Fiction under a mysterious pseudonym can still reveal certain truths - and abuse others By Pnom D. Plume

July 21, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The following story is a fiction, a work of pure imagination. The figures, characters and circumstances depicted here have no relationship to true events.

In book publishing, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Companies, imprints, authors, editors - bosses! - are being bought and sold recklessly. Bottom-line-demonstrable success is the sole security. The big buck's in blockbusters.

So consider this: A clever executive or two conceive that top sales could be won by a novel exploiting the recognized or suspected shock values of an at-risk national presidential family and its inner circle.

That could be the big book! Could bring a company $10 million, $20 million, more in profits - feed a useful author a third of that. Do it! How?

First, product. Then, marketing.

Product's easier. There is enough stuff out there in the supermarket tabloids and quickbooks to fully populate a tale of infamous adultery, indomitable mendacity, insatiable ambitiousness - and manipulative cynicism at levels that would send Niccolo Machiavelli weeping to his mother for forgiveness.

But there's an inherent danger: There could be a dozen or more books within the year saying the same or near-same thing. Fiction or nonfiction.

Idea! A campaign built primarily on an implied contention that this truly, really is the insider's expose. Insiderism is hot. Then, vastly amplify the suspense. Start a national docu-lottery, with no prize but the joy of discovery. Of what? Of just how inside the book is.

Insider-than-thou

How about a national competition for guessing the insider-than-thou author? Gotcha! The more elusive, the better.

So build up the mystery and its myrmidon, spectacular speculation. Make the oafs, the hacks, the naifs, the yearners believe, deny, debate, that each salacious passage, each sleazy stroke, comes straight from Omniscient Mouth to reader's ear. Start even before the book is published.

A name for this mystery source? A pseudonym? "Pseudonym" is too latinate. How about "Pnom D. Plume," with its faint hint of Oriental mystery?

No. Play it straight. Respect the reader, invest in dignity. Credibility's hot. Call the author "Anonymous." Lots of cred. Anon-baby has more entries in Bartlett's Quotations than anybody except whoever it was -Anon-baby, probably - that wrote the Old Testament.

So Brilliant Executive/Executives run through the list of 50 or so people who might do the job, do it marketably, with all the editorial help a big publishing house can provide. One is chosen. His/her/its agent is approached. The deal is cut. The fun begins:

1. Launch, with blaring-cornet fanfare. Feed the beast - but only light hors d'oeuvres.

2. Use every breakfast, lunch, teatime and dinner to flatter, cajole, tempt insiders and would-be insiders to wish to be thought of as the author or as knowing the author, or as knowing somebody who must know who the author is or probably might be.

3. Dangle, drizzle, nudge and wink: Keep the chatter building. Seed just enough clues, in the book and in the rumor mills, to narrow down the speculation. Encourage reporters to go baying into the field. Reporters will howl in blood lust for the identity of a colleague who has enough money to pay his/her/its own restaurant tabs.

4. Let the hounds pick up the true scent. The author is identified. He denies all, lies outright, declaratively invests his entire, total, unequivocal professional credibility in the lie.

5. Author confides in boss. Boss allows lie to go unchallenged into the publication boss is responsible for.

6. Attenuate the winkery-and-nudgery until its usefulness begins wane, sales dwindle.

7. Launch a second-wave publicity and advertising campaign. Put off paperback sales three months. Prepare for the Big One.

8. Bomb! Drop it on the campaign's gullible handmaidens. Slip an incriminating document into useful, pulsing paws.

9. Take three deep breaths. Go for it: Stage a massive press-conference. Author revealed! Controversy explodes! Rage, tut-tuttery and I-told-you-soing.

10. Flood the market with couple of hundred thousand more copies. Up the paperback first print order.

11.Break into joyfully polyphonic victory hymns, marching, arm-in-arm, to the bank.

***

All that is pure fiction, of course. But I'd better fess up. I did write it. I am Pnom D. Plume, but I have often had more fun at a keyboard.

And now a thought or two on an entirely separate subject.

In this trade or craft called journalism, there is more than a mite too much self-importance and pomposity. In all of what I wistfully call my adult life, spent in newspapers and magazines, I have been uncomfortable about writing that agonizes over journalistic entrails. We should get on with the job, as quickly and honestly as we can, and let readers judge for themselves.

A lot of readers don't much trust us. A lot have deep doubts, many of which I can understand. I believe vital interests of a decent and democratic society are dangerously damaged when we earn such distrust.

I cannot escape being concerned about the effect of the "Primary Colors"/Joe Klein matter, however it evolved. I believe that finally truthfulness is not a relative matter. Truth may seldom simple or absolute, but abuse of it usually is obvious.

I believe events in the "Primary Colors" charade have caused justified distrust of those who lied and who lent themselves to those lies.

That, in turn, increases public distrust of journalism in America generally. The whole affair has made me sad. And angry. And ashamed.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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