Saturday, March 10, 2012

Rex Pickett talks about Sideways, reinvention and what he feels is the death of publishing, reading, movies, in a provocative interview

Rex Pickett wrote one of the most wonderful books of all times, Sideways, which became a movie so acclaimed that it was nominated for 5 Academy Awards. But the story of how he got his novel published is shocking, terrifying, hilarious, and chronicled on his blog on the Huffington Post in all its gory detail. (Read it.) He's currently writing a pilot for HBO and the stage play of Sideways, as well as promoting the sequel to Sideways, the aptly named Vertical.

I'm thrilled to have Rex here. It's a fascinating interview and though I don't always agree with what Rex says, (I happen to adore my publisher, whom I believe does everything brilliantly. I also  believe that people are hard-wired for stories, and because of that, I think that reading and good movies will continue.)  Nevertheless, I think Rex's musings are provocative and important to read and I can't wait to see the comments this interview will generate. Thank you, Rex!

I loved the whole Sideways rejection story in the Huffington Post. It goes without saying, it's a brilliant book and a brilliant film, and to hear that it was rejected over 100 times makes me cringe. As someone now happily at Algonquin, I have to ask, why don't you think some publishers GET that they should treat their authors and their books well?

I don't really have an answer to this.  I think that publishers, their senior editors and all the others, are, in fairness to them, overworked and underpaid.  How else to explain my editor at Knopf spending nearly half a year to get back to me on a first draft of a novel proposal that she bought.  I also think that they don't have the courage of their convictions.  They buy books, but then, like Hollywood agents, focus all their attention on the few that they (a) either believe in or  are (b) their pet authors.  I really don't know what's going on in their minds.  

Perhaps they realize that they're soon to be superannuated, as I believe traditional publishing will be dead in five years, replaced almost entirely by self-imprints, a few small imprints, and e-books.  E-books will mean that the infrastructure of traditional publishing houses -- with their offices, their staff salaries -- will be drastically slashed.  There'll be no more reason to have this whole ages-old system of agents and senior editors, submissions, rejections, and the buying of books.  Anyone in traditional publishing today, like people in journalism five years ago, should be looking for another job because they'll be out of work.  These are people who are highly educated and no doubt bitter about their lives, their futures, and although at one point they probably did believe in the value of literary fiction they know that no one's really reading anymore -- or if they are, they're reading mostly Y/A and other commercial genres -- and they no longer have a stake in putting in the hours to books that might have some enduring merit because they all know, deep in their wretched hearts, that literary fiction in 10 years will be where poetry is today:  dead.  Over.  Finished.  

As deep immersive reading goes the way of manual typewriters, so too will the reading of novels that require a minimum of over an hour of one's attention every day in order to enter the author's world. Then, too, traditional publishing is mired in the 20th Century.  They understand the Internet, the power of social media, but they're not geared up to deal with it.  Just at the moment when they need to rebuild their infrastructure they're cutting back.  Traditional publishing, experienced senior editors who understand story- and line-editing know that they're soon to be dinosaurs and their bitterness is projected onto their authors as they fight, like crawdads in a drying river bed, for that last drop of water in a once raging river that is now a shrinking pool the size of a paper towel.  They are finished, and they know it.

As someone who also had terrible experiences with publishing (until now, with Algonquin, which is a vastly different and wonderful place to be), I loved that you talked about how you--and Barbara, your former wife--had to "claw" the way to reinventing ourselves. Do you think this is just part and parcel of being a writer?

A writer today has no choice but to reinvent him/herself.  I would never write another novel again because I don't think the readers exist for the kind of novel I might write.  I'd consider writing a graphic novel, maybe,  or putting out a book of my #Writing Tweets (seriously) , but I would never spend 2-3 years of my life writing a 150,000 word novel like "Vertical," that, even with its fan base, places too much pressure on a reader who is now inundated with content choices to spend the kind of time it takes to read a novel of that length, breadth and scope.  

Let me repeat:  literary fiction will be dead in 10 years as the older generation of people who grew up on deep immersive reading, the kind that's necessary for getting through great books like War and Peace, e.g. , are dying off.  The younger generation will, sadly, not be reading these books, except maybe in universities, but even then I've been hearing stories from professors who are getting complaints from students about syllabuses that are too hard and require too much of their time.  Young kids don't even read blogs anymore. They find them static and boring.  Facebook, though popular, is static and boring.  Kids are turning to Twitter with its swift-moving stream of information, text messaging, etc.  Though I'm a firm believer that nothing currently replaces what deep immersive reading does for the development of young minds -- and all minds for that matter -- I don't see how it'll ever survive.  

