far too much time to think about my grad seminars. (It probably indicates something or other that, though the grad seminars were also sometimes dull, while attending them, I rarely thought about the strip club.)  But although Barthes’s striptease analogy beautifully explains the contradictions and complications of plot, and many subtle and interesting issues about the interaction between plot and reader interest, I will probably not use the stripping analogy in an academic classroom, since it’s apt to make people uncomfortable, someone is bound to miss the point, and things tend to get reported in distorted form. I’ll just tell them all to rob banks and let it go at that.

Anyway, all this was brought to mind by the recent uproars about intemperate terminology and language in the current arguments about whether traditional/legacy publishing is crashing or not (I think it will crash much more than it has but not go extinct, and something much more resilient will re-grow from the stump) and whether the new model of self-publication via the net is going to partly or completely supplant it (my vote is for partly, with several other pathways coming on line at about the same time). Quite a few metaphors and analogies are being slung, many in anger and/or sarcasm, and many “you don’t really mean that” pats on the head are being administered to further in enrage the pat-receivers, and the biggest thing that’s being revealed is just how much anger, anxiety, and misery has been hanging around on the underside of publishing for years, and is now coming out as the world changes under us all.

So in a burst of complete folly, I thought I’d add more metaphors and analogies to the pool. Trying to maintain a Musashi-like Mind of the Strategist, I’m more interested in the way that fear and anger and old grudges distort my thinking than I am in expressing them, mostly so I can try to live up to the (possibly not actually anything he ever said) wisdom of Hemingway: “"While I'm writing, I'm an artiste; as soon as I've finished, I'm a son-of-a-bitch."  A son-of-a-bitch, of course, is what the other side calls you if you’ve truly attained the Mind of the Strategist, especially if they are trying to fling horseshit on you in the guise of roses, and you have flung it back.

So my analogy for traditional publishing is to a situation where no one will tell anyone the truth even when they both already know it, horrible hateful things are regularly done between people who say they love each other, and while a better state of affairs can be imagined, it’s kind of hard to see how it can get there. I refer, of course, to the sort of family values that occur with large, inbred, enmeshed families.

Traditional publishing has long been like a gigantic wealthy family with Crazy Aunt Edna, who actually owns everything, locked in the attic, where everyone is dedicated to pretending this isn’t true, sucking up to Edna, and keeping her from finding out that she could boot the lot of them.

•Aunt Edna, of course, is the writer. Somehow or other she got hold of the basic source of the family’s wealth, and this is manifestly hard on everyone except Edna (and doesn’t always do her very much good either). She is flighty, irresponsible, impossible, cranky, and has far too many opinions on far too many subjects. She rotates between several dysfunctional states of being: charming in a very manipulative, sucking-up kind of way; inexcusably rude and arrogant; desperately frightened and begging to be saved from dangers real and imaginary; pathetically needy; and a host of other crazed states, a few of them all right and even pleasant, most of them shudder-worthy. The only way the whole family works is if Edna behaves long enough to give them access to the family fortune every month, so that the bills get paid, and everyone lives with the uncomfortable fact that Edna is there, must be kept happy, and mustn’t get her way. If Edna really understands what is going on in the rest of the household, her behavior becomes impossible, but if she is kept in ignorance, then her demands become impossible.

•Cousin Bart is the side that faces the consumer—marketing, sales, and so forth. Bart dresses well and has read every self-help book there is. He describes himself as an entrepreneur, taking care of and expanding the family fortune. Actually he is spending it on office furniture, nice suits for himself, and talking to financial advisors. He puts a great deal of effort into telling everyone what to do because, after all, he is the one with the office and the appointments. In rare cases Bart may actually know something about where Edna’s money comes from and do something to make more of it come in; most of the time, Bart is a stuffed shirt, pronouncing from his Italian leather office swivel chairs and mahogany desks, blissfully secure because any guy with a desk and a chair like this must be right, especially because he knows that hundreds of pieces of paper pass through his inbox daily, and he is constantly busy.

•Cousin Amanda, the library/schools/teaching  side, is a just-home-from-college young idealist who feels guilty about poor old Edna and just wants to introduce the world to what a swell old gal she actually is, and doesn’t really want to talk about that nasty money thing at all, except, you know, there are so many worthwhile things that could be done with it. She talks more than everyone else put together and everyone always pretends to agree with her, and keeps money away from her so she won’t waste it.

•Aunt Tillie is production. She sleeps on a couch downstairs and people yell at her all the time, and she has nothing of her own, but she is busting her ass in the kitchen feeding everyone, and also cleans the bathrooms and makes the beds and probably mows the lawn, paints the porch, and cleans the gutters. She is burning with resentment of the discrepancy between how little she is given and how necessary she is. She is also perpetually anxious because although the household will fail if she stops doing what she’s doing or screws it up, success is totally out of her hands and caused by forces she is only vaguely aware of (not that anyone tells her anything. She would never expect that). She probably didn’t start out passive-aggressive but if she hasn’t become so, she’s a saint and a martyr—and is angry because you’re not aware enough of her saintly martyrdom.

