“Genius”: how book publishing used to work, and sometimes gratuitous autobiography could sell

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Name: Genius
Director, writer:  Michael Grandage, A. Scott Berg
Released:  2016/6/10
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed: Angelika Mosaic, 2016/6/10, fair afternoon audience
Length 104
Rating PG-13
Companies: Summit, Roadside Attractions  (Berlin Film Festival)
Link: Facebook

The title of “Genius” might be a little too transparent. Directed by Michael Grandage, the film is based on the 1978 biography “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” by A. Scott Berg, about the career of the Scribner editor (played by Colin Firth) who developed Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), and the “genius” of the film, as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemmingway. So, this sounds like a movie for high school English class, maybe junior year surveying American literature.

In the past, before the days of not only the Internet but even television, books were treated as valuable commodities for retail, and editors did nurture authors. (“My job is only to provide readers with good books.”)  That’s an environment that the Authors Guild would like to bring back, in these days of self-publishing.

But the film really gets over the top about this supervision.  Perkins accepts Wolfe’s oversized typewritten autobiographical novel (“O Lost”), whittles it down by a third, and it becomes a best seller as “Look Homeward Angel”.  The second manuscript is even more gigantic, and in handwritten notes, and has to be typed by the publisher first, and it winds up as “Of Time and the River”.  The first novel was so close to his upbringing in Asheville, NC that many real people could be recognized.  The second was also autobiographical, but not quite so obviously tied to identifiable people and places.

It’s unusual for “personal accounts”, as publishers call them, to sell well.  It is viewed as narcissistic not to be able to get out of your own narrative and skin;  it could make others wonder if you like people enough to care about your readers.   Yet, Wolfe pulled this off, without really paying his dues, at least as he is presented in the film.

The scenes between Wolfe and his older wife Aline (Nicole Kidman) get rather wooden, sometimes it seems that is Aline who demands too much attention (especially when she makes threats with her pistol).

My first novel manuscript, “The Proles” (1969) is entirely autobiographical, and theatrical at times.  Successive experiments remained autobiographical (all ending in an Armageddon and purification of sorts) but the novel I am serious about now, “Angel’s Brother”, is seen through the eyes of two other principal characters, although I am in the background.  My main screenplay “Epiphany” does present me as an abductee on an alien space station, but my own backstory does weave a plot that is like a novel.  Indeed, my own first “Do Ask Do Tell” book is a bit like a non-fiction novel of sorts, as it has several ironies and twists.  I’ll download Wolfe onto my Kindle and look at how he writes.

(Published: Friday, June 10, 2016 at 8:45 PM EDT)