I get angry when people tell me that things are cyclical; i.e., that they're be some sort of cultural shift and that young people will turn away from the Internet and start reading great novels again.  Bullshit!!!  First off, they won't have the requisite skill sets because you can't just stop the tsunamic force of the Internet, turn off all your devices and pick up James Joyce's Ulysses.  It just doesn't work like that.  You have to build to an intellectual place to be able to read a novel like that.  There's no great enantiodromia here.  And the Internet is getting faster and faster, increasingly more powerful, and, as it does, we'll move inexorably further and further away from deep immersive reading.

The future of novels might be in mini-series like Mildred Pierce on HBO, or, for a while, it might be in graphic novels, especially as they become more and more interaction with moving images.  But, there's no question, that we're moving toward an audio-visual world and, even then, I don't believe that people will have the patience to sit through films that are two hours long anymore.  We're already seeing tremendous abuse in movie theaters where audience members check their text messages while watching a 2 hour movie.  How the hell are we ever going to return to someone turning off their smartphone, their computer, their TV with 18 million channels, sitting in a chair, switching on a light, and opening a book or turning on a table?

And even tablets, which some think are the future of reading, are bullshit.  Steve Jobs was famously quoted as saying, on advance of the release of the iPad, that no one reads anymore, which is why he created a device that could download books from their iBooks stores but which he knew was a device that people would use to surf the Net, read E-mail, and play Angry Birds.  Then, he backed down so that he would pole-axe his iBooks store, but e-books are not the future of reading.  They may keep books alive for a while, but every time I meet someone with an iPad or a Kindle or a Nook I always ask:  How many books do you have on there?  And the answer is always:  somewhere around 30.  Then:  How many have you read?  The usual answer:  3.  Amazon thought they could compete with the iPad, because they saw themselves as a dedicated reader, and, of course, were cheaper.  Now they have the Kindle Fire, a full-throttle Internet connected iPad.  The New York Times recently did an article on e-readers and peoples' reading habits.  And it's what I've been arguing ever since the iPad came out:  how are e-readers, when they're connected to the Internet, that vast, dark road to infinity potholed with links, going to be the salvation of literature when people can't read more than a few pages before they get an e-mail notification and feel the need to jump out of the book and read it, then go to a link or whatever.

It's over.  Deep immersive reading, what many, not all, in my generation did -- I read the entire Collected Works of C.G. Jung  (all 20 vols.) when I was 19; took me 6 months, reading 5 hrs. a day every single day with no distractions -- 30 years ago no longer really exists today, except maybe in the university.  Why should writers write for a readership that won't exist by the time they finish their books?  It'd be like spending a year crafting a spear to hunt animals when you can go to Whole Foods and just buy your piece of protein.

Go back 30 years ago and imagine the Hoover Dam and the vast Lake Havasu that it holds from flooding everything in its path downstream.  Out of this mammoth seventh wonder of the world there's a trickle:  that trickle was Random House, Paramount Pictures, the New York Times, Time Magazine ... you get the point.  There was a total hegemony on who controlled the content.  You read what they wanted you to read, you saw in the theater what they thought you wanted to see, and your news was what they decided was the news.  But that vast Lake Havasu was the 7 billion people on this planet who all wanted a voice, all wanted to be heard, who didn't all want to be told what their news, or books, or movies were going to be.  

Cut to today.  The dam has been dynamited by a nuclear blast.  Lake Havasu is now a runaway flood of all those voices.  I've often opined:  the good news about the Internet is that it'll give everyone a voice; the bad news about the Internet is that it gives everyone a voice.  Anyone can be a novelist today and, on Amazon, look just like a traditionally published author for little or no money.  Everyone can have a Web site and write about whatever they want -- and their hundreds of millions of them doing just that.  Everyone's a food critic, a wine critic, a book or movie critic, a critiquer of contemporary events.  

