The Grapes of Sourness
a short story
Beauregard Marin adjusted his tie in the men's room mirror of the National Arts Club. Why is it, he asked himself, that no one but me seems to know anymore how to tie a decent bow tie? Why is it that no one seems to recognize a properly written English sentence any longer? Why is it, in fact, that no one reads? He combed his few locks of white hair across his bald spot, flicked a bit of lint from the lapel of his good suit, and brooded over the latest statistic his wife had brought him from the internet. Seventy percent of American adults never put their noses inside a bookstore. Eighty percent never read a book. As a professional crime writer he viewed this news with alarm. As a novelist, chronicler of the inmost workings of the human heart, he wondered: what were the other ten percent doing in the bookstore if they never read a book? Drinking coffee and picking up dates for Saturday night?
Perhaps there was no reason in the twenty-first century to tie a bow tie. Perhaps there was no reason to read. Marin squared his shoulders, sucked in his stomach and went forth to face the membership of the New York chapter--the most powerful chapter, everyone said--of the National Association of Crime Writers. Marin was to be one of the speakers at tonight's meeting. The subject of the panel was "Resurrection: How a Writing Career can Rebound from the Depths of Failure." Marin had come to the end of a number of projects, and changed publishers a number of times. Never had he regarded these events as occasions of failure. You write something else and carry on. Nevertheless the program chairman had included him in what his colleagues were now calling the failure panel, along with two other writers who as far as he knew had never been failures either.
When he was invited to participate he had agreed, thinking, this will be something of a hoot. I can give fatherly advice to the younger writers. They will eat their chicken and look up to me, the dean of all the crime writers, their mouths hanging open in admiration. But between the time of his acceptance and the day of the panel he received a phone call from his agent informing him that the publisher had dropped his series. Butch Bammer would fight crime no more.
Marin, less resilient than he had been in his youth, was deeply distressed by this news and began to mope around the house in his underwear. "Publishers. They suck the juice out of you like an orange, and cast your empty rind on the garbage heap. We'll have to live on Social Security now." His wife expressed sympathy by patting him and mooing. Eventually she went on the 'net and gathered all the information she could, the same as she did when one of the family got physically sick. The news she brought him did no more good than the coffee enemas with which she had treated her mother in the last days of the old woman's illness.
"Beauregard, this is terrible. Something like ten thousand new crime novels are published every year just in the United States alone. Who can read ten thousand books in a year? You'd have to read more than a book an hour, and that's if you never took time out to sleep. And that's just crime novels. Of all the fiction books, it's more like forty-five thousand. Of all the books, it's a million. A million new books in a year. And if you missed one of last year's books, forget it. You'll never have time for it. Or the space. Imagine trying to find room in the house for ten thousand crime novels. Every year."
"There are too many books. The publishers are making too many books."
"I think the idea is to get the books into the hands of readers, dear."
"Well, there aren't enough readers either. It says here that thirty-three percent of high school graduates never read books after they finish school and forty-two percent of college graduates never read books after they get out of college. What do you think of that? A million books. No readers." Yes, he was doomed. Bring on the coffee. "It's the publisher's business model that's failing, don't you see? They're beating a dead horse. It's not your fault."
She was right, of course, it wasn't his fault, but the fact did not cheer him. Marin could not escape the conclusion that none of what he had been doing for all these years was worth doing. There were too many books. Why write more? Books were useless trash, fit only to be pulped. When these thoughts took hold of his mind Marin suffered the literary equivalent of a priest's loss of faith.
Nevertheless, on the third morning of his disgrace he shaved his face and pulled himself together. Because one aspect of his problem had suddenly come clearly into focus. And it struck him that he had it in his power to do something about it.
The time had come for the failure panel. Marin nodded in passing to the portrait of Joyce Carol Oates that hung in the elegant hall of the Arts Club and strode boldly into the dining room. With his chin up he made his way between the tables to take his place on the dais between the moderator and the other two failure panelists. The faces of the diners turned to him like flowers to the sun, expectant. They were the faces of some of the foremost talent in crime fiction, all still getting published, big guns, best sellers among them.
So Marin was here to tell them how to survive failure. The New York writers. Writer X, whose book won a contest for unpublished writers four years ago and went on to become number one on the New York Times list, where it remained ever since, together with its sequels, so charming to the many admirers of vampire cats. Writer Y, who bought a house in the Hamptons this year on the strength of his latest advance. Every Friday the in-crowd met there to play high-stakes poker. Writer Z. Even Marin admired Z's work. It was a shame about Z, a shame about all of them, really, but you had to break eggs to make an omelet. Anybody could tell you that.
The caterers had left the dessert all alone in the hall while they served the entrée. Doctoring it had been a simple matter.
It wasn't so much that there were too few publishers, or too few readers, or too many books. The problem was that there were too many writers. Marin considered explaining this to them as the first bodies hit the floor.