Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Author Elyse Singleton's guest post in defense of "real writers"

Bestseller on Arrival

Until recently I had never given much thought to the Mamas and the Papas. After seeing the first Oprah interview with Mackenzie Phillips, I told a friend, “Yeah, I’ve heard of them. They sang Sunday, Sunday.”

“No,” he said. Monday, Monday.”

“Oh,” I said. What I knew about the Mamas and the Papas was “Sunday, Sunday, da da da da da daor “la la la la la la,” and with that failed bit of expertise exhausted, I had not much else to say.

Phillips, the daughter of lead singer John, has led a less harmonious life even than my personal rendition of their famous song. Her High on Arrival─an autobiography that details child sex abuse, consensual adult incest, and the shenanigans of people who took illicit drugs Sunday, Monday, every other day of the week, and would have invented an eighth day to take yet more drugs were that possible—is making the electronic tongue of the TV and Internet media wag quite a bit.

But I should state I have not read Phillips’ new book and do not plan to in any situation devoid of someone coaxing me to with an assault rifle. That means for all I know, it could be Shakespearian in quality and wisdom and an experience no human being interested in literature and living a better life would want to miss. For argument’s sake, I am going to assume it is not.

What I do know about works like Phillips’ is that their easy access to huge media promotion is the bane of better but less publicized works. And I have a direct interest because I (and three or four of my friends) write less publicized but presumably better works. Of course I understand that in a free market society people take their wares to the open mart and the most effective, not necessarily the best person, wins. If Phillips had declined to mainline the media, as she has done, from a capitalist perspective, it would have been silly, like leaving money on the table. But what are the rest of us to do? I, and many of my peers, routinely grapple with ideas about self-promotion. When my novel came out in 2002, one fellow I know suggested that to draw more attention to myself I should go and find Osama Bin Laden. Also, there are savvy agents, consultants, and how-to guides that can provide instruction about low-cost ways to promote one’s book that do not require a grisly death in a mountain cave in Pakistan.

I am not proposing that writers comprise an elite magical club, nor that anyone in this life gets to choose the competition. But I wonder if it would be OK to make a special pitch for ourselves, to say, hey, folks we are real writers, who have worked and struggled years to strengthen our grasp of the art. We apologize if you are disappointed that we are not the mistress of the serial killer, not the prostitute who slept with the famous politician, not the celeb who snorted an avalanche of cocaine. We may not have solid credentials in crime, scandal, and self-degradation, but we know how to do a damn good job of telling a story, fiction or nonfiction.

And the thing is . . . absolutely any subject treated in the scandal texts has been covered by real writers, even great ones. A high-nourishment-yet-fantastically-entertaining work that, like Phillips’ bio, takes a look at the 60s-spawned drug scene, is Joan Didion’s (a great American author whose company I would never consider myself in) Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Many actual writers have weighed in on the excesses of the counter-culture, from Didion to Tom Wolfe to Sara Davidson. Unless works by such people were lost in some nuclear mishap, I cannot imagine turning to an ex-sitcom star for insight and information about a weighty social problem.

Still, good arguments exist in favor of high-profile books: They bring people into book stores, and the avid reader may make more purchases than planned. Also, as my dear friend Carleen Brice reminded me, many non-writers employ professional writers as ghosts, throwing a bit more income at our lot.

In interviews Phillips’ says she has opened a dialogue on incest. It is a subject “not talked about,” she claims. Not talked about where? In Saudi Arabia? Maybe I am suffering from false memories, but I cannot recall a time in the last thirty years when the subject was not a media hit in America.

And I do not think books are the best answer to people who rape and/or drug children. The most intelligent response is simply—prison.

What public action speaks more eloquently to child sex abuse is the recent move toward extradition of globe-trotting felon Roman Polanski. After more than 30 years, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office decided it had tired of playing patty cake with rich Mr. Short Eyes, who pleaded guilty to having relations with a 13-year-old girl.

I wish Phillips well. But I do not wish to see her book fare better that its betters. No kid deserves to experience sexual assault or to have a psychopath for a dad. In a saner world she would not have been victimized, but also she would not have a book out.

Elyse Singleton is author of This Side of the Sky and a winner of the Colorado Book Award for fiction.


tiah said...

I think this echoes a lot of struggling writers' thoughts and feelings.

BUT the real reason I'm commenting is because I adored "This Side of the Sky." Poor book has been reread so many times it is now looking a bit shabby - I mean, well loved. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for speaking out! And what's happening w/celebrity books these days is really a reflection of what's going on with with the culture of America...these celebrity books are usually just reality shows in writing. Sometimes it seems our society has devolved to the point of having little use for real art and talent...still we artists must all push on and do what we do, no other choirce really.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I LOVED 'This Side of the Sky'!!

ivanova said...

I agree that famous people are cluttering the shelves with poorly-written, well-publicized books and making it harder for us real writers. I doubt that Mackenzie Phillips is an example of that, since unlike her famous father I never heard of her. I would probably love this book because I enjoy reading memoirs of talented people who struggled through adversity. And I agree with Phillips that incest is not talked about. It is often sensationalized in the media, but I think ordinary people don't talk about it because it is so painful, and I think survivors still feel silenced today. So I feel grateful when prominent people share their stories. I think they are courageous because everyone immediately dumps all over them and makes fun of them. Like the reviewer, I haven't read the book, but I am willing to bet $1,000 that the "consensual" incest began with rape. I did think it was a little strange to read a negative review where the reviewer didn't read the book, and I was a little confused by the part about "she didn't deserve to be victimized or publish her book." But I understand it was just a platform for justifiable rage against celebrity takeover (for me, it's Billy Crystal's crappy children's book that makes me see red.) BTW, if Phillips did use a ghost writer then that is one more "real writer" who has a job and got paid.

zettaelliott said...

Yes, I'm tired, too, of celebrities getting book deals because they have famous parents or an unhappy childhood. I think this book wasn't meant to be about incest, but the "new" concept of "consensual incest." Tawdry, taboo, unfortunate, not something I'd pay to read about. I'm also more miffed about actors and entertainers writing children's books; with less than 3% of all books published for kids written by black authors, it's hard to make way for Taye Diggs or any other actor with zero experience writing for kids...at least Bill Cosby has a doctorate in Education!

wdjenkins1 said...

I also find it disturbing that books like this one by Mackenzie Phillips are published as factual long after the people who could confirm or refute her allegations are dead. (Sure, you remember her - "One Day at a Time"? The older sister in the sitcom?)

A book like "This Side of the Sky", one of my favorites as well, tells truths about the human condition through well researched and thoughtful fiction. The truth that sings from your novel is more enlightening than a table full of celebrity tell-all books. Thank you.

Ronnica said...

I can see both sides. On one hand, I can appreciate almost anything that will actually make someone pick up a book when they aren't otherwise inclined to do so. However, I want to tell people who read junkier, popular books that there's better stuff out there.

Jodie said...

You could also try finding Carmen Sandiego, I reckon after all these years that would generate some press (I know this is a serious post but I giggled at the light touches used here).

If you want to see a great fictional treatment of how incest and abuse damages a family 'I am Furniture' by Thalia Chaltas is fantastic, but I can't see it getting nearly as much press as this book. Perhaps if celebs used their power to champion other books that focus on their kind of troubles ordinary writers would feel a little less agrieved? I'm imagininga kind of online celebrity book discussion where each week one celeb talks about their book, but then makes a list of great other books that dealw ith similar subjects (and are not the standard 'I am a celebrity and I want to look deep' kind of book choices).