The Last Book Scout
A year ago, a book editor named Joe Veltre was hired by Miramax to look for “guy books”-thrillers-that could be turned into blockbusters by Harvey Weinstein and the gang. But on Nov. 18, his contract up, the 31-year-old Mr. Veltre left his position as director of development at Miramax to become an agent and rights director at the literary agency Carlisle & Co., returning to the straight-up world of books (he was a senior editor at HarperCollins before his Miramax stint).
If, in his brief foray into book-to-film development, Mr. Veltre learned one thing, it was that the pipeline of hot books that make studios sit up and beg appears to have dried up: “It’s been slim pickings for material for a while now,” Mr. Veltre said.
For book scouts-those literary eyes and ears of A-list Hollywood bosses like Tom Hanks and producer Wendy Finerman, who plumb the publishing world for movie material-it’s tough going these days. For one thing, the population of scouts is shrinking as the demand for their services disappears. At one time, Fox, Universal and MGM all had development offices in New York. Now, Paramount is the only Hollywood studio left in town. Partly, it’s hard economics: An investment in a New York development office isn’t a priority for cost-cutting studios. But the result is that the book scouts left standing-mostly independent scouts or contracted firms-are feeling the pressure to justify their existence more than ever. And there’s only one way: with a major score-the next Michael Crichton, say, or the next John Grisham.
The problem, according to many, is that the publishing biz can’t find the next big thing to deliver to Hollywood. Aside from tired products like the Nora Roberts and Tom Clancy output, the last huge hit was The Lovely Bones , which has been on the best-seller list since the summer. The film rights were optioned ages ago to Britain’s Channel Four, from a half-completed manuscript.
All this is making the scouting world seem as neurotic as, well, Charlie Kaufman, the perspiring, insecure, furiously masturbating screenwriter- cum -fictional-character of the new Spike Jonze movie, Adaptation , who’s hired to turn a meandering, literary nonfiction book, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief , into a screenplay. “I think there’s been a dearth of good cinematic material,” said Nan Shipley, a book scout for Disney and Mr. Hanks’ production company, Playtone. “It may be perception: It’s often out there, but it’s whether people have the ability to recognize it.”
While budget-conscious studios look for new material in comic books, video games and the backlog of book and screenplays they already own, scouts are groping around for an explanation for the lull in the book-to-film market. Ms. Shipley, for one, said literary agents tell her there is less “good material for them to represent.” Or maybe, she said, “it’s the publishing conglomerates not taking the same kind of risks they used to.”
“People have to get their bearings,” said Jennifer Wachtel, the director of book development at Miramax. “They don’t know what to write about. All the typical movie books have a political climate-the Ludlums, the Clancys-and no one was sure what to do with those last year. Who’s the enemy? It’s not the Russians anymore.”
And who wants a movie about terrorists?
In any event, the pool of potential material is smaller. “When I started, I remember having a tracking sheet three pages long,” said Erin Hennicke, a film and television scout at Franklin & Siegal, which works for Universal. “Now it’s down to half a page.”
Most agreed that the fall season in publishing has been a wasteland for movie concepts-from Donna Tartt’s Southern Gothic novel, The Little Friend , to Geoffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex , an epic tale of a hermaphrodite, the most talked-about books were just too … literary. “It seemed that there were a lot of famous authors coming out with big books that were great,” said Ms Hennicke, “but hard to make a movie about-a little sprawling. Or there were little-known authors that were kind of impenetrable. They’re saying sales are up in publishing. But it just seems that there’s not a Nanny Diaries of this season.”
At this point, even Mr. Kaufman’s loopy meta-story about the torturous process of turning a book into a film actually offers a hint of hope. “For a book that is sprawling or weird,” said Ms. Hennicke, “you have it in the back of your brain: Is there a Charlie Kaufman take on this? You’re not as dismissive of those things as you were before.”
