March 31, 2015
Two for Tuesday: Would Robert Giroux Publish the 300 Sandwiches book?
by Mark Krotov & Alex Shephard
Topics discussed: the Giroux Index, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Beatles, the U.S.S.R., being back in the U.S.S.R., being from the U.S.S.R., the time Alex called Mark a communist agent, George Plimpton, Robert Giroux, Kendrick Lamar, George Scialabba, Howard Dean, 300 Sandwiches, Tucker Max, memes, outrage, books, ooks, Physical Graffiti, Gene Simmons, editing, stupid white men, Stupid White Men, Winning Back America, The Lonely Planet German Phrasebook, Franco Moretti
Mark: Hi Alex! So, some big news stories this week in realms literary and non-. A plane crash in Europe, controversy in the Tournament of Books. Would you like to discuss these issues?
Alex: Na. I’m cool.
Mark: Oh. Okay. Is there anything you would like to talk about? I overheard you discussing the Kendrick Lamar album with Liam today, but this isn’t a music blog, so we’re not going to talk about that. (I mean, we could, but you guys were basically acting out a music blog right in the office.) I’d like to talk about the great George Scialabba’s new and amazingly titled Baffler piece “People Who Influence Influential People Are the Most Influential People in the World,” but I haven’t read it yet. Are we really all out of ideas? Is this the end of Two for Tuesday?
Alex: Never. This is when we thrust off our shackles. We’ve already done our Sgt. Pepper (um, the Harper Lee one maybe?). Now we’re free to follow our hearts, which is why I am writing this Two for Tuesday from an ashram. My guru Pitka (namaste) says that Two for Tuesday is finally going to come out of its shell now and also that I should write more songs about my mother that are also about Yoko Ono.
The only thing I really want to talk about this week is that drones are replacing sheepdogs and how that is not ok because now we’re going to be overrun with unemployed, homeless, adorable sheep dogs and my landlord doesn’t allow dogs but I’m going to adopt all of them? So I will also be without a home soon. Let me know if you have a dog-friendly apartment I can move into with 1,273 sheepdogs.
Mark: Sorry, we’ve banned dogs in Queens, so I can’t really recommend anything. But okay, if we’ve already done our Sgt. Pepper, let’s go straight for the White Album. Let this be our glorious, complex tribute to excess and self-indulgence. As I recall, most of the White Album is about sandwiches–hundreds of them–which is awfully convenient, as I’d like to discuss 300 Sandwiches, the once-meme that is about to enter literary history as a book, coming to a local bookseller (and, depending on Zinc Ink’s special-sales operations, sandwich shop) near you.
As I recall, 300 Sandwiches caused quite an uproar, because it was tone-deaf, offensive, and awful, but even at the time, people seemed to say that a book deal was an inevitable outcome of this entire quasi-scandal. But though I’ve just called the whole thing “tone-deaf, offensive, and awful,” I don’t especially want to talk about the project’s merits. Instead, I want to ask a question that I asked–poorly–in my post about Tucker Max a couple of months back. Namely: why books? Why, when a meme emerges into the public eye, do we assume (always correctly) that the inevitable outcome is a book? Is it just that a book still presents the best opportunity to monetize what would otherwise be a short-lived internet phenomenon? Or is there something more at work?
Alex: First of all, the song you are thinking of is “Revolution no. 9” and second of all, it’s not called the White Album, you idiot, it’s called The Beatles and it just happens to be white. I know that you were born in the Soviet Union or whatever but that’s no excuse because “Back in the U.S.S.R.” is the first song on that album—The Beatles—and even though it is more of a beef bait song with The Beach Boys than a song about the Soviet Union, you should still know it.
But, yes, the sandwiches. Let’s talk about the sandwiches. Actually, let’s wait one second. Mark, without looking it up, when do you think that the New York Post article that launched this book was published?
Mark: This is actually a very good question! 2013?
Alex: Correct! It was published in September of 2013, aka one and a half years ago, aka the Paleolithic Era, in internet years, which are like dog years except they don’t exist to teach children about death (dogs also exist for this reason, sorry sheepdogs!).
Books obviously take a lot more time to produce than front page New York Post stories (which, from what I understand, have never taken more than eight minutes), but that is a loooooonnnnggggg time for something that basically was published for one reason: to produce outrage on the internet and, in turn, get attention. That’s a risky strategy in journalism, but one that can pay off if you don’t care about your reputation/don’t rely on it too often/are the New York Post, but I’m not sure if it’s a great strategy for book publishing.