But, without the great winnowing process of content, who's reading this runaway, anarchic spate of content?  In essence there is a new winnow process.  It's not publishing or Hollywood agents, or even newspapers who required that you paid your dues, had a masters in journalism, it's the content consumers themselves.  Inundated with choices about what blogs to read, what sites to go to for news instead of that trusty New York Times on your doorstep every morning, what books out of the thousands now published every week, the hundreds of TV shows vying for their attention, where do they go, what do they do?  

I blog on Huffington Post because it's a winnowing process, but I rarely blog on my Web site anymore because I was hardly getting any traffic.  Why bother?  I don't follow blogs because there are way too many of them.  I like Twitter because of its instant feedback, but it's not an enduring content source, and who knows what Twitter will be tomorrow?  Consider this:  every 48 hrs. there is more content pushed to the Internet than all the content in the entire 20th Century.  Reread that.  Who are the content consumers?

  I'm already cracking jokes that there are more writers of fiction than there are readers of fiction, there are more bloggers than blog readers.  Content has run riot on the Internet, a pandemic cacophony of voices, as if every human being in the entire world were suddenly given a megaphone and, simultaneously, started shouting at the top of their lungs for attention, to be heard.  Well, the Internet is giving them that opportunity, but who wants to listen to them?  There was a reason there was a winnowing process -- unfair as it often was, a non-meritocracy as it often resulted in being  -- because someone needs to separate the wheat from the chaff.  But instead of those people who were part of that winnowing process being in control of hopefully trying to raise the aesthetic and political consciousness of the hoi polloi, it's completely shifted where the masses, the low common denominator voice of the hoi polloi now totally control the content.  

One only has to look at The Hollywood Reporter -- which changed their format a year ago to a near tabloid one after 50 years of hard industry analysis -- and all we get are article after article -- many of which are kept up for days because of second-by-second analytics -- about lawsuits, celebrity addiction, acrimonious fights between filmmakers and producers, etc.  It's a total free-for-all.  But it makes sense to the new editor because she can now point to the analytics, which translates into "clicks," which then translates into advertising -- i.e., the monetization of their business.

As wonderful a research and connecting tool that the Internet is, there's no question that it's rapidly dumbing down the culture and taking everyone with it.  The democratization that the Internet has always promised will result in the stupidest collective mass of humanity who ever existed.  It will be the death of everything with lasting value,  great books, most notably.  Call me a fatalist, an eschatologist, but that's what I see.

So Sideways is now a play. Is the theater world as fraught with landmines as the film and publishing one? 

If there's anything sunny or bright in my apocalyptic screed is that I've had a wonderful experience so far with the theater.  First off, I signed a contract with the theater that they can't change a single word of mine without my permission, unheard of it in Hollywood.  I had total approval of the director, laughable in Hollywood if a writer demanded that.  I also have final cast approval, again, howlingly laughable in Hollywood for any writer.  

Also, unlike books, which are getting buried under the content overload opined above and the decline of deep immersive reading, theater has no threat.  Movies, e.g., are going to be all streaming and will soon be in your home and movie theaters, except for special ones like the Arclight in Hollywood or the Alamo Draughthouse in Austin, will be gutted and turned into Apple stores.  

Just as books are going the way of lacework, so will movie-going.  Who wants to drive to some theater, pay to park, over--pay for crappy snacks, sit through now 7 -- no less -- trailers (remember when it used to be only 3?), then see the fucking feature -- most of the time walking out feeling like you've been pistol-whipped by a midget. Plus you have to endure endure the lights from smartphone lighting up every time some fucking little punk gets a text about whatever -- and going home $40 lighter in the wallet on a date, e.g.?  Fuck that shit!  I used to see 200 film a year in the theaters.  Before VHS and DVD, of course, and when revival houses reigned king.  Now, you have to drag me kicking and screaming to the theater to endure what people endure to see a movie.  

Of course, most movies suck, they're going to be on DVD or VOD very shortly anyway, so by why bother?  

But theater?  You can't replace that experience at home.  And though it might, as an art form, be somewhat antiquated, practically decimated by the invention of the camera and projector at the turn of the 20th Century, it still survives.  And not only is there nothing threatening its tiny share of the content market, there's nothing that's going to replace that tiny share.  People still want to get out of the house, away from their computers, and experience something that promises to move them, or make them think, or enrich their lives.  They cannot duplicate this experience at home.  Theater, weirdly, is thriving.