Lisa Hamilton, a former scout for the literary arm of Michael Ovitz’s former agency, AMG, said that she’d tried to sell her scouting services to the acquiring company The Firm, but cash was too tight for them to hire her. So she got a job as an editor with Judith Regan’s HarperCollins imprint, Regan Books. Ms. Hamilton opined that it didn’t make it any easier to sell her services to The Firm when the field of fall books was so fallow. “I feel like it’s just that the books are a little different right now,” said Ms. Hamilton. “They’re quirkier and smaller now. There are authors that don’t give a shit about making movies. Donna Tartt doesn’t care about making a movie. The Corrections is great, but that’s going to be a very difficult adaptation.
“A lot of authors are snobs about the film world,” she added. “They think literature is above film. There’s a secret snobbery about it.”
Of course, there’s often good reason for literary writers to be wary, since their work is likely be mutilated beyond recognition by the time it sees a screen. Take About Schmidt , which opens on Friday: It was adapted from a 1996 novel by Louis Begley, but by the time director Alexander Payne was through with it, Jack Nicholson was playing an “average guy,” an Omaha insurance executive instead of a Manhattan lawyer, and driving a Winnebego instead of a Saab. Mr. Begley, for his part, has taken the whole adventure lightheartedly; he introduced the film at a MoMA screening Tuesday night.
And the adaptation process for Ms. Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History , has certainly been plagued with frustration: The best-seller was optioned in the early 90’s and spent the next 10 years in one development hell or another. It was not until last year, when Miramax picked it up to let Gwyneth Paltrow produce it and her brother Jake direct, that the book began crawling in earnest toward the screen.
Drew Reed, vice president of production for Wendy Finerman Productions, said that he’d just about had it with book people pushing all that literary crap. Mr. Reed is on the lookout for the next commercial superstar, a Grisham Jr. But he doesn’t see new commercial authors being cultivated at publishing houses. Instead, he’s getting highbrow material that is, he said, unfilmable. “If I were a scholar or bookstore owner,” he said, “I might be quite happy with the way publishing is going right now.” For his purposes, though, it’s dire. “I think it’s very interesting when editors say, ‘Oh my God, it’s a movie.’ Then you look at it, and it’s about a geisha girl in contemporary Tokyo … Jesus!
“Are these literary novels worth the money that’s being paid for them?” he continued. “If not, shouldn’t the [publishing] corporations say, ‘This is a business-it’s show business , not show art , right? Let’s put out some books that are commercial and sell.’ But I haven’t heard any corporation making that mandate. Publishing is so traditional and entrenched, there would be huge resistance to something like that.”
A central complaint about the literary novels is their plots: Often, they have none-or they have a sprawling one that can’t be worked into a screenplay without sending the Mr. Kaufmans of the world into night sweats. “It’s funny,” said Hardy Justice, the vice president of creative affairs for Tribeca Productions. “I think there’s something in the American literary world that feels guilty about plot. If you’re reading it and enjoying it, you’re suspicious. You don’t feel that way about movies.”
Mr. Hardy pointed to the growth of young-adult books being turned into movies-among them Artemis Fowl , a sort of anti- Harry Potter that Miramax and Tribeca are producing jointly. Mr. Hardy acquired Michael Chabon’s recent young-adult effort, Summerland , which was published by Miramax Books. He said he understood why Mr. Chabon would write a kid’s book. “In a weird way, their audience will let them do things in a children’s book that they won’t let them do in an adult novel,” he said. “There’s a lot of adults reading Harry Potter . It’s almost like their slumming-slumming for plot.”
But maybe there’s hope on the horizon for Mr. Chabon’s more obscure literary output-in the form of the screen adaptation of The Hours , a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham, which is being produced by Scott Rudin. Mr. Reed said that if a movie based on a highbrow novel could sell, maybe studios would take some chances on these small, quirky books-and that, in turn, would stimulate the scouting economy. “I think it’s a test,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if The Hours does really well. We start to hear from our employers in L.A., ‘Find me something like The Hours !’, and that will open the door to more of these literary novels.”
