Literature as Life Style : White Palace <i> by Glenn Savan (Bantam New Fiction: $8.95, paperback; 416 pp.) </i>
Three years ago, when Glenn Savan was still wondering if he’d ever make it as a novelist, and the Bantam New Fiction series, which Savan’s “White Palace” launches, wasn’t even a gleam in the publisher’s eye, the rights market for fiction reprints was already inflated. A hardcover title that might ordinarily have earned $1,000 to $5,000 in a paperback edition was selling for two to 10 times that. Editors rushed to find material from which to fashion and refashion quality trade paperback lines--Vintage Contemporaries, Penguin Contemporary American Fiction, Harper’s Perennial Library, the Scribner Signature Editions and many others, the names suggesting up-to-the-minute classics. Neglected titles--from excellent to indifferent--were sucked back into print.
Soon the lines began to imitate each other or to parody themselves in choice of authors and book design. Store windows, aisles, counters were given over to inexpensive softcovers so handsome, so pliable that anyone wants to touch them--the packagers’ successful sense of objet --heightened colors, strong graphics, the urban aura of money and cocaine, sex, ennui, despair, knockoffs of chilly modern art, MTV, record album covers, slick surfaces. Jay McInerney--a Salinger for the MBA set, reviewers termed him--had broken from the gate.
Fiction for original release in paperback was now in demand, especially first and second novels and short stories by young writers without a demonstrable record of middling to low sales, without figures in the loss columns. It’s much easier to package and hype the unknown than to understand and explain the body of a writer’s work. Until Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” took off in hardcover, Knopf editors stood around at cocktail parties musing, “I wonder why DeLillo doesn’t sell more books.” The question’s been forgotten but not answered: DeLillo demands a lot from a reader, more than most are willing to bring to a book unless it’s been hyped, or perhaps, like McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” it hooks into major atmospheric disturbances. Before “White Noise,” DeLillo had six titles in slow-selling, handsome trade paper editions. Then he changed from Knopf to Viking, was well promoted in hardcover, and “White Noise,” slightly more accessible than his earlier novels, won the 1985 American Book Award. Much of the success of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” the first novel to find an enormous trade paper audience, is explained in the comment of a black man reading it on a transcontinental flight. He was almost done and his white seatmate asked if it was good. Fanning the pages, the man replied, “Well, everybody says it is.”
Market success may say little about intrinsic worth.
Advances for new fiction have overmatched reprint inflation, with $25,000, $50,000, $150,000 going for first novels considered literary , i.e., good work that doesn’t usually sell. Publishing bulls have predicted the death of the hardcover and even the salvation of older, mid-list--barely profitable-- authors through trade paperbacks. The author who would have reached 5,000 readers would now reach 35,000, near best-sellerdom in literary (Updike, Robert Stone) terms as opposed to popular (Harold Robbins, Stephen King) millions sold. Richard Ford and Max Apple’s third novels succeeded as trade paper originals. Bullish claims have been sustained by a consumer trend away from hardcover prices as well as a paperback preference among an audience that grew up reading Penguins--books to toss in a satchel, to dogear, or to leave open, face down on a table, literature as life style, which is the newspaper section many of the lines have been reviewed in.
Front list publishing--like fashion retailing--runs on novelty, not just new titles each season but new styles immediately recognizable. The success of trade paperbacks has focused attention on young writers like Glenn Savan. Media interest in the process--the life behind the work, the pages fresh from the writer’s desk, the buying and selling of authors, the making of fame, what’s hot and what’s not--rises beyond consideration of the work itself.
Gossip travels fast in publishing circles. The phone rings--a magazine editor wanting to know if I think Glenn Savan is the next McInerney. The phone rings again--a book editor calling to say she’s heard that McInerney dismisses Savan, decides not to read him, after seeing Kakutani’s glowing review in the daily New York Times. In a late-night long-distance conversation, an old classmate of Savan’s from the Iowa Writers Workshop tells me Savan’s no good at all. “But he writes great sex,” I say.
“No, he doesn’t!” snaps the classmate.
