Robert Browning, Meet Johnny Carson

The burden of selling a book these days being on the author, a new and unsettling requirement is now added to the writer’s already crowded identity. That is the need to be an entertainer. Novelists, biographers, historians, poets, and even those who prepare hardcover lists and dictionaries are endlessly crisscrossing the country in what has become known as the book promotion tour or, as it’s called in the trade, the motor-mouth circuit. No television talk show is without the author; there he or she sits, nervously clasping and unclasping the hands, the eyes slightly glazed, tiny beads of perspiration pearling the brow.

A few weeks ago in Boston, I encountered S. J. Perelman, the humor essayist, restlessly pacing the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel; he confessed that the next day he was to address a group of ladies at Wellesley College and the day after that he was scheduled to appear on the Dick Cavett show, all to promote the sale of his new book. Since I had that day addressed two groups of ladies at Wellesley in behalf of a book I had written, I led him into the bar to tell him what to expect. “How long a speech did you write?” he inquired anxiously. “Write?” I asked. “You don’t write a speech for these occasions. Does Bob Hope read from a paper? Just stand there and radiate.” The color drained from his face and the hand holding the glass trembled slightly. “I’ve got to read my talk,” he insisted grimly. “I couldn’t do it any other way.” When we parted a short time later he wore the expression of a man on the way to a dentist for root canal work.

It is the publisher’s conviction that there exists a separation between author and reader, and that once this gap is bridged the book publishing industry will prosper and be revitalized. Since there were nearly 40,000 hardcover books published last year, it is reasonable to assume that in time the airwaves and lecture halls of America will be choked with writers struggling to make an impression upon their readers, not by the quality of their work but by the force of their personalities.

The author by nature is a reclusive chap who makes his living in what amounts to solitary confinement, and who is either trained or born to express himself with words put on paper, not words transmitted by television or radio or even by public-address system. In the main, he or she is poorly equipped to compete with professional entertainers in the lively dive and swoop of talkshow repartee.

Nonetheless, we all now live a persuasive way of life, and the literary effort—like the detergent and the cat food—must make its way in the competition of the marketplace. The writer of verse must take his place beside Morris the Cat, and if he, the poet, has agoraphobia, it’s too bad. The quality of the poetry may lift the work to the shelf of immortality, but the poet who counts on that is dreamier than most writers, which is saying quite a lot. If Browning were alive today, he would be hastily trying to arrange a spot for himself on the Johnny Carson show, and in my mind’s eye I can see him take his place between Ed McMahon and, say, Don Rickies. McMahon has pumped his hand, Rickies has kissed him under the misapprehension that he is a fellow actor, and Carson says, “Bob, in writing this thing called ‘Pippa Passes,’ did you have a movie in mind?” Now that I see it in situ, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad show.

There are writers, I am sure, who enjoy the almost unending travel of the promotion tour and who are stimulated by the glare of television lights, the long radio interviews, the sweeping minute hand of studio clocks, the nervous waiting while other guests are before the camera. Joan Didion, writing of the tour she made in promoting her most recent novel, seemed to benefit from her experience by achieving a glimpse of her country that she had never before encountered. This was not my own feeling after returning, only a few days ago, from a tour that took me to New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and back to New York. There were comic moments, but my most lasting recollections are wake-up calls from sleepy hotel operators, taxiing through dark streets in the early hours of the morning, stumbling over cables, wires, and the assorted ganglia of television studios, endless cups of coffee in Styrofoam cups, and the same tedious questions, over and over, from talk-show hosts. One soon learns what to say to get the best reaction from the host and the studio audience, and it is the slowwitted author who doesn’t quickly develop a standard commentary of his own, like the comedian with one surefire shtik.

I would like to make a brief deposition on the matter of book promotion tours in the hope that my findings will provide the reading public with some idea of what writers are willing to go through to bring their work to the attention of readers or—perhaps more accurately—of buyers. I was a little stunned (we were all innocent once) when, on my first radio interview in New York, one of those programs where listeners are encouraged to call in questions which the guest will answer, a listener telephoned in to complain to the hostess that all he heard these days was “filth, filth, filth.” “But you haven’t heard Mr. Stinnett talk filth,” the interviewer protested. “No,” the listener replied, “but he’s thinking it.” It was then I realized that I was in for an uncertain fortnight, and that the telephone was not the unparalleled achievement we have always imagined it to be. Entering a studio the following day for another interview, I encountered Susan Sontag emerging. “How did that seem to go?” Miss Sontag anxiously asked the young girl accompanying her, an obvious publicity person from a publishing house. “Fine,” the girl replied. “It went fine.” Even in a foreign medium, the writer’s anxieties are never far away.

In New York, I discovered, some of the interviewers had read my book; in Chicago, most of them had; and in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, all of them had. I can’t explain this and I won’t attempt to. The interviews thus tend to improve as one moves westward. Radio interviews are generally far more relaxed and informal than television, around which an atmosphere of confusion and impending disaster constantly hovers.

