I sit in front of Mister Abbado’s office. He is my dad’s childhood friend, though they haven’t seen each other for many years. Jemima, his secretary, sits too, right in front of me, covering her shoulders with a beige shawl. She’s reading a book; her background is books, hundreds of them. This place is all books: it looks like a stock photo for an interior design magazine.
She breaks eye contact with her screen, smiles at me, and points at the door without saying a word.
“Come in, boy,” Mister Abbado’s hand is a watermill without water. It gestures at me, at the chair, and everything else. He doesn’t have much time. He wears a black t-shirt and a blacker blazer; he is fit and tall; he looks younger than many. He is a literary agent.
It’s a very comfortable chair, I have to admit.
“I’ve read some of you stuff… that one is okay, what’s its name… ‘Ye Medium German–“
“Oh, ‘The Grand British Non-fiction’? ”
“Yes, that. Your dad asked, so I’ll explain in detail. Otherwise, I would’ve rejected it without a reply.”
I’m so white and sad that I don’t know what to say. My face tries to appear mature and composed but I’m devastated inside.
“You have to understand: the publishing industry has nothing to do with writing or, god forbid, art. It’s an industry – it’s in the title – there’s an assembly line, and that thing has to come up with a product for the customer. Books are not the dominant form of entertainment anymore and today’s buyers are easily assigned to groups with their own requirements. As every industry employs lots of people who have families to feed, bills to pay, and vacation spots to fly to, you cannot throw at that conveyor belt something that requires manual assembly. And that leads me to your damn type.”
The overture is over. He leans back but I feel that he somehow moved closer to me.
“First of all. You’re too funny for a contemporary writer. It was in vogue a century ago. You are not a famous comedian who decided to publish his memoir. A proper modern writer could be funny only in a mocking way; he also should be funny but arrogant at the same time. And as arrogant as you are, you are constantly punching yourself in the liver by questioning your right to be arrogant. That is not okay. You’re not supposed to leave a possibility of opinion to a reader – you are always right and you are the truth. A writer should laugh at someone, not be laughed at. Treat your writing like you are constantly fighting for other’s rights without any actual fighting: your work is your ego in the flesh and no one should dare to offend it by their opinion, otherwise, they would think that they are as smart as you. Establish a hierarchy: you, reader, everybody else. You are on top, but your readers also need to think that they are every inch better than a beer-drinking yob who watches footy all day long. What I see in your novels is that you don’t give readers the only right choice, you allow them to think for themselves – you are deconstructing everything too much. And judging by that, you’ll probably write a short story about our meeting after we’re done. And you’ll make yourself look like you’re going against the establishment, and you’ll turn me into a bastard and put words in my mouth.”
“Well, I never depict real-life events, even if it looks like I do. It’s always fiction.”
“Yeah, yeah, and the story will end with some joke related to the things I’ve said. Moving on. When you’re writing about serious subjects – there should be no humour at all or it should lead to a death or rape scene. ‘Serious plus humour’ only works for fake autobiographies: like if you’re telling that your family was very poor but your mother always joked to make your dirty famished faces smile, like that. And then she dies or gets raped. The thicker the tar, the better. Do you remember that story about a miner’s wife where she washes his dead body and describes it in detail?”
I know exactly what story he is talking about.
“Contemporary writing is like that, only no one cares about miners anymore. If you’re going black, there should be no white. If a character says something serious – he never laughs. If someone says something funny – he is a goof. In any other case, it can’t be categorised as literary fiction. I guess that’s where you’re aiming because too serious of a theme has no place in commercial fiction – dead teenagers are the heaviest stuff allowed.”
He clears his throat.
“The second thing that I don’t like – your pacing. It’s a Shinkansen with frequent stops. It’s barely suitable for an audiobook.”
I raise my hand and have a schooldays flashback, “It is on purpose; it’s closer to the movie editing or a musical composition, I have a degree in–“
He stops me with his watermilling hand, “I’m not saying that it’s bad. I just don’t like it. See the difference? I get it, you are trying to be fatless and precise, I understand. But it’s not suitable for literary fiction. If you’re going for postmodern, then don’t be so subtle! Barrage people with themes and symbols they can barely understand. Compose long sentences where the first part loses its meaning by the time you reach the last one. Don’t treat it like a story – it’s a takeaway for the literature students to delve in; make their heads steam from the attempts to make some sense of your nonsense. And if you’re going for the straight narration – be heavy on words. Describe the world that you’re giving to the reader abundantly; force-feed them the metaphors.”
“But what’s the point of that?” I am so outraged I lean forward a tiny bit, “I’ll run out of paper doing this!”
“Don’t describe everything. But you’re not writing about some drugged out of their minds freaks. Your themes are not that experimental. You’re kind of mixing straight realism and the postmodern approach, with a twist at the end. And marketable authors don’t write like that. So either write about freaks, or do it this way,” he grabs a book and puts a pair of tiny glasses on.