You’ll read a short, outrageous article online for a short amount of time if everyone online is talking about how outrageous it is. You might pick up a book that was spawned from an outrageous article—or even one that’s outrageous in and of itself—but outrage has never seemed like a particularly good marketing strategy to me. Why should I spend $30 on something I know will piss me off? I mean, I read (and pay for!) Gene Simmons’s books, but that’s because I think that they’re hilarious and absurd and I get a great deal of pleasure from them. But in this case… I just don’t know. But I’ve been wrong before! I may be wrong now. And, hey, wait, have we got in touch with those millionaire real estate kids? That seems like a book…
Mark: First, Alex, I’d like to make something very clear to our readers (Michael Schaub, my mom (who says these posts are too long, and thus only reads them occasionally), and some unemployed sheepdogs): I fucking know the name of the Beatles album. Yes, it’s true that “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was an essential song for a young Soviet child desperate for cultural acculturation, and yes it’s true that I tend to refer to albums by their color (It took me years to realize that Physical Graffiti was called Physical Graffiti and not Dull, Dark, Deeply English Gray), but I’m not that culturally ignorant. So readers, don’t let Alex deceive you: I may not know much, but I do the name of at least one Beatles album.
In terms of outrageousness as book promotion, I’m right there with you. And I think it poses a problem for this book, because unlike something like Julie and Julia, which began as a blog but had a kind of inspirational undercurrent (note: I have not read this book, but I have seen the trailer for the movie), I don’t recall this blog having many partisans. But if you read the description for the book (which is, of course, a marketing tool, but which tends to provide a reasonably good window into a publisher’s thinking about a given project), Zinc is sort of trying to have it both ways–they’re acknowledging the controversy, but erring on the side of love, romance, triumph, etc. Which is, of course, exactly what I would do if I had to publish this book, but it seems risky.
And I also agree that timing is an issue. I’ve never been–and hope to never be–someone who complains about the slow place of book publishing, largely because I don’t think it’s that slow, and because a proper editing, production, sales, marketing, and publicity cycle can make a book exponentially stronger, more appealing, more viable, more visible, etc. For a publisher to be able to devote time to a book is a crucial thing. But in this case, people have either forgotten about 300 Sandwiches entirely, or remember like we did before we started talking about it, as a blip in the outrage cycle. It’s a lot of work to not only remind readers of the thing, but also prove to them that they should care about it in a way they never cared about it in the first place.
But okay. Let’s say that this really does come down exclusively to money–that the advance Stephanie Smith was paid and the royalties she may earn represented the most solid way to turn this blog into something profitable. Maybe that really is the end of the story. Still, I think there’s something to the fact that there was a collective expectation–even from you and me, neither of whom were particularly interested in the meme–that this would become a book. To me, that’s a cultural story–not a financial one. And to help me resolve this riddle, I’d like to turn to one of the most acclaimed literary editors of the twentieth century, Robert Giroux. Mr. Giroux, can you shed some light on 300 Sandwiches?
Robert Giroux: I’ve been dead for six and a half years.
Mark: Oh, forgive me! Sorry about that. It’s just that I recently reread your Paris Review interview, in which you seemed so . . . alive.
Robert Giroux: Yes, those things very well-edited.
Mark: They really are! Did you ever read the one with Philip Roth . . . you know what, I won’t disturb you. But the reason I mentioned you, other than that you’re the best, is something that George Plimpton says in the introduction to the interview:
Giroux is very much a traditionalist, with a profound dislike for what he calls “ooks,” publications that are almost but not quite books (“You have trouble remembering them two weeks after they come out”), and is especially disparaging of so-called acquiring editors who often, in his mind, serve as talent scouts rather than editors. “Editors used to be known by their authors,” he has said memorably. “Now some of them are known by their restaurants.”
Since you’re dead, I’ll ask Alex Shephard, one of the most acclaimed Directors of Digital Media of the twenty-first century, to comment on the book vs. ook issue. Alex?
Alex: I really would like to know what Robert Giroux would have to say about a title like “Director of Digital Media.” (I’m not sure what Plimpton would have to say but I do know what he would do: turn himself into a computer.)
This–the book vs. ook thing–is a fascinating idea! But before I get there I’d like to point out one thing. As a child, you said, you thought of Physical Graffiti as Dull, Dark, Deeply English Gray. But the photo that graces that album’s cover was taken not far from where we are writing this Two for Tuesday (in a Brooklyn-themed bar in Manhattan)! The building is still standing, I believe, on 8th St. and St. Marks, and I am going to report you, sir, to the U.S. government as a likely communist agent.
Before getting to the question of ooks and books, I would like to say that the keynote for the 300 Sandwiches book dexcription—“Honey, you are 300 sandwiches away from an engagement ring.”—really puts me off. I am from a small town and the gross, misogynist, gross “make me a sandwich” meme is still very much alive there and I just don’t like it. I don’t really have anything to say about it, just that I don’t like it because I worry that it plays into that and I worry that it (perhaps subconsciously) has played into this whole fracas.
