The Human Condition:

A Money-Making Enterprise – January 22, 2017


This is another rant, inspired by a fellow novelist’s observation that good editors in traditional publishing—the sort who can help you take your book apart and put it back together again, let alone catch typos and correct the grammar—seem to be in short supply these days. And that got me thinking about the current state of the arts in popular culture.1

I recently saw the 2016 sequel to the 1996 movie Independence Day, this one subtitled Resurgence. I really liked the first movie, have watched it many times, and still enjoy the visuals, the characterizations, and the snappy dialogue. But, after sitting through the sequel, I was stunned when the credits showed three people involved in the “story” and “screenplay.” The movie had almost no story—or at least no new story. It was, in sum, an uninspired gloss of the first film, with cameos and throw-away lines by the earlier actors in their characters, as well as dull portrayals by new young actors playing their supposedly grown-up children. The new alien ships were so much bigger and badder, and their actions so haphazard, ludicrous, and almost unexplained, that it was clear the director, Roland Emmerich, told the CGI department to go have fun and not bother adhering to any script. The entire movie was just a blitz of imagery and walk-on acting without any focus on telling a succinct and involving story.

Why is this relevant to books that don’t get the editorial love they deserve? Because I know that the people responsible for the Independence Day sequel knew they had a bankable property and they didn’t have to care much about engaging the audience’s full attention or respect. They weren’t out to tell an interesting story. They weren’t intending to make any kind of art. They were intent on making ninety minutes of passable scenery and recognizable characters that would draw boobs who had liked the first movie into theaters and then not actively disgust and disappoint them—as they might have been with, say, an hour and a half of a blank screen or a play performed with finger puppets. The filmmakers had nothing new to say, show, or share, but that didn’t matter, because the fame of the first movie was going to sell it for them.

The J. J. Abrams treatment of the recent Star Trek movies works on the same principle. And I think a lot of editors handling the manuscript of a famous and bankable author are working from the same mindset. “It doesn’t have to be good. There’s a built-in audience for this stuff. They’re fools anyway. So this book or movie just has to not be terrible.” In other words, this enterprise isn’t about art or imagination of any kind, it’s about packaging a two-hour film clip or a wad of paper filled with black marks that will be “good enough” for commercial purposes. It’s a money machine, not an artistic endeavor. Get the butts into the theater seats. Get the boobs to pick up the book or DVD and take it to the register.

It may not always look that way, but in my own writing I will often spend a good ten minutes—sometimes much longer—working on and worrying over one verbal image, sentence, or paragraph. I am trying to get the meaning, the tone, and the flow just right. Sometimes these things simply come out of my fingertips and onto the screen as I type. Sometimes I have to sweat for them. But I’m not satisfied with a book and won’t let it go out to my readers until every scene fits—at least according to my sense of the story—and every image and line of dialogue strikes the right gong note—at least to my particular ear.

When I worked at Howell-North Books, which was self-consciously a money-making operation, we still spent time and effort trying to create good books that would satisfy our readership, who were variously interested in railroad histories, steam technology, California history, and Western Americana. We were choosy about selecting our manuscripts. And I was given all the time I needed to edit and polish them, sometimes taking apart the work of non-professional writers and putting it together again to make an easily readable and intelligible story. Mrs. North—the company’s president, who was also our expert at page layout—would spend days over layout sheets with her pica rule and sizing wheel, creating the finished pages with an eye to flow and fit between text and photos. We all read galley proofs twice, went over page proofs line by line, and inspected every cut and mark on the blueline proofs2 to make the books as flawless as possible. We respected the readers who would buy our books and wanted to make each volume meet their expectations, even when we were publishing the second or third or later book by a successful author. We knew that if we produced anything half-hearted, or started cynically playing on a big author’s following, we would lose customers.

In these days, I think, the empires of publishers and moviemakers have become much more dollar driven, and more cynical about the taste and expectations of their buyers. We still have the occasional gem. But most of what gets produced is a slick wrapper around a neglected product. Their motto isn’t “Let them eat cake,” but “Let them eat stale Ding-Dongs.”

But then, crass commercialism has been the order of things among lesser lights in New York and Hollywood over the past century. For every Edgar Rice Burroughs and Louis L’Amour who came up with something new and exciting in popular fiction, there have been thousands of volumes, millions of pages, of “dime novels” and “pulp fiction” that were published with no other purpose than to coach those dimes and dollars out of readers’ pockets. Wads of paper filled with black marks.

For every big-budget movie—or “tent pole” in the current marketspeak—with name stars which might become a classic, there have been thousands of “B movies” set in noir New York or Los Angeles, or in the Old West, or in outer space on Planet Mongo, where actors who would never be stars spoke forgettable—or laughably embarrassing—lines while dressed in cheap costumes in front of papier-mâché sets as the cameras rolled. Millions of feet of celluloid dedicated only to getting butts into theater seats.

Whenever I start to think this way, however, I remember and invoke Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then, ninety percent of everything is crap.” And I add Thomas’s corollary: “By the crap shall you know the good.”

1. For further thoughts on the writing process, see the email exchange between myself and a former colleague who also writes novels in Between the Sheets: An Intimate Exchange about Writing, Editing, and Publishing.

2. The blueline is a photo proof of the stripping process, which puts together the bits of negative film representing text, screened images, hairline rules, page numbers, and everything else that will appear on the finished plate for printing. These days, the blueline has been replaced by a PDF of the final layout from a software package like Adobe’s In Design.