He is reading the opening chapter of some recent bestseller. There are many, many words in it – that’s my first impression. I got the point after the first sentence, but they are going on and on. I unintentionally sigh when I hear that the Alps, according to the author, resemble rotten teeth falling out of someone’s gums.
The noise of my exhale interrupts him, “What?”
I shrug and my face does too, only with cheeks instead of shoulders, “Does he even know what rotten teeth look like? Where are those Alps, on Venus? And who the hell describes mountains like that?”
“It’s a great image! Who cares if it’s vomit-inducing gibberish? Don’t you understand? An image!” he stands up and turns to his window. “A verbal picture in the mind of a single twenty-something girl who recycles, wears a sweater with sleeves over her fingers, and reads this book on her commute to work for a couple of months. She probably flew over the Alps on multiple occasions. And yes, she’s very supportive of people with rotten teeth ‘cause it’s their choice, but hers are pristine white. And she will surely forget this metaphor the moment she turns the page. But now the recycling missy in her moth-eaten, vintage sweater wants to visit the continent to enjoy ‘cuisine and cultures’, and post a picture of this book on a table, paired with a cute little panna cotta and cute little spoon sticking out of it, sitting outside a café in the centre of Ventimiglia!”
“Mister Abaddo, I use metaphors too, from time to time, but only when it is necessary for the plot.”
“I don’t need a plot, I need the words to fill the page in an appealing to the target audience way.”
“Well, in that case, the book you just read from is a truly fine example of verbal wankery.”
“It is! But look at the numbers!” he taps on the cover right in front of my face as if it was possible for me to see the amount of sold copies encrypted in the picture, “A wanker extraordinaire! That’s who I need!”
I’m not a wanker. I mean, I surely am, but not the one Mister Abbado requires. My covers? Too artsy. Minor ethnicity? Mum’s half Filipino – too generic. LGBT? A little Q? Plus? Not even an asexual? I can’t be sure, but probably not. Social media? I have nothing to share.
Boy, oh boy.
I’ve been sitting here for an hour, maybe longer. The sun runs away from me and hides behind the cityscape. It’s not the first time in my life when a person spends an hour of his life telling me that I don’t fit. Some people did it for a couple of months (my girlfriend, ayyy!). I’m still at the agency, I’m getting no respect and the only thing I’m missing is a red tie. Maybe it’s time for me to fight back.
“Sir. If I write in my own way, with the pace that is perfect for the traveler’s consumption, and none of the niches accept me… why don’t you promote me this way?”
“I can’t sell you.” He took a pause looking at me, “Boy,” and really bopped that “B”. “Your stuff, it’s alright. Some editing is due, but overall you’re good. But you’re writing for people who don’t read. I’m not even sure these people exist. We can order you a bunch of positive reviews like we always do, but forcing people into liking something new is too much of a hustle. I’m sorry, but you are not that special. Or you are too special. Choose the one you like best, it’s all the same. In the end, that’s your biggest flaw – you think that you are Mussorgsky, but it’s not eighteen sixty-nine anymore.”
There’s a knock on the door – it’s Jemima, “Excuse me, Mister Abbado, I have a dentist appointment, so, before I go: you have ten new manuscripts.”
“Are there any English teachers or people with at least a hundred thousand followers?”
“There is one teacher.”
“Alright, leave that one, drop the rest. Don’t answer them,” he smiles at Jemima and lets her go. “Those poor losers in their beige sweaters and short-sleeve shirts. Ugly and profitable. Their sentences may be boring but at least they know that ‘alright’ is not a word.”
I think I’m already one with the chair. Mister Abbado questions why I am still sitting, without saying a thing.
“You think I should stop writing?” I ask this while holding on to the doorknob.
“I don’t know,” his eyes are already busy with his computer and, probably, English teachers. “Try magical realism?”
My anger quickly turns me from white to red, “My stories may be unsellable, but that doesn’t mean that I have no human dignity!”
“Sorry, I got carried away,” he excuses himself with his hand. “Ask your dad to hook you up with some film company and start shitting out screenplays.”
“Thank you for your time, Mister Abbado.”
“Don’t make me too much of a cunt,” he waves without looking.
I observe the rows of the housing through the train window. All perfect, all the same. The ones that stand out were built in the sixties and seventies – they look like individuals who despise any attempt to be individual. Then there are the new skyscrapers, perfectly tailored to the corporate client’s list of requirements. The train dives into the tunnel right after we pass an old cinema that was destroyed by fire. I guess that’s me.
As the window becomes black I notice the passenger under it. It’s a young lady; she’s about twenty-five. In her hands lies the exact same book that was used by Mister Abbado to describe the Alps that can only exist on other planets. She glances over the pages and catches my look, then quickly drops hers and starts smiling at some other ridiculous representation of something that doesn’t exist.
I stand up and approach her, “Excuse me, Miss.”
“Yes?” Everything about her feels weirdly beige, except for her pristine white smile. Her long sleeves shake with the underground carriage, covering and uncovering her fingernails with each movement.
“Do you recycle?”