But anyway, what makes a book a book? This is something I think about a lot when editing the blog that this very stupid, very poorly named column appears on—is it an article? Or is it a tweet? Or an Instagram? Or is it a periscope? Or perhaps a Tumbl? I am the director of digital media and, as such, am very invested in new, submarine-themed media.
But Giroux’s implication is, I think, a very useful one: there are books out there that probably shouldn’t be books. They’re just being published because publishing is venture capital and, because they have a semblance of recognition, the assumption is that they will AT LEAST pay out. The hardest thing with breaking out a book is getting people to know enough about a book to want to spend a sizable amount of money on it—it’s why word-of-mouth is so crucial to bookselling, even if most publishers are terrible at generating it. (Being terrible at it is OK! It’s hard.) As someone who reads a lot of books by musicians—I just finished reading Mick Fleetwood’s autobiography, which my friend Max Rivlin-Nadler gave to me, which would’ve been nice, had he not inscribed it “To Alex—may you wear many hats -Mick” and LED ME TO BELIEVE IT HAD BEEN INSCRIBED BY MICK FLEETWOOD HIMSELF—I am proof that this works! But these often aren’t quite books, even though Mick’s was exceedingly charming.
So what makes a book? I’m very fond of Giroux’s formulation, but not particularly fond of the word “ook,” which doesn’t make a ton of sense to me—I guess it is literally “not quite a book” but it’s just a little too on the nose. So I’m going to propose a counter-formulation, which you will have to define: The Giroux Index. Basically it will run from 0-1 with 0 being NOT A BOOK and 1 being IT CAN ONLY BE A BOOK. Anything that should’ve been a tweet or a screenplay or a novelty t-shirt or that could’ve been one of those things—or that just shouldn’t be a book—will fall in between. What do you say, Mark? Let’s launch a fucking index. So, a book of tweets is, in almost every instance, a zero. The Lonely Planet German Phrasebook is a 1. As is Ulysses. (House of Leaves should be a 1 as well, but I keep running the math and it keeps coming out as a .420???)
Mark: Ugh, jesus, Alex, Do we have to spend this entire post talking about how I’m not a total moron? I guess so. But no. I won’t let you get under my skin. I won’t let you hurt me. I am strong. And so with that in mind, our readers can decide this Zeppelin controversy for themselves.
I’ll get to the Giroux Index in a minute, but I would like to dwell on the book vs. ook thing a bit more. As you say, it’s a wonderfully self-evident question: did this book really need to be a book? It’s subjective, of course, but it’s a question anyone can answer pretty definitively for themeselves. There’s something more to the distinction, though: I don’t think Giroux is merely asking if something should have been a book–he’s trying to make a judgment about the worth of a book without resorting to the usual tools. He’s not talking about genre, or style, or the writer’s credentials–it’s an editorial opinion, but it’s concerned chiefly with a book’s cultural contribution. At least that’s how I understand it. I wish I could ask Giroux about this myself, but he’s still dead. Right, Mr. Giroux?
Robert Giroux: Right.
Mark: Fair enough. But as to the Giroux Index: I think we’ve stumbled onto something very important here. The Giroux Index might be the exact thing that our data-obsessed, ambiguity-averse culture needs! We should patent it now and sell it to Nate Silver. We should force the Library of Congress to rate every book a scale on the Giroux Index. Books in libraries should be arranged according to their results. Franco Moretti will want to hang out with us.
So what would the 300 Sandwiches book rate on the Giroux Index? Probably . . . what, a 0.2? It can’t be higher than a 0.3. But that’s an easy one to assess. Let me try something more personal–and thus more painful: Howard Dean’s Winning Back America, which I’ve treasured for over a decade. I’m not really sure that should rate higher than the sandwiches book, so let’s call it a 0.3. Also, Michael Moore’s follow-up to Stupid White Men (this is really revealing far too much about high school-age Mark Krotov’s reading habits), the title of which I don’t remember, might be as low as a 0.2 on the Giroux. Stupid White Men, though–that thing is a solid 0.8.
Alex: OK, I don’t know why that Stupid White Men ruling made me irate like thirty years after that book was relevant but here we are. (Though I guess that book is, at worst, a 0.6?) But I like the Giroux Index! And I would encourage our readers to email me at alex at mhpbooks.com with what they think various classics would fall on the Giroux Index. Or to tweet at us at @melvillehouse! Let’s make the Giroux Index meaningful, even though it’s completely meaningless.
And that’s what Two For Tuesday is all about, right? Bringing undue attention to things that are completely meaningless. Which is why the music component is so important. It’s also why we’re going out with two hits from Spirit.