But as it stands Mr. Rudin, who has aquired the option for Mr. Chabon’s next novel, may be the only guy in town who is able to get these kinds of books on celluloid, but he doesn’t see the studios following his lead. After all, no one came storming the publishing houses’ gates after the success of A Beautiful Mind , which was adapted from a brainy nonfiction book by Sylvia Nasar. Why? “They’re hard work,” said Mr. Rudin. Such literary projects require “a lot of development work and are expensive. You either believe they’re rewarding or you don’t.
“I think it comes down to a passion for a certain kind of material,” he added, “and having the juice to get it done.”
In other words, you need clout. And it’s the clout of an A-list producer or actor behind an idea that most scouts just don’t have. And meanwhile, for every Beautiful Mind , there’s a bomb like The Shipping News to make studios think twice-which brings scouts invariably back to the next Crichton. Where is she?
Not surprisingly, scouts say it’s a cyclical business and the dry spell can’t last. “They cannot scout books from L.A.,” said Ms. Shipley. “It’s not possible. All you can do from L.A. is get on the bandwagon. We have access so early to so much material, I think they’ll come around again.”
Raging Rosset Ignored; ‘Warm, Gentle’ Beckett Fêted
Given the publishing-world scuttlebutt last week, you might have thought the P.E.N.-sponsored tribute to Samuel Beckett, held at Town Hall on Monday night, Dec. 9, was subtitled “Waiting for Barney.” Former Grove publisher Barney Rosset, Beckett’s original U.S. publisher, was not initially asked to participate in the event, which featured such Beckett-friendly literary types as Paul Auster, Peter Carey and Edward Albee, and letters reportedly “poured in” to P.E.N. complaining about the omission. But even an apology and a hurried invitation from the event organizers-including New York Times critic Mel Gussow-couldn’t appease the septuagenarian publisher known, for better and worse, for his tendency toward self-dramatization. His non-involvement wasn’t a mere oversight, the Rosset contingent claims. It was another play in an endgame between the Times critic and the publisher, who feuded over a Beckett work years ago.
“I’m surprised there’s not a demonstration outside,” one prominent publishing executive told me during intermission.
But there was no picketing. In fact, beyond two perfunctory mentions-from publisher Richard Seaver and Mr. Gussow himself-Mr. Rosset’s name did not come up. Instead, the half-filled house gave itself over to a nearly three-hour-long Beckett lovefest that left the impression that the notoriously crusty-and wildly controversial-Irish-born novelist and playwright had never had an enemy in the world. “The whole [Rosset-Gussow] thing has been way overblown,” said one publisher long acquainted with Grove. “There are no politics here at all.”
P.E.N., of course, is usually all about politics and controversy. But the Masters Tribute series, of which the Beckett event was the latest installment (James Baldwin was another recent celebratee), is P.E.N.’s way of honoring iconoclastic writers who have advanced the cause of literature. For $15 to $30, people come to P.E.N. events to praise writers and publishers, not to bury them.
This was not your usual publishing crowd, Salman Rushdie and sleepy-eyed Peter Mayer notwithstanding; there were theater folk and academics in evidence. Even for the bookish, it was a dress-down day-except if you were Arcade publisher (and presenter) Jeanette Seaver, in her blue feather boa, or elegant Maria Aitken, the wife of novelist Patrick McGrath, who read from one of Beckett’s novels with a scarf flowing Isadora Duncan-style from her swanlike neck.
And while there were some young publishing Turks on the premises-thirtysomething Grove Atlantic publisher Eric Price was there; so was 30-ish editor Chris Knutsen, who, while at Riverhead, published George Saunders, a contemporary Beckettian writer, you might say-most of the people onstage and in the audience looked to be about twice their age.
