Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cheese with that whine, Mr. Egan?

Several people have blogged about Timothy Egan's slam on Joe the Plumber's book deal. I'm somewhat ambivalent.

On the one hand, as a professional journalist, I share Egan's outrage over the fact that modern publishing has a business strategy that goes like this:
  • Find somebody who is famous from being on TV.
  • Give them a book deal.
  • Pay an actual writer to produce the book.
  • Schedule appearances for the celebrity/"author" on "Oprah," the "Today" show, and "Larry King Live."
Sales are pretty much dependent on the level of fame of the "author," and have almost nothing to do with the merits of the book. Sarah Palin's $7 million book deal is a can't-miss business proposition. All her ghostwriter and editor have to do is to find three or four never-told-before "revelations" in Sarah's already famous biography, or get her to declare a couple of controversial political stances -- stuff to generate Drudge-worthy headline scoops for the Politico -- and it will sell like hotcakes.

Such things are not really books, so much as they are celebrity souvenirs. The sales that justify the multimillion-dollar contract are generated by the famous name and face on the cover, while what is between the covers was actually written by someone who's paid maybe $100,000 and gets thanked in the acknowledgements for their "help."

Look, I'm friends with scores of Washington journalists and think-tank types, and I know who ghosted which chapters of those books with Big Names On The Cover. Read the acknowledgements, and it's usually not hard to figure out. It's the way the business works, and it sucks -- unless you're famous, in which case it's a convenient way to cash in on your fame.

So, I share Egan's disgust with the literary fraud of celebrity books, but -- but! -- I don't share his politically motivated resentment of Joe the Plumber, especially since Egan praises Barack Obama as an author, even though Obama got a sweetheart deal for a book that was either ghosted or heavily re-written, perhaps even by Bill Ayers. If you're going to denounce the beneficiaries of literary fraud, denounce them without regard to political creed.

Also (hat-tip to Todd Huston) Egan is one of those pretentious "creative" types who dreams of writing The Great American Novel. If you want to be a novelist, be a novelist, and stop pretending to be a journalist.

Fiction, I might add, has undergone its own corruption. Given the decline of literacy and the shrinking market for fiction, the only point of writing a novel, from a commercial standpoint, is as a thinly-disguised screenplay. Murder, sex, car chases, explosions, international conspiracy, corrupt government officials, terrorism, and a protagonist who's framed and hunted because of the dangerous secret he has accidentally discovered -- that's what a successful novel is now, and it's not successful until the movie rights are optioned.

UPDATE: I guess I should also describe the other successful novel/screenplay: Clever, ambitious, but not-exactly-beautiful 20-something has a career crisis that leads to madcap misadventures in Manhattan, Hollywood, or an Exotic Locale, involving a romantic choice between (a) a superficially attractive Beta Male who symbolizes everything respectable and responsible, and (b) a cynical Bad Boy she initially hates but ultimately can't resist. Do I have to tell you how this ends?


  1. How depressing. I always dreamed at writing The Next American Classic, and now you're telling me it's a pipe dream. *sniffles* I'm going to go cry now.

  2. Hmmm....
    Equating Obama's book--authored by someone perfectly capable of putting a couple of sentences together--with Joe the Plumber's upcoming book,which I might add is " authored" by someone who can't even put a coherent thought together.
    And on top of that, trafficking in wild speculation over wether Obama really wrote his books or had them ghostwritten by the likes of Bill Ayers...that's Andrew Sullivan territory! But I guess Obama is fair game and Palin...
    nevermind. the point is the Plumber's book will sell due to the sad sad state of Conservatism. Yes folks, you've elevated this fraud to hero status.It seems to be your stock and trade routine these days....