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B+ : entertaining and realistic (and therefore terribly depressing) look at the American publishing world
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The Jerusalem Post
|The LA Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|San Francisco Chronicle
|Wall St. Journal
A rollicking good read
From the Reviews:
- "The perennial bickering, intrigues and ego pursuits of the successive owners and ambitious editors would ordinarily be of marginal interest. If Korda's book warrants attention, it is for the half-dozen marvelously amusing stories about Tennessee Williams and Fannie Hurst, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Weidenfeld." - Shimshon Arad, The Jerusalem Post
- "Another Life is not only the most entertaining publishing memoir I've ever read, it's the ultimate publishing lunch, alive with anecdotes, gossip and enough serious business to justify the fun. (...) (I)f he doesn't exactly tell all, he offers enough dish to make his book lively reading, a nicely barbed step removed from the usual corporate hagiography. Dish, however, is not dirt. This is a friendly, even generous, book, never mean-spirited and remarkably fair." - Joseph Kanon, The Los Angeles Times
- "(A) gossipy, knowing and highly entertaining account of Korda's decades in publishing (.....) A couple of times Korda pushes his charm and his luck a little too far -- for this reader, anyway. A kind of disingenuousness intrudes into some stories, and what is supposed to be funny becomes rather cruel." - Gayle Feldman, The Nation
- "Few publishing memoirs deserve to be widely read, but Michael Korda's captivating account of his long and varied editorial career will reward those who never even glance at the spine of a book or skim an acknowledgements page. His new book is simply a reader's delight. Korda is a first-class raconteur with a keen eye for detail, wit drier than fine sherry, and a great deal of surplus intelligence. Though not a stylist, he writes effortless, transparent prose that is pleasantly informal and intimate." - Adam Bellow, National Review
- "Korda's tone of voice is affectionate and urbane, his manner that of the accomplished raconteur who never spoils the story with a heavy-handed moral, relying for his effect on the telling anecdote and the apt phrase." - Lewis Lapham, The New York Times Book Review
- "His engaging new Rolodex of a reminiscence, Another Life: A Memoir of Other People, provides a portrait of book publishing from its cottage-industry past to its synergy-driven corporate present. Korda is as vivid about all the stars he has edited as he is evasive about himself." - Craig Offman, Salon
- "(T)he best bedside reading a book lover could want. (...) Korda shares with many memoirists the disingenuous belief that his story remains that of a fundamentally nice guy -- a belief not always borne out by evidence. (...) (T)he best single-volume history of American publishing available, in addition to showing its readers an unflaggingly good time." - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Beneath a surface of hilarious anecdotes, which makes Another Life: A Memoir of Other People a thoroughly entertaining read, Mr. Korda sounds a sadder theme: how publishing, a career traditionally impressed with the watermarks of gentility and job security, turned irretrievably into show biz. (...) A self-portrait of a shrewd, charming survivor (a Talleyrand to Susann's Robespierre) emerges from these pages, as Mr. Korda carves cameos that deftly and humorously capture the likenesses of writers he has known in his 40-year career as an editor." - Arthur Lubow, Wall Street Journal
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Another Life is Michael Korda's memoir of his publishing life, focussing largely on many of the famous people he encountered along the way (hence the subtitle, A Memoir of Other People).
Korda describes how he came into publishing, and how he wound up sticking with it (and becoming fairly successful, both as an editor and as an author).
Spanning from the late 1950s through the late 1990s Korda witnessed the many transformations of the publishing industry in the United States and he does a fairly good job of describing these changes.
Korda came to work at Simon and Schuster.
Around 1960, when he started there, it was still a fairly traditional old-style publisher, not yet conglomerate owned.
Korda nicely describes the atmosphere there and the way work was done.
Here and throughout he provides a lot of the nitty-gritty of the publishing world, from dealing with (or being dealt with by) so-called literary agents to the sales representatives, the bookstore owners, the publicity tours, and the many lessons publishers never seem to learn.
Korda is good with characters, and the world he describes was filled with them.
From the staff at Simon & Schuster (including, especially, Bob Gottlieb and then Dick Snyder, but also many of the other curious figures that worked there) to various agents and, of course, the writers themselves, Korda seems to deal with few people who display much normalcy.
(Some of the writers seem the sanest of the lot.)
Korda writes the book around himself, but he carefully doses the autobiographical parts.
His first, long-troubled marriage crops up a few times, he gets cancer: things like this are mentioned basically only as asides.
This is mostly for the best (and Korda did, apparently, write a separate book about his cancer-suffering), but it is thus not always easy to form a full picture of the man.
Since Korda is omnipresent in the book -- he is describing his encounters and his experiences, after all -- it feels odd to be missing some of the detail about him.
Most of Another Life focusses on other people.
Korda edited many a famous person, and he gleefully describes his (mis)adventures in that capacity.
The list is an impressive -- and an impressively varied -- one: Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, Will and Ariel Durant, Larry McMurtry, Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams, as well as all sorts of celebrities, from Joan Crawford to Mafia dons to former American presidents (notably Nixon and Reagan).
Korda's dealings with these writers (and would-be writers) are uniformly entertaining, often very amusing, occasionally shocking.
Truth again proves stranger than fiction.
If nothing else one must admire Korda for all that he puts up with.
It is all this gossip that makes the book enjoyable.
Korda has good stories to tell (and he tells them quite well) and he has few scores to settle, so most of the gossip is told with some affection and a fairly generous spirit.
