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Fire and Fury and Us

Once, long ago, we consoled each other about the difficulties of starting out in the writing and publishing business. Back then, I learned the curiously Manhattan term, “unspeakable,” from him. Nowadays we are old hands, but Steve Rubin (the slightly older hand), is at the very top of the game, having published Michael Wolff’s blockbuster, Fire and Fury, as longtime publisher of Bill O’Reilly’s best sellers, and tastemaker (Atul Gawande, for example). As the top guy at Henry Holt, he took some time off recently from counting the company’s money to reunite, to discuss our formative years and the publishing business nowadays about which he has both optimism and a narrative of his own furies. About Fire and Fury, he told me that he and Wolff were bouncing ideas off of each other, but then when the author wiggled his way into the White House (why on earth did the Trumpeters let him do that?), the book possibility became clear. “I would have had to be an idiot not to know that,” Steve said. And yet, though I’ve never thought of him as a particularly modest guy, he confessed that his staff at Holt is responsible for other publishing success. For example, the recent bestseller about the life of prairie pioneer Laura Ingalls came in as a manuscript that he dismissed, until the staff convinced him otherwise. He lamented that a great new book about Richard Avedon may become a commercial failure because so many people have no idea who the photographer was. He told me other stories that reminded me (as if I needed reminding) of the subjective nature of this business, and, in the end, gave me a bagful of upcoming titles, including what will no doubt knock others off the best-seller list, a biography of Robin Williams. As we said our goodbyes, we complained about the odd combination of sharp mental capacity and old bones. Two guys on a park bench comparing prescriptions.

Five Good Reads

1. Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan Read this not so much for its action but for its character development. It’s always tricky to say that a book is character-driven rather than plot-driven. There is, of course, a plot in Jennifer Egan’s novel. But the reader sticks with the narrative largely because of the developing characterContinue Reading

Writing in Future Tense

In 2027, Donald Trump is planning a fourth term as president (he has declared the Constitution illegal) and the Supreme Court can’t do anything about it because it is reduced to one doddering justice who, at more than 100 years old, has forgotten everything she knows. Read about final case to come before the courtContinue Reading

You Go Girl, Title-Wise

Anyone who read Gone Girl, or Girl on the Train, or Girl in the Dark or Girls on Fire, or the Stieg Larsson’s trilogy that began with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that started the girly title trend must know the irony. These are no girls, at least in the sense that, in responsibleContinue Reading

Michael Lewis and the Roundabout Reward

Today Michael Lewis’s new book, “The Undoing Project,” will be published to great fanfare, and for good reason. For writers, this event holds many lessons. One is that the old saw, “Write what you know,” now requires an expanded definition, maybe something like, “What you know is more than you think you know, and lessContinue Reading

Afraid to Live

The patrons of memoir and the players of politics seldom hang out at the same urban street corner, but they certainly do in the cases of a stunning new book by Cindy Brown Austin and the election of Donald Trump. To fully appreciate this intersection, and the potential power of eloquent words in a timeContinue Reading

In a Nutshell, Keep it a Secret

If you become a fan of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Nutshell, and I can’t see why you wouldn’t once you’ve read the very first page, you must do your best to hide your enthusiasm from certain people. As you probably know by now, this narrative is in the voice of a fetus who demonstrates aContinue Reading

All The Light We Can Research

In the back of his blockbuster novel, All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr provides an extensive acknowledgment list. It is not uncommon, of course, for authors to publicly thank those who provided support, but in the novel world it is an element seldom carried out to this extent. Anyone reading the book wondersContinue Reading

William Zinsser, Teacher

The last time I saw William Zinsser was the summer of 2013 at the house in Niantic, CT., where he lived with his wife Caroline during the summer months. He was completely blind by then, a result of severe glaucoma. But, as he sat with the writer Cindy Brown Austin, whom I brought to theContinue Reading

Philip Levine

When I heard of the death of the poet Philip Levine, I thought of his brother, Ed, who wasn’t mentioned in the New York Times front-page obit. I’d never met Ed, but I remember the way Philip talked about him. It was with love, of course, and with respect for the way Ed made aContinue Reading