For Barrie Mencher, in amibilitis aeternibus (1)
It is a public secret…
So let me just whisper into your ear…:
Authors don’t know how to write!
Authors are, as a ghost writer of genius once observed, ‘illiterate baboons’. They are forever using big bombastic words which no one understands, and weave those into interminable sentences which nobody has time to read. They talk of stuff ordinary folks don’t care for, and say it in such a way that no normal person can catch the drift. Their books are full of sick jokes, and suspect politics, and sex, and drugs, and atonal jazz. They are forever being creative with punctuation, and on top of it all: they don’t know how to spell.
Fortunately, publishers – in their infinite wisdom – have found a solution to this problem.
The Editor has a most responsible job. It is her task to – … ‘Xcuse me? Why - yes: her. You see, the Editor is nearly always a highly educated young woman in her late 20s. Unless, of course, the publisher runs a reallyshoddy outfit, in which case the job goes to some burnt-out male desk-slave in his terminal 50s. It is hertask, then, to coach the author through the thorny process of preparing his manuscript for publication, by means of mild suggestions, subtle hints, positive criticism and minor adjustments.
And this is not an easy task, dear reader! Far from it! Fortunately, Tiffany comes well prepared. She has done-... What’s that again?? Why, yes: Tiffany. You see: all lady editors are called Tiffany, even if that ain’t the name they scribble onto the dotted line. Just like they’re always called something like Linuswhen they’re that lamentable middle-aged male, or better said: when they’re not altogether gelded. (2)
So as I said: fortunately, Tiffany comes well prepared. She has successfully followed the entire course of Creative Writing at the Ogilvy Training School for Higher Advertisement, and she has read just about everything which the American Board of Mass Communication has published on the subject of style. All three brochures of it. And she agrees with each of them, even though the brochures themselves differ wildly on what correct style really is and… Oh, but let’s not linger with such tedious matters...! Let’s just stick to Tiffany.
Tiffany knows what Goesand what No-Goes. The don’t’s and the do’s. What is done and what is definitely not done. Simple as that. Piece of cake. No rocket science about it. The ‘No-Goes’ include, for instance, a double adjective to a lone, single noun. Not done, that one! Not done! It is lengthy and cumbersome and people get confused! Another unacceptability is words of more than three syllables. Out of the question! Tires the eyes! Wears out the lips! And sentences that run longer than 12 words. And scientific phraseology, except such household notions like Relativity Theoryand Cogito Ergo Sun. And then there’s the commas. Commas in a text are like cayenne pepper in a stew: a few specks enhance the flavour; a spoonful spoils the brew. So chop back them commas and iron out the spice! And so on, and so forth. Tiffany’s arsenal of editorial devices contains a long time-proven list of Manifest Truths, lifted from the Ogilvy & Mather Handbook of Fine Writing. She is, in short, a Professional.
The hardest part of Tiffany’s task, however, is to lure her authors away from their most unbearable inclination: their urge to be original. ‘Original? Nobody buysOriginal!’ she keeps telling them. It just doesn’t DO to burden your readers with the need to think outside the box! If people wished to thinkthey wouldn’t buy a book, would they? They’d join a support group! Tiffany has reduced this golden tenet to ‘The Three O’s’: ‘Originality is Overdone and Awful!’ Repeat that oft enough in an author’s hearing, and you may in the long run gain his ear.
Naturally, authors are not always enthusiasticabout Tiffany’s suggestions. (For authors, apart from being terrible stylists and worse spellers, also tend to be a most obstinate and headstrong breed.) They rarely bow gracefully to Tiffany’s suggestions. No, what am I saying? They usually fight tooth and nail to maintain those incomprehensible vocabularies and their outlandish ideas! As one of them wordmongers once put it (when she was really only replacing his commas with full stops): ‘You might as well chop the fingers off my baby as rip the punctuation out of my brain-child!’ – Haha, how funny! If only he had not used that bizarre word ‘punctuation’ that sentence might have gone into his book!
