My editor-in-chief pointed out the other day that I am not a famous person. Naturally, this took me by surprise, since I have followed my career with rapt attention and had not realized that others were not doing the same. I'm sure you can understand.
Having recovered from the initial shock of this discovery, I wondered why my editor had made this obvious—in retrospect—observation. In response, he reminded me that his main occupation was professorial, not editorial. Although he headed up a university press, it was not a gigantic publishing firm with crack teams of publicists and salespeople. (Rather, they have catalogs and websites.) He suggested that sales of my novel would get a significant boost if only he could run some cover quotes from more famous authors—where “more famous” means “famous at all.”
The solution, of course, was simple. I just needed to get in touch with all of the famous authors I know and ask them to please send me enthusiastic encomia to emblazon on my book cover. You know the type of thing: “An excellent book!” “Laugh out loud funny!” “Exceptional descriptive writing!” “Brilliantly orchestrated, hilariously funny!” “As good an ending as ever written!” “One of the best books I’ve ever read!”
Yeah. That kind of stuff.
One teensy, tiny problem, though.
All the successful authors I know are involved in math or computers. Not in fiction. (At least, not intentional fiction.) Rats. This means I have to go trolling for endorsements from people I don't know. I have to sidle up to famous and semi-famous people and make a nuisance of myself. The task is an unpleasant one. However, I may be good at it.
I got to UC Davis early (not much traffic in Davisville on Saturday nights) and wandered about the Mondavi Center for a while. A few years ago I was there on the invitation of a nephew who scored a pair of tickets for an appearance by Stephen Hawking. It was a different crowd for Franzen's talk (less of a comic-con vibe and more of a white-wine-and-cheese ambience).
Franzen read his talk—somewhat to my surprise—but there's no rule that says a good writer must also be a good public speaker. He was starting to hit his stride when he interrupted his talk to fish a pen out of his briefcase and scribble a couple of corrections on his typescript. In fact, the talk was punctuated with such interruptions. At one point, he shook his head and confided to the audience that he had written “actually” three times in rapid succession and at least one of them had to go. He was also in fear of encountering a fourth, actually.
Thank you for being here, Jonathan. I'd like to ask you about the importunities visited on successful authors. You must have lots of people making demands for chunks of your time to provide pre-publication quotes for book covers. How do you decide whether an author's unpublished manuscript is worthy of the stress of your regard?Franzen laughed and said, “That's an original question. That's why I love university audiences. The questions are so clever.”
Then he rashly answered my question: “I don't know if I should really say this, but I actually look at just about everything that gets sent to me. If the first page contains no clichés, I'll read the second page. If there are no more than one or two clichés on subsequent pages, and I find it interesting, I'll keep on reading.”
I was still standing at the mike while Franzen wrapped up his answer, so I leaned back toward it and said, “Thank you, Jonathan. I'll be in touch!”
That got a good laugh from the audience. Afterward, I got in line so he could sign my copy of The Corrections.
Just to be clear, Franzen has promised me absolutely nothing and committed himself to nothing. When he gets the packet of sample pages from my manuscript, he might riffle through it, yawn, and toss it aside. On the other hand, he might like it. And then say so. I live in hope.
P.S.: The “pretend” quotes above are actually1 genuine. They were actually2 sent to me by people who actually3 read the manuscript. When these folks get famous, I'm all set!