In signature bow tie and with a few missed patches of whiskers from his morning shave, James Atlas, arguably one of the leading literary critics of his generation, sits behind his desk on a midtown trading floor among a hundred stock brokers and money managers shuffling the memos, reports, and spread sheets of a business life.
“This,” he gestures, meaning business, doing business, “is much harder than writing.”
The division between church and state – the temperament for ideas, language, beauty, sensibility versus a head for organization, deal-making, manufacturing, and marketing – has undoubtedly been crumbling for a long time. But its end seems particularly extreme in the figure of the cranky, old-world-style (if your old world is the fifties) Atlas. Biographer, novelist, present New Yorker writer and former Vanity Fair columnist and Times-magazine editor, Atlas is trying to learn the language of investment bankers – equity, synergy, branding, leverage – as avidly as he once tried to master the vocabulary of literary criticism at Harvard.
“From Partisan Review to Entrepreneur magazine,” says Atlas happily.
The fact that Atlas is not selling derivatives, as he sits among the million-dollar bonus babies, but launching a new publishing company that this month inaugurates a much-touted series of short biographies – Edmund White on Proust and Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse are the first to be released – only slightly qualifies the joke.
Atlas’s generation – he graduated from Harvard in 1971 – is surely among the last to expect an indigenous, commerce-free literary life. “Having meals at Horn & Hardart,” Atlas sighs. “Surviving by selling review copies of books. Living in a walk-up on Hudson Street.”
Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, William Phillips – Atlas (whom I met almost twenty years ago when he invited me to lunch after my first book was published to tell me how obtuse and disorganized he thought it was) nostalgically lists the great intellectual figures who knocked New York flat with books, articles, debate, even conversation itself, seldom worrying, Atlas believes, about the next dime. It’s a life perhaps most vividly described by Saul Bellow, whose biography Atlas has completed after a decade of work, a way of life that was in full flower after the Second World War and still going strong into the seventies, when Atlas arrived in New York.
But with the rise of the financial class in the eighties (and its disproportionate rewards), the conglomoratization of the book business, and powerful new pressures on print media, that life started to crack. “As an intellectual, you were out of business if you couldn’t write a blockbuster best-seller,” Atlas shrugs.
As West Side neighbors despairing of our literary futures, we would often repair together, each with a child in tow, under the whale at the Museum of Natural History – where there was a child-friendly bar. An inveterate observer of social status, Atlas confided that in the late seventies, “when I got to New York, Jason Epstein” – Random House’s legendary editor-in-chief – “told me you needed $50,000 a year to live a solidly middle-class life in the city: Upper West Side apartment, two kids in decent schools, furniture, a nothing-special house in the country. By my calculations, currently you need $350,000 a year to be middle-class in Manhattan.”
Now, sitting in hisoffices on the trading floor, he revises upward: “We need half a million.”
Give or take a hundred thousand, Atlas’s calculations are near the mark: You have to be an investment banker to lead the life of an Upper West Side intellectual.
“There’s just no economic basis for the itinerant intellectual,” Atlas says, with no uncertain annoyance at his contemporaries who might be deluded enough to think otherwise. “So you either have to join the academy, which is dull, go to work for a cultural corporation like the New York Times or The New Yorker, or produce your best-seller, which is a little like winning the lottery.”
Implicit in Atlas’s critique is that intellectuals are without the wherewithal and skills to find opportunity in the new economic order.
Then, one day, in the final stages of writing his 800-page Bellow biography, as Atlas lay on his couch reading Jonson’s lives of the poets – specifically Jonson’s 80-page life of Savage – the Zeitgeist turned and Jim Atlas had a brainstorm.
Not just a brainstorm but a marketing brainstorm – perhaps the first conscious marketing idea of his life:
Biographies, a reliably popular literary form, Atlas’s sudden, intuitive marketing analysis went, are too long. They are too long for readers, and, just as important, they are too long for writers. Even if a brand-name writer is willing to spend seven or eight years on a biography, what publisher can afford that cost, and, perhaps more to the point, what publisher can recover those costs? But biographies the length, say, of a long New Yorker article could attract big-selling writers on an economical basis and even attract readers to buy two, three, or four a year.
In short order, Atlas shared his brainstorm with an editor at Viking Penguin, who, following the time-honored publishing-house business script, offered Atlas a small stipend to edit four such books.
