Im not blaming other people
for the commercial fiction, or non-fiction, that I published that didnt succeed: I
cant do that, thats undercutting my own judgment.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Do you mean, to
MICHAEL BESSIE: No, no, I mean,
succeed in sales. Because, you know, if a book gets a half a dozen reviews, one or two of
em are bound to be good, and if you forget the others, why, pronounce it a success.
Timing is such an important thing in this domain.
Theres such a thing as being ahead of the moment. For example, I would never have
thought that any of these far-out, other-world, New Age fiction things would have gone, 20 years ago.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Sonny Mehta [president of the Knopf Group, part of Random House] said, about
ten years ago, that perhaps the next big subject would be the failure of people who had
made it in the stock market, then lost it all. He might have had a sense of
"failure" as a coming topic.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Editorially,
its very hard to do things that way. For one thing, every book is unique.
The most frequent question youre asked by
non-publishing people is, How do you decide what to publish? How do you choose? My answer
has become simpler and simpler over the years. I say, "Well, I tend to publish
something that I would like to read."
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: What is
MICHAEL BESSIE: Most simply,
its fiction that --
CORNELIA BESSIE: Jacqueline Susanne.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Jacqueline
MICHAEL BESSIE (chuckles): Im
tempted to say, anything that sells over 100,000 copies; but
thats a cop-out. Commercial fiction is something that, I think most people would
agree, does not have any abiding value, any literary value. There are a lot of ways of
describing it: formula fiction, cookie-cutter fiction, fashionable fiction, fiction of the
moment. There are a lot of borderline cases. In the eyes of some, W. Somerset Maugham was
commercial fiction; but I think thats wrong, I think that he had value longer. The
fact that he is now hardly read at all doesnt prove that he wont come back. Is
Patrick OBrian [the celebrated series of Aubrey-Maturin
sea-novels] commercial fiction?
I guess the standard of it is, if it sells enough copies.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Is THE
ENGLISH PATIENT [by Michael Ondaatje] commercial fiction?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Youve read the
book; I havent.
CORNELIA BESSIE: I loved the book;
its a very good book. Its an interesting book that, thanks to a movie and a
sales push, has had a lot of readership.
MICHAEL BESSIE: I liked the movie a
lot, and on the way out I said -- I like to talk about things afterward; Cornelia
doesnt -- I said, "Whats the book got that the movie hasnt
got?" and, without hesitation, she said: "Words."
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: It was Lawrence
Out of Africa.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Exactly.
CORNELIA BESSIE (regretfully): Hmmm.
MICHAEL BESSIE: It was; but it was
KATHERINE MCNAMARA (laughing): How
can you miss with sand dunes and gorgeous haircuts?
MICHAEL BESSIE: I assure you that a
lot of movies get made with sand dunes and girls with gorgeous haircuts, but have failed.
(Laughter from all) Anyway, my answer to that knowing question is, try to publish what you
would like to read, yourself! Now, for some people, thats an indulgence.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Do you speak
about what commercial fiction is? When you read manuscripts, do you sort of divide them,
or sort them, into categories?
CORNELIA BESSIE: No. Because, like
Michael, Im not good at commercial fiction, it bores me.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: So, you know
what commercial fiction is when you read it.
CORNELIA BESSIE: I know what it is
when I read it. To be honest, its not a problem we tend to have, because it
doesnt tend to come our way. People know were not interested. We can
occasionally tell that somethings going to be successful but that we want no part of
MICHAEL BESSIE: Also, theres a
momentum for commercial fiction. If somebodys novel number one or number two or
whatever has sold very well, that becomes almost guaranteed reading, because people who
enjoy the first book will buy the second. They may be deceived by it, or it may not
satisfy them, and that certainly has happened, but--
CORNELIA BESSIE: Ondaatje is a good
example of the other, which is that the first books didnt sell.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: No, but they
were terrific books.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Terrific books.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: RUNNING
IN THE FAMILY is delightful; IN THE SKIN OF A LION is--
CORNELIA BESSIE: Is wonderful.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: I couldnt
read THE ENGLISH PATIENT; I thought it was too fine; and yet,
I think he writes the most sensuous, and sensual, masculine poetry in North America.
CORNELIA BESSIE: I read THE ENGLISH PATIENT under very special circumstances. I read it in central
Italy while one of my best friends was dying, and so it had an enormous effect on me. I
cant divorce my response to the book from that.