To get an idea of what is happening in publishing today, consider this novel, "Born With the Century." Notice I say "publishing," and not American writing and certainly not literature -- for this has nothing to do with them. No, it is a product manufactured from the remark of a Hollywood producer named Michael Gruskoff, written on seed money from 20th Century-Fox and published by a company owned and run by the entertainment conglomerate, MCA. Rights have been sold, a huge first printing ordered, and publicity and advertising campaigns have been planned to rival those done on some of the big movies. The book is simply a stage in the production of a motion picture.
Not mentioning the author until now is a forgivable oversight, for the man who actually puts the words down on paper plays as negligible a part in this process as a worker on the line at Willow Run plays in the manufacture of a Ford. Reduced to the status of an employee, he simply writes what is required of him in the way that screenwriters have always done. William Kinsolving, in fact, has been a screenwriter and remains one -- in spite of the appearance of his name on the title page of "Born With the Century." He can write dialogue but has no way with narrative at all.
But none of this will matter much to the casual reader. All that matters is whether the book is interesting enough to keep the pages turning. And will it be? Only if one is fascinated by the history of the liquor industry in North America and inspired by the romance of capitalism. It's another epic of a man struggling to the top and staying there, paying the price in broken relationships and injury to his family.
We are offered an immigrant Scotsman named Magnus Macpherson, born (for the title) in 1900, who happens upon the scene in the midst of Prohibition and jumps feet first into the illegal liquor trade on the East Coast, from the Bahamas to New York. It's colorful Rum Row, folks, with a dramatis personae that includes such notorious characters as rumrunner Bill McCoy (whose name became a warrant of authenticity, "the real McCoy"), gambler Arnold Rothstein and gangster Albert Anastasia. And frankly, it's fun while it lasts, but before you know it Macpherson has gone legit, buying up distilleries in Canada and well on his way to building an empire. He turns out to be much less interesting as a captain of industry than as a bootlegger.
The jerry-builders who slapped this novel together must have realized this, too, for about this time there is a shift of emphasis from Macpherson's business to his family life -- wife against husband, son against father, sibling versus sibling, all in the grand tradition of "All My Children" and "As the World Turns." Of course there is a bit of violence and a soupcon of kinky sex tossed in.
The interesting thing is that all this was done far better last year by the very able popular novelist Jerome Weidman in "A Family Fortune." It, too, told a tale of one man's ruthless rise in the liquor trade and the effect upon his family, but it was a book truly written -- not manufactured -- with economy, suspense and style.
The theory behind "Born With the Century" is that all one need do to create a best seller is to throw together elements that have worked in the past, shore them up with a bit of research, get it down on paper any-old-how, and crank up the publicity machine. This is the way they've been putting movies together for years.
The formula doesn't always work -- as Michael Gruskoff, whose idea "Born With the Century" was, can attest. He produced a glossy, expensive film called "Lucky Lady" (also, curiously, about Prohibition and the liquor trade) which sank without a trace. "Born With the Century" may die with the season.