Oh, the push-and-pull, the give-and-take, the tug-of-war between her and those spoiled little toddlers in turtlenecks is terrible! But Tiffany knows how to handle them. You see: theyare here for the first time; but she’sbeen there and done that a million times before. What’s more: they need her and she don’t need them. She does the publishing and they do the wanna-be-published (you see: publishedauthors, famousauthors, doknow how to write. That’s why they do not need no editors. In fact, Tiffany has never met a famous author in her entire career.) And so, in the course of that long tussle of preparing a manuscript for the press, there always comes that precious Time of Truth when she drops the sugar-candied phrase: Take it or leave it, bud!And then she wins. Either she gets her way, or the dyslexic ape scurries out the door. And what if he does? There’s a whole other bevy up the banana-tree where he came from! And he’s aware of it. So usually, once that cruel, but fair wrestling match has been satisfactorily settled, she’s got herself a docile author and then she can finally get to business.
But to reach that point you gotta trot carefully. You gotta lead them slowly to their own perdition, preferably by the nose. No storm-trooper tactics here. No frontal assault. No: the velvet glove, the gentle prodding. Tiffany is good at that. Verygood. First she’ll wave them into her office, if possible at one of those low-blood-sugar-moments of the early morning when their defences are low. Then she’ll seat them in the squeaky swivel chair facing the big bright penthouse window right behind her. And then she-… Oh, but what am I doing? Why describeit all at such tedious lengths? Let’s just take a peep through the keyhole here and see Tiffany at work!
Look: here comes one of her aspiring new authors, a guy she’s invited for a first ‘session’. A mister-… Now lemme see, where’s that flash-card…? Ah yes: a MrBard. Elderly gentleman, Mr Bard. Weathered face, full mane of silver hair, wrinkles all over the mug and balding at the temples. No beauty contest hopeful. But he looks, you know, wiseif you get him under the right spotlights. Walks with a cane and enters with a boy on his arm. Grandchild I suppose – or perhaps something more romantic? Better hope not. Can’t go around publishing child-molesters nowadays, can you? Not unless you’re willing to settle for a one time hit on the crest of a scandal…
Tiffany has a sharp eye for her authors. She reads ‘m at a glance. Mr. Bard, she knows right away, has been scribbling all his life. Never submitted anything anywhere (too self-conscious), but he’s read his Magnum Opusto friends and family time and again, until they puked. And now the Big Moment has arrived. His Finest Hour. His Final Shot At Fame. He has handed in his manuscript. And comes to hear that he’s a genius. Oh well, we’ll see about that.
Mister Bard! What a pleasureto meet you! Do take a seat! Yes, that one there. How’s the missus? Ah? Still single? And here I thought… Oh well, never mind. Light’s not bothering you, is it? Ah, no, of course not. How silly of me. Sorry. Slip of the tongue. You see, I don’t usually mix with the visually handicapped. The writing may be brilliant, but if it’s in brailleit don’t shine brightly… You see what I mean, don’t you? Wowie there, young man!! Noton the armrest if you please! As a matter of fact: not anywhere near us at all! Go play in the corner, will ye? Granddad and the tall lady got business to discuss. Grown-ups only. You won’t disturb us, will ye now? Good! Remember: kids should be seen, not heard!
Now then, mister Bard, let’s get to business. We both know Time is Money. Your manuscript. I read it. What am I saying? I read it twice! Yes! It took me most of the lunch-hour, but it sure was worth the sacrifice. No, don’t look surprised, Mr Bard: I am desperately dedicated to my authors! And let me tell you straight away that I can reallyrelate to it. Yes! It reallyhas potential. Verypromising, I’m telling you – even if saying so does weaken my negotiating position, haha! It just needs a fewminor adjustments. Some tiny little changes here and there, to bring it up to the standards of modern publishing and make it, well, you know, a little more accessibleto today’s reader…? Unpleasant business, mister Bard. I’m the first to admit it. But it can’t be helped. The public is no longer, well, the devourers of books they once were, see?
Like what? Well, take the formatfor instance…. Now, I’m sorry to bring out the heavy guns this early in the game. But really, mister Bard… VERSE?? In thisage and place? And not just a haiku here and there, or the odd limerick… but feature-film length? That’s really notdoneno more, mister Bard. It’s, well, a little jaded, really. Passé. You know: yesterday’s news? Last autumn’s catwalk? No, no, no! Don’t get me wrong! I love it! I truly do. And so masterly done too! In hectometres no less! But today’s public can’t handle reading lengthy rhymes no more… Today’s payingpublic, I mean. Customers who throw the dough into our oven. And we must keep an eye out for our customers, mustn’t we, mister Bard? After all, it’s them who rock the gravy boat! And all wecan do is board it when it floats along!
