Viewer Digression Advised: Netflix is Not a Publishing Course // Nathaniel Moore
Nathaniel Moore closes out his guest-edited month giving a behind-the-scenes look at the depths of the process of publishing one’s work.
For my exit through the gift shop here at the Puritan’s Town Crier, where I’ve enjoyed my month-long stint, I thought I’d share with you a glimpse from my book Honorarium, a collection of essays coming out in May with Palimpsest. Thanks for reading these posts, and keep supporting all the creative types you know in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Alberta, Quebec, New Brunswick, P.E.I. and the other great provinces our country has in its geospace.
My wife and I have an ongoing game we like to play while enjoying our Netflix coma-as-you-go subscription. You can try it at home too. Keep a notepad next to you (or use your iPhone, I guess) to track how often a semi main / main character on a random Netflix movie is identified as a writer. It’s usually within the first ten minutes of a sitcom or movie. It doesn’t take long to sort out. The importance of this declaration is usually low, and the character rarely exhibits the symptoms of being a writer in any real way. They seem to be eating regularly, without anxiety, laughing in slow motion on bicycle rides with loved ones and in general, display no forms of self-aggrandizing or literary envy.
Despite the prevalence of this doomed vocation as a character sentence on an unsuspecting script (and eventual Netflix audience), the average citizen of earth—who has not yet spent thousands of hours trolling the well-worn grooves of Canadian publishing online and in reality—doesn’t have a clue as to how to properly submit a book to a Canadian publisher. Perhaps publishers and seasoned authors take this for granted, but poll those who answer phones at your average publishing house, or those who run Facebook pages for similar operations and you’d get a pretty decent sampling of how ill-prepared authors are on their way to awkward forms of rejection.
What one never sees on Netflix is a nervous and confused individual, identifying themselves as a writer, navigating the Internet and trying to learn the basics of how to get a book published. You never see this character chatting casually with a friend like:
“So, main character, do you need an agent to submit your book to a publisher?”
“It’s different for every publisher.”
“Maybe you could self-publish the book first?”
“Yes, I have the cover art and the book is all laid out.”
“Maybe call a publisher and ask how much they charge to publish a book.”
“I’m meeting with my friend tomorrow. We’re having lunch; she knows someone who self-published their book then it got picked up by a publisher. She’s working on her second book now.”
Continuing this Netflix-film-that-doesn’t-exist, you’d see someone who works for a publisher, let’s say an assistant of some sort, who has to answer questions all day from people who dream of being a writer, but who do not have the advantage of an accurate depiction of how to be a writer in a handy format like a Netflix film. Over the course of the narrative the aspiring writers will drive the poor assistant (who spends much of the movie complaining about how time-consuming answering misplaced/unprepared questions are, and why everyone who wants to publish a book knows so little about publishing a book) insane.
Other depictions are quite close to reality in some cases: limitless, for example, is the story of every Canadian author at some point or another finding designer, non-FDA-approved drugs from one’s ex-spouse’s brother, and, completing their novel in a single evening, finding they get a bigger high off of day trading and become a stock broker, all the while wondering why they ever bothered to be a novelist in the first place. Who among us in Canadian publishing, from Andre Alexis to Douglas Coupland, from Damian Rogers to Gregory Scofield, can’t identify with that arc?
ReLit Award winning author Daniel Scott Tysdal, one of Canada’s best poets to catch on stage, says that he has been impressed with Netflix’s recent writer conscious offerings. “Three examples that really stuck with me are: the French TV show Marianne, the Spanish film The Motive, and the American film The Kindergarten Teacher.”
These are three very different projects but they are all linked by getting at the truth/reality of writing by exaggerating an aspect of the writing life or process. Marianne exposes the dark, horrific side of writing as possession, writing as casting a spell. The Motive plays with the real world manipulations writers undertake to create fictional truth, the acts of appropriation they perform to give form to their vision. The Kindergarten Teacher's character study/stalker narrative uses Maggie Gyllenhaal's protagonist to combine and probe two writer figures—the stunted artist and the questionable, abusive mentor.
Emma Rhodes, an up-and-coming poet, points out that fashion can play a huge role in the mainstream stereotyping of a writer. “The main guy in Sinister is a writer. I watched that a few years ago but remember being pretty upset that he was always in a knit sweater. Because how else would they show that he's a ‘writer’!? Can't be a writer unless he's in knit.”
