On April 23rd, the entire humble Friedrich Agency took a car service, loaded down with four cartons of books, to continue our volunteer efforts on behalf of World Book Night. If you don’t know what that is (and you SHOULD know….What are you doing with your time, Dear Reader??) World Book Night is a fabulous annual event held on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday during which book lovers go out into the world, all over the world and distribute free books to light and non-readers.
Read more about it here, you just HAVE to.
For us book lovers here at the agency, this was our third year participating, are we GREAT or WHAT??? We went to a library in Jamaica, Queens, right smack in between LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, home to no fewer than ninety-two different ethnic groups of immigrants. Before we even got started, I nearly got killed crossing the street to pick up water at Dunkin Donuts for the team. When we first wanted to set up a table with our lovely banner on the lawn in front of the library, we were told, “Oh, no, the grass is locked up.”
“The grass is locked??!!” What?!?
A long discussion followed about the grass being there to be looked at, not sat upon, not stood upon. This poor neglected garden, ignored by the custodians who were part of a terribly dysfunctional union, sat ignobly beside us as we began to distribute our books.
So anyway, there we all are, giving books away outside the library: “You get to keep the book! There’s no test! How about your Mom, for Mother’s Day, if you write a card, she’d LOVE this book, c’mon, take a book, it’s FREE!!!” And then we encounter this deflated, deeply shy woman. She doesn’t really much want our offerings but she’s curious, she’s game to listen to our over-caffeinated spiel about the importance of World Book Night. (The Bard’s birthday! 500,000 books being given away on this very night, my first trip to Queens, how cool! On and on and on!) She’s a little overwhelmed by our imported energy but she senses our good intentions, our passion, and mildly offers up the tidbit that she’s in charge of the book group at this imperiled library. ($7,000 annual budget, closes every night at 7:00pm, it’s mobbed from 3:00 to 7:00, it’s sacred space, everyone is using this library). I ask her, “When’s the next book group?” She says, “Tomorrow.”
I say, (duh) “Well what book did you assign?” Drum roll…and she says, “It’s a book called The Burgess Boys, by a writer named Elizabeth Strout. Have you heard of her?”
OMG. The poor thing. The primal scream that emerged, full-flung, from The Friedrich Agency–well, I have to say, it was slightly embarrassing. I think she thought we were all a little bit demented. But whatever, it was a fine moment in the world of reading and great writing, and the sun was shining, the wind was blustery and we had a blast.
Report from the heart,
The Gentle Diva
Recently sifting through my modest “Gentle Diva” blogs, I realized that nearly A YEAR has elapsed since I’d written about poor Mohammed Ali. That’s a disgrace! Am I already tapped out on opinions? Of course not! I’m just as lazy and procrastinating as the next would-be, “soi-disant” writer!
I think I want to write about books: why fewer and fewer people are reading them. But first, a slight digression:
There are plenty of things I love about my job as a literary agent but mostly, I adore the infinite variety: the fact that a single day can include flowers from a lovingly rejected stranger; a magazine sale to More for an excerpt from a first novel; a reassuringly intelligent editorial conversation about a bold structural direction for a novel’s ending; the perusal of a royalty statement that is, for once, comprehensible at first glance.
But—hand’s down—what I love MOST about my job as an agent is that it makes me way more interesting than I actually am. When I was a publishing kid and worked at Doubleday, I read what was then a bound galley of a book called ROOTS, by Alex Haley. At a non-publishing party soon after, I naturally talked about the book in some detail. Complete strangers were riveted, they held onto every word—I was so scintillating! This was my very first conscious memory of pure gratitude that I’d chosen to work in a field where the exchange and currency of ideas could shift any conversation on a dime.
I mean, what if I’d chosen to crawl my way to a mid-level position in sewage management? What if I’d eventually landed a sales job, opening up fresh territories for Iams Dog Food, with a concentration on their newest blend of chicken and liver? How about if I’d stumbled into the vintage retail business, or the importation of artisanal cheeses from Lithuania?
I’ve been so lucky! The Gentle Diva knows this; she goes onto her creaky knees at least once daily, to thank the gods of all religions that she got a job in publishing, especially after failing the typing test not once but thrice!
