Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

A Trendsetter Roundtable: Muse by Jonathan Galassi

American publishing has a lot of history. There are stories of “the greats” who started started the big publishers and bookstores. There are tales of editing beloved authors. There’s also gossip. Muse, by Jonthan Galassi (Knopf, 2015), hits on all of these important points in publishing’s history in his fictional book about a young editor rising through the ranks in New York City publishing. Galassi approaches this topic from experience, he’s the publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and a published poet. So he’s seen the industry from both sides. Muse is his first novel, and Trendsetter editors Sam and Jen read it to see what rang true about trying to make it in publishing and what didn’t. And we tried to warn readers when they were coming, but there are a few spoilers in the roundtable.

museSamantha: To give some context, Muse is about a young editor trying to hack it in NYC publishing when he gets the chance of a lifetime mid-career and things get – well, tense. Do you think that’s a good summary?

Jennifer: Yeah, I think that’s accurate.

Samantha: We wanted to read this as young ladies in publishing because it’s about a young person in publishing written by a publishing vet. It seemed like the perfect book for us to devour and dish on.

Jennifer: We did the devouring, let’s get to the dishing. Sam, what did you like about the novel?

Samantha: Man. I have to admit this wasn’t my favorite of the books we’ve read together. I felt like it wasn’t written for me, which is fine of course, but then I couldn’t answer the question of who it was written for! Did you like it? Do you have an “ideal reader” in mind for this book?

Jennifer: I wasn’t a huge fan either, for that exact reason! I felt like the ideal reader was someone who understood the references Galassi was making to real people, so mostly other publishing vets. Every new name felt like another nod to something going over my head. And boy, were there a lot of names!

Samantha: Yes! There were a lot of people to keep track of, although that is very true of publishing. I think you’re right about the intended reader being a publishing vet, although I saw lots of glowing reviews online from people who did not appear to be folks in publishing, so maybe we’re just missing something. Galassi is also a published poet, and I will say I loved the poetry he wrote as Ida Perkins in the book. He’s clearly very skilled with verse.

Jennifer: The poetry was probably my favorite part, as well as the code he created for Ida’s husband, A.O.

Samantha:  Everything did feel very real in the realm of the publishing world that he created.

Jennifer: I think everything felt real at the core, but also a bit dramatized into a stereotype.

Samantha: I’ll agree with that. The main character, Paul, is a young man who loves reading, particularly the works of famed poet Ida Perkins, and then works his way up into publishing, befriending along the way two very famous publishers who don’t get along. It’s kind of a bootstraps rise through the ranks, which I think doesn’t really happen that often anymore in publishing.

Jennifer: He starts with a little networking help in the beginning, via a local bookstore owner and a college professor.

Samantha: But again, that’s still kind of an idealist, bootstrappy kind of thing, at least to me.

Jennifer: That’s true. And I think his bootstrap attitude was definitely important to the plot, because it’s what leads him to a meeting with his favorite author.

Samantha: Yeah. I guess what made that an issue for me is I don’t know anyone who’s moved through publishing that way, personally. Earlier when I said everything felt real, I meant more along the lines of the rivalries, lunches, the way staffs operate, but Paul’s entry and continued journey through publishing feels almost impossible – at least now. I don’t know anyone’s who career trajectory was like that in this industry. There’s so much more struggle to get in, even if you know people, and figuring out what house and department you like, that kind of thing. I’m sure there are people that start at Penguin as an editorial assistant, and then just steadily move onward in the same imprint and department, but I don’t know anyone like that.

Jennifer:  I think the biggest issue for me in the end was the plot. *Warning, spoilers ahead.* I just can’t believe that Ida would give Paul her manuscript after one meeting with him, especially one that is obviously so personal and precious to her.

Samantha: The end started getting so convenient so fast! People that Paul was worried about offending dying left and right, little recourse for having to make a hugely difficult choice. Again, this wasn’t my favorite book we’ve read together. What rang true for you in this book?