While it would be great to blame Netflix for releasing so many films where a writer struggles with some romantic problem whilst never finishing their book, the trouble truly lies within Canadian publishing, for it is there that the world of books has become a murky terrain of general comprehension. In an email from the fall of 2013, I recall soliciting advice from an unfortunate/unsuspecting retinue of writing friends. Here I ranted about the near two-decade groan that is the ebook discussion, the Cassandra-like warnings from everyone’s mom, aunt, and cousin that the ebook has replaced the traditional, physical reality-based book. I can only interact with this Nostradamusian notion with anxiety-based humour:
I talk to my mom all the time and she is constantly telling me about ebooks and Kobos. I have no idea what those things are. To me, in Canada anyway, the mass class (read: your mom's generation) will buy the same five to ten books each year. These are books that win awards or are advertised on the TTC or win the Oscar for best picture. That leaves the rest of us (me, small press author # 13, small press author #56, and small press author #2,324) to fend for ourselves. We publish books but are not considered real writers. We are seen as amateurs. And this whole electronic book thing? It's just a discussion. Kobo and the like seem to have had a direct conversation with the 1940s- and ‘50s-born retired Canadian book lovers and I have no idea what they have said to each other, but the stats are there and old people are adapting to different forms of books.
The main trouble with the book industry is quite simply: it's so uncharted, vast, and complicated that plumbers or architects only have time to hear about one book a year. Not the grand narrative of the book industry, nuts and bolts and all. So what happens is, the book industry gets a mysterious reputation as something complicated and weird. Like when my landlord talks to me about books. It's like Planet of the Apes. Even people who are very book-friendly have no knowledge about the difference between genres (poetry, fiction, cookbooks), formats (hardcover, paperback, electronic) or the publishers themselves (multinational, independent, imprints of larger presses, academic, foreign). You couldn't find a more complicated industry.
When I switched publishers to one operating out of Vancouver, people said, “So will you have to go to Vancouver?” and “How will the books be distributed?” I suppose indie filmmakers and musicians have it worse. I mean, you won’t see their films at the giant mall’s theatre, nor will you find their music at... wait... are there even record stores anymore? What is most frightening about the book industry is that it employs thousands of people who ship books, stock books, do all these things. But the layman on the street has no idea. Perhaps it’s the idea that my generation (‘70s- to early-’80s-born) were privy to a decade in which we learned how things were built. That James Earl Jones was the voice of Darth Vader. Perhaps my parents’ generation just accepted things at face value.
Regardless, you have a huge portion of the population with money, who like books but do not in any way comprehend that they exist on this level. [Male Canadian writer] for example, who is two years older than me, who has published the same amount of books as I have, lives 3 blocks away from me and makes about $100,000 dollars more annually, was recently interviewed on CBC. My mom asked, “Do you know him?"
This is how books find audiences. You have to be extremely lucky. I'm not criticizing anyone. This country is gigantic! But I am starting to have a punk mentality about my career. In a documentary on The Smiths a guy likened the early ‘80s scene to a bunch of guys robbing a convenience store for the money to release a single. Then they'd break up. That's how I feel about Savage. Though Savage has been to date my biggest payday ever, I don't see this ability to keep what I already consider to be a marginalized fan base interested.
Now, back to Netflix. I’m not talking about movies like Shakespeare in Love, Adaptation, or Misery –films in which being a writer is the key element to the storytelling arc. I’m talking about weird, esoteric rom-coms that are squatting in their thumbnail cache on a giant network in which the director has forced a top character to be a writer for no apparent reason other than to dress them in plaid and have them be able to wander aimlessly around New York for two hours, and not have to go to work or comb their hair.
As a writer, if you’re lucky enough to hear things like “foreign rights” from your publisher or your agent, the reality of inking a Netflix deal isn't that far-fetched—though I have yet to see a small press Canadian author who has been adapted. When I interviewed Neil Smith for Books in Canada in the mid 2000s, he said that selling his book internationally took some of the pressure off. “I feel I have less to prove now because the Americans and British have embraced my book.” The publication in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States was staggered over the next year, and each country marketed the book differently. “I still marvel that Bang Crunch had multiple covers, never mind multiple readers.”
Nathaniel G. Moore has contributed to the Ex-Puritan since 2008. He is the author of three poetry collections, three novels and numerous articles concerning publishing. Next up? Honorarium, his collection of essays out in May with Palimpsest Press. Originally from Toronto, Moore now lives in Fredericton with his wife Amber McMillan and a lot of semi-trained animals