Authorship, an Address to the Authors Guild Gala, May 24, 2010

Welcome to the Authors Guild gala. I come from the big flat place out west of here where there are many authors and they are sorry they couldn’t be here but the corn was not in yet and the hogs had the measles and needed to be inoculated.

Everyone has a gala now, the Salvation Army has a gala, the library, the 7th Avenue subway has a gala, the Central Park Reservoir, the American Irony Association — this gala is different in that there is no silent auction, no door prizes, and there is, as you can see, no entertainment, and it’s all in behalf of the Authors Guild which is like the Amalgamated Pipefitters Local 494 except there are more women and more elderly men, and it’s to support the battle for authors’ rights which as you know is a losing battle — in your lifetime, not in mine, but in yours, writers will feel lucky to be paid anything, a penny a word, and some writers will be paid in paper clips or tubes of mucilage, and they will live in pup tents on the outskirts of town by the freightyards and their children will run wild like coyotes and learn to forage for food, and I bring this up to put you in a grateful mood that here you are at perhaps the last Authors Guild gala with napkins and silverware. I’m older than you and I’m trying to give you some perspective.

I am old enough to remember when book publishers were in midtown Manhattan, in expensive high rises alongside financial companies. I am one of the few writers in this room to have typed my book manuscript on a typewriter and mailed it to a publisher in an envelope with postage on it. I remember when publishers put on parties to celebrate the publication of a book and held them in fancy midtown restaurants. They once put on one for me at the Oak Room of the Algonquin. Brendan Gill came. Lewis Lapham. Those days will never come again. Viking used to give me an advance for my books and now they send me a bill. But that’s all right.

There is a hardship fund that the Authors Guild Foundation operates and some of the proceeds of tonight’s gala go to that, a fund for needy authors, authors whose names were once on everyone’s lips and now they are diving into dumpsters and foraging off people’s plates at sidewalk cafes. Sidney Offitt is the man you need to get to know if you think you may ever apply for a stipend.

We all read the same stories about the dim prospects in the publishing business. America is more literate than ever, thanks to the Internet, and this writing is free. You can sit at a screen and read all day and all night, surfing around, from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, and it’s all free, and you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you purchase a book, you’re a hummingbird in the lilac bushes, and the same if you want to be a writer. You just write. You don’t need to ask Alfred Knopf’s permission to start a website. Start it. Fill it up. People do this. You want to write a book, write it, send it to Lulu.com they’ll design it and everything. Send it to Amazon, they’ll make it into an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: twelve million authors in America, each with an average of sixteen readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

One problem with self-publishing is that it destroys the martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for at least a couple of centuries: the role of tortured genius is no longer available to us. Here we are, with a crack in our hearts that forced us to create, though we suffered horribly through it, and our book was rejected by 22 publishers, and then it was published by the 23rd and came out to vast critical acclaim that made us wildly famous and we had to go to New Hampshire to escape from fame, and now we’ve written nothing for 40 years because it’s just too painful. This is the mythology that once was available to us, but if you publish yourself, then it doesn’t work anymore. In the field of self-publication you can’t be a recluse. And if you stop writing, nobody cares.

Every time the Authors Guild holds a gala, I look around and wonder if this is maybe like the 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the 1951 meeting of CBS Radio affiliates or the 1916 wedding of Kaiser Wilhelm’s niece Duchess Gertrude and all of German nobility with their plumed hats gathered for the last time before the Great War sent them spinning off the precipice.

Anyone can have a website. You write a blog, you’re an author. You don’t need an agent to win you some space. It’s an anti-elitist time and the rabble is aroused against the pointy-heads who look down their noses at common folk and tell them what to think and that includes everybody in this room.

Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around

We who live out in the frozen cornfields of the Midwest understand this very well and we don’t mind. We are a modest people with much to be modest about, self-effacing, anxious to efface ourselves and not wait for others to do the job. We could, if we chose to, despise New York, especially if we thought about Mayor Giuliani’s curled-lip bared-teeth speech at the 2008 Republican convention, sneering at Barack Obama as a city slicker. But we do not think about that. We admire New Yorkers for many many things, for their excellent transit system that gives you close encounters with interesting individuals, their handy street-corner hot dogs, and also their ability to express personal preference which we dirt farmers lost a long time ago. It was frowned out of us when we were children.

