I’m not blaming other people for the commercial fiction, or non-fiction, that I published that didn’t succeed: I can’t do that, that’s undercutting my own judgment.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Do you mean, to succeed esthetically?

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. There’s 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, it’s very hard to do things that way. For one thing, every book is unique.

The most frequent question you’re 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 "commercial fiction"?

MICHAEL BESSIE: Most simply, it’s fiction that --

CORNELIA BESSIE: Jacqueline Susanne.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Jacqueline Susanne?

MICHAEL BESSIE (chuckles): I’m tempted to say, anything that sells over 100,000 copies; but that’s 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 that’s wrong, I think that he had value longer. The fact that he is now hardly read at all doesn’t prove that he won’t come back. Is Patrick O’Brian [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: You’ve read the book; I haven’t.

CORNELIA BESSIE: I loved the book; it’s a very good book. It’s 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 doesn’t -- I said, "What’s the book got that the movie hasn’t got?" and, without hesitation, she said: "Words."

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: It was Lawrence Out of Africa.


CORNELIA BESSIE (regretfully): Hmmm.

MICHAEL BESSIE: It was; but it was beautifully made.

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, that’s 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, I’m 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, it’s not a problem we tend to have, because it doesn’t tend to come our way. People know we’re not interested. We can occasionally tell that something’s going to be successful but that we want no part of it.

MICHAEL BESSIE: Also, there’s a momentum for commercial fiction. If somebody’s 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 didn’t sell.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: No, but they were terrific books.

CORNELIA BESSIE: Terrific books.


CORNELIA BESSIE: Is wonderful.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: I couldn’t 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 can’t divorce my response to the book from that.


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