“Well,” I offer, “not as good as you.”
In the battle for reputation, Tama Janowitz stands outside rock clubs handing out Tama Janowitz flyers. Mona Simpson learns literary politics inside out. But as Savan’s old classmate puts it, “Jayne Anne Phillips hustled but you forgive it because the work stands up.”
But we may have already passed the peak. The voice of the age--Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Updike, a touch of Gordon Lish, modernist and post-modernist formalism, New Yorker stories from the 1960s and ‘70s--has reached pure distillation in young stylists such as David Leavitt, Peter Cameron, Mona Simpson. Everyone hears what everyone hears. People magazine announces Simpson not as the next Salinger or Katherine Anne Porter but the next McInerney or Sue Miller. When the tissue of experience and sensation grows that thin, it tears. New novelties emerge--books of neoconservative political philosophy, courtroom gossip or even, one might dream, poetry.
Hot and cold. The present heat has been kept up by consolidation of concerns in publishing. Within the past year a German firm has taken over and begun corporate consolidation of Bantam, Dell, Delacorte, Doubleday; Viking UK has begun consolidation of the following American houses--Viking, Penguin, Dutton and New American Library; Macmillan, which had previously acquired Scribner’s and Atheneum, has greatly accelerated consolidation of all its imprints; Arbor House has become an imprint of Morrow; Harper & Row, one of the last non-conglomerate-owned houses, was acquired by Rupert Murdock and linked with a British house, Collins; Random House, owned by the Newhouse syndicate, bought several British publishers; B. Dalton, one of two major bookselling chains, faces crisis and plans merger with Barnes & Noble; Esquire magazine is sold to Hearst Publications. Independent publishers have all but disappeared into a few large corporations. The New York Times Sunday Business pages report, “The turmoil in corporate America is forcing the nation’s business leaders to undertake the most radical reassessment of their practices since World War II . . . .
“The new order eschews loyalty to workers, products, corporate structure, businesses, factories, communities, even the nation. All such allegiances are viewed as expendable under the new rules. With survival at stake, only market leadership, strong profits and a high stock price can be allowed to matter . . . .
”. . . (This) new approach is reinforcing the penchant among American managers for short-term results, instead of viewing their companies as businesses to be built and preserved . . . .”
Fast product. Ultimately, few of the new trade paperback lines will survive as we see them now. However, the houses with strong, old, backlist programs--Random, Penguin, Harper & Row--have always re-created lines from their overall libraries. Random’s classy Aventura line of foreign literature may not be hot in the marketplace, but the acquisitions are solid, and individual titles could continually reappear in one series format or another, just as Random’s Modern Library fed into Vintage Books, which fed into Vintage Contemporaries. Houses with independence and literary prestige--Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Atlantic Monthly Press, North Point, Graywolf--may show fewer marketing permutations but often make choices that bigger houses rediscover and promote as trends. In 1981, North Point’s quality trade paperback editions of Evan Connell’s “Mrs. Bridge” and “Mr. Bridge” were prototypical.
Bantam, which was founded 40 years ago by a consortium of hardcover publishers, has never been considered a literary house. It published its first hardback only seven years ago. It enters the literary paperback market late and with a number of advantages: a deep well of profits from celebrity biographies (Lee Iacocca, Shirley MacLaine) and mass-market best sellers (Judith Krantz, Jean Auel); vast paperback experience, including classics and contemporary fiction reprints; and state-of-the-art marketing and distribution.
Unlike the established lines, which mix reprints and originals, famous and unknown writers, Bantam New Fiction is composed entirely of originals and mainly of unknown authors. More than other lines, Bantam is gambling on the success of its individual authors. It’s true that Vintage Contemporaries took off with an unknown, Jay McInerney, but had “Bright Lights, Big City” been less successful, Thomas McGuane, Carver, Peter Matthiessen on the first season’s list lent prestige, if not huge profits.