And my experience, so far, has been wonderful.  I've met great people.  I hired, of all people, a 30 year-old woman to direct my very guys' play.  We're now involved in casting and, like I said, I have final cast approval.  I'm involved in every aspect.  And if we pull off the live Web stream to the world with 12 cameras, etc. it's going to be electric.  I'm not saying I would write a play again because Sideways is different.  It has huge branding and will be that one play that non-theater-goers go to because they're Sideways fans, so I'm lucky in that regard.

And you're also involved with a pilot for HBO. Care to talk about that?

This is a project in development.  I spent a year writing treatment after treatment of an idea.  I've often joked that writing treatments is like dry-humping a blow-up doll.  Then we did a deal with HBO.  With a very powerful production company.  But everyone's dragging their feet and the experience has been one more of those dispiriting Hollywood D-experience (D being short for "development") that I loathe. With Development, you can write and write and write and then nothing happens.  

I know a famous screenwriter who hasn't had a word of his shot in 20 years but who still makes half a million a year because of a famous, now cult, film he wrote 25 years ago.  So, that's all I'll say about the HBO show, except to say that if it were to go into production, being a former indie filmmaker, I would love it.  I'd love to see characters evolve over however many seasons, the money's way better than features, and certainly way better than book writing, that's for sure . I 'd love to be able to write and not worry about language or content because they like "dark," but who knows if it'll ever go. 


Donigan Merritt said...

This is exactly, precisely, sadly and completely true.

Margaret said...

Oh my-- the comments about deep, immersive reading dying off hit me in the gut. I fear he's right. Here in San Diego county, the Sweetwater high school district cut all literature from its English classes, because kids were not doing well in testing, and struggling in freshman English at SDSU. A friend who teaches there reports they now only read "practical" things like the back of the box a fan came in and analyze that. Some are horrified, but the test scores improved, so the district is keeping it.

Julianna Baggott said...

i disagree. yeah, people's diaries are out there now -- instead of under pillows. and so many are evangelists for one thing or another. but those bloggers are taking in the world and reflecting on it and sharing it. i can't help but think that might be healthier than sitting in their barkoloungers repressing shit while they stare at three channels with their Farmers Almanac on hand. My grandfather and great grandfather were illiterate -- me thinks there have been some steps forward for MANY Americans in terms of general literacy; i'm surely not the only novelist who can make that claim. The comment "maybe only in colleges" doesn't work for me -- it doesn't register that so many more Americans are GOING to college than ever before. AND ... actually this is the GOLDEN AGE of television -- HBO, great example, but there are so many shows on TV that have been able to go really deep with characters. Also, on those damn kids today -- don't sell this generation short. My kids -- 17, 15, 11, and 4 -- are living incredibly rich deep lives of both consuming and creating art. yes, they are a culture of texters. say what you want but they WRITE how they feel to their friends all the time. they've written more words of self-expression than i had at that age, 1000 times. So, yes, it's not perfect. But, no. There's no death of literature. (in fact, i'd claim that massive page counts hold a real draw these days -- in reaction to the interrupted thoughts of technology. People want to be under longer.) And, further, there's really really not death of narrative. Never. It existed before and it will exist forever -- as theater can attest. (Damn, I had no idea theater was thriving somewhere. I was raised on it and am very pleased to hear that slim upside!)

Kathy L. Patrick said...

As the founder of The Pulpwood Queens Book Club, the largest "meeting and discussing" book club in the world, almost 550 chapters nationwide and in 15 foreign countries, Rex Pickett has now said what I have been saying all along. He nailed it but we readers, have now become a sub-culture and we do read and do read well. So perhaps it's book clubs, real readers, that will save reading but my greatest fear is our choices are being ultimately limited. That is exactly why I choose to select authors that are mostly first time, first book, undiscovered authors to help their book or books get read in a really big way. The Rex Pickett event was fascinating last night and never have I been exposed to such honestly on the insides of the film and book industry. I know we all walked away enlightened and more resolved to become even bigger readers of the written word.
Rex is exactly right, people may be reading but skimming is more the way of the future with e-readers and I have been saying all along that nothing beats reading a REAL BOOK, less distractions and so much more satisfying to read an entire book that have the world's library at your fingertips. Too much, too soon, the reader becomes overwhelmed and reads here then there. Book clubs, we can change the world, one reader, one book, one author at a time and it's my life mission to do just that!
Now I would highly recommend you follow all of Caroline Leavitt's blogs and keep up with Rex Pickett too. You know what was funny, when I couldn't get my last book published, I wrote a play also which will be performed at Gilfriend Weekend 2013. Nothing I love better than a good book and live theater and all I have to say is great minds think alike and READ! You can quote me on that!
Tiara wearing and book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick, author of "The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life"

perryglasser said...