Here’s what I now, more than thirty-five years later, find so disturbing: people just aren’t buying and reading books much anymore. Forgive me for making this breathtakingly unoriginal observation! I know, I know, everyone’s talking about the decline of hardcovers, the decline in e-book sales now that the Kindle or the Nook have been replaced with tablet computers, the squirrely downward sales of trade paperbacks, the mass market sales being “off” by more than twenty percent. And people seem to think this is quite okay, right? I mean, we’re all still reading, we’re just not reading BOOKS quite as much, but hey, we’re keeping up with People magazine online, with celebrity gossip, with the latest wildfires in Colorado or whatever is going on, or not, in Syria or Egypt or Afghanistan, with the continued leaks at Fukushima…
Well, of course, the Gentle Diva insists that this decline in book buying—and book reading—is distinctly NOT alright!
Why, oh why, is this happening?
First of all, there was once a time when being “well-read” was considered an admiring, honorable description of a person. It didn’t necessarily mean that you’d mastered the Great Books at St. John’s, the “canon”, it just meant that you were well educated and proud of it. You could carry on a decent conversation on a wide variety of subjects and maybe even write a declarative sentence. Today, there is a kind of bragging, nearly defiant Yahooism creeping around the edges of my many conversations. I had a dinner party about a year ago and the first thing this newly met guest said to me was, “You know, I haven’t read a book in over twenty-five years, not since college”. This guy was actually PROUD of his statement, he was clear that reading books was, uh, uncool these days. The Gentle Diva acknowledges that this observation is clearly anecdotal. Tell you one thing: the guy was never invited for another meal.
Since my parenting is kind of like the rolling admissions of motherhood, with kids ranging from ages 32 to 11, I’ve been around parents of different generations for what seems like forever. It used to be that when you took your oldest kid to ballet or tennis, the mother or babysitter would sit through the lesson with Junior, usually an irascible two or three-year old. The Mom or sitter would get through the tennis session with a bag of well-worn favorite books, looking up at the older kid only when a wicked serve was about to be executed.
This has now all changed. I haven’t seen that essential reading bond happen for at least two years: now, the Mom or the sitter frantically works at her i-phone while the toddler (just as) frantically works at his own electronic game. It’s parallel play, circa 2013.
Or let’s take a look at baby showers. During the last three baby showers I’ve attended, not a single guest has given a children’s book to an unborn kid. Two of those showers were among publishing folks, so perhaps books aren’t sexy since we’re so surrounded by them? Does book familiarity breed contempt? It’s all darling Baby Gap slipper socks or giant teddy bears or practical baby monitors. It’s anything but a book, either a classic or a contemporary runaway best-selling kid’s book, doesn’t matter, the message is the same: books are outré, they’re arcane and the baby would just eat the paper, right?
Then, of course, there’s television. Let’s be honest here: television today is fantastic, right? From “The Sopranos” to “Breaking Bad”, “Deadwood”, “Mad Men”, “The Wire”, “Game of Thrones”, it’s all just a vast bonanza of tantalizing, addictive television. Think for just a moment about television shows from the past: “Bewitched” or “The Brady Brunch”; “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Munsters”. Remember “Mr. Ed”??? With most of the sheer banality of past television programming, it was fairly easy to stay literate, to simply read a book instead.
I recently had lunch with my friend, Will Schwalbe, who just last year published a wonderful memoir about his Mom, called THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB. Yes, this is a plug and no, I don’t represent him. Anyway, we were trying to sort out just what had happened to book-reading and he offered up three thoughts about this decline: First of all, statistics reveal that most parents, especially working parents, spend more hours daily with their kids than they used to. They want to and they feel they must, so they go the extra mile, well beyond the supper/homework/bedtime routine.
Secondly, Will blames JetBlue Airlines: they were apparently the first airline to install those little bitty television sets in front of each individual plane seat. According to JetBlue’s CEO, David Neeleman, “With up to 36 channels of satellite TV on offer, our customers will feel like they’re at home in the air, selecting from the best of news, sports, comedy, music and movies.” Remember when you put aside your three books a year for your annual vacation, which officially began with that long air flight if you were lucky enough to avoid traveling to Yellowstone National Park in an RV? Most likely, those three books per vacation have now been reduced to one really special book, and good luck if you’re an unknown first novelist!
