The Belles Lettres Papers by Charles Simmons (Morrow: $12.95; 175 pp.)
The book publishing industry has always been a source of fascination to many. Lately, it has reached an even larger scale of interest as what was once regarded as a gentlemanly profession has become the target of corporate takeovers and the stuff of which front-page business sections stories are now made. Authors make headlines when their several million-dollar advances break records. Agents appear in the likes 186896392029-year-old game show hostess reflects the public’s taste. Presidents and CEOs of major publishing houses show up in the Wall Street Journal with the Journal’s prestigious line drawing portrait set into the article while at the same time the same face appears in a full-color, double-page ad for a state-of-the-art printing process.
While all this goes on, the everyday life of the publishing industry is seldom chronicled. The real drama and politics never reach daylight. No one would ever suspect that the people least talked about--editors--are the people who give the industry the most color. No one except any editor that has ever worked in a publishing house or for a powerful literary review.
Several former editors have tried their hand at characterizing editorial staffs in commercial novels or publishing histories. But none has succeeded in capturing this scene with the wit and insight of Charles Simmons, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review.
Simmons’ novel “The Belles Lettres Papers” details the daily machinations of a powerful literary review called “Belles Lettres.” Its narrator, Frank Page, is a young staff member. Sound familiar? “Frank Page” was the pseudonymous author of the chapters of “The Belles Lettres Papers” when they first appeared in the Nation and the New Republic. Any resemblance between Frank Page and Charles Simmons is, ahem, coincidental. Any resemblance between the novel’s characters and the real-life characters that populate the industry is not coincidental. One can imagine the contents of this book being snickered at over drinks and the book’s jacket peeking out of carryalls that are being toted out to the Hamptons or Woodstock for the weekend.
An obviously “in” novel for the literati, “The Belles Lettres Papers” crosses several audiences. It will be devoured by editors who will boast that they were involved in some of the antics. Self-respecting book reviewers will cringe at the reviewer selection pro1667593075Norman Mailer will love the following description of “Ancient Evenings” recited at a weekly assignment meeting--"The Old Testament written by Mel Brooks, ‘The Iliad’ written by Woody Allen.” If you’re interested in a publishing career, here’s your chance to reconsider. Devoted fans of book review sections can learn if book editors read all the books they assign, dictate to book reviewers what to say, select reviewers they hope will be friendly (or the reverse).
Finally, Simmons has written a novel in which anyone who has ever worked for a social-climbing tyrant can identify with. Anyone would sympathize with editor Jonathan Margin as he loses his job to Newbold Press, a corporate hit man brought in to clean house. Press thinks his inherited editorial staff should be working on scrolls instead of reviewing manuscripts. He underestimates their powers of endurance and their innate survival instincts as they rally to a diabolically plotted finish for Press. One turns the last page applauding their genius.