•The editorial department is Cousin Ted, who is always so good at soothing Edna down when she throws tantrums and threatens to cut people off, or wants to see her bank statement, or thinks she wants something different for dinner, or mad because her sheets haven’t been washed in years, or is asking what all these charges are on Bart’s expense account, or just wants to use her money for her own purposes. Cousin Ted spends a great deal of time making sure Edna is confused and afraid of the world outside, and appreciative of all the nice meals that Tillie fixes and convinced that she couldn’t possibly understand all those hard things that all the cousins do. When necessary, Ted spikes the dear old girl’s tea with a hefty shot of gin, arranges for a gigolo to romance her, or dresses up as prowler and comes into her room at night to threaten her life. Ted is miserable because he genuinely likes Edna, he started doing all this because Edna was his favorite aunt, and he’s generally too smart not to see that his work as an Edna-handler is degrading to both of them. Now and then he tries to talk Edna into being reasonable, and she screams at him; now and then he asks someone else to do something for Edna, and they tell him to slap her around till she stops asking. On the rare occasions when Edna behaves and the rest of the family is getting what they want, Ted feels so brilliant; all the rest of the time, Ted blames himself for not having everything work all the time. The whole setup would fall apart without Ted, so he spends a great deal of his time trying to believe that having it fall apart would be a bad thing.

•Aunt Mavis is the art director and all the people who have anything to do with the cover and the book design (except the actual artist and designer. That’s Uncle Herman. He’s the set of vacant eyes staring over the hands clutching at the bars on the cellar window around back; late at night you may hear him moaning like a dying seal, between thuds, because Mavis is beating him to make him clean the toilet with his eating spoon, but no one admits they hear it). Mavis is the aunt who is always right, the one that you are afraid will come to your wedding, but not as much as you’re afraid she’ll help you plan it; she spends a great deal of time figuring out what Tillie should cook, what Ted should tell Edna to wear, and how Bart should arrange his chairs. (Every now and then Bart throws a tantrum back at her and she sulks). She’s the one for whom the turkey is too dry at Thanksgiving and the tree is crooked at Christmas, but also the one who makes sure all the sidewalks are edged and the trim is painted, and every so often she makes a wall or window or a whole room of the old house just shine with beauty (or rather, Herman does). You would want her to go over the house just before you sold it. And then leave before the prospective buyer comes in.

•Grandpa, finally, is the actual publisher, or management. He wants only two things: everything to be quiet, and Edna’s money. Everyone is terrified of him, and the thing that terrifies them most is that he might butt heads with Edna, so they will do anything to keep him quiet. Generally he has no opinions but if forced to have one, it often involves terrifying or brutalizing a large part of the family. He can do this because he is the only one who knows he’s really living in an analogy, and that if he has to, he can find another crazy, dependent, frightened rich lady to be Aunt Edna. He’s the only one who remembers that the last twenty Ednas are buried down by the tool shed, and that if this one has to be taken away, he can call the Edna Today Delivery Service and they’ll bring over a fresh one.

Now, what’s been happening lately is this: Dr. Selfpub has been giving Aunt Edna independence pills. They don’t fix everything but they do stabilize her enough so she can live on her own—maybe—and take care of herself—somewhat. The maybe and the somewhat reflect the fact that there’s a lot of damage to undo, and not everyone can, and also that just being mentally stable doesn’t mean being able to support yourself and manage your daily affairs.

So in some cases Edna has moved out of the mansion and taken a little apartment downtown, and is now trying to run her own affairs. She may have to hire someone like Tillie to be the maid and cook, she might need someone to do all the stuff Bart and Mavis were pretending to do, and most of all, she misses Ted, who used to fix problems. There is an excellent chance that she is making a god-damned mess of the entire thing. But she’s on her own, and this is leading to all sorts of tension and anxiety for Edna, who has stepped into a wider world and is scared that she has made a mistake, resentful of all the things that used to happen to her in the Big House, and anxious about what may come up next.

But it’s not better for the family; used to be Grandpa would bop them on the head and take them out back in the middle of the night, and there’d just be a new Edna the next morning. This Edna actually left, and the new one is asking rude questions about possibly leaving. Grandpa seems to have lost his bopping ability, and Edna is asking everyone else about things that the old Ednas never did. Ted is wondering whether he has anything to do without Edna, and is thinking of seeing if the old Edna would pay him to be her concierge. Tillie is trying to pretend she has no idea what’s going on and that she’s just going to keep working in the kitchen and cleaning the bathroom. Bart is out spreading scurrilous stories about Edna. Everyone is afraid the place will collapse, because the lady with the money moved out, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to get her back.

One more analogy: and sometimes Edna is in a kind family (to her, for now, anyway), and she hears that other Ednas are just being horrible to their families, and lectures those ungrateful Ednas. Sometimes Edna is living it up in that little apartment downtown and is furious over all the wasted years. And everyone is avoiding speaking of how terrifying it all is.

I think I’ll have some extra gin in my next cup of tea.

Can't get enough of Aunt Edna?  Sequels here and here.