The further observation Will made had to do with exercise. We’re all maniacs for exercise and so many of us either get up at an ungodly hour to stagger onto a treadmill or we visit the over-crowded gym after work, often before the chaos of kids. We’re determined to stay fit, especially us Boomers; since we’re all such over-achievers, a five-pound weight gain represents punishing exercise rituals for weeks, even months to come.
So after work, after exercise, and perhaps after kids who are grabbing/deserving MORE time, is it any wonder we’re in a comatic state by 10:00 p.m.? That we try to read a book but complain that we fall asleep instead? Isn’t it really easier to TiVo the latest episode of “Scandal” or “Revenge”, since we’ve worked so hard and don’t feel quite “up” to that collection of Nineteenth century essays?
Honestly, it’s a wonder we read books at all!
But the Gentle Diva insists, no IMPLORES you to please read books! If I can do it, you can. I’m a slow, painstaking reader—I never learned to skip or skim, I missed that class right along with typing and driver’s ed. But I do read at least forty-five minutes a night, it’s an ancient, time-worn habit, and that reading time is sacred to me. And it’s not, I stress, business-related; I’m not talking about manuscript draft reading, transom-reading, I ‘m talking about books already published that have come into my life via my Three Person Rule: if three people outside the publishing industry recommend that I read a book, I always make a point of reading it. Sometimes, this informal rule can take years to enhance my reading enlightenment, other times, like with Fifty Shades of You -Know -What, it can take three days. (And no, that isn’t a plug and no, I don’t represent her.)
Besides, book-reading is actually good for your health, did you know this? Cool, no? According to Maryanne Wolf, the author of PROUST AND THE SQUID: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, any book-reading, the immersive experience of it, causes an immediate boost in mental acuity. It’s a regular memory and focus work-out, with visualization skills sharpened! And get this: according to a study from the University of Buffalo, book readers tend to be more compassionate, empathetic, even! One final stat, you’ll love this one: according to the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, people who read books for pleasure are 52% less likely than “reluctant readers” to develop cognitive impairment.
So the next time Aunt Erma’s birthday comes around, ease up on the cashmere scarf, buy her a book instead. Try, hard, to avoid the ease and convenience of Amazon; go on, find an Indie and buy a book, especially if you’re already in this wonderful industry called publishing!
Well folks, the Gentle Diva has, it seems, made up a bit for lost time, NOT to suggest that she’s acquired verbal incontinence. Time to settle down to a really great book, am slowly making my way through all of Jess Walter’s backlist and the guy has a lot on his mind, good night!
So, for those of you of my generation—that would be the Boomers—can you remember Horizon Magazine’s illustrative puzzles, where you had to find the iron hidden amongst the birch leaves of a giant tree? The dove nestled amongst the bookshelves? Find it! Better yet, find it before your older sister does! So, here we are in 2012, sifting through Vanity Fair or Vogue or any number of high-end glossies—WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PHOTO? Well, the Gentle Diva protests, practically everything. Let’s start with our sponsor, Louis Vuitton, dead these many decades. Why on earth is the Louis Vuitton company promoting Muhammad Ali as the mentor to “a rising star”? Is this the company which has been plagued by anti-Semitic allegations for the past sixty years? According to a review of a biography on Louis Vuitton, by Stephanie Bonvicini, she was given full access by the firm (Louis Vuitton Moet-Hennessy) when she proposed writing the book but when she asked about the wartime files, she was told that company documents for the years 1930-1945 had been destroyed by a fire.
What possible connection might there be, between Louis Vuitton and Muhammad Ali? Are their advertising folks on drugs?
My only experience of Louis Vuitton is a present I once received, a round, lip-stick red leather make-up case, perfect for Grace Kelly on a bad day. I was kind of shocked by it because it meant that this friend really had no clue about what mattered to me. Not to be churlish, I wrote a fawning thank-you note and returned it within days. I bought several wallets for needy relatives, whew, and still had two hundred bucks leftover. What to do with two hundred dollars in a mid-town Manhattan Louis Vuitton store, where there was more security than customer service? The Gentle Diva bought the ONLY thing available for two hundred bucks: an outsized t-shirt, still unworn to this day. There is something deeply, morbidly repellent about this store—I mean, why would anyone ever think that a $200 T-shirt was a fine, okay idea, especially if there’s this murky Vichy history nagging its legacy?