At a large television studio in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, a businesslike young woman asked me for “whatever visuals you have brought with you.” I offered her a score or more color slides which the publisher’s representative had instructed me to take along, and she riffled through them quickly, taking out only three. “We can only use horizontals,” she said crisply. “Have you any more?” I shook my head negatively, and she looked annoyed. “Take him to the couch,” she directed a studio assistant, who shepherded me through a maze of studios until we came to the one where my interview was to take place. The “couch,” it turned out, was the standard sofa one sees in all interviews, this one fronting a mural backdrop of the Chicago skyline. A pleasant and pretty young woman came in holding a copy of my book. “I liked it,” she said, smiling. “There is a lot we can talk about.” I asked how much time we would talk, and she replied, “Either four or six minutes, depending.” I didn’t ask what it depended upon, and I was pleased that I hadn’t, because the interview was over almost as soon as it began, and the camera had switched to a stack of canned goods. “That should sell some copies,” the lady said, shaking hands with me cordially. I didn’t share her optimism.

I had just returned to my room from breakfast when my telephone rang and it was the publicity girl from my publishing house who was a little concerned about my being alone in the Great Plains. She assured me that reviews and comments about the book were fine, and that all interviews for the day had been rechecked. New Yorkers are convinced that anyone who has wandered off Manhattan Island is in grave danger of Indian attack. Oh yes, she added, there was one more thing. In a few minutes I would get a telephone call and when I answered it I should remember that I was on the air. I would be interviewed by telephone.

She rang off cheerfully, and a moment later the phone rang. My inclination was not to touch it even with tongs, but on the fourth ring I lifted it gingerly to hear the hearty, personality-laden voice of the interviewer welcoming me to Chicago. Several times during this strange conversation there were interruptions while advertisements were read, and then he abruptly said, “That’s fine and I want to thank you.” I was in the middle of a story when the line went dead, and I let the receiver sink slowly back into the cradle. I looked out of the window at Lake Michigan. It had started to snow.

In a San Diego television studio, I waited late one night while a Soviet dissident explained how he got out of Russia, a vintner introduced a new Beaujolais and discoursed endlessly on the Gamay grape, and a pleasant young woman from a kitchen utensil company explained how the metric system would work in the kitchen. It was 12:45 in the morning before I was interviewed, a time when I was reasonably certain the book-reading public had gone to bed, and when my interview ended the station went off the air. The wine producer offered me a glass of wine as he packed up, and asked me what I thought of it. I told him it was probably the worst wine I had ever tasted, which was perfectly true. It’s not easy to be pleasant at one o’clock in the morning when you’ve done five radio and television appearances during the day just ended.

The next morning at seven-thirty I was back at the same station being interviewed for the Sun-Up show and this time I had only to wait while a young man explained how to cut back poinsettias to make them live all year long. For a fleeting moment I racked my brain for something to say that I had not said in that same studio a little more than six hours before, but it didn’t seem worth the effort. The numbness that gripped my mind allowed no new thoughts to enter, and I heard a detached voice uttering the now familiar speech.

There were times when the notion occurred to me that I was alone in some exotic land, moving from one brilliantly lit cubicle to another, and I was vastly relieved to encounter other writers, all wearing grim expressions and clutching in their hands “the schedule”—that worn and wrinkled sheet of paper that instructed them where next to appear. Peter Ustinov, alone among us, seemed at home in that strange world. 1 couldn’t stifle a twinge of resentment that his long career in show business had prepared him for this, and on one occasion, when he was brilliantly amusing, I resolved to get even with him by not reading his book. Casual acquaintances suddenly took on the qualities of long-lost friends. I recall meeting Studs Terkel in the waiting room of a Chicago radio station and we fell into each other’s arms like brothers. It was not until I was back in my hotel room that I realized I had met him only once before in my entire life.

After San Francisco, I went back to New York for some appearances at department stores and some radio interviews which had been arranged since I had last been there. My final interview was at a studio on West Seventy-fifth Street, and, running late, I left a taxicab stalled in traffic on Broadway and walked in pouring rain the last eight blocks. As I was mopping myself dry with a handkerchief, the host of the show inquired if I knew S. J. Perelman. “He was on my show yesterday,” he said proudly. “Amazing man.”

So I was back where I had started out in Boston, with Perelman—how long ago? It seemed an eternity. But riding back to my hotel I was thinking about my next book and my next talk-show tour, and while the rain beat against the windows of the taxicab I could feel the warm glow of the television lights and I could imagine Merv Griffin asking me a question to which I had a brilliant answer. I don’t know what it is right now, but it’s going to make Ustinov look like an Appalachian schoolboy.

PHOTO & DRAWING CREDITS

Cover,23,35,

38,40, —Steve Snider 43,44

4,6,8,12—Pierre Le-Tan

20—Bill Sears/Black Star 48—Charles Waller 57—Steven Alexander 64—The Bettmann Archive 66—The Granger Collection 74 —Ralph Mercer 79—George Vogt

87,90,91, _ .. .

92 93 — Kathleen Anderson