So we’ll reallyhave to address that. We can leave in a few of the better lines – you know: give the whole thing an artistictouch…? But the rest must definitely be turned into nice, straight, digestible prose. I’ve got my people for that. You’d be ’stounded what they can do. True professionals! Give’m a chance and they’ll turn the Yellow Pages into a page-turner, I always say! I’m sure you’ll be e-la-tedonce you see the results!
That’s settled then. Oh, I’m so gladwe’re seeing eye to eye on these little matters, mister Bard. If you knew the hell I sometimes get to make a writer see some sense! It’s hell, I tell you! Much better to give and take, won’t you say? Now then, since we’re back in prose where we shouddabeen in the first place, let’s run through the rest. The plot. Nothing wrong with the plot! Tough guy returns from his tour of duty, finds his home sweet home menaced by a bunch of scumbags, gathers his buddies together, takes manly action to defend his family; a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do… Why, that can’t be improved ’pon, mister Bard! Real men, true family values, chase, shoot-out, happy end! People love that. Hollywoodloves it! And what’s good for Hollywood is good for the money-tree, right?
Only - now that we happen to stumble upon the family values… That lady that your hero spends so much time with, out on the tropical island far away from home sweet home… What’s her name again? Yeah, her, thank you. Don’t get me wrong, mister Bard: I like her. I truly do. Nice, sexy young gal. Independent means. Self-sufficient modern woman. Nothing wrong with that this age and place. But…. She isa bit of a home-breaker, don’t you agree? A gold-digger, even…? That really ain’t good, mister Bard. Family values are the Alpha and the Omaha nowadays. Unless, of course, she repents later and joins Mama Teresa or something – but I don’t see that happening in your novel, do I? Now, if she were to be, say, some bitchy Communist Commissar… An evildame, who abusesour hero, against his will and resistance… Thenwe’d be talking, mister Bard! That we can get away with! And then of course the juicybits can remain… Nothing wrong with a bitta titilla-…
What’s that? Commies didn’t existat the time? Well, no, I guess they didn’t… But now that you mention it, that’s one other little thing we’d better fix… The time frame… The time frame and the setting. That’s all a bit of a bitch, really, excusez my French! Alright, I understand: for someone of yourage and experience - those of us who’ve seen World War II, I mean - the Mediterranean must be a very dear little sea. But most normalfolk don’t associate it with war no more, see? You tell ‘m: ‘Mediterranean’, and they start musing of blue waters and cocktails on the promenade and girls in monokinis… Well, no, not the wholeMed, naturally. Don’t I know it? There’s still the odd trouble spot here and there. And if you come from there yourself, I can imagine you feel differently. You Jewish, mister Bard? Greek, are you? Why, I never would’ve guessed... (See? she thinks to herself. Bet you that kid ain’t no family. No wonder he won’t sit down!)
But anyway… We’ll have to make a little adjustment of place and scenery. No funny Turkish cities you can’t find on a map or coastlines on the wrong end of the mainland… How about we bring it a little closer to our readers’ own living-space, Homer? - You don’t mind me calling you Homer, do you? You see, I like to be closeto my authors if we’re going to work so closely together. Trust, it’s called. You call me Tiff if you will. Tiff is for friends. Never Tiffy, if you please. Just Tiff.
Now then, Homer: what would you say to South East Asia? The good ol’ Vietnam War? Still exotic, but praise the Lord: people know where it lays. Recent enough to remember but sufficiently Ago for nobody to take offense. For we gotta trot carefully here, Homer! Political sensibilities are poison to the sales figures. Can’t go and set the whole thing in, why, Iraq or some such place. Too fresh. Too hot. Yeah, I know some like it hot, but me I prefer my carne con chilly, haha. How do you mean you need an ageless setting? That may work for the likes a you, but how many reading old-timers are there left in the world? D’ you know what the average age of the book buyer is, Homer? Twenty-one and dropping! Will you believe it, but it is. Once they’re out of college they never open another book in their lives!