But, wow, quite the digression, I know. Back to the photo. This photo HAUNTS me. We’ve got this bucolic setting, with Muhammad Ali sitting on a poolside ottoman, biceps straining his short-sleeved shirt. There’s a kid standing to Ali’s right, not a day over five, impossibly cute, just darling, readied for a fight, wearing his boxing gloves. Of course, the horrid Vuitton case rests near Ali, that’s the whole point, to push those miserable initials, right? But what haunts me about this ad is Muhammad Ali’s expression (or lack thereof): there is absolutely NO connection between Ali’s gaze and this hopeful little pre-K boxer. If you follow Ali’s gaze, you’ll notice that he can’t even focus on the boy. The general vacancy of Muhammad Ali’s expression is complete. Indeed, even the way Ali’s legs and feet are arranged, looks posed, like a bit of propped furniture. Ali shows no signs of being present anywhere in this photo. Am I the only person alive who doesn’t realize the profound connection between having your head bashed in, multiple times, and Parkinson’s? Ali’s “Parkinson’s” is probably more credibly Dementia pugilistica (DP), or perhaps Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or punch-drunk syndrome. The condition is thought to affect as many as one in five professional boxers. Where, the Gentle Diva wonders, is the role model of career choice here? Isn’t experience worth anything these days? If you spend a lifetime sustaining severe head trauma, you have a vastly increased chance of entering a near-vegetative state—is this the Louis Vuitton message, for this adorable little kid standing in this ad?
Recently, there was a wonderful letter quoted from Kurt Vonnegut, dated 1967, wherein he wrote in support of his son, Mark’s decision to request conscientious-objector status. I found this letter so moving, partly because I greatly admire Vonnegut-the-author of SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE and CAT’S CRADLE. But mostly because, Vonnegut-the-father, having experienced war, was basing his desperate appeal upon his own intimate knowledge of war, of violence. He writes, “I was a volunteer in the Second World War. I was an infantry scout, saw plenty of action, was finally captured and served about six months as a prisoner of war in Germany. I have a Purple Heart. I was honorably discharged. I am entitled, it seems to me, to pass on to my son my opinion of killing. I don’t even hunt or fish any more. I have some guns which I inherited, but they are covered in dust.”
Vonnegut’s letter appeals to a noble effort to resist the rabid militarism of this country. Here’s a father who has taught his son about the folly of killing. I look now at this photo of our little kid and wonder what sort of role model Muhammad Ali is meant to be: the only text offered in this ad is, “Some stars show you the way.” What way? When will it all end?
Since summer is finally upon us, The Gentle Diva wants to move away from books and publishing and Department of Justice lawsuits and the craven, rapacious greed of Amazon and talk instead about… pedicures! If you’ve read any of these humble blog offerings, you’ll have divined that publishing lunches often cover a rich variety of subjects having alarmingly little to do with the written word. Children and dogs, of course, remain among the top ten subjects, infertility and affairs, generally appalling behavior, are always welcome and over-stimulating offerings. Many publishing lunches are consumed with the state of the world and since we’re all a fairly mouthy lot, we’re always on overload with opinions, speculation, ejaculations of indignation about how badly our leaders or would-be leaders are running America. Occasionally these lunches settle upon a lighter, less aggravating subject and so it was, one day when I was about forty that I had a quick meal with Carole Baron, an old friend. She had just enjoyed a quick pedicure and was raving about this hole-in-the-wall place just off51st Street. Being the curious creature that I am, I pursued this line of lofty conversation, since I’d never enjoyed a professional pedicure. What was it like? What did they do to your feet? What was the big deal?
