Cafe Society, Part One
Decades ago, I was required to do two things I didn’t want to do…read and write.
While I didn’t really love either of C. P. Snow’s two cultures, science came much easier to me than the humanities. I liked science because there was usually a definitive right and wrong answer. Plus there is a clear scientific method. You do this, this and this and you’re either right or wrong. Then you re-jigger and repeat the process depending upon your earlier results. If you work hard enough, you’ll find truth.
And truth is good, even if it’s not what you want to be true. Truth that explains a seeming absurdity? Better still.
I liked the security in being right or wrong. I believed that there were fundamental rules of life, universally acknowledged givens…like well turned phrases in Kris Kristofferson songs “try to tell the truth and stand your ground…” You either abided by them and you were right or you didn’t and you were wrong. Simple.
Science gave my belief system ballast. You can argue all you want, but if you fall out of a plane with no parachute, you’ll fall 32 feet per second per second until you hit the terminal velocity of approximately 135 miles per hour. That’s just true. Someone figured that out and no one could tell him he was full of shit.
As someone from a modest background, I resolved to ride science into a medical degree. I’d do my time in internships and residencies and come out the other side with some sort of surgical skill that would provide for my future family and me. I could take a lawn mower apart and put it back together pretty well. So setting a broken bone seemed like something I could do well too.
Within my sphere of influence, being a doctor was a definable form of success and noble too. I just needed the GPA and the MCAT scores to get me into Medical School. The better my scores, the better school I could attend, and the better standing I’d have in society. Easy peasy.
But in order to get into my chosen professional trade school, my schooling required me to take courses from something they called the “core curriculum.” Undergraduates could select from a Chinese menu of courses that would, in theory, round out their educations. The goal of the university back then wasn’t to rubber stamp the ambitions of eighteen year olds and allow them to only study what would bring them security and material success. See Ross Douthat’s 2005 take on the modern state of the university (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/03/the-truth-about-harvard/303726/) Instead it forced laser focused Horatio Algers to step out of their comfort zones and consider the broader immaterial world. Big picture, outside of primitive “hierarchy of needs” thinking.
I thought the core curriculum was bullshit.
Why did I have to take a course on 19th Century French Literature when my time (and the considerable money I earned sweating my ass off in a foam rubber factory, working buildings and grounds and driving the school’s Zamboni to pay my way through school) would be better spent studying the Krebs cycle?
But the real truth was, I was afraid. More afraid of a stack of books than a “game” that would eventually take my left knee and leave me with a series of concussions I’m having more and more difficulty putting out of my mind. Trying to forget trauma that makes you forget can’t be bad though right? That’s a good sign?
I was afraid of being revealed as stupid.
I was not in any way a fast reader, and I had been successfully hiding a serious deficiency in reading comprehension since elementary school. My head hurt when I read fiction and I could not stop my brain from meandering even within sentences let alone paragraphs, pages, chapters and entire novels. I wasn’t word smart. Why would I be required to reveal that to my contemporaries/rivals?
Science texts and math were something else entirely. They could be parsed into nugget sized pieces of information—truths that I could stockpile and recall with practiced ease.
But keeping track of characters and their emotional states, their ambitions and flaws and then somehow extrapolating meaning out of their seemingly random and pointless actions was lost on me. The people in stories weren’t even real. I could not understand how a made up being could lead me anywhere but astray.
But rules are rules and I sucked it up and did what was required. I forced myself to read Zola, Maupassant, Flaubert, Stendhal and a bunch of others. These guys didn’t write novellas either. They wrote big thick epics in tiny type loaded with historical details and scores of characters. And practically everyone was referred at as Madame or Monsieur whatever their last name was which was referenced only on their first appearance in the story.
I was bitching about it to a friend who knew how to push my buttons one day and she laughed at me and said, “You’re not even reading them in French. How hard could it be?” Years before, she’d overheard my fuddling through the freshman foreign language proficiency oral exam speaking the fractured pigeon French equivalent of an inverse Inspector Clouseau. She was right. I should shut my mouth and do the work.
Put in my place and out of my element, I resigned myself to concentrate like I never had before and fire as many new synapses in my brain I could muster.
After the “meh” experience reading THE RED AND THE BLACK, Zola’s GERMINAL hit me right in the solar plexus… Jesus, It was like Pittsburgh in the 1970s. At the end of the course I found more truth in the fiction than I did punching a needed chad on my ticket to security, finishing a thesis on DNA repair mechanisms in yeast (“The Characterization of a Saccharomyces cerevisiae DNA Methyltransferase,” not my best title). If you have trouble sleeping, I’ll send a copy your way.
What I didn’t know at the time was how insidious a work of fiction can be. Reading the right novel at the right time will seriously F you up. And I was in for a doozy of a F-ing.
While running innumerable electrophoresis gels inside a one hundred square foot refrigerated cold room (I found out that the specific yeast DNA repair protein I was trying to “characterize” disintegrated at room temperature…but it took six months of doomed experiments to figure that out) I’d pull the final book for my core course out of my thickest winter coat and slog through it.
The book was Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac, the Stephen King of his day. Popular in his time, but recognized as the pro he really was years later.