And speaking of age, everybody did. Announcing that, like Jack Benny, he never admits to being more than 39, publisher Richard Seaver nevertheless announced that this year marked the 50th anniversary of his first meeting with Beckett. Paul Auster and Peter Carey, looking like properly disheveled bohemians instead of the rich, best-selling novelists they are, and playwright Israel Horovitz, who is starting to bear an uncanny resemblance to the actor Peter Riegert, all made points of mentioning, several times, that they were so young-25, 26 years old-when they met the Master (who died in 1989, at the age of 83) that they were brash enough to do the very thing they’d been told not to do: ask him about his work. Famously dour about his own accomplishments-more than one presenter quoted him as saying things like “The play I disliked least was Endgame “-Beckett was, apparently, nothing but an inspiration to his acolytes.
There were readings from the author’s works-the best of which was a scene from Waiting for Godot performed by John Turturro and Bill Irwin (in Beckett-required bowler hats)-but it was Beckett-as-character who took center stage. Jeannette Seaver talked about his “intense blue eyes” and told of dancing together with the writer and the artist Giacometti, who designed sets for Beckett’s plays. Professor Tom Bishop told a funny-ish story about naming his dog Beckett and trying to hide that fact from the dog’s namesake for years. “Do you think we can be friends?” a besotted Israel Horovitz asked the writer in Paris all those years ago. “I think we already are,” Beckett replied. Could it be that the lonely guy who wrote some of the sparest and gloomiest prose of the 20th century was also what Mr. Bishop called “a wonderfully gentle man, a wonderfully warm human being”? You can’t help wondering what Barney Rosset would have said.
Sara Nelson, a contributing editor at Glamour , is writing a book about reading for G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Proulx-Rhymes with ‘True’-Roams the Texas Panhandle
That Old Ace in the Hole , by Annie Proulx. Scribners, 384 pages, $26.
Like every other reader of recent fiction, I have some favorites, a charmed circle that includes (thanks for asking) Don DeLillo’s Underworld , Joyce Carol Oates’ What I Lived For , Grace Paley’s Collected Stories , Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater , Richard Price’s Clockers , Michael Cunningham’s The Hours , Louis Begley’s As Max Saw It and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories . To these and a few other beauties I now add a raucous comedy of Texas manners. If a better-written or funnier novel than That Old Ace in the Hole has appeared in the last few years, I’ll eat my 10-gallon hat.
A disclaimer is called for here: The above writers are all friends of mine. In Annie Proulx’s case, we met in Dublin when The Shipping News won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, whose jury I chaired. When the novel later swept the major American prizes, my fellow panelists and I were vindicated for having chosen a relatively unknown author over more established finalists. Ms. Proulx (rhymes with “true”) and I downed a Guinness or two in a noisy pub on Grafton Street and became friends. I have now disclaimed.
Not everybody, despite the crowded shelf of prizes and the glowing reviews from the likes of Gail Caldwell, Michael Dirda and Richard Eder, savors Ms. Proulx’s inimitable language. B.R. Myers, in his recently published A Reader’s Manifesto , excoriates her prose, along with that of Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy and a few other fine stylists, proving only that he has two tin ears. And Judith Shulevitz used her column in The New York Times Book Review to let the world know that there are “literary reaches” where Ms. Proulx has been “discounted.” I wrote asking where those reaches are. I assume they’re on the moon.
I despair of tone-deaf journalists, and also of reviewers who blithely give away a book’s carefully plotted secrets. That said, I can reveal-without seeming to practice what I impeach-that this comedy, with its dark undertones, is closer in most respects to The Shipping News than to Postcards or Accordion Crimes , dark works with comic overtones. And just as the celebrated Newfoundland novel offers a detailed sense of a place most of us are not likely to visit, Ms. Proulx’s panhandle lets us experience the manners and mores of an unfamiliar terrain. We become intimate with the area’s idiosyncratic characters, their history, their troubles and their speech: graindeddy ; buffler , which roam where the deer and the antelope play; rayroads ; war , as in barbwar ; and awl , which sometimes gushes from the earth and makes a farmer rich.