Okay, I admit it, I’m a late bloomer. Carole did her best to hide her dismay and simply told me that, in terms of bang for your buck, it was $20 dollars incredibly well-spent. So later that week, being a great learner from people I respect, I took myself to the local Korean “Happy Nails” spa and had my very first pedicure. Dear reader, it was nothing short of a revelation! That deliciously hot tub of fragrant bubbly water, the little pools of melted wax sitting in plastic bags to press against crusty heels, the exotic range of colors, from fuck-me-red to don’t-come-near-me-blackened-moss! A full hour of buffing, and clipping, of massaging the calf, the woefully neglected, over-worked foot, it was heaven!
If Paul Krugman, in his marvelously clear latest book, END THIS DEPRESSION NOW!, is right—that “your spending is my income, and my spending is your income”, then the global economy should eventually perk up, given my spending. From that first pedicure twenty years ago, I’ve come to discover no end of sybaritic pleasures—the once-monthly massage, and pedicure. The twice-yearly facial, the waxed brows and of course, the “I-may-be-turning-sixty-but-can’t-yet-face-turning-gray” hair getting colored. Truly, I’m doing my part to support the economy, and lucky me, to be able to do so, I freely admit this!
In the course of these self-indulgent forays into the service economy, I also discovered something about myself: I cannot seem to employ a “service” without making friends. The moment I enjoyed that first pedicure, I needed to know Jung Park’s story, how she’d fled North Koreatwenty years ago. How the Chinese were aggressively encroaching on the mani-pedi business. How badly Jung wanted to improve her English. How she longed to see her Mom once more before she died. On and on and on, a full hour of Jung’s story. I immediately went marching off to Rockefeller Center the next day, to buy several Korean/English language books, to launch and then extend her assimilation into this country. Similar relationships developed with masseuses, wherein I’d become so involved—okay, over-involved—with that person’s life that I began to dread visiting Todar, for example, listening to his anguished tales about the Bulgarian mafia operating out of Sofia, the aphids assaulting his tomatoes, his daughter’s older, slightly louche boyfriend. I began to withdraw, dialing back my visitations. Enough, already! I have my own large messy life, what the Irish fondly call, The Troubles!
When I finally “gave in” and had a pedicure, I was greeted with reproach from Jung, she’d missed me, she’d made me some Kimchi with spices that her Mom had sent in a double-wrapped jiffy bag, all the way from Seoul. I apologized, looking around “Happy Nails”, sinking into the plush leather.
What I observed disturbed me and yes, it’s judgmental but The Gentle Diva IS judgmental, isn’t that, at least, clear by now? A mother was having a mani-pedi and her daughter, not yet five, was having the same treatment at a nearby chair. There is something really appalling about watching a fifty-year old woman, someone who has been driven in a van from Queens at five that morning, bending over the supple young, barely formed leg of a bored five-year-old. Maybe the Mom was desperate for some bodily attention and couldn’t get a babysitter, I thought charitably. Maybe this child was bullied on the playground that morning and this is her reward, a mother/daughter foray into “Happy Nails”? Whatever the scenario, to which I wasn’t privy, I began to notice this phenomenon more frequently: impossibly young girls being buffed and foot-massaged and painted before they could conjugate their first verb. The Gentle Diva wonders what has happened to the virtue of delayed gratification? Of waiting a bit for the small but meaningful pleasures that life can offer? Isn’t this, after all, why we love Spring—that first daffodil, primrose, tulip, branch of Forsythia after a harsh and sunless winter? It was Shakespeare himself, in CYMBELINE, who wrote “The more delay’d, delighted.”
Okay, so it’s now established that limousines are actually a safe alternative, prom night, to yet another high school senior being wrapped around a telephone pole at three in the morning, post prom, I’ve made my peace with that. I used to seethe at the sight of ten pubescent kids joking around in the inner chambers of a limousine, as they were escorted to some ab-fab dance. Probably because I didn’t even know limos existed until I was old enough to pay my share to ride in one of them.