Here’s the gist of the story…
A mook with ambition from nowheresville heads to the big city to become a writer.
Soon, he faces the inevitable predicament of the artist…should he debase himself and his work just for the security of steady material wealth and status? Or should he follow the path of the ascetic members of a group called the Cenacle (the circle), a collection of intellectuals who value their work and integrity above all else? One group hangs out at the finest restaurants in Paris, the other in dumpy cold-water flats.
But Balzac knew that they were both equally dangerous forces aligned against art.
It’s the classic hero’s journey that Steve has written about, also known as the coming of age Bildungsroman, maturation plot etc.—a character on a mission confronts two seemingly different and opposing forces. The choices he makes or doesn’t make about joining or shunning either group enlighten him. Or not.
I finished the book, wrote an on the nose paper about it and graduated. But what I didn’t know at the time—like my unicellular yeast friends exposed to alkaloids—I was radically changed by reading those 19th Century frogs. (Please forgive the French slur…or not. I refer to myself as a Mick even though I’m American. I use racial slurs as signs of affection…much to my detriment…in many…if not most…instances. Some people laugh my vulgarity off…some think I’m a a-hole. Feel free to have either reaction).
Six years after the “couple of months” I took off to chill before applying to Med School, I was basically living in “a van down by the river.” I had zero interests beyond reading a good book and messengering packages from the World Trade Center to the Upper West Side. But I knew I had to get a life. I had to get off my ass.
I applied for an editorial assistant job in book publishing. I figured that if I could learn how to edit a story, I might one day be able to tell one well too. And the only way to learn how to edit was to work at a publishing house.
In my day, there was no formal academic training to become a book editor. (I don’t think there is now, either. At least not one run by a “learn Chinese in nine days” education corporation.)
It’s pretty absurd that there is no course that teaches aspiring editors the principles of storytelling. How to diagnose a troubled story and offer concrete advice about how to fix the flaws. Or how to even evaluate the success or failure of a particular story.
There is no course that tells editors how to craft compelling copy to position their projects to targeted readers, either. Or even how to target a readership. There is no in depth examination of genre. All of these skills must be self taught or … convincingly faked.
My personal opinion about why there isn’t this kind of training is that there is a necessity for the two cultures to merge in order to provide it. Applying a soupcon of science reveals the anatomy of the storytelling art, but literary people believe in the mysteries of “art” not the formulas of science. So those that do dedicate themselves to analyzing the bones and evolution of Story (like my client and friend Robert McKee) find themselves frequently misunderstood as formula peddlers.
[Nothing could be further from the truth. Bob McKee is an indispensible resource to thousands storytellers around the world. Trust me, he ain’t in it for the money. As his agent, I often wish he were.]
I believe a great story is very much like a beautiful building. If you don’t know how to wire the walls, lay in the plumbing or construct a waterproof roof, chances are you won’t be a very good architect or contractor. But on the other side of the argument, if you have zero imagination, your building may technically work, but it will have the soul of a self-storage facility.
Same with stories.
There were and still are summer publishing courses that funnel the well educated hail fellows well met into the book world pipeline, but graduates learn little about how the system really works other than general introductions to the core quadrant of departments (editorial, publicity, sales, marketing). Going to one of them used to be de rigueur for entry level employees. I really don’t know how important they are now. I’m an old dog in the business, long since exiled from the big six editorial world…self-exiled, but exiled nevertheless.
When I was in the editorial assistant trenches, it took quite a long time for me to get a clear understanding of what a book editor’s professional responsibilities really were. And a number of times, I had to learn them by making painful and humiliating mistakes.
You see the way one becomes a book editor is through apprenticeship. And like blacksmiths or cobblers, editors who’ve managed to build a career for themselves and have their own specialty have mixed feelings about training their ambitious young assistants in their area of expertise.
This is because there are a fixed number of editors at every house. You don’t need two editors covering the same arena. You just want the “best.” That kind of situation, when it rarely arises, devolves quickly into a bake-off of sorts between the two editors. The loser is quietly let go or decides publishing just isn’t for them.
With the absorption and contraction of imprints and independent publishing companies in the past twenty years, there are far fewer editors in total today than when I came up in 1992. The only way an assistant becomes an editor is if a higher up gets poached to take a position at another house (the only way to get a meaningful bump in salary too) or if someone gets fired.
So the paranoia of growing you own private Eve Harrington is real. Consequently, neglecting editorial assistants is not unheard of. In fact, some people think it’s kind of what you’re supposed to do. Why train your replacement?
I was fortunate not to be neglected and I learned a great deal from my bosses. That’s not to say that they intervened when I fell on my ass. But I think that felt it was important I fell on my ass without their intervention. Looking back, I think they were right. Others though—very talented and dedicated people—weren’t so lucky.
My naïve plan to find out the book editor rules and then play by them and move on up the ladder though was quickly frustrated. The truth was that my “on the surface” assumptions about book publishing when I entered the profession had little to do with what was really critical to getting ahead.
And what proved critical to getting ahead…Balzac wrote about from 1837 through 1843. It’s taken me twenty years to finally figure that out. The guy knew his shit.
TO BE CONTINUED