I’ve decided that my deeper transformative goal for 2012 is to change my name and peel 30-something years off my age and have lots and lots of not-gray hair—lots of it, let me emphasize—and maybe even try to write a novel with vampires and zombies in it.
The idea came to me as I read an article in the Thursday Styles section of the New York Times titled “Seeking the Next Red Carpet,” which came complete with a big photo of Rooney Mara, who plays Lisbeth Salander in the second movie version of Stieg Larsson’s novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
It’s not as if I read the style section regularly, please understand, as “style” for me means blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black sport coat, off-the-rack at Men’s Wearhouse, $49.95. But as I flipped through the paper looking for the sports section, the photo of Mara caught my eye, as I’d seen the movie a couple days before and enjoyed it immensely, especially when Mara’s character clobbered the villain with what was, I believe, a nine-iron.
The main idea of the article is that the fashion world has always liked them young, and now even younger, it seems. The article opens with mention of 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, star of the latest movie version of “True Grit,” who “traipsed down the red carpet” at last year’s Golden Globes “in a cream-colored Prabal Gurung gown that artfully toed the line between age-appropriate and demurely chic….” Steinfeld, we’re told, thus went from “plucky Hollywood newcomer to fashion It Girl in about a nanosecond.”
Reading this, I realized that Big Fashion isn’t all that different from Big Pub. That is, if you’re not 25 or younger and if you don’t look good in the literary version of Hailee Steinfeld in a Prabal Gurung gown, that is if you don’t look young and hip (and with lots of hair) in the author photo on the back cover of a novel about vampires and zombies, forget it. Geezers need not apply.
OK, plenty of geezers publish, and they even publish books that don’t have vampires and zombies in them, but these are usually geezers who got their start well before they were geezers. It’s tough to break in with a first novel if the publisher finds out you graduated from high school before Dubya’s first disastrous term was over. And if you’ve already broken in but your books don’t sell sufficiently to satisfy your publisher’s bean counters—and most books don’t—forget it.
In his book about the pub biz, The Merchants of Culture, sociologist John Thompson writes that publishing is an industry “that expects things to happen quickly, that is hungry for something new and that has little patience for what it regards as a settled mid-list author.”
Especially the settled mid-list author getting on in years.
So what’s a person to do?
Change your name, suggests Thompson in complete seriousness. He might also have added: And peel 30-something years off your age while you’re at it.
“You’re better off in this industry being a completely unknown person,” says one well-established and quite successful (by any rational measure) mid-lister who did just that after he was dropped by his own publisher, who’d decided he wasn’t successful enough. “It’s better to have no history than a mixed history. It’s insane, it makes no sense, but that’s publishing.”
Of course, this is hardly a new idea. I’m reminded of Danny Santiago, the young author of Famous All Over Town, published in 1983. The novel was about life in East LA, as seen through the eyes of young Rudy (Chato) Medina. The novel was lauded for its authenticity and insights into Chicano culture. The only snag was that Danny Santiago was actually 72-year-old Daniel James, Yale graduate and heir to a manufacturing fortune, who lived at the time in the exclusive Carmel Highlands near Monterey, California.
James’s biggest problem in 1983 wasn’t his age, though. That was bad enough, but worse was the fact that, as a screenwriter back in the 1950s, he was black-listed for being a little too left-leaning to suit Senator Joe McCarthy. To get any work, he had to change his identity. Plenty of other writers back then did the same thing.
After he was found out, Santiago/James was denounced for his deception, and for what was deemed “cultural appropriation.” In his own defense, Santiago/James pleaded: “The book. The book. That's the important thing. Not the skin color or the ancestry of the author. I had to become Danny Santiago to write.”
And don’t we all become, if just a bit, someone else when we write? In We Wanted to Be Writers, in fact, we touch on this notion: “When all is going well, a work of art takes on a life of its own, the characters begin to write themselves, the story insists it wants to turn out a certain way, and the author is just along for the ride. Or so we hope.”
Or as C. J. Jung put it: “The work in process becomes the poet’s fate and determines his psychic development. It is not Goethe who creates Faust, but Faust who creates Goethe.”
And if that is so, if the author is a work in progress, why can’t I be 25 again, with a nice head of thick brown hair and a name that looks good on the cover of a novel with vampires and zombies? And 30 pounds lighter, of course….
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