Clearly, people have enormously varied capacities for love, grief, pleasure and more. I suppose if that five-year-old was on a special Mommy bonding trip, I’d feel less irritated by how short-changed this kid was. But the Mom was texting frantically and the little girl was working desultorily at some Gameboy, not even acknowledging the Korean woman bent over her young frame, a figure of defeated supplication. For every reason in the world, this was a sad and truncated portrait of a girl who might have everything—and possibly nothing, not really—by the time she turned fifteen. Maybe her soccer/dance/chess/French lessons had been cancelled. Maybe she’d thrown an inelegant hissy fit, deciding against the cherry red polish of the week earlier and wanted it re-done, NOW. Worst of all, maybe her mother simply didn’t known how to “be” with her own child on a sunny, Saturday afternoon. Anyway, not my problem but a sobering observation. At least the U.S. Economy got a little boost that day…
Perhaps it’s “unbecoming” of me, but it’s time to talk about money. April 15th has already come and gone, exacting its grim reckoning but all these profit-and-loss figures have a bracing way of insinuating themselves into my 4:00 AM nightmares. Having only owned a business for a few years, I find it endlessly interesting–and edifying–to lunch with other agents, to find out what sort of business model works for them. When I have lunch with editors, I talk about children and dogs, HRT and booksbooksbooks. When The Gentle Diva meets with agents, we talk about money: who is selling what and to whom, how much an accountant really has to cost, whether starting a pension plan is absolutely necessary, etc. And of course, we talk about our assistants and what to pay them, how frequently to offer them raises. We noisily wonder aloud if everyone really needs a full month off each calendar year? Our conversations don’t always recommend us; we can get fairly Scrooge-like but we do our best to be fair!
All this preamble brings me to a recent lunch conversation I had with an independent agent. Let’s call him Josh. Josh is a good guy, he’s a fun lunch because he gets so over-exercised when indignant and then I join him in the outrage-fest: before you know it, we’re no longer attacking the bread basket, we’re levitating in apoplexy. So what was pissing him off this time? Josh had just interviewed a young woman for an assistant position. She was radiantly qualified, with three years under her publishing belt, having worked at one of the largest-and most profitable agencies. The reason WHY this candidate was out job-hunting with Josh? Because she was making exactly ten bucks an hour! AFTER THREE YEARS!
“But. But…how can they do that?” I sputtered.
“Look,”Josh said, “if they let her go, they’ve got a line as long as a rock concert of people waiting for that opening.”
“But still, how can they do this?” I insisted.
“BECAUSE THEY CAN!”Josh said.
Wow. Because they can. Just. Wow. “Because they can” is just not an acceptable reason. First of all, it’s niggardly. It’s also penny-wise and pound-foolish—that assistant will eventually leave, with zero loyalty intact and just forget about the long-term costs of training someone afresh!
If you wait long enough, eventually New York Magazine will touch upon your subject. In the April 2nd issue, under the Intelligencer column, they devoted their space to “The Intern’s Burden”, having surveyed 100 of them. Some of their questions were silly and inspired equally silly responses: “What’s the most menial task you’ve been given at your internship?” Answer? “Buying lint rollers” or “Sharpening pencils”. Please, interns, get a grip here, you’re an intern, did you really expect to re-write code on international human rights? One of New York Magazine’s questions, however, was chilling: “Do you receive financial support from your parents?” to which a whopping 84% said, “Yes”. So here’s what’s further wrong about paying a publishing assistant ten bucks an hour: you cannot live on it. You just can’t. Not in Queens with five roommates all fighting over the same refrigerator space. Not on a diet of Ramen Noodles and pinto beans flavored by fatback. And if that assistant needs to move back in with his or her parents, that’s bespeaking a certain income. Suddenly, the kids from the “have’s” parents have become separated from the kids with the “have-not” parents. If your parents cannot subsidize your unspeakably low salary at a literary agency, then you can’t work in publishing. I mean, okay, you could. You could work a couple of extra jobs, I suppose. But wait, don’t most great assistants log in at least 70 hours a week? One generation later, let’s please not wonder aloud whatever became of the richness and tradition of diversity, okay? It got out-sourced by kids of the upper middle class and beyond.
But the main reason why ten bucks an hour is unacceptable is because it’s just wrong! I once had lunch with an editor who was bragging about a first novel he’d just bought. The writer was 76 years old, on a fixed income. This editor was plumped with pleasure because he’d recognized the novel as hugely commercial but had only paid an advance of $5,000 for it. Great news, right? I was starchy even long ago so I told this editor if this $5,000 was coming out of his grandchildren’s tuition trust fund? Was there some good reason why he felt that paying the least possible amount was cause for such self-satisfied jubilee? Isn’t it your job, I opined, to make an offer based upon what you thought the novel was worth, because that was the right thing to do?