Certainly, Bantam bought Savan’s book and selected it for the launch because they believe in it and him. Also, his indicators are good: Iowa, a reasonably long apprenticeship, a good agent, appearance in small magazines, publicity angles in his personal story--he’s from and writes about lit biz nowhere, St. Louis (fresh ground), worked as an ad man, gave it up, waited tables (integrity, commitment). Oh, and the film rights have been optioned by Sydney Pollack.
Savan’s “White Palace” is an unusually good, fast read, and Savan does write wrought-up, explicit sex, which can’t be quoted in a newspaper. But here is a mild, indicative, post-coital passage from page 69:
“Nora scratched her ribs. The curves and angles of her body, eclipsing the sun that was pouring through the window, were outlined in gold. She appeared to be a living riddle, a sphinx, so honeycombed with secret passageways and hidden chambers that she was a mystery even to herself. Nora reached down to scratch her ankle, her spinal column bumpling beneath the thin translucent skin, and her mythical luster disappeared. She was suddenly something bitterly prosaic: a middle-aged, unbeautiful, hung-over woman in critical need of a bath, rousing herself from yet another one-night stand in the trash dump of her living room. Just the thought of trying to synthesize those two visions exhausted Max, and he lay back and blinked at the map of Africa floating in the crack sea of her ceiling.”
Shrewd, hard-bitten, aging Nora works the register at a White Palace hamburger joint. Max is a very handsome, widower yuppie. Nora has every reason to want him, and no reason to believe he could want her, even for sex. They are together accidentally, and what happens is so unlikely they can’t believe it themselves: Max falls in love with her.
They seem set for tragedy, but Savan works comic, romantic and satiric edges. Through Nora, Max has an opportunity that few of us have, to step outside his life and see it plain. His best friends--wealthy, fat Horowitz and mordant Klugman--are revealed in their easy greed and petty depravities (sexual kinks, cocaine, the fetish of possessions). They try to diagnose, discourage his attachment, or are simply indifferent, caught up in themselves. From Nora’s self-abnegating “How come you’re so good to me?” we are carried on a rich tide of social and sexual reversals (she’s bolder, direct, more of a man than he) to Max’s “I’m the one who’s not good enough for you.”
Max overcomes his priggishness, abandons the shrine he’s made of his wife’s death. His heart swells, his head shrinks, his feet touch the earth. He lends Nora books to read. He’s an English teacher turned ad man. One night when he wants to make love, she’s absorbed in “Huck Finn.” “What I’m in the mood for,” she tells him, “is finding out what happens next.” Savan’s joke: Literature kills sex (and unintentionally, I think, the idea that Max is no match for Huck). Later, Nora will begin to put herself through school but says, “The last thing I want to know is how I’m going to end up.” More than fear, it’s faith.
Savan offers life as mystery, suggests that you can only know “who really belongs to you, and then act accordingly. The rest is out of your hands.” That’s as profound a thought, and as well expressed, as you’ll find in “White Palace.” Savan’s no stylist. The coarseness of his tale, his familiarity with his characters, his love for their love, the curiosity of a situation that tweaks downward mobility as much as upward are what recommend and sustain the book.
Savan is not our next McInerney. Instead, through Max, he sets up his own comparisons--Twain, Blake, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw--and though the book would have been stronger without the self-conscious, English major references, without many of the convenient coincidences and repetitions in plot (Max’s wife dies in an auto wreck, his mother is run over by a bus), and would have been funnier without the jokes that feel set up, without the parade of brand names and pop icons to key the satire, from beginning to end Savan’s ambition remains good-natured. You hardly mind that the women in “White Palace” smoke and the men don’t, that the women are either mother or authority figures, that Max’s advertising bosses are an attractive, sharp-witted lesbian and a cold bitch with body odor. The portrayals are brighter, keener than stereotype and caricature but often paler, more mechanical than characters. Accurately measured, not against McInerney or even an older generation, Salinger, Roth, but against the ordinary, sometimes remarkable business of living in the full awareness of our own mortality, measured, that is, against absolute reality, “White Palace” is a surprising, mid-American love song, which is just what it should be to reach a wide, welcoming audience for Bantam New Fiction. Other titles forthcoming in the series--one each month--should be well worth reading.