As her six books eloquently show, Ms. Proulx is our laureate of landscape, the expansive descriptions of natural phenomena worthy of Barry Lopez or Edward Hoagland. With an anthropologist’s eye (and a historian’s curiosity), she’s also impressive on, among many other things, regional cuisine, from the succulent to the inedible. Readers who can still taste those Newfie squidburgers can now have their palates cleansed by such high-prairie favorites as vinegar pie, sugar snakes or “cherry Jell-O containing ginger ale and cut-up marshmallows.” The author possibly encountered these delicacies during months of research (she was followed around by a BBC crew documenting her residency), or perhaps they’re a product of her dead panhandle humor.
The book’s bland protagonist, Bob Dollar, like Coyle of The Shipping News a man at loose ends, is sent from Denver by Global Pork Rind to seek out ranchers willing to sell their spreads for conversion to malodorous hog farms. There’s little doubt about where Ms. Proulx’s sympathies lie in matters of conservation and respect for the land, but she awards the greedy polluters their day in court. Such suspense as exists lies in whether Candide-like Bob, motivated by a compulsion to finish what he starts, will succeed in replacing cattle and wheat farms with scummy lagoons filled with hog manure.
The novel is not so much a conventional narrative as an anthology of tall and medium-tall tales told by and about the colorful residents of teetotaling Woolybucket, who have names like Rope Butt, Francis Scott Keister, Dick Head and Jack “Big Wrist” Derrida. (A “Hal Bloom” shows up in Close Range .) As any Proulx buff will guess, the stories can be violent, risible, ribald and sometimes all three. They’re never dull, every page containing pungent sentences full of agreeable twists and turns.
We learn about cockfights, wild-cow-milking contests, cowboy poetry (“They say an old cowboy just ain’t no good. / His campfire went out though he done all he could”), the Texas Peace Prize, awarded annually at the Hotel Stockholm in Dallas, bumper stickers (“MY SON IS AN HONOR INMATE AT McALESTER”) and bathroom graffiti (“Okies, the rock candy in the urinals is not for you”). We also get an earful from the fundamentalist inhabitants of this conservative preserve, who are suspicious of National Public Radio (“Commie stuff”), dark skin, joggers, “homaseashells” (also known as “funny boys” and “them fairies”) and abortionists who, according to Parmenia Boyce, sell baby parts “to Chinese restaurants.”
Bob Dollar’s principal muse is his landlady (keeper of a pet tarantula named Tonya), a faded panhandle Scheherazade given to what her fellow Woolybucketers refer to as “windies.” But then, nearly all the characters Bob meets have the gift of gab, their usually droll stories sometimes quite moving. At one point, perched high on a windmill with a view of the surrounding countryside, our young site scout engages in a debate with the book’s flawed hero (and source of its title), Ace Crouch, an opinionated rancher and once “Exalted Cyclops” of the local Klan chapter. The topic is survival, a theme touched on in various anecdotes and tales.
“Ace’s face was as creased as dried mud, the old eyes slitted, peering into the haze …. ‘We lived through the droughts that come and we seen the Depression and the dust storms blowin up black as the smoke from a oil fire. We seen cowboy firin squads shootin half-starved thirsty cattle by the thousand. Yes, that’s who had a do it, the men who took care a cows all their lives was the ones had a shoot them too. And there was many a tough saddlebum turned his head away.”‘
Annie Proulx’s fiction, from the stunning Heart Songs on, has become richer, book by book. With this funny and haunting panorama of a “country of metallic light” and “tarnished brass clouds,” she has managed to outdo her previous outdoing. So saddle up, folks, and gallop to the nearest bookstore. And now, if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to grab some vinegar pie and settle down, once again, with this great American novel.
– Joel Conarroe
Joel Conarroe, author and editor of books about American literature, is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and of the P.E.N. American Center.