So here’s what The Gentle Diva says to her colleagues, and to herself, as well: pay your people the most you possibly can. You’ll be rewarded a thousand-fold in diligence, in loyalty, in faith. Don’t lowball just because you can. Inconvenience yourself, and stop blaming poor behavior on policy or whatever the competition has decided is “fair”. “Fair” is what your conscience tells you—again—at 4:00 AM.
Welcome to my blog, brought to you by The Gentle Diva.
I’d like to use this space to expound, to exhort, to implore, to scold, to have a little fun, but not at anyone’s expense and hopefully, without too much verbal incontinence. I’m getting to the age where incontinence of any sort is going to be an issue, so tell me to shut up if I digress too often! Before I tell you The Gentle Diva’s thoughts for this blog, let me explain the provenance of this extraordinarily self-serving and slightly egomaniacal title:
Today, an editor blew me off for lunch, always my favorite spontaneous act of charity. I was imagining a quick nip into Marimekko to purchase some overpriced but will-last-a-lifetime stripped towels. No such luck, thank you WORK for saving me from such an unnecessary purchase! Before I knew it, it was 1:30 and the Fage Youghurt I’d consumed at 7:30 AM was suddenly yearning noisily for some alimentary company. My assistant, Molly Schulman, asked me what I wanted to eat.
Another digression: does anyone remember Margaret Wise Brown’s kids’ book called THE IMPORTANT BOOK? You all know THE RUNAWAY BUNNY and of course, GOODNIGHT, MOON; you’d have to be in a parental coma to not have encountered one of those classics. Okay, so THE IMPORTANT BOOK is a little obscure, not to brag and say “recherché”. But it basically goes like this, “Snow is wet. Snow is cold. But the IMPORTANT thing about snow is that it is WHITE. To paraphrase a bit, I’d say “Molly Schulman is adorable. Molly Schulman is smart. But the IMPORTANT thing about Molly Schulman is that she is UNFLAPPABLE.” And since I rarely censor myself, this is, as they say, “meaningful”.
Back to the anecdote: Molly S. asks me what to order for lunch.
“Shall I order the usual? Two hard-boiled eggs and a fresh fruit salad?”
“NO!” I bark, from the bowels of my office. “The so-called “fresh fruit” just isn’t fresh, let’s be honest here. The last time I ate it, the blueberries were frozen and clearly shocked into importation from someplace like Uruguay. Even the kiwi was woody and fibrous and unpleasant! Get me the eggs, yes please, but just buy a banana. An honest banana not bruised. If it’s bruised and nasty-looking, find me an orange. A thick-rinded Sunkist orange, not one of those thin-skinned, ancient ones lying at the bottom of a deli barrel, waiting for a sucker customer.”
There was a pause, and then I heard Molly S. whisper—a whisper that carried all the way to my office, okay, like ten feet, “The Gentle Diva has spoken.” What??? I mean, how great is that? First, I’m a Leo, so I get along with diva personalities. Second, I’m numerologically a One. Chinese Astrology tells me that I was born during the Year of the Dragon, yeah yeah, you guessed it, I’m 59, born in 1952, I’ve just done the math for you. Meanwhile, I’m reading Michael Shelden’s new biography, on young Winston Churchill’s Edwardian years and he quotes Churchill, “I believe in personality” and I think, “Wow, Churchill, C’est MOI!” I DO have a large personality and I DO feel strongly about things, about principles, about manners—not whether to wear white buckskin shoes after Memorial Day, I could care less!–who even WEARS buckskin shoes anymore, anyway?– but about how to behave in a fast-moving world where behavior might just get lost in translation. That, my friends, is what The Gentle Diva will be about.
No more digression. It’s time for the first Gentle Diva lesson: the language of TELEPHONE ETIQUETTE.