Midlist traditional publishing may be gone, but e-publishing offers writers new opportunities.
The music industry made a mistake: audiences never wanted vinyl records, thy wanted music.
You and I do not write books--we tell stories.
Let's not equate the medium with content.
How about a traditional novel released as a serial with each episode ending as a cliffhanger? If it was good enough for Dickens in London newspapers, why not you and me?
Start with a free chapter as a loss leader: now imagine twenty 30 page chapters sold at $2.00 each via Amazon. That will net an author 70% of $40, a deal that sounds pretty good to writers used to getting 15% of a $30 cover price.
The awkwardness people feel with such models is that self-publication and vanity publication have for years been equated. But that has not always been the case: ask Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.
Writers will be obliged to be interesting and offer character-driven suspenseful stories. Unless "literary fiction" means "dull" and "leisurely," this should depress no one. It might in fact burn away the underbrush of precious, workshop-bullet-proof fiction that has nothing to recommend it other than the fact that it takes no risks and was written by this year’s wunderkind.
Might we see a new renaissance of the short story and that bastard form, the novella? Why not an app for your smart phone that brings a daily short story to a cellphone? Or the next episode in a serial? As the author of 3 short fiction collections, I'd rather be selling short stories at $1.00 each and keeping $.70 than trying to package 10 stories into a book with a $15.00 cover price--of which I'd only see 15%. The form you and I call "novel" is a 19th century invention, a time with no competing entertainments for a public with the literacy, time, and wealth to afford 400 - 500 page books. Reading was a social act, performed in groups, often families, reading aloud to each other in the evening. Writers have no entitlement to such an audience today.
You've sworn not to write a traditional novel, but might consider a graphic novel. You can be sure graphic novels will soon be distributed for computer tablets only. Graphic novelists do not sell paper—they sell illustrated stories. Might we also see the illustrated book resurrected? Once the province of special, expensive, editions, may we be returning to an era where the partnership between an illustrator and a writer might be as strong as the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley? Can those color illustration be animated? The potential across genres from children's books to YA fiction to adult erotica is enormous. If you've engaged video gaming, you know the power of a dreamed landscape. Why not well-told tales set in breathtaking landscapes which a reader can see? Why not voice actors who read dialog with an option for a reader for sound -- or not? Why can't a "writer" be the person who orchestrates text, sound, and images to create powerful illusions? Why should that have to wait for the movie?
As I remind my students, the most potent virtual reality is between their ears.
The invention of the photograph did not end portraiture—though painters were sure it would. Non-representational art flowered. When totalitarian autocrats lose control of media, all things are possible, and by "autocrats" I 6--count 'em--6 major publishers left in the world and a film system that requires millions for development. Why shouldn't writers seize the upper hand instead of whining that publishing is dead.
Good riddance. Literature will continue to be imagined and distributed, but that is not the same as the end of literature.

Clea Simon said...

Wow. Makes me glad I am the age I am and not someone younger.

Anonymous said...

Those of us in first world countries cannot fathom that ereaders are a luxury. I live in the US and an ereader is a luxury. Not everyone can afford an ereader and until that time, books are still the go to for knowledge. Our kids still learn to read using books, computerized learning is an add-on, not a default. I do agree that deep, immersive reading is dying. I haven't had the luxury of time like that since I was a teenager living in my parents house while they worked to pay my bills. And I would hazard a guess to say that most of us adults have the same time deficiency. But the other reason I believe books will be around for much longer than is popularly thought is that our unfettered use of electricity has already created rolling blackouts now. I can only imagine in the future, electricity will also be a luxury. And without electricity, what will power those gadgets and doodads that perform tasks only those born in the 1980's or earlier know how to do manually? There are still pockets of this country who do not have running water or a steady source of electricity. We are a long way from the death of the book. What remains to be seen is how close are we to closing the doors to libraries and denying access to books?

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