Jennifer: I agree with your feeling of his description of how the industry works as the truest part of the book. Not really Paul’s career trajectory, as you said, but other aspects. What’s sticking out in my mind right now is his description of Frankfurt Book Fair, which I haven’t attended personally but I have heard a lot about.

Samantha: Yeah! That definitely seems like the conference that gets the craziest from what I have heard. I really liked the whole bit about Paul’s relationship with the Rufus at the Amazon-type company, Medusa. That part made me laugh out loud. A clear jab at Amazon!

Jennifer: Medusa was the perfect name for the company. It’s so sad to me, as a person just getting started in publishing, that the chapter after he rejects the job from Medusa, he flashes forward to the company acquiring a few big publishers, notably “Harper Schuster Norton.” Although, in a twist, he says that the small, independent publishers stay independent.

Samantha: Yes! I am very much looking forward to being told what characters represent who. I think that will probably make the book a little richer for me, at least after some exhaustive googling.

Jennifer: I might have peeked at some spoilers after I finished. I couldn’t resist the temptation!

Samantha: Ah well done. I had to hold back until we had our chat. I didn’t want it color my thoughts. What do you think young people in publishing, or those aspiring to be in publishing would get out of this book?

Jennifer: I think young people can get an idea of how the behind-the-scenes networking for rights and authors as well as house rivalries work. However, they should definitely read the book knowing that it is ultimately a work of fiction. I think Publishing: A Memoir, one of our earlier Roundtables, might be a more moderate view of the industry, albeit from the point of view of an author instead of a publishing executive.

Samantha: Yeah, what’s interesting though is that yes it is fiction, but it is from a publishing executive! It makes me wonder if he just changed the names and added a bit of writer-ly chaos and the rest of it is basically true. Maybe that’s where the fun in this book should have been for me, in wildly speculating truth versus fiction.

Jennifer: You mentioning that makes me wonder if Ida Perkins is a real author that Galassi idolizes. I’m curious to know who she might be, or if she was a created plot device.

Samantha: So many questions! And we have so few answers! Ha. Maybe I’m the exact wrong reader for this because I am in publishing. It’s probably all easier to just accept if you’re completely outside of publishing? I know I’m overthinking the “ideal reader” for this book, but at the same I’m dying to know who the marketing team and Galassi thinks it is.

Jennifer: But if you’re outside of publishing, what are you reading for? I doubt outsiders are interested in the truth vs. fiction of it all and we already admitted that the conclusion is a little too convenient.

Samantha: I don’t know, Jen! I’m just trying to rationalize here. People like to read mysteries even though they’re not cops, or books about explorers even if they hate travelling. Maybe it’s that kind of thing, a view into an unknown world.

Jennifer: Here’s an interesting question: what genre is this book?

Samantha: General fiction or literary fiction would be my guess. Medusa – I mean Amazon – calls it Genre Fiction and Satire.

Jennifer:  Makes sense. So would recommend or would not to the young people reading Trendsetter today?

Samantha: Well I think it’s a good look into the craziness of old school and new school that is constantly at war with each other in publishing, which is hard to describe in real life, so maybe fiction is just the way to do it.

* * *

And now, for some spoilers. We asked some industry veterans and consulted some reviews of Muse to see who represents who in the book. Of course, not every character is inspired by a real life person in the publishing industry, but we just had to know who’s who once we finished reading. These are simply best guesses, and nothing more.

Fictional Character: Real Life Inspiration

Paul Dukach: Jonathan Galassi
Homer Stern: Roger Straus
Sterling Wainwright: James Laughlin
Pepita Erskin: “Loosely Inspired” by Susan Sontag
Angus McTaggart: Andrew Wylie
Eric Nielsen: Jonathan Franzen
George Boutis: Jeff Bezos

And what about Ida Perkins, the muse herself? She’s pure fiction.

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