ANTOHER LIFE: A MEMOIR OF OTHER PEOPLE; By Michael Korda; Random House; 530 pages; $26.95.Start on Page 475 of this how-to book if you're a writer, or even if you're not a writer but a reader who's interested in the writing process. At a news conference, Ronald Reagan is discussing "his" memoirs. "I hear it's a terrific book!" he says, cheerfully. "One of these days I'm going to have to read it myself."
That is this book's theme in a nutshell. The image of Reagan, a "writer" not known for any interest in reading or writing -- or even, intimate friends conceded, introspection -- dovetails nicely with the image of absent-minded Simon & Schuster founder Max Schuster. He advises stripper/author Gypsy Rose Lee, at the party celebrating the publication of her novel: "One of these days you ought to write a book."
Michael Korda, editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, has buried inside this garrulous, sometimes plodding memoir a brisk, fast-paced and somewhat comic how-to about book publishing, which sounds like a sort of out-of-town tryout for Hollywood and Hollywood celebrities. Nobodies need not apply. In Korda's world, publishing is all about deals.
The editor's job is not listening but maintaining the "extracurricular" reading of the "sheer volume of material that (has) to be read." It's analogous to the monk's "getting up to go to mass in the middle of the night." Editors, writes Korda, "overwork and underachieve," spending weeks and months "lovingly rewriting a manuscript that was never worth anything in the first place."
With fiction, as Korda writes, the "only limits are set by the editor's energy and the author's willingness to live with big changes." Bestselling authors operate at a higher level. Congenital bestseller Harold Robbins unwittingly submits to Simon & Schuster two halves of separate novels as one whole one that's due. He insists, to Korda's anguish, that despite the incongruity, it's a novel that can be published as is, that no one will notice. It's published as is. Not a reader complains.
Korda, who came from a moviemaking family, has a high opinion of the screenwriter's approach to writing books. Screenwriters, he writes, know how to do "all the things that puzzle many novelists: how to cut to the chase, how to maintain a consistent point of view, how to work out motivation for every action and to prepare the reader for sudden changes of plot, how to avoid flashbacks, and, worse still, flash-forwards. A strong story line, divided into clear scenes," is "exactly what works for most readers of fiction."
Editors loom large in the picture, with, Korda writes, their approach to the written word, starting with questions like "How can we fix this?" and, more fundamentally, "How . . . did we get into this . . . and why?"
A better title for this book?
"Bonfires of the Vanity Press: How We Publish and Sell People Who Can't Write -- or Won't."