And talking about appealing to the young: this Odysseus of yours… I’m sorry, but I find him, well… a bit of a Nobodyreally. I mean… Here he goes around chatting a little and cheating a bundle… But that’s purdy leanfor a man of action, ain’t it? I mean: what ishe altogether? A two-bit con-man or something? Lies through his teeth, tricks everyone around, cheats on the old lady, leaves his whole outfit out in the lurch and goes home alone… He’s not exactly your prototype of a role model, is he? Pretty odious really! ‘Xcuse me? A King? Sure… But of what, Homer? A teeny-weeny two-bit island not half the size of Manhattan… We are not impressed! And in any case that royalty business will have to shoo. Sorry, can’t have a king. Already told you: no politics. Not since this Lewinsky business hit us right in the mouth… We’re in publishing, I always say: we don’t drop to our knees for the Powers That Bees – sorry, small personal joke. Speaking of which, did you hear the latest they tell about those two up on the Hill? Here’s Bill and Monica summoned before the Senate to justify their character issue, see? And he defends himself saying: Yes, but I didn’t inhale. And then shegoes: Yes, but I didn’t swallow…! You don’t get it… He goes--… Never mind. Stuff that ain’t up your alley. Hmmph. Okay. Let’s just get back to your Odysseus then.
How about we make him a super-cop? A police-commissioner? Special Forces guy. Wouldn’t that be more… well, democratic? What’s that? You’d preferwhom? Pi-si-stra-tus? Never heard of him. Is that some kind of Ross Perot from where you come from, Homer? No no: let’s run with that a little. Because – now that you mention it - I do still have a small problem up my sleeve here. The names, Homer! The names! Nobody can pronounce ‘m! Te-le-ma-chus? A-ga-men-mon? What sort-a names are those? They sound like computer programmes! What sane parent ever calls their kids Laertes? We gotta rationalize here, my old friend, starting with the fellow himself. How about Bill…? Hmm, true, a little too much of a good thing. Hank! That’s it! Hank! Short but just odd enough to stick. Hank it is. What else? Pe-ne-lo-pe…. That’s easy. We turn her into Penny… And it won’t cost us a dime, haha! Te-leh-maccus… That’s a piece of cake too. We make that Tilly. Tilly, yes – well, that’s one more little thing. Grown boys don’t appeal to the heart, Homer. If you wanna make the public open their purses, you need a girl. A young one. You know: blond, innocent, 12-years old. How so impossible? Yayayayeah, I know… Gone 20 years, no way he could have gotten cozy with the old lady… But something’s gotta give, Homer… So we’ll shorten the time-frame some. Make it months instead of years, okay? A tour of duty and then some. More realistic anyway. What sane woman waits twenty years for hubby to come home? Not even a dog-…
THE DOG! I lovethe dog! The faithful house pet who cruelly dies, always good for a tear-jerker. Of course the name stinks. Argos! Oh, will you pleeeaaaaase…! Blacky’ll do. Or Duke. Something suburbia can relate to. How about Hector? What’s that? Confusing? With what? Aaah… Right! But – do correct me if I’m wrong here, Homer: that’s from your otherbook, ain’t it? The sequel? The one you’d like to publish next? Yeah yeah yah yah… But that’s supposingyou publish this one first, isn’t it? And we ain’t there yet, my friend...! We have waaays to go before we can cut that Gordian nut one way or another. Looong ways to go. And look what time it is! If you don’t mind, I’d like to run through the gauntlet a little faster here? Time is money, and we can’t discuss every snail’s tail with the salt-shaker.
So lemme see. Right. Here. Those suitors threatening the poor family… As I said: that’s fine. But 40 of them all at once? Ain’t that overkill? We ain’t in Ali Baba land, are we? So we gotta chop that back to something reasonable. Two will do, really. Okay, I give you three if you insist, but then they gotta be ethnic. Sorry about that. I’m as politically correct as the next guy, but suburbia is suburbia, and them housin’ project high school drop-outs don’t read. Adapt to your audience, I always say. So: three coloured psychos, and we’re in business. Just enough to be scary; not too much for any family father to take on with his bare hands and an MI-16… Oh, and you don’t mind me sounding out Arnold for the feature movie, do you? He’s great at this kinda thing. An illiterate what? Oh, I wouldn’t know about that, Homer. I’m pretty sure he can read. Just the other day I saw him leafing through a book as thick as his arm. Something about a campsite, can that be? Oh, whatever… Fine guy, Arnold. One more great Austrian of our age.
