January 11, 2016
The greatest TV show ever made about book publishing: Part 2
by Liam O’Brien
In our previous installment, I discussed how the portrayal of book publishing in The Affair, Showtime’s award-winning drama series, is both laughably inaccurate and admirably surreal. This time, we delve into the exquisitely insane second season, one that should be required watching for all publishing professionals. (Beware, however, massive spoilers to follow.)
In the second season, the show’s writers make the bold move to split the he said/she said structure into four parts, bringing in the viewpoints of Noah and Allison’s jilted spouses, Helen and Cole. This is a great decision because it gives Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson ample opportunities to show off their considerable acting talents, and also because it means less time spent on Noah, also known as “The Rabbit Angstrom of American letters.”
It also means that most of the publishing storyline is squeezed into 50% of the airtime it took up in season one, which somehow purifies its ridiculousness. But publishing remains absolutely vital to the show—the creation, publication, and reception of Noah’s book is what drives the narrative (right off the rails).
Where do we start?
1. Allison Lockhart (nee Baily)
The Affair loves wringing pathos from class tension, though the second season is relatively even-handed. Unsympathetic rich characters, such as Noah’s mother-in-law and his best friend, reveal themselves as flawed but interesting people, and the show avoids romanticizing poverty and working-class existence as more “authentic.”
Ruth Wilson is fantastic as Allison, a member of Montauk’s service class with a complicated relationship to men. When the season opens, she’s bunking up with Noah in a guest house in Cold Spring while he trudges through his divorce mediation. Said guest house is owned by Robert and Yvonne, a wealthy married couple; Yvonne is “the head of Radford House,” a “major publishing house,” yet she somehow lives and works in the Hudson Valley.
Allison takes a job as her personal assistant, which appears to entail getting coffee and preparing form letter rejections for manuscripts. Why the head of a major publishing house is sending out rejections for manuscripts is never explained. Perhaps it’s a power move, or maybe all of her editors recently died in a party bus accident.
After Allison has an awkward moment of sexual tension with Robert, he fires her. Soon after, she finally reads Noah’s book (described by Yvonne as “fascinating”) and is outraged at its barely fictionalized portrayal of her as some type of sex-mad Long Island siren. She’s so outraged, in fact, that she moves out of the guest house, has a brief tryst with her ex-husband, and relocates to an airy new-age retreat community like the type favored by Don Draper.
The show relentlessly drives home the idea that books and Allison simply cannot mix. She picks up a book from the shelf to chase away boredom, but gives up after a page. She even describes herself as not having read a book “since Catcher In The Rye.” And she REALLY doesn’t like Descent, the book that’s about her.
And this all makes sense in the context of the show! Because in Allison’s experience, everyone who makes books is a selfish, aloof jerk. Which isn’t completely inaccurate, but it transforms publishing from a setting to a plot mover, an artless uncaring monster that ruins marriages and families with the sheer force of its $400,000 author advances.
And even that would be excusable because no TV show should have the obligation to accurately portray an industry that’s as insular and un-flashy as publishing. But here’s where it gets strange because it’s clear that somebody on staff at Showtime—perhaps the writers, perhaps a dedicated team of special-op researchers—knows something about books and publishing. Just not that much, and in no coherent order. Which brings us to…
2. So much shop-talking and name-dropping
Here are actual lines from a scene, one that clearly demonstrates the show’s grasp of the editorial process:
HARRY, Noah’s agent-editor: “[This ending] doesn’t have the punch of your first idea.”
NOAH: “Murder? It’s salacious, it’s cheap.”
HARRY: “Well, it doesn’t have to be. Have you read Of Mice And Men?”
NOAH: “As generous as that advance you got me was, I only got a fifth of it.”
HARRY: “That’s how advances work! You’ll get the next part when you submit the final draft.” (Note: this may in fact make sense in the context of the show, which has not yet made clear the fee structure for agent-editors.)
Outsized book advances have been the stuff of fiction for years, though they do still exist IRL, albeit mostly as a tool to acquire books by celebrities. Yet while a realistic depiction of the book business mechanism continues to elude the show’s writers, curiously knowing references keep cropping up.
Yvonne’s office is decorated with books titled The Stone Stacker, Solomon’s Turn, Carry That Body Down To The Rio Grande, and to top it off: Paper Plates. Sadly, these books don’t exist; they were made specifically for a single two-minute scene. But the set dressing for Harry’s corner office is all over the place; you can glimpse covers from HMH, Grand Central, Viking, Berkley, New Harvest, and at least three James Pattersons on Harry’s shelf, which tells me that the set dresser just called The Strand and had them pull ten feet of hardcovers from their dollar racks.
This alternately lazy and fine-tuned approach to detail continues. Here are some more actual lines:
“We were having dinner with Philip Roth last night—he’s my neighbor in the country—and he was talking about the press this book is getting…Philip likes to play the mad genius at his little farm in Warren, but all he cares about—all ANY author cares about—is a rave in the Times!”
“You publicists. You’re everything that’s wrong with the industry!”
“Franzen’s here, he wants a word.” “JONATHAN Franzen?” “No, Pericles Franzen. Come on!”
“Reviews are great but they don’t sell books. Personalities sell books!”
Follow the publishing references and the show spins out into a downright beautiful mess. Noah’s publicist Eden, who works for an organization called “PR Worldwide,” is a beautiful cutthroat temptress that can spin anything, and has “a contact at Virgin airlines.”
There are references to Charles Frazier’s sophomore slump, Norman Mailer, and how Helen and Noah’s mediation attorney “did the Jonathan Safran Foer/Nicole Krauss divorce and now they live in adjacent brownstones in Brooklyn.”
A key scene on Noah’s book tour takes place in Williamstown’s Water Street Books. The show uses the shop’s actual exterior, but immediately cuts to the interior of Housing Works. Audience members ask Noah questions such as “Do you believe love can last?” and “Do you believe in God?”
Later Noah complains that he’s a victim of affirmative action after an Asian woman wins the PEN/Faulkner: “As a straight white man, I am automatically disqualified from those awards…it’s impossible to be a man in 2015!” He points out Bel Canto’s 2001 PEN/Faulker win over The Corrections as proof of this. But the winky references and Franzen trutherism are forced, like the writers couldn’t reference a book that sold less than 100,000 copies for fear of losing the audience’s interest. Come on, give me a Ben Lerner joke or something!
The key issue with this approach—one in which broad pronouncements of publishing’s power are leavened with “insider-y” references—is that you can’t have it both ways.
Publishing is not a monolith, and there is no singular publishing experience, but either publishing is as the show portrays it, a cold corporate tool of the elite that grinds up the experiences of the poor and spits out hardcovers, or it’s as these insider(ish) references are meant to suggest: that a nuanced portrayal of an industry can be achieved with judicious inclusion of jargon.
But it can’t be both, unless you inhabit the magical universe of The Affair.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.