To outsiders, like you, the world of publishing must seem a cozy affair, chock-full of gin-festishism, Potter-worship and gifs of Beyoncé side-eyeing a cookbook. But as an esteemed novelist and sometime cultural correspondent, I can tell you that everyone involved in books is a ruthless hog, who would stop at nothing for cash and exposure, even the small matter of murder. Which brings me to the latest cautionary tale to come spewing out of the industry’s maw: the ballad of G9 Cummings.
Growing up in the placid midwestern town of Horsetheft, G9 was told that everyone has a novel in them and decided to test this idea to the limit. In between shifts at her local Craft Palace, G9 wrote a story, setting it in Mexico, a country she wrongly assumed to be both fictional and in the public domain, following the death of Speedy Gonzales. The ‘finished’ story Dirty Americans was then picked up by Oprah Winfrey, the American Richard and Judy, who crowned G9 ‘the Queen of Words’ and ‘better than that dick Franzen.’ The moment of glory had arrived.
Sadly, in this town, the town of books, fortune is a fickle and coquettish mistress. G9 came a cropper before anyone had managed to finish her novel. First, news spread that for the launch of the book G9 had sported insensitive nail varnish, paying offensive homage to the distressing manicure Joseph Conrad sported at the industry party for Heart of Darkness. It became clear that the book, which no one has read, inadvertently insults the country of Mexico.
The novel’s plot, in which the plucky tuneful Mexicans are saved from their non-specific ills by G9 herself – who gives them cookie recipes, kitten memes and tee shirts with #AmWriting on them – was widely derided in the circles of sophisticated literary pundits, who drink black coffee and once met Chris Krauss, or were at least in the same room as her. What’s more, by getting a six-million-dollar advance as well as a chance to do the Superbowl halftime show, G9 had drawn attention away from superior South American authors who know the subject, names such as (PLEASE FIND SOME, CAN’T BE ARSED – RP).
The debacle that followed, which I have invented, is an all-too-typical indictment of the contemporary media mentality. Droves of cynical-yet-passionately-idealistic young journalists, dressed in expensive pantsuits and looking like Emily Blunt in that film about Mexico, decamped to Horsetheft en masse and were greeted by G9’s husband Drek. Lighting a cigarette on his own torso, Drek told them that G9 was weeping in her room after learning that her effigy was being burned in the city of Juarez. Drek had told G9 repeatedly not to try any fancy book stuff, but ma’am if you’ll pardon his language, it’s harder to get G9 off an idea than it is to get a bull off a cow’s behind. He then observed that he didn’t know if they taught walking at Harvard, but that journalist sure walked pretty. The muffled tears of G9, who had just learned on Twitter that she was banned from branches of Taco Bell nationwide, could be heard from the upper room.
The journalist, intrigued by Drek’s gap-toothed masculinity, was later seen driving slowly past G9’s compound, watching a vest-clad Drek fix a car while smoking cigarettes and listening to Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. From the upstairs window, G9 gazed out as a hastily convened mariachi band of concerned citizens strummed mournful songs of cancellation.
A typical cautionary tale. But all is not as it seems. Publishing people are a lot of things (a lot of good things – some of us are trying to sell a novel) but they aren’t stupid. Most of them aren’t stupid. Some of them are. Could it be that they signed G9 in the full knowledge that she had written a story in which tortilla-waving caricatures spit out their cigarillos and laugh, revealing blackened stumpy teeth? Could they have anticipated this profile-raising outrage? Could it be that the unwitting G9, typing her gesamtkunstwerk with offensively polished fingernails, was just a patsy, the Lee Harvey Oswald of middlebrow life-affirming fiction? That a rejoinder novel by an actual Mexican from the real country of Mexico was commissioned before G9 had even gone to print?
While G9 lives out the rest of her doomed half-life, we can hope some good will come of this. Perhaps readers will turn to books that address human tragedy with an appropriate level of dignity and weight. They will burn their copies of Dirty Americans and turn their thoughts to the new novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which a man fails to have sex with Natalie Portman and thinks sad thoughts about the Holocaust. Finally, something with gravitas.