Tom Wolfe’s Magnum Opus Is Ready! Farrar Hopes to Make Serial Killing

For a little over a week now, the most coveted invitation in the Manhattan magazine world has been for a seat at a wooden table in a conference room at Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s Union Square West offices. There, Tom Wolfe’s new novel, Red Dogs –or most of it–exists as a foot-high stack of paper, typed in his usual triple-spaced lineation. Mr. Wolfe and his publisher have been keeping the novel under wraps, inviting fiction editors from the few magazines Mr. Wolfe considers worthy of excerpting his work to peruse the manuscript–under supervision, of course–in Farrar’s offices. Bids for first serial rights were due in the fax machine of Mr. Wolfe’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, by 11 A.M. on April 21.

The catch here is that Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Ms. Nesbit and Mr. Wolfe are hoping to reap close to $1 million for first serial rights to the novel, an unheard-of sum for any magazine to pay for a novel excerpt. Indeed, the publisher’s high asking price elicited guffaws from several of the bidders–as if to say, in Wolfese, Fuhgedaboudit! Bidders say a figure approaching $100,000 is much more likely.

For days now, those lucky few fiction editors have scurried to the publisher’s office to have a look at one of the most anticipated novels in the last few years. Vanity Fair ‘s Doug Stumpf has come by for a peek, as has The New Yorker ‘s Bill Buford and Esquire ‘s Adrienne Miller. Jann Wenner, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone , is the only other potential bidder for the serial rights.

A longtime friend and patron of the author, Mr. Wenner would seem to be a natural partner for Mr. Wolfe’s next big book. He got Mr. Wolfe started on The Right Stuff in 1973 when he hired him to write four articles on astronauts for Rolling Stone , and shelled out big bucks to serialize an early version of Bonfire of the Vanities before its publication in 1987, as well as Ambush at Fort Bragg , a novella outtake from Red Dogs , in December 1996. He has his own copy of the book, provided by Mr. Wolfe.

Adopting typically Wolfian hyperbole, some who have seen the manuscript describe it as “a huge world-creating social satire.” Still, magazine bidders have not lost their heads. As The Observer was going to press, at least one magazine had balked entirely at Farrar’s implied starting price of $500,000 for the book.

Farrar publicist Jeff Seroy would say only: “Negotiations are in progress, and it would be foolish to talk about them at this time.”

Sources close to the discussions say Farrar established several unusual ground rules for the rights auction. Besides limiting the number of participants, the publisher asked the magazines to propose comprehensive marketing packages, which might include anything from advertising space to promises of cover billing. In their fax to Ms. Nesbit on April 21, all the participants were expected to have their marketing strategies and cash offers laid out in minute detail. Some of the participants in the auction bristled at having been asked to sign agreements saying they would not discuss the novel’s content.

Mr. Wolfe had a hard time settling on a title for his latest work. The novel has gone from being called The Mayflies in summer 1995 to The Stoics and Chocolate City before becoming Red Dogs . (Sources at Farrar said that Mr. Wolfe is considering Cracker Heaven as a backup title.) In late August 1995, Mr. Wolfe told guests at East Hampton’s Guild Hall, who had gathered to hear him read from his work in progress, that his novel was about real estate development, banking and working-class life–in New York City, of course. At the time, the hero of the book was a 60-year-old tycoon from Georgia living in New York City. Supporting a 29-year-old bride with expensive tastes, he suddenly finds himself $200 million in the hole, not long after Forbes has calculated his net worth at $900 million. Rather than sell off his beloved quail plantation or Gulfstream IV jet, he decides to deal with his coming bankruptcy by laying off some of his workers.

In 1984, Mr. Wolfe was paid $200,000 by Rolling Stone for the serialization of Bonfire of the Vanities in its entirety, a novel that, in a slightly rewritten form, went on to sell more than 700,000 copies in hardcover alone and spent 56 weeks on the hardcover best seller list. But a serialization of Mr. Wolfe’s new novel in its entirety seems highly unlikely given its length. A participant in the auction expressed concern that an expensive fiction excerpt could ever show an economic return for a magazine. Farrar has told participants it wants to publish the novel in September. The publisher further anticipates printing close to a million copies of Red Dogs , which it will sell for around $30 apiece

The flurry of activity around Mr. Wolfe’s novel was recently preceded by a similar competition over rights to Cormac McCarthy’s upcoming novel, Cities of the Plain . Esquire editor in chief David Granger offered to pay money just to have a look at Mr. McCarthy’s manuscript, but the author, through his agent Amanda Urban, declined. Eventually, Mr. McCarthy and his publisher Alfred A. Knopf gave the excerpt to the Wenner Media Inc.-owned Men’s Journal in exchange for an undisclosed sum and perks like four pages of ad space, to be used by Knopf in any issue but the one featuring the excerpt. While such a melding of editorial and business sides is verboten at some publications, Men’s Journal editor Terry McDonell defended the practice. “Any way I can help a book out, I will,” he said. “I’m committing to it by publishing part of it.”

Does all this activity bode well for the future of magazine fiction? “So many magazines have become frothy feature journalism or celebrity journalism, so for those formulas to be broken is a positive for fiction,” said The New Yorker ‘s Mr. Buford.

But Mr. Granger said he doubted the scramble over Messrs. Wolfe and McCarthy would trickle down to less established writers. “I could count the number of writers we’d do this for on one hand,” he said.

New York Times Magazine editor Adam Moss, who took the helm from his former boss, Times assistant managing editor Jack Rosenthal, on April 6, wasted little time before implementing a sweeping institutional change at the magazine. Upon taking charge, Mr. Moss abolished the tedious and much bemoaned system of editing by committee–a process known within the magazine as “manuscribing.”

Under the old system, writers submitted copy to their sponsoring editors, who in turn submitted it to the other editors at the magazine for their input. Eventually, the editorial politburo members–which occasional contributor Calvin Trillin once derided as “the gaggle of yentas”–convened to give their opinions. And that’s where the problems began.

“Each person has an idea for the piece, because he’s been around and after all, he’s no shmendrick,” Mr. Trillin said. “So he says, ‘How about this and this and this.’ It comes back to the writer with suggestions from six or 12 or 38 or however many editors. Then you do it and send it back and they say, ‘It’s too long!'”

At least one Times magazine staff member said the process “made the editors feel as though they were appearing before a tribunal.” The staff member said comments in the meetings could often be “vicious and derisive.” And editors blamed manuscribing for imparting a bland uniformity to the magazine’s voice.

“It did some harm to the relationship between the story editor and the writer,” said Mr. Moss. “Some writers felt hung out to dry or jerked around by some anonymous committee.” Under the new system, commissioning editors will submit their pieces to editorial director Gerald Marzorati or deputy editor Katherine Bouton for top editing, and eventually to Mr. Moss himself.

Mr. Trillin, one of the writers who felt jerked around, nevertheless experienced a pang of nostalgia when informed of the disbanding of the gaggle of yentas. “Now, of course, I feel terrible,” he said. “It was comfortable to know that when I was alone staring at the screen, the gaggle was passing my work around and having a lively discussion. I’m going to miss the gaggle. I lament their passing.”

In the March 30 issue of Mediaweek , GQ editor in chief Art Cooper praised the new SoHo-based style magazine Black Book as being part of “a field that is attracting everybody.” Then he offered the editors of Black Book this chummy greeting: “Welcome to the fight.” By “the fight,” if an article in the April issue of his own magazine is any clue, Mr. Cooper may mean the process of having your small magazine’s clever ideas ripped off by bullies like GQ .

The offending article, entitled “A Farewell to Arms,” was an April Fool’s hoax by GQ staff writer Adam Sachs that touted a new phenomenon in men’s fashion–the short-sleeve suit. The story’s fictional protagonist was one Wim Räuberzivil, a fashion designer who grew up in Communist East Berlin and rebelled against his drab life style there by creating his outrageous suit. “Räuberzivil,” according to Mr. Sachs, is “a colloquial German derogatory term for British leisure wear.” The article got laughs in the office, and even prompted angry mail from readers who took it seriously and objected to short-sleeve suits on style grounds.

But in the Prince Street offices of Black Book , the short-sleeve suit gag had the feel of a joke they’d already heard. That’s because in the summer of 1997, Black Book published its own hoax, in the form of an article entitled “The Return of the Short-Sleeve Suit.” Black Book writer and editor Bill Powers cast his piece as a profile of a fictional character–a Cuban designer named Guillermo Chavez. Mr. Chavez also rebelled against Communism, paying the ultimate price–he was executed, the article tells us–but his revolutionary designs live on because of an enterprising Frenchman named Lee Marcel. The Black Book article is accompanied by photographs of models in short-sleeve suits that eerily prefigure GQ ‘s accompanying art–models in short-sleeve suits.

Mr. Sachs told Off the Record he’d never seen Black Book , and that the story was an assignment from his editor Mark Adams. Mr. Adams said he’d “seen a copy of Black Book but never looked inside.” He said the idea for the story came from his boss, Art Cooper. Mr. Cooper?

“I’m not familiar with the Black Book ,” Mr. Cooper said. “I’ve never looked at it.” What about the Mediaweek comments? “I told them I’d never seen it,” Mr. Cooper said. “I was just responding to what they told me about it.” Mr. Cooper said he’s wanted to do a men’s fashion spoof since the mid-80’s, and that the idea was all his. “It’s an idea that’s been in my mind for years,” he insisted.

Black Book ‘s Mr. Powers remains skeptical. “To do another hoax piece with a foreigner at the center of it,” he said. “Well, it’s a little far-fetched to be a happy accident.”

“If they ever want second serial rights,” Mr. Powers added, “tell them I’m for sale.”

Esquire executive editor Anita Leclerc quit her job on April 17 after more than 20 years at the magazine. For 13 of those years, Ms. Leclerc edited Man at His Best, Esquire ‘s front-of-the-book guide to the virile life style, and handled writers like John Berendt, Jim Harrison and Stanley Bing. Mr. Berendt, who wrote 120 columns for Ms. Leclerc, called her “the kind of editor every writer hopes to have. She’s a very valuable editorial resource and one of the most compatible people I’ve ever worked with.”

Ms. Leclerc was hired by Lee Eisenberg sometime in the 70’s; he eventually promoted her to executive editor. It was under Mr. Eisenberg that Ms. Leclerc created Man at His Best. She was taken off the section in 1995 by then- Esquire editor in chief Edward Kosner, and made head of the magazine’s health and fitness coverage. In that capacity, she outlasted the man who demoted her. But Ms. Leclerc found herself further marginalized by Mr. Kosner’s replacement, David Granger, who brought in a new staff and quickly froze out the old guard. Sources at the magazine said Ms. Leclerc and Mr. Granger never got along, and that Ms. Leclerc had trouble with the magazine’s new, self-consciously macho voice.

Mr. Granger would not comment on Ms. Leclerc’s departure. But when asked about her decision to leave, the veteran editor said she had little choice. “It was either that,” Ms. Leclerc said, “or grow a dick.”