This Author Is Spilling the Secrets of the Publishing Industry
The most thrilling scenes in Andrew Lipstein’s Last Resort take place in a series of NYC offices, where the narrator, debut author Caleb Horowitz, negotiates a legal agreement with his literary agent and a reticent lawyer (stick with it, it’s more exciting than it sounds). Horowitz has spun his old college acquaintance’s story about a love-affair-slash-impromptu-foursome on the Greek Island of Paros – told in a moment of drunken vulnerability – into a manuscript that is destined to become a bestselling novel, but now that acquaintance, Avi Deitsch, has found out about the book through his job at a publishing firm.
At this point, it’s not entirely clear what Avi wants as compensation, but all will be revealed in a second, even tenser meeting with the book’s overseers, set in the kind of drab skyscraper that indicates just how far removed we are from Caleb’s lofty artistic intentions. Both of these scenes illustrate, as Lipstein puts it, the “perfectly terrible marriage of art and commerce” that comes with publishing a book.
What follows is a series of painful twists and turns that neatly illustrate how a work of fiction can run away from its creator, especially in a world that often prizes an artist’s celebrity over the actual content of their work. Characters from the aforementioned orgy also begin to crawl out of the woodwork, causing their own brand of trouble while Caleb attempts to balance his ambitions with a seemingly dreamlike relationship.
This story comes at an interesting time for the publishing industry and, more specifically, for discourse about who can lay claim to a narrative. The recently-published Fuccboi was mired in controversy even before its release, thanks to IRL appropriation accusations (ultimately, of course, the book was better off for the drama). The original author of the thread that inspired A24’s Zola spoke up about her lack of recognition from the studio last month. Even certain celebrity memoirs have raised pertinent questions about the ethics of ghostwriting in the age of the personal brand.
For Lipstein, however, the controversy is all fictional (though he does concede there are some overlaps between his life and that of his narrator, such as the long-distance running that betrays their obsessive and persistent nature). “I think if I was more of a sane person, I would have stopped writing years ago,” the author says, noting his many literary “failures” while working at a tech startup and publishing parody magazines such as The Neu Jorker. In the end, however, his persistence paid off with Last Resort.
Below, Andrew Lipstein tells AnOther about the inspiration for his tale of literary theft (no, he didn’t steal it), explains why he wanted to confront the publishing industry, and shares advice for other aspiring authors.
Thom Waite: You’ve written for the tech industry for some time. What inspired you to enter the world of fiction?
Andrew Lipstein: I hated English in high school. The English majors I was friends with in college, I thought I could never do that. I think I was turned off reading from a very young age because of how I was taught in school, and didn’t really discover a love for reading until after college. And I basically just started writing novels. I never started on short stories. I was in a creative writing course in college where we had to write a short story, and I wrote something then just continued writing until it was a novel. I think my skill and technique wasn’t there, and took a long time to get there, but the idea of spending so much time with one thing and building it was very appealing to me. I’m someone who easily gets obsessed with projects, and will keep myself to word quotas, even if it makes me insane. I really like focusing my energy onto a single project.
TW: Last Resort can also feel like a critique of the blind ambition of hustle culture at times.
AL: Yeah, I think what gets sacrificed with drive, or where it goes wrong, is how it makes it possible to overlook morality. I think hustle culture has a morality embedded within it, which is that as long as you’re trying as hard as you can, as long as what you’re producing is the best you can, it sort of overrides all other considerations. I think that every endeavour you have, or every industry, comes with its own morality. You need morality, that sort of lets you know that what you’re doing is right, but there’s only room for so much. I think if the morality is success, then that leaves less room for other more nuanced moralities.
“If I was more of a sane person, I would have stopped writing years ago” – Andrew Lipstein
TW: Would you say that the publishing industry has a particularly twisted morality?
AL: Well, the publishing industry is the perfectly terrible marriage of art and commerce. The morality of art, which Caleb fully subscribes to, is that nothing matters if it’s servicing the artwork. It wasn’t his story to tell, but he was able to overlook all of the immoralities of what he was doing because he was creating something. I think writers and artists generally give themselves licence to steal, to hurt people they know and love, to service the art.
The other side of it is commerce, which is a little more obvious, but how it affects things is a little more diffuse and surprising. Every publishing house wants to sell as many books as they can, and that often leads to some pretty ridiculous marketing copy, covers, use of the artist’s identity. Books have a meta-narrative to them, at least the ones that become popular, that doesn’t always align with what the book actually is. So publishing is sort of like the marriage of those two lopsided moralities that somehow work together in a way that isn’t always right.
TW: How do you think a story about plagiarism, or ownership of your own narrative, fits uniquely into this moment?
AL: I think that those stories pop up every six months for good reason. It’s inherent in what art is to be stealing from reality. There aren’t rules that everyone can agree upon. And whenever one of these stories comes up, I think what makes it perennially interesting is they never resolve. Maybe they resolve legally. Maybe somebody apologises. But there’s no answer, even with the ‘Bad Art Friend‘ story, you talk to people who are adamant that one side or the other is right, and they don’t even take it for granted that there’s another side. These are really complicated issues that can’t be settled.
I don’t know if you could possibly create a realistic character purely from your imagination. Same thing goes with any art. Does there exist a painter who can paint a face strictly from their imagination, not making a composite of people they know, and have that pass muster? I don’t think that’s how imaginations work, I don’t think they generate, I think they take and mix. That’s part of the artistic process. I think that’s why this is never going to end.
“I think irony is a defence mechanism, and I think it’s contributing to a lot of bad art” – Andrew Lipstein
TW: The word ‘irony’ comes up a lot in Last Resort, and Caleb is often very dismissive of the concept. What are your own thoughts on irony in contemporary novels?
AL: I think it’s an act of courage to write truly earnest writing. Irony at its worst is a defence mechanism, protecting yourself from being too vulnerable, or somebody pointing out a flaw in who you are, the work you create. More to the point, it’s getting extremely hard to be authentic, in life and in art as well. In life, people aren’t artless, they’re always watching themselves. When you meet somebody for the first time, you’re always pretending to be someone in some way, on a subconscious level, at least. It’s really hard to move that into the realm of art, because it adds another layer of confusion on top of that. But I think, at the end of the day, irony is a defence mechanism, and I think it’s contributing to a lot of bad art.
TW: Do you have any advice for a younger novelist that might want to break into the publishing industry?
AL: On the artistic side, I would say to know that you can always change fundamentally, as a writer. Your style can change completely, what you’re interested in can change completely. If you feel like what you’re doing doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean that you don’t work as a writer. It just means what you’re currently doing doesn’t work.
As far as the practicalities go: persistence. I think if I was more of a sane person, I would have stopped writing years ago. I’ve had many failures, many manuscripts that never got published, and it would have been the right choice to stop at a certain point. I think you’re really only a failure when you do stop. I will intentionally not say networking, because I think what you’re actually doing in the end can get lost when you concentrate too much on feeling like a writer, acting like a writer, and not actually writing.
Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein is out in the UK now.