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

Three-Martini Lunch: A Trendsetter Roundtable

America’s love affair with the mid-century is undeniable, if a little complicated. Combine the fifties with that other great American obsession, gossip, and you’ve got a story on your hands, as Suzanne Rindell demonstrates in her new novel, Three-Martini Lunch (Putnam, 2016). Rindell tells the overlapped tales of three up-and-coming talents in the Manhattan publishing scene – Cliff, Eden, and Miles – and their struggles to square their outsized dreams with reality. Things get messy and books get published, not necessarily in that order. Nina and Margo read it to see what’s changed and what hasn’t. Please know that we’ve tried to clearly warn our readers, but there’s a spoiler or two afoot.

 

three-martini-lunchNina: Okay. Three-Martini Lunch! Both the title of this book and a great low-carb meal option. Where should we start?

Margo: Well, I really enjoyed the alternating points of view that the book offered, especially the voice of Eden, who tells of her start in the publishing career. What did you like?

Nina: I definitely had mixed feelings about the book as a whole, but I likewise enjoyed the alternating points of view. Rindell was able to tell a pretty ambitious story – publishing in the ’50s – in a more complete and complicated way than she would have been able to with, for example, just Eden.

Margo: I completely agree. Though my knowledge of the publishing industry in the ’50s comes from second-hand sources, I imagine that Rindell conveys the intensity of the business very well. While I found Cliff’s narrative incredibly irritating, I think that Rindell included it to show that true dedication and talent was (and is) not always the key to success in the industry. [Spoilers ahead] Cliff’s stealing of Miles’ manuscript reminded me greatly of how novels published independently are often, even now, plagiarized and republished.

Nina: Oh, Cliff. He’s basically Guy In Your MFA from an earlier era. And speaking of earlier eras, there really was a great deal of attention paid to the period, down to the slang, which was very satisfying to read.

Why do you think a novel about publishing in the 1950s resonates so much in 2016? I don’t know if you saw, but the blurb on the front cover actually says that Three-Martini Lunch “does for publishing what Mad Men did for advertising.”

Margo: I think Rindell’s language gives the publishing scene in the ’50s that vibe that modern twenty-somethings still find so hip. It very much reminded me of Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls. For decades, readers have been drawn to stories that showcase the glamour of working for a high-pressure business in Manhattan, often an office fueled by alcohol and strong personalities.

Nina: There’s also something satisfying about undoing the Ward-and-June-Cleaver aesthetic of the 1950s, even if almost everyone knows now that it was never really that clean or easy. And besides, that was such an iconic era in literature – Rindell name-drops Kerouac and Hemingway, and the beatnik scene in the Village is an important setting for all three characters. You get the sense that literature really mattered. (Of course, I’m an optimist; I think that our society does still value literature, all reports of its death to the contrary.)

Margo: Exactly! Cliff seems to really connect with beatnik ideas, recognizing the good in the lifestyle; however, he does not understand that being a writer involves more than just the “look” or involvement in the Village culture. This is where Miles, I think, is particularly valuable to the narrative, because he has what Cliff is missing. He embodies the hipster aesthetic and is a great writer, characteristics shared by the historically great ’50s (Beat) writers. I thought it also interesting that Rindell discusses the typical role of women in publishing at the time: working as typists and secretaries, just waiting to meet their husbands. Eden was seeking what many would have thought to be a man’s career.

Nina: Miles and Eden are really the characters to root for: both serious and ambitious, both at a disadvantage in a system that rewards people who look and act like Cliff. As a transplant to New York myself, I enjoyed Eden’s proto-feminist trajectory, especially since Rindell has written her to be simultaneously very serious and more than a bit naive. She wants to swap Indiana for the city of books, but it doesn’t occur to her that other women – even Manhattanites! – might find those goals to be a little threatening.

We’re lucky to live in a a moment where sexuality and race are foregrounded in a lot of the conversations happening about and around publishing. That isn’t to say we’ve fixed all of the problems that Miles, Eden, and their peers face – anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia are still very American traits, I’m afraid. But it’s useful to remember that the past was a real place, and that we aren’t necessarily so far from it.

Margo: Very true! I think it is this naiveté that ultimately hurts Miles and Eden, while Cliff’s naiveté mostly revolves around his self-delusions of being a great writer. However, Cliff is enlightened in that he is suspicious of others’ motives and has an understanding of the industry that is perhaps more realistic for the time. This could be attributed to Cliff’s position in a Publishing Family. Having a father who is cutthroat and ingrained in the business perhaps awakens his sensibilities to the competitive nature of the industry.

Nina: Love the capitalization of Publishing Family. I think the key is that Cliff doesn’t feel like he has to compensate for anything; he wants to be a great writer, so it’s high time someone recognized him as such. Miles, on the other hand, doesn’t identify himself as a writer unless pressed, and Eden is very aware of having to fight for even the modest success she’s had so far.

If we want to break the fourth wall a bit, it’s worth noting that the author here is a white woman, and one more invested in realistically difficult stories than in revisionism. That said, Miles’s family sometimes verged on a stereotype of blackness for me. A warm mother, a dead, poorly-educated dad, and an alcoholic stepfather? No kidding. The choice to render their speech in dialect was a strange one.

Margo: I agree that the depiction of Miles’s family was somewhat troubling. It seems this book pulls out all the stops: abusive (step-)parents, alcoholism, guilt concerning homosexuality, anti-Semitism, rape, etc. This, I felt, made the book somewhat campy. The drama sometimes seemed inorganic, almost as if Rindell included all these archetypal human problems after reading them on a check-list for most common human struggles.

Nina: Sort of like 1950s bingo. Communists! Homosexuals! This newfangled “marijuana”!

All of it was a little distracting, especially because – and I’ll admit that I’m biased here – the subject of publishing itself is already interesting enough to carry the plot. Or maybe I should rephrase that: publishing is already an adequate lens to look at all of those things.

Margo: I agree; I think more attention to the characters’ direct interactions with the industry would have made this book more engaging. As is, it was definitely an easy read (though long) and was enjoyable (though not ground-breaking).

Nina: Which leads me to the obvious question: would you recommend it?

Margo: I would recommend the book to a very specific audience: regular readers, probably in their twenties, who are interested in the publishing industry. Would you?

Nina: To the reader you’ve described, I would. In general, though, because I had a few issues with the plotting and characterization, I would probably recommend starting with some memoirs from and nonfiction about the era instead. They’re just as dramatic and troubling – and the martinis are just as strong.

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