The long Memorial Day weekend has been quite the lit'ry sensation. On the West Coast, hard by the rarified ambiance of Disneyland, the annual convention of the American Booksellers Association is busily hyping the books of the coming autumn, with guest appearances by such pillars of our national letters as Richard Simmons, Jackie Collins and Jim "Garfield the Cat" Davis. On the East Coast, meantime, a small gathering of scriveners in the slightly less inspirational setting of Princeton University has been putting together the foundation for what is hoped to be a national union for writers.
Or, to put it another way: on the West Coast, the lions; on the East Coast, the Christians. It would be difficult for the most inventive novelist to come up with a more revealingly diametrical juxtaposition; while the publishers get down to the hard, raw business of commercialism at one end of the country, the authors bemoan their "exploitation" by those publishers at the other. The publishers are worrying about profit and loss, in particular the latter; the writers are worrying about what many of them regard as the debasing experience of getting their work into print. What neither side is worrying about, sad to say, is the other; if you want to talk about failures of communication, publishers and authors provide a textbook example.
It is not much of an exaggeration to say that publishers know almost nothing about writing, and writers know almost nothing about publishing. That's bad enough. What's worse is that each group thinks it knows everything about the other. The hardly surprising result is a surfeit of misunderstanding and self-righteousness, one that is certain to expand still further if the writers manage to organize themselves into something approximating a union. The mere thought of the rhetoric such a union would spew, and the rhetoric with which the industry would surely answer it, is enough to make one yearn for the good old days of Angela Davis, Jerry Rubin and William Sloane Coffin.
The nascent writers' union is a byproduct of the "Writers' Congress," an exercise in hyperbole and irrelevance that was staged several months ago in New York, under the aegis of the Nation magazine. Although the stated purpose of the conference was to discuss issues and problems of common concern to people who write for a living, or who at least attempt to, it quickly turned into a sentimental journey back to the 1960s, with participants noisily competing to put their radical credentials on public display. The leitmotif of the affair was a fierce and unanimous loathing of the capitalist pigs, a.k.a. publishers, who make it their business to exploit the proletarian artists, a.k.a. writers; the weekend closed on a note of heartwarming solidarity, with participants proclaiming themselves prepared by an overwhelming margin to organize a union in order to defend themselves against their oppressors.
So the first steps in that direction have been taken this weekend, and more no doubt will follow in the months to come. But it is just about impossible to imagine that they will ever come to anything more substantial than a chance for certain writers to blow off steam. Do the organizers of this enterprise really think they can persuade enough writers to submit to the dictates of a union so that they will have an effective bargaining unit? Do they really think writers in great numbers will refuse to offer their work for publication as a way of forcing publishers to make concessions? Do they really think that writers, strapped as they are for money to begin with, will pony up dues for a union of utterly untested strength?
If they think any of these things, then they know precious little about either the nature of writers or the realities of collective bargaining. For all the breathless talk it has stirred in literary salons and journals, the writers' union is a pie in the sky; the 20 to 100 charter members whom its organizers claim to have signed up in about a dozen cities are not the vanguard of a mighty host, but poor little lambs lost in the woods.
Which is too bad, for writers do have legitimate grievances against publishers. Although the standard author's contract has improved somewhat in recent years, it remains a befuddling deck of cards that is heavily stacked in the publisher's favor. Most publishers, with the exception of a few that now offer libel insurance to their authors, do not have the courage of the convictions of the books they publish. Hardly anyone in publishing seems to understand, much less care about, the loneliness and insecurity and financial sacrifice that go into the writing of a book. There is a good deal of justification for the widespread sense among writers that publishers don't give a damn about them and would love to be rid of them.
The trouble is that too many writers are not content to concentrate on their legitimate grievances, but insist on expanding their complaints into areas about which they know absolutely nothing. Many writers feel that publishers, individually and collectively, are out to get them. Because their books do not sell, they blame the publishers for everything from inadequate promotion and advertising to hostile book reviews to unfavorable bookstore display. With a naivete' that is in equal measures touching and preposterous, they believe that if only the publishers would do everything exactly right, they would be buying condominiums on Easy Street.
It seems never to occur to them that customers cannot be forced to buy books--or cars or shoes or soft drinks--that they do not want. They blame the publishers for the behavior of the marketplace, because they fail or refuse to understand that publishers are as much at the mercy of its whims as they are--and as ill-informed as they are about what those whims are likely to be. Into the bargain, they conveniently forget that publishers take a considerable risk on their behalf in accepting their work for publication in the first place.
That publishers have just as many misconceptions and prejudices about writers is certainly true, but it is beside the point. No matter how honorable may be the motives of some of those involved in setting up the writers' union, the enterprise as a whole is more likely to be noteworthy as an expression of hostility toward the hand that feeds them than as a positive step toward protecting the rights and interests of writers. What is needed in this long-running contretemps is an effort at mutual understanding, not a further hardening of reflexive and oversimplified positions. But the writers' union most surely will only contribute to the latter.