(Ed note: This is the fourth in a series of posts by Jeffrey Meyers. You can find Part I of A Writer in Economic Crisis and links to Meyers' previous posts here.
According to Evelyn Waugh, standards of copy-editing and proof reading dropped sharply in the 1950s when defrocked clergymen were no longer hired by publishers. He would be even more critical of today’s standards. Copy-editing is now farmed out to loosely supervised contract workers who often do an inferior job. I never read a current book without finding many errors. Recently, high-handed editors have sabotaged rather than supported my biographies. When I asked the editor what she planned to do to publicize my life of Modigliani, she replied with alarming frankness, “Nothing.” Publishers will no longer promote their own books unless they have a substantial advance sale, and national book tours are rapidly disappearing. Another editor delayed my life of Samuel Johnson, despite my frantic warnings, until a rival biography of Johnson came out three months before mine and cut my sales in half.
Many publishers and magazines have vanished, shrinking potential outlets for authors. Barnes & Noble Classics, for which I wrote three long, well paid introductions, and journals like the Bloomsbury Review, Wilson Quarterly, Common Review, Partisan Review (I made it into the last issue) and the conservative The World and I (which nevertheless published my articles opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), have taken the dirt nap. Some excellent journals, to which I like to contribute, have reduced their fees or completely eliminated them. But I still write the occasional scholarly article or review expensive bibliographies without pay. Spontaneous commissions have also declined. The once lucrative book clubs, which used to pay about $25,000 now pay only a few hundred dollars.
Book review sections in newspapers have been severely maimed. Many (like those in the San Francisco Chronicle) have shrunk; others (like those in my local free paper, the East Bay Express) have been eliminated. So there are fewer opportunities to review books or get my books reviewed. Other newspapers that I once reviewed for regularly—the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer and Portland Oregonian—now reprint reviews from other papers instead of using their own reviewers. Steve Wasserman, an editor who printed longer and more serious reviews, was fired from the Los Angeles Times. To attract new readers in times of dwindling circulation, book reviews (even the highbrow New York Review of Books) have dropped many experts and replaced them with younger novelists. They can write book reports and express their opinions—like “Four legs good, two legs bad” in Animal Farm--but rarely have anything significant to say about the subject. This dumbing down means that reviews pay less attention to serious books because the audience for them has greatly diminished. People who spend their childhood playing video games, their working life in front of a computer and their evenings watching television, are not likely to buy or read books. Publishers who used to send me many free books to consider for review, including art books from Yale and Chicago, have (except for Viking-Penguin) stopped sending them.
Two Berkeley bookstores, which used to have readings almost every night, have disappeared. Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue closed after fifty-two years and Black Oak moved from a desirable to a distant location and canceled their readings. I’ve read at these stores myself, and heard writers like Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie there. Closing these venues has been a great cultural loss. Even Barnes & Noble, which drove so many smaller bookstores out of business, has closed their huge stores in downtown Berkeley (a town with 36,000 university students) and in Oakland’s Jack London Square. Kepler’s in Menlo Park (near Stanford) nearly went under, but was saved at the last minute by a Silicon Valley millionaire. With fewer stores and a shorter shelf life, books have no chance to build up a momentum. Bookstores that still exist devote part of their space, formerly reserved for books, to comics—now called graphic novels. Invitations to give lectures and appear in television documentaries have also diminished. The best literary festival, Harbourfront in Toronto, stopped inviting biographers, although we talked about how we wrote our books instead of (like the novelists) merely reading from them.
Fortunately, the news is not all apocalyptic. I write regularly for several journals (the Yale Review, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, Raritan, Salmagundi, New Criterion, Commonweal, London Magazine and Apollo), and some of them are willing to have me appear in almost every issue. After a long hiatus, I’ve precariously reorbited into the American Scholar, Georgia Review, Globe and Mail, Mainstream, National Review, Sewanee and Spectator. I have five reviews commissioned, and books out this year on Iris Murdoch with Palgrave-Macmillan and on Thomas Mann with Northwestern.
There’s some action nearly every day. I have a review commissioned, get a book to review, send out an article, have one accepted, correct proofs, get a published work or receive a check in the mail. Meager royalties come in from books published as long ago as the 1970s; my life of Hemingway, in print since 1985, still earns income; and there’s a trickle of cash from electronic rights. I’m involved, with many thousands of writers, in a class-action suit against Google, which copied books and articles without permission or payment, and will eventually have to pay for this.
I published my first article in 1965 and my first book in 1973. After a lifetime of study and writing, I feel I’ve now hit my stride. Writing every day has become a way of life and I’d much rather write than not write. I have complete freedom to do extremely interesting work, by myself and for myself, which has allowed me to interview distinguished people like Henry Moore and Isaiah Berlin, Rebecca West and Wilfred Thesiger, Fred Zinnemann and Billy Wilder. But I need to work very hard and write fluently on many subjects—averaging more than a book and fifteen articles every year—to keep afloat, waving, not drowning. Though my life as a writer is still a struggle, I’ve been inspired by Moses’ exhortation to Israel in Deuteronomy 31:6, which my hero Edmund Wilson had cut in Hebrew letters on his tombstone: “Khazak! Be strong and of good courage.”
Jeffrey Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has recently published Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (2009), George Orwell: Life and Art (2010)—his fifth work on Orwell—and John Huston: Courage and Art (2011). Thirty of his books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. In 2012 he gave the Seymour lectures on biography, sponsored by the National Library of Australia, in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney.