Monday, September 30, 2013

The Return of Mother Russia


October is coming on, and it is time to overload the long-suffering old Mercedes wagon and hightail it for Florida.  A few words about the latest stages of the jihad.

On September 12, 2013, when it looked as if President Obama had red-lined himself into a corner by pledging to send  a barrage of Tomahawk missiles into Syria no matter what anybody --i.e., most responsible Americans -- wanted, deliverance came from an unexpected quarter.  President Vladimir Putin of Russia published a piece in the op-ed section of The New York Times in which he -- quite reasonably, it seemed to me -- dealt with the quandary into which we had backed ourselves.  He did maintain that Bashar Assad had not deployed those sarin-loaded missiles into the Damascus suburbs, and could not resist a poke at American "exceptionalism."   "When we ask for the Lord's blessing, we must not forget that God created us equal," Putin concluded.

Editorial response here was outraged, with a self-righteous John McCain railing on television about hypocrisy and ex-KGB thugs and by God we were exceptional.  In fact, as things appear to be working out, Syria is already in the process of being delivered of its gas and the shaky Obama presidency might yet survive with its reputation intact.

I haven't visited Russia recently, but in 1997 I was a member of a group of intelligence journalists and retired CIA operatives who were invited to spend a week in Moscow.  At vodka-fueled dinners with KGB veterans every night and days prowling the reaches of  Stalin's covert-warfare establishment, our Cold-War education was deepened.  I well remember the blood-soaked walls and overhead manacles of the Lubyanka basement.  Our hosts made it plain that times were hard, and any money we might find it in our hearts to spare....

Russia under Boris Yeltsin was tumbling into the chaos of the unrestricted free market.  Gangster capitalism was on the loose.  Oligarchs were grabbing off the oil resources.  We stayed at the Radison Hotel that overlooked the Kiev railroad station.  Long lines of old women in babushkas with tin cups were there night and day, begging for rubles from travelers. At the piano bar of the hotel somebody was playing jazz.  A small man sat in a club chair and was overhung by a couple of gorillas in long, black leather coats, both with Kalachnikovs slung from their elbows.  The small man, somebody told me, was the owner.  He had once had an American backer.After the Radison started to do business the American had appeared and demanded his cut.  The gorillas had cornered him and blown him all over the ceiling of the elegant Kiev Metro station.

Everybody was not happy.  My friend Thomas Powers introduced me to the editor of Izvestia, once a foremost journal of Marxist thought.  A reflective fellow, the editor saw nothing good in Russia's fall from Communism.  The whole country was a grab-it-in-the-dark party.  Once the week was over I took an overnight train, the legendary Krasnaya Zemlya -- the Red Arrow -- to St Petersburg. All night my fellow passengers kept banging on my compartment door, demanding in broken English to be allowed to see me, they had something I might like to consider....  Fortunately, I held out.

Everything was for sale.  In Saint Petersburg I was met by a tall, blonde woman in her forties who would cart me around for two days, with a lot of time at the Hermitage.  Afterwards she took me to my plane.  Stepping onto the tarmac, I pressed a fifty-dollar tip into her hand.  She looked astonished.  "And I didn't even have to sleep with you," she muttered, with evident relief.

Russia under Vladimir Putin is certainly no paradise.  But Putin has introduced a measure of shabby stability that appears to be enough for now.  Russia -- and America -- could be confronting worse.

Burton Hersh

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why Publishing Has Cratered


Labor Day weekend, the long summer wanes.  Time, perhaps, to suspend my recent geopolitical rants and let things get personal. 

Of recent months I have been foraging for an agent -- the right agent -- to identify the right editor at the right book house to bring out a pair of sexy, electrifying novels I recently finished.  The response has been predictable.  Why not a proposal for another nonfiction work in the subject area -- politics, the intelligence community -- where my previous books have built my reputation, attracted a stubborn following?  Then, drafting in the wake of such a placement, perhaps a morsel or two of fiction might be slipped in sideways.  "...given the tough climate in general and the tougher climate for fiction in particular, editors look at sales histories" primarily, as one agent wrote me recently.

Demoralized as the survivors in publishing remain, I can't help concluding that they are dealing with the collapsing sales like a demoralized army stampeded into retreat -- by cutting their losses and permitting the slaughter to continue.  I wrote the agent back, pretty much as follows:.  "Nothing is going to rescue publishing," I opened, "from the economic sinkhole into which it is disappearing until everybody involved begins to understand how senseless and slack and self-destuctive the mentality of most people still left in the trade has become.  I've been writing and publishing books with major publishers since the sixtes; until recently they sold reasonably well -- certainly into five figures -- and built a solid following.

"What has obviously happened is that everybody on the commercial side of  publishing -- publishers, editors, agents, publicists -- has come to regard a manuscript as one more low grade commercial product they can process with whatever is left of their desultory staffs.  Few editors in the book houses have the interest or energy these days to read any material they are purportedly considering.  They want synopses, on-line attachments, which they can effortlessly delete before making the commitment of time and attention any serious book by a talented author deserves. It's all about categories -- how many copies did the last book sell, is the book pre-sold because some film star or controversial politician has his name on the cover.  The recent fiasco with Arnold Schwarzenegger's ghosted memoirs -- insiders tell me got a better than eight-million-dollar advance, and sold a handful of copies -- indicates why the editorial budgets of the major houses are vaporizing, and why there is little or nothing left to publish work of real literary promise."

The longstanding presumption that one of the  primary responsibilities of a senior editor is to identify raw talent and convince his bosses to support it through book after book until enough of the reading public catches on and the writer turns into an important asset to the book house seems to have disappeared.  What has replaced it is the impulse to cannibalize another publisher and lure away a "name" writer -- very often somebody on his creative death bed -- or some outside celebrity with a lot of name recognition and very little else. Ghosted books, churned out on minimal advances, bloat the sagging market. Readers are catching on, and sales figures show that.

Everybody involved appears to have forgotten is that publishing is a collaborative venture and a calling of the heart.  It is about a lot more than numbers. Ultimately, when a book by a writer of genuine talent appears, it is up to the publisher, his editor, his staff, the agent, to invest enough time and money and connections in the work to give it a chance to surface, to catch the eye of the public and build up momentum.  The climate is "tough for fiction" because the deadbeats around the surviving publishing houses have no historical memory to suggest  to them what their predecessors did to improve the climate.  What publishers today seem to want exclusively is a sure thing, something prepackaged, no risk or dedication or time or effort expected.  Gutlessness -- and laziness -- sweep the industry.

People in publishing tell me selling books is hard.  It was always hard.  Publishers of talent and imagination equivalent to that of the best of their writers brought it off.  When such people return, and understand what their part of the process requires, literary America will return.  Millions of restless readers wait.

Imagination and hard work create industries.  When the interns and hangers-on along publishers' row start geting paid, perhaps motivations will improve. 

Enough sermonizing.  I feel better, even if you don't.

Burton Hersh