I grew up surrounded by rotary phones, long after the touch-tone version had claimed nearly every American household. Phones were where you briefly conducted business, distinctly NOT for chatting. My father, Otto Friedrich, was a writer and he instilled in me, a slight terror of the telephone. I represented him and I loved him, not in that order, but the phone was his worst form of communication. I would call him up, as an adult daughter, just to say, “hi” and the first thing he’d ask, always, was, “What do you have to say for yourself?” Talk about a conversation killer! The phone was used so rarely at home that the moronic beagle,Jenny, would levitate from her resting place when it occasionally rang. When I was incredibly unhappy at Skidmore College, before I transferred to Barnard, where I was only slightly less unhappy, you could take a single course for one month. I wrote to my parents to tell them of my decision to study astronomy. I had visions, like any flighty nineteen-year-old, of studying the stars, so romantic; I still look UP every day when I pass through that magical central dome of Grand Central Station. The next thing I know, I’ve received a telegram—the entire dormitory is ringing with that false, hushed urgency which still, back then, accompanied the arrival of a telegram.
My father’s message: No Astronomy. Stop. Disaster ahead. Stop. Slightly retarded in math. Stop. Papa.
Wow, okay, then back to Greek mythology! But so allergic to the telephone, that this man would send a telegram, which usually, let’s face it, bespeaks death and disaster of a REAL sort?
When I became an agent, I had to overcome the telephone, that instrument that I’d been told all my adolescent life, to please GET OFF! I learned to sound calm on the phone, when the rest of my body was vibrating with the thrill of the publishing offer. To sound rushed when I just needed to NOT hear another word about a writer or editor’s ovulation/marital/sibling rivalry crises, enough, already. I got good at the phone, it became a sort of higher art—when to blow smoke with an editor, when to have an assistant “channel” a long-distance call from Seoul, when to stretch the conversation to actually LEARN something about this insane and insanely wonderful business.
But there’s something about the NY/LA axis that is always weird and weirdly competitive. I’ve got loads of business buddies there, I check in frequently—by phone—hoping to divine something about how that side of the business actually works. Because I never watch TV or see movies (okay, three a year, tops. I only saw “The Artist” and “Hugo” this year, in an actual theatre; do I pick them or WHAT?). I’m stunningly, no breathtakingly out of it. My daughter, Lucy Carson, who is stunningly, no breathtakingly IN it, lovingly teases me about this numbing ignorance on my part. But she’s another story, another blog for The Gentle Diva.
So I receive a phone call from a well-known book agent in L. A., but I’m not there. And so the phone tag begins, back and forth. I reach Nate’s office and Nate’s not there:
“I don’t have him. Can he return?”
Wow.Just. Wow. Is this assistant kidding? So when I finally connect with Nate, I say,
“Look, before we get to an actual conversation, can I please talk to you about phone etiquette?”
“Uh, yeah, Okay, Molly. What’s the problem?”
“Well, it’s just that, this is why New Yorkers are always making fun of Hollywood, this is so awful and hopeless and short-circuited and pretentious, can you just please correct this, ‘I don’t have him/ Can he return’ business? And don’t do it within the next two weeks, I don’t want to be slammed by your assistant, but this language HAS to stop, it’s just AWFUL!”
I was on a Delta flight returning home recently and the flight attendant was clearly literate. She had a rigidly straight backbone, she enunciated her words. She also had that fine fuzz of new hair that so often, alas, signals recovery from a serious bout of Chemo. I admired her, as she said, “As you disembark from this plane, please be sure…etc.” As I left the plane, luggage and kids intact, I said, “Thank you for NOT saying ‘deplane’. She was so thrilled! Elated, even! Someone had noticed her teeny-tiny effort to not abuse our sturdy English language!
I just adore Bill Bryson. I call him “Bill” even though we’ve never met but his books exude that come-hither air of familiarity. In his marvelous book about the English language, MOTHER TONGUE, he talks about the richness, the diversity and the nuance of English. According to “Bill”, we’ve got between 400,000 and 600,000 words, depending upon the source. German runs thin at about 180,000 words and the French language is positively anorexic at 100,000 words.
So let’s please NOT “have” someone or not. And let’s also not “return”. Let’s. Just. Not. It’s lazy.
The Gentle Diva has spoken. Enough!