Still, it is shocking to find how bizarrely so many of these prominent people act -- and how many people (not least Korda) kowtow to them and refuse to tell say out loud their actions are unacceptable.
Ronald Reagan was already an ex-president by the time Korda got to him, but his distance from reality is so shocking that one wonders how this man could have ever done the job he was entrusted with.
Joan Crawford's white-flower phobia sounds like it should have been enough to get her institutionalized.
And many more examples of very unsettling behaviour are to be found in these pages.
Korda seems to laugh at the fact that this is the way the world works, and that this is how the glamorous people who dominate the entertainment business and politics are.
In fact, however, it is deeply depressing.
Korda gets to play along in this world (though he never takes himself -- or his role -- too seriously), and he enjoys the ride without ever wondering too much whether this isn't all a horrible mess he has gotten himself in.
(A rare moment of insight comes when he is invited by ex-president Nixon and sees how some of the prominent Chinese guests there eat up Nixon opining on the Tiananmen Square massacre.)
There is also a great deal about the publishing world in Another Life as well.
It too is hard to take seriously.
From Dick Snyder and Korda inventing "meaningless titles in order to lure senior editorial talent from other houses to S & S" to the ghostwritten celebrity books they would spend (and, often, lose) millions on there is little about the publishing world that seems to deserve any respect.
Impressively, Korda does mention many of his (and S & S's) failures -- books they had high hopes for and that bombed completely.
Some of what happened sounds downright criminal.
Korda describes one early failure:
A pioneering student of animal psychology persuaded me to buy a book he proposed to write about his attempt to make wolves in Alaska bring up his infant son as one of their pack.
This sounded like a good idea ?
(Korda notes: "This was not exactly an original idea", which makes one wonder what exactly would qualify as an "original" idea for him.)
As to what happened ?
Predictably, after receiving his advance the author "promptly disappeared into the tundra with the boy, never to be heard from again".
But at least the wolves probably got something out of it.
Also offensive is one of Korda's experiences with Harold Robbins, where Robbins delivered a book where the second half did not match the first (in terms of the characters' names, etc.).
Korda, to his credit, wanted to edit it to fix things up, but Robbins vetoed the idea, completely indifferent to any confusion this might cause to his readers.
The book was published as is -- despite the fact that it was clearly ... incoherent.
Korda had expected "thousands of letters complaining about it" -- and amazingly they did not receive a single one.
Proving again that you can dish out any piece of crap and readers will accept it.
(Possible explanations why Robbins' readers didn't complain about the book:
Korda does offer a few astute observations about publishing, including about publishers' herd mentality, and the constant attempts to recreate a formula in an industry where what is different is often most successful.
He notes also:
- People buy Harold Robbins' books not to read them but to as trophies and accessories: to be seen as readers of such books even when they are not (like college kids walking around with some Nietzsche)
- Harold Robbins' readers truly only read to occupy time, with about as much concentration as TV-viewers: as soon as they've finished one page they've forgotten what was on it -- so they wouldn't even notice that a character's name had changed, etc.
- Harold Robbins' readers value literary experimentation and won't be bound by the conventions of popular fiction. They were thrilled to see Robbins pushing the envelope in daringly suggesting the fluctuating character of character, implying that man is not bound by such token markers of identification as names.)
Most of the really big mistakes in book publishing come from ignoring the importance of words in favor of numbers or personalities.
Sadly, he also notes that few books are even read (or, often: even written) by anyone before they are bought (an idea that still strikes outsiders like us as just nuts -- absolutely, incomprehensibly nuts).
Korda also offers a token savaging of reviewers ("I have never had the slightest respect for critics or any degree of interest in their opinions"), complaining especially that book reviewers ignore "the vast majority of books people actually buy and read".
It is a valid point, but he then goes on to complain:
on the rare occasions when they do review such books, they judge them by the literary standards of the esoteric books that nobody reads except critics.
We're not familiar with these standards for esoteric books -- but we note that Harold Robbins' experimental novel with the changing names might actually have fared better from reviewers used to avant-garde literary fiction than those that take popular fiction seriously .....
Korda's own tastes seem to span the whole literary spectrum -- he is a braver man than most in what he'll work with.
Still, he is far from unerring in his judgements.
Most amusingly he waxes eloquently about Larry McMurtry, who he believes "liked and understood women and wrote about them sympathetically and intelligently" and has such fine women characters.
A few pages later he is disappointed to find that the McMurtry novel he bought is meeting lots of resistance from women readers: "Every woman who read the book, however, complained that Patsy cried too much."
Seems like the main female character had zero appeal to women readers.
Korda puts this down to a Texas-New York cultural divide, though the more obvious explanation would seem to be that McMurtry didn't understand women all that well after all and couldn't write one worth a damn.
Another Life is filled with anecdotes and little stories, many of which are very funny indeed.
(Our favourite ?
Perhaps the ABA convention at which Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine is introduced and -- just -- doesn't go up in flames.)
It is an entertaining book, and along the way does give a lot of insight into the horrific state of American publishing.
After reading it one is almost surprised that any book of literary merit and by a non-celebrity is ever published.
Korda writes fluently enough, though he is prone to the dramatic generalization and he sometimes seems to lose track of where he is going (but there is an awful lot of material covered in the book).
He certainly seems to be having a good time most of the time (even when he is suffering) and he conveys that feeling well.
A fun read (despite its very depressing underside).
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Other books by Michael Korda under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Michael Korda was born in 1933.
An editor at Simon & Schuster, he has written several books.
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