We're pleased to start out the week with the latest installment of 3MI - The Three Minute Interview. (For those who have forgotten the rules - it has been a while - the first three questions are subject specific, and the last two are the same for all players.) We've been trying for a while to cajole Riverhead Books senior editor Sean McDonald (right, with author James Frey, left) to stop by and chat with us about the state of publishing today. Well, he's been making the rounds of late and we've finally guilted him into paying us a visit. (Photo courtesy of Bigjimindustries.com)
Born and raised in California, Sean McDonald has worked in New York publishing for ten years as an editor and designer. He is Senior Editor and Online Creative Director at Riverhead Books. Sean’s writers include James Frey, Aleksandar Hemon, Nuruddin Farah, Steven Johnson, Patrick Neate, David Rees, George Saunders, Héctor Tobar, and the Abbot of the Wu-Tang Clan, The RZA. As of today (August 15), the most recent book he’s published is John Crawford’s memoir of his service in Iraq, The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, which you should really read. Prior to joining Riverhead, Sean worked at Nan A. Talese/Doubleday for four years as Editor and Online Marketing Director, and before that at Arcade Publishing, as Editor and Art Director. Most importantly, perhaps, during our lunches together he has shown endless patience with our Tour de France/cycling obsessions - although he might have been napping behind those dark glasses ...
TEV: There's been a lot of talk about how editors don't really edit any more. Some time ago, Terry Teachout said "If you aren't capable of writing a book that's publishable in the version you submit to the publisher, you're not a professional." What do you think about this statement, and is it unrealistic to look for editors in the Max Perkins mold today?
SM: I hesitate to speak for editors as a group and, regardless, I don’t think there’s an easy, across-the-board answer to this question. Every project is different. There are manuscripts that come in perfectly clean and that I don’t have to edit, there are manuscripts that need to be thoroughly shaped and reshaped before they’re ready to go; there are authors who want a lot of interaction throughout the writing process, and there are those that are completely reclusive. That said, if there’s editing that needs to be done, I do it—it’s the best part of the job. As far as the statement itself, I’m not sure that “professionalism” is the primary standard to which I try to hold my writers, nor is simply “publishable” my criteria for manuscripts. This will sound like belaboring the obvious, but the point is to publish the best possible books. If I see the spark of that in a submission that’s a few pages long, that’s the work I’ll try to sign up. If I see it in an 800-page manuscript by an author who I suspect is a lunatic, I’ll try to publish that.
As far as Max Perkins goes, clearly, it’s a much different business now than it was then, and books, writers, and presumably publishers play a much different role in the public imagination. But I can’t say I spend much time thinking about the supposed “good old days.”
Anyway, to try to answer your question… I do everything I can think of to support my writers and to make their books better. I consider myself very close to almost every one of my writers, and I’ve worked through draft after unpublishable draft with many of them.
TEV: What do you think of the current state of book reviewing as a whole, and might you recommend as a corrective to some of its most serious deficiencies?
SM: As a whole, I don’t think book reviews make the world’s most exciting reading, and I think there are obviously problems with many of the major reviewing outlets, but I do think there are a lot of very good book reviewers out there, people I like to read and people whose opinions I trust. Recently, I definitely think it’s encouraging to see the New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, etc. realize they need to reinvent themselves and really try to do it. And of course the rise of the lit-blogs has done an enormous amount to expand the whole medium of book-reviewing.
To my mind, the main problem in mainstream book reviewing is vocabulary. It’s impossible for a review to feel genuinely positive (and perhaps more importantly, to be “selling”) without being chock-full of superlatives. But once you’ve anointed this a masterpiece and that a masterpiece, you’re not left with any convincing language when it’s time to say something really is that good.
But I also think pining away about hype-y language in book reviews is pretty useless—carving out our own precious corner of the universe where we don’t indulge in marketing hype would ultimately be the death knell for literature. Because the big problem book coverage faces is its position in the larger cultural conversation. Reviews of books, conversations about books—any and all discourse about books—need to reach out beyond the self-selecting group of book-review-readers or we’re going to find ourselves without any readers at all. We’re already in danger or becoming ghettoized into irrelevance, and only an energized insistence that books are just as relevant as movies and videogames and whatever else—an insistence that’s backed up by actual good, relevant books, and an insistence that cuts across generations—is going to help.
'... conversations about books ... need to reach out beyond the self-selecting group of book-review-readers or we’re going to find ourselves without any readers at all.'
Part of the solution is accepting that we are a part of, not above, that cultural conversation. And then doing something about it. The web obviously plays a big role in “doing something”—book sales are absolutely dependent on word-of-mouth, and there couldn’t be a medium more friendly to that kind of communication.
TEV: Tell us your favorite "embarrassing/annoying/silly/neurotic author story" (changing names to protect the innocent).
SM: Well, your question is fundamentally flawed by the assumption that writers could be neurotic, annoying, self-centered, or goofy. That, obviously, is crazy.
TEV: Who's the best author we've never heard of?
SM: Have you heard of John Banville? I mean, come on, who haven’t you heard of? I feel like one of the best things about TEV and the Co-op is you making sure that your readers have already heard of all the best writers. I’ve seen you mention so many unfairly neglected writers—Micheline Marcom, for instance, who is definitely worth reading.
So the only thing I can think to do is take advantage of my position and pick a writer who hasn’t published his book yet: John Hodgman. I have wanted John to write a book since before I started working in publishing - he is the single funniest human being in the universe, and one of the smartest, too. And his book, The Areas of My Expertise - which takes the form of a made-up almanac, a book of fake facts- will, I’m sure, work perfectly well (if inconvenient, it seems to me) as a fall-off-the-toilet laughing bathroom book, but it’s also the closest thing to Borges I’ve read since, well, Borges. It’s an amazing, amazing book.
TEV: Ask yourself a question - anything you like - and then respond.
SM: So, Sean, who’s the best short story writer who’s about to publish a brilliant novella, anything that people might be comparing to, say, Animal Farm?
Funny you should ask. There’s this writer named George Saunders who has a new book coming out in September - The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. Maybe you’ve heard of him? If not, get off the Internet now and start reading CivilWarLand in Bad Decline before I come over and smack you. Anyway, the book is brilliant and hilarious, as deeply strange as you’d expect, and maybe even stranger, but also grounded and timely. It’s difficult to describe, an absurdly funny parable about genocide, but maybe Animal Farm is a good comparison, as outrageous as it sounds.