It seems so simple — say what you want, say what you think — but we gave up the ability in order to be unselfish and sociable and not be monsters, and so if we’re asked what we want to do, we say, “Hey. Whatever you want. Makes no difference. Suit yourself.” And having suppressed our likes and dislikes for so long, we are not sure what we want, or even who we are.

What I want is to be in New York, so here I am. The people I know in this city are whole-hearted people who tell you what they prefer, the noodles in garlic sauce or General Tsao’s Seven Joys of Meat Loaf. If you step on their toes, they don’t smile and step back and then brood about it for six months, they say something terse and meaningful and let that be the end of it. If they feel like crying, they do that. It’s okay to cry in New York. You can sit on the subway, tears running down your cheeks, and no one will think less of you. People may offer you some of their medication, or tell you about something going on in their life that’s even worse. You could suddenly find yourself with three or four new best friends.

Children, I am an author who used to type my book manuscripts on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And I kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I wish you’d been there to see it. It’s gone now. If you want to know more, I’ll write a book about it but you’ll have to pay me in advance. I’m going to say a number. One hundred thousand. Take it or leave it.

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Yes, we have now turned the corner

Last week my wife asked me four separate times if I was depressed about something, which I was not, and now, ever since early Sunday morning, I’ve felt mysteriously happy, and I guess that Daylight Saving Time must be the reason. For us in the flat snowy northern tundra regions, turning our clocks forward is the first step toward spring and how can one not rejoice? We await the day when sidewalks are not treacherous and we can escape our squalid hovels and get out and ambulate, and the day in April or May when we can sit outdoors and eat lunch at a plaza and observe the humanity around us. That is where the good life begins, when we escape from Wi-Fi and meet face to face in bright light in our sneakers and T-shirts.

Here in Minnesota, we have two more big snowstorms to endure, the DST storm and then the State High School Basketball Tournament blizzard at the end of the month, and then we’re in the clear. I see younger people out walking even now, but they have headphones on and I worry that they won’t hear the car approaching and will step boldly into the crosswalk while listening to a wealthy pop star screaming that nobody understands her, which would be a wretched way to die, run over by a geezer confused by the stoplight while you are tuned in to the complaints of a multi-multi-millionaire.

It’s been a hard winter, though it was late arriving, and in March I look around my shrinking circle of friends for signs of marital discord. Being cooped up in close quarters can lead to questions — how was I attracted to this (dolt/shrew) and how should I proceed to shed myself of (him/her)? You sit over your organic artisanal oatmeal and your spouse asks if you were aware that the world’s population is 7.6 billion, which you weren’t, and it seems that he or she has read a book about demography and would like to give you the highlights. The combination of demography and oatmeal leads you down into a dark psychological cellar, but how can you say “Shut up” to your mate and not offend her/him? So you stifle yourself and resentment builds and that night, while drying dishes, you drop a precious plate that belonged to your spouse’s grandmother and the spouse stalks out of the room and goes online and Googles “divorce.”

I see no signs of this among the people I know and I’m glad. Divorce is a disaster, even when it is necessary. It is dreadful for children, don’t kid yourself. I am thinking of starting a movement against it, #UsTwo. I may write a book in which I say that forgiveness is the crucial thing in marriage, not justice, not commonality, and that a couple must — not should, but must — go through the ceremonies of affection, the morning embrace, the saying of “I love you” at least fifteen times daily, the touching of the loved one’s shoulders and arm and back whenever within reach, the wholehearted acceptance of the spouse’s irrational whims and impulses. Silence is the enemy. Chitchat is your friend. Small talk is at the center of every long-lived love. Avoid big ideas. Never discuss demography. Now and then put away the oatmeal and have steak and eggs.

My wife is cheerful and I am dour and when people see us on the street, they think, “How good of that young woman to get her uncle out of the Home and into the fresh air.” But we get along very well thanks to our observance of the formalities. The touch on the shoulder, the sudden turning to the other and saying, “I’m in love with you,” and meaning it. If she looks at me over the oatmeal tomorrow and says that Bernie Sanders has won her heart, it honestly won’t matter to me one bit. If she is lured into some exotic cult that wears pointy hats and worships cats and never walks in threes, I’m OK. We are solid.