Next. Them Sirens… I don’t know…. Same trouble as that Calypso of yours – but here at least he puts up a little resistance. Even so, Homer: they do look like perfect hookers, don’t they? And singingno less. With harps...! Who ever comes up with such a thing? If it were to stay we could rename that bit, you know? The March of the Street-Walkuriesor somethin’? Must say you sure have a head for kinky fantasies on those grey old shoulders. And – if you don’t mind me saying so – for the more sordid sides of life as well. Here: a visit to Hell. A little bizarre, wouldn’t you say? Occult stuff? Witchery? No way José! Prison camp is the best I can do for you. And another one again: drugs no less! Hank mingling on an affable basiswith lotus eaters! Forget it! Can’t have your hero sympathize with the Devil. I mean: can you imaginethe DEA reading something like… Where did I have it? Yeah, here… Jackpot… Chapter 9… Lemme read it to you…
No? What? No need? You know the whole thing by heart? What the heck for? Yeah, blind - so? Doesn’t little Ganymite here know how to put it on a page for you? Oh, and there we go again with that tiresome self-pity we poor editors always get spooned onto our desk! I get so tired of that, you know? The world’s done me wrong, so now it’s gotta read my blubberings; and will Miss Tiffy kindly pick up the tab? Fat chance, bro! Fat chance! Lemme spell it out to you, since you cannot write yourself…. Just because you’re BLINDdoesn’t mean you can just march in here claiming affirmative action, you know? I’m not going to publish you out of pity, see? It just don’t work that way. Not in my book. This is publishing, hon; not a charity event. So either you behave like a decent human being or there’s the door! Am I making myself clear? You can take it or leave it, mister Bard! What’ll it be…? Tell me: what - will - it - be…?’
Ah, show me the budding author who, on the threshold of publication - no matter how undignified– will not deceive himself with the vain and empty hope that, once fame is his, he may still publish his book the way he really wrote it…
And so old Homer Takes It.
He swallows the whole putrid cup of Agua Tiffany. (3)
Six months later, just in time for the Christmas Season, Homer Bard’s first full-length novel surfaces on the book stands of airports and bus stations. It is an action novel full of family values, titled ODC (i.e. Operation Domestic Care), in which our hero Hank, a former Navy Seal, comes home after a double tour-of-duty in ‘Nam. Back in Pittsburg he finds his suburban neighbourhood terrorised by drug-dealers. Three of them: a Negro, a Spic and a Chink, have squatted the garage of his split-level condo and are running a narcotics racket from there. His poor wife Penny and his innocent, nubile young daughter Tilly have been constantly harassed and nearly raped by these three scumbags. He finds his beloved dog Hector dead on a five-inch chain. Overcome by grief, Hank faints. He slips into hallucination. In a flash-back we learn of his past experiences in the Cambodian jungle. How he and his patrol ran into an ambush organised by an eye-patch wearing VC marine coronel, who was disguised as a simple shepherd. They manfully fight their way out, but escaping over the river in a Swift Boat, they suddenly find themselves surrounded by howling sirens in the middle of the night. The sluice gates behind them shut with a bang; the current suddenly sweeps the boat off course and wrecks it on a riverbank where Charlie is waiting. They are captured and interned in a CRC (i.e. a Communist Re-education Camp), where Hank gets interrogated sado-masochistically by a lush, blond, lesbian Soviet Commissar, who treats all men like the male chauvinist pigs which they are according to her Marxist-Leninist Feminism. By disguising himself in a stolen Hermès suit, Hank manages to escape to the nearest US army base, but…
Oh well, I’m sure you can all fill in the rest of it for yourselves…
(1) Editor’s note: this awful dog-Latin dedication is aimed at Dr. M.B. Mencher, the Norwich author, academic and educator, who was one of Mittington’s most pitiless critics. Once, during a book presentation which both gentlemen unfortunately attended, mister Mencher told Mittington to his face: ‘Alfred, you are a two-faced snake! I never know whether to laugh withyou or atyou!’ Ever after, Mittington, who never forgave a man a compliment, cherished this slur with delight and maintained that ‘this Mencher fellow is the only guy who understands me’.
(2) Editor’s Note: as the reader surely understands, this slur of Mittington’s was aimed at Yours Truly - Linus N. Pursebarry, editor of the Collected Mittington Papers.
(3) Editor’s Note: this utterly obscure reference is probably to ‘Acgua Toffana’, a famous medieval poison of proven efficacy.