Over a New Year’s Day lunch, Atlas,an out-loud worrier and constant seeker of advice, complained to the investment banker Ken Lipper – a former deputy mayor whose story about solving the city’s deficit crisis in the late eighties Atlas had edited for the Times Magazine – that while the Viking Penguin offer was a good opportunity, it still left him in a bind: You just couldn’t get ahead as a freelancer.
“Well,” Lipper counseled, “don’t give away your idea.”
Lipper, whose firm had $5 billion under management, and who had financed several movies, sent Atlas back to Viking Penguin with a new proposal: What if the concept was an extended series of short biographies – from Saint Augustine to Elvis – and what if outside capital could be brought to the project?
The business relationship between publisher and writer is remarkably stable and remains strangely unquestioned. This is not only because writers are saps but because editors and agents know scant little about the wide world of deal-making themselves. While business today, being the province of great minds as well as great greed, attracts the level of analysis that previously attended God and questions of the meaning of life, that rigor, that relentless parsing of the underlying logic of cost and reward, has largely bypassed the book business.
In terms of imagining new ways for money to be made and money to be saved, book publishers rank up there with the government, even the Russian government.
Still, as Lipper had suspected, the unlikely notion that a writer could bring capital to the table suddenly made Viking Penguin very interested.
The first stage of Atlas’s entrepreneurial education – structuring the venture – had begun. Atlas figured it would take a few weeks to get a deal. It took fifteen months.
“We just couldn’t get it to work, to come together. The pain of this was unspeakable. Writing my Bellow biography was much easier than this,” he says, still wringing his hands. “I certainly came to have an appreciation of what kind of stamina is required of the entrepreneur, what kind of obsessive, driven mentality is needed.”
The venture, called Lipper/Viking Penguin, which Atlas would manage and in which he’d be an equity holder, came together with the arrival of Michael Lynton, the Disney-trained wunderkind and movie executive, as CEO of Viking Penguin. The deal most closely resembled the kind of deal a movie studio might have with an independent production company. The series would be created by a dedicated team: Atlas would be the director, Lipper the producer, the writers of the books the stars; Viking Penguin would be the studio, marketing and distributing the books.
The second stage of Atlas’s entrepreneurial life, the start-up phase beginning in the spring of 1997, found him at his desk in Lipper’s Park Avenue office among the pods of brokers. Part of the next year of activity was a transformation of Atlas himself from crabby editor – at the New York Times, editors answer the phone with a what’s-in-it-for-me rudeness – to an expansive business personality. He was selling his concept. Motivating his team. Keeping his partners on the same page. Soothing feathers whenthey got ruffled.
Pulling everyone toward the common goal. “This could never have happened without the incredible support of the partners involved in this project,” he says now in the patois of the team player.
The third phase of Atlas’s new life is the product launch, which happens this month with the publication of White’s Proust and McMurtry’s Crazy Horse. Each of the books, at approximately 150 pages, is both literary and entertaining. Biography lite, someone will surely wag. Perhaps to counter that, the books, unexpectedly, have a very bookish look – a fifties bookish look. They make a collectible, matched set.
“They’re branded,” says Atlas.
The 24 titles that are now signed (most in the low six-figure range), from Bobbie Ann Mason on Elvis to Garry Wills on Saint Augustine to Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc to Roy Blount Jr. on Robert E. Lee to Nigel Nicolson on Virginia Woolf to Jane Smiley on Charles Dickens, will appear at the rate of at least six a year. With “performance rights” secured up front (it’s a deal-breaker if a writer won’t agree on a film/TV/theater deal), a television series based on the books is envisioned – a competitor clearly to A&E’s successful Biography series. And now there is the children’s series that Atlas and Lipper are developing, and a science series, and … they want to be careful about saying more about their plans.
“Jim has always been an opportunist, of course,” one of his writerly friends confided to me at the annual party Atlas and his wife, the psychiatrist Anna Fels, throw each year on Thanksgiving eve in their apartment overlooking the readying of the balloons for the Macy’s parade (a sought-after invitation in literary New York). Likewise, a Random House editor, standing in front of Atlas’s fireplace, said grimly, “You know, the book business is never going to be a business where you make money.”
There is the unmistakable sense that Jim is doing something not kosher – helping bring the book world into the era of deals, ventures, alliances, entrepreneurship … and … yes … content. Sort of Nixon in China.
You could look at it another way too. In Bellow’s novels there is always the uneasy relationship between artists and businessmen, the comedy of poets trying to deal with pragmatic America. And in that way, it is also possible to see James Atlas, among the brokers and bankers, involved in a great literary adventure – God knows there is material here – while at the same time, in the fashion of the age, perhaps laughing all the way to the bank.