The world is not as it once was and we know that. The homegrown tomato has almost disappeared from America in favor of species bred for long shelf life so they can be trucked up from Ecuador in the winter, tomatoes that bounce if you drop them because they are bred with genes of tennis balls, and so you no longer bite into a tomato and feel euphoria, but if you are loved and if spring comes soon, you’re going to be OK. It’s just ahead. We’ll sit outdoors and drink coffee and the sun will shine on us, I promise.

I'm only going to say this once

One by one, Democrats are stepping into the arena for the 2020 campaign, and their appeals for donations flutter into my inbox, and I do not envy the young staffers assigned to write importuning letters. To project noble ideals and crisis and chumminess in 250 words is a tough assignment, especially when you know that the first two sentences are all I’ll read.

Twelve hats are in, more on the way, some serious, most delusional. Hotel business in Iowa and New Hampshire will be steady all year and then on Super Tuesday, March 3, the truth will dawn. The stumblers and pretenders, the gasbags and long-shot gamblers, will quietly disappear, and two or three contenders will head into the spring and summer.

It is presumed they’ll be running against the weak incumbent but after the Cohen hearing, one doubts that. D.T. is accepted by everyone over the age of ten, even those who love him, as a dishonest sleazeball with ADD issues, and with Democrats conducting hearings from now till the election, he is going to be in the news more or less nonstop as a national embarrassment. Republicans at last week’s hearing could only heckle Cohen; none of them stood up for his boss and said what a great American he is. His best hope is that Bernie Sanders be the Democrats’ nominee: that’s a race D.T. can win in a walk. America doesn’t want an angry president; wacko is bad enough.

If Joe Biden enters the lists and emerges next March as the front-runner, D.T. will issue a brief statement that, having made the country great again and now wishing to spend quality time with his family, he will retire to Mar-a-Lago and work on his short game. Maybe Sean Hannity will accept the nomination in his place. America is not ready for a man who parts his hair that high on his head. Biden will win and restore normalcy.

The remarkable thing about the Cohen hearing was how unremarkable it was, the whole wretched epic of corruption and dishonesty and egomania. And the remarkable thing about D.T. is how little real damage the grifter has accomplished. We all imagined that the Presidency was a superhuman responsibility, the light burning late in the Oval Office, the great man bearing the world on his shoulders, and now it turns out that a clown with a hair fetish who doesn’t know schist from Shinola can occupy the chair and life goes on much as before. Electricity is flowing, there is milk and butter in the stores. If Justice Ginsburg resigns soon, we will have a Supreme Court straight out of 1857. But your Wi-Fi will still work.

There is a general awareness that we cannot continue trashing the planet as we’ve done, but the crisis grows slowly and AOC can’t promote it to emergency simply by saying so. We don’t want to ride the bus and turn off lawn sprinklers until God sends a prophet in a pillar of fire to scare us, not just a bunch of Ph.Ds. So the Green New Deal, though insightful, is not a winner.

The Mueller report will not usher D.T. out of office. He is a crook and a liar but we’ve known that for two years. Mueller will only add details. The Republican Party is not going to usher him out; he owns them.

What will win for Democrats is a candidate who is presidential. Even people who expect to vote for D.T. are embarrassed by him. Nobody imagines that he represents anything admirable about America. Obama was a good orator. W. was likable. Clinton loved politics. Bush was a war hero. Reagan was genuine. Carter was a man of faith. Ford was a true patriot. Nixon was a master of his craft. Ike was Ike. Each man had biographers who found things to admire. D.T. is as transparent as cellophane, one of the most unloved presidents in our history.

The American electorate wants this man to disappear into the back pages and the Democrats owe it to us to make that happen. This is no time for a great leap forward. It is time for him to go so that journalists can go back to writing nonfiction and Congress can get back into business. Let’s put a woman in charge in 2024. First, let’s have an old white guy with thin hair throw the rascal out.

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