December 9, 2007

Home Section Invasion


Publicity—especially book publicity—is a funny business. As recently as ten years ago, it was fairly simple. Almost any new book could count on at least a few reviews in major newspapers. Mainstream talk shows regularly booked authors. And publishers were often willing to drop thousands of dollars to send even unknown writers on cross country, rock’n’roll style tours in the hope that a few people would notice.

            All that’s changed. People have stopped reading books (except for Harry Potter and Oprah’s Book Club selections), limiting their reading to brief website postings. As a result, newspapers nationwide are dumping their book review sections, and the only authors the talk shows are interested in are the ones who were celebrities before they hired someone to ghostwrite a book for them.

            Publicists, then, are being forced to try out new avenues in order to get their new releases a little attention. Writers who might have once been interviewed on Larry King, say, or in the pages of the Washington Post are now happy to make an appearance on a local cooking show, or on some AM station in Tucson at four in the morning.

            Now, I’ve never been a fan of publicity. Public readings are agonizing ordeals for a dozen different reasons, I’m no fan of interviews, and I don’t travel well. I’m with William Gaddis—namely I think authors should be read and neither seen nor heard. You say what you want to say in the books, and anything beyond that is superfluous. Unfortunately, being gnawed upon by the publicity machine is a given nowadays. There’s no getting around it.

            I had a publicist once who, having exhausted all the normal routes in an effort to get a book of mine plugged, decided for some reason to turn to the New York Times “Home” section.

            There’s a columnist there, I guess, who writes profiles of people’s apartments. These are, without exception of course, spacious, beautiful, expensive apartments inhabited by young and attractive rich people. In most cases, these people have spent tens of thousands of dollars on renovations to make their apartments even more spacious, lovely and delicate.

            Why, exactly, my publicist thought the columnist would be interest in my shabby abode (or my shabby self, for that matter) is far beyond me. Still, as publicity goes, I thought it was a really, really funny idea.

            He was in touch with the columnist, he told me, but it would help his cause tremendously if I were to write a few paragraphs describing my apartment in an effort to prove how much I deserved to be in that section.

            There were a number of ways I could’ve approached the piece. My first impulse was to parody the columnist’s grating purple prose to describe my cracked tile floor and smoke-stained walls, but while that might keep me chuckling, it wouldn’t help matters very much. In the end, I just decided to be straightforward, so as not to confuse anyone too much.

            Here is the piece I submitted to the Times:


A real estate broker would probably say that this apartment has four rooms. Truth be told, the only “room” with a door is the bathroom, so I think that would be stretching it a bit. It’s really just one long room, in which some sections are a little narrower than others. There is another door, but it’s leaning against the wall behind the bathroom door, and I’ve forgotten now where it used to be. The closet, I think. It confuses people sometimes, but never for very long.

      The bathroom is what sold me on this place when I moved to Brooklyn almost twenty years ago. It seems to be an ad-hoc affair, punched through the wall randomly at an oblique angle. It’s a bathroom straight out of Raymond Chandler, with a dual spigot sink and a clawfoot tub. How they ever got the tub in there, I still don’t know, but stepping into the bathroom is like stepping into 1947, which makes me very happy.

      They replaced the toilet a few months ago, after there was some kind of plumbing problem on the floor below me. It doesn’t quite reach the wall anymore. In fact it just kind of sits there in the middle of the floor, but that’s okay.

      My landlord also installed a new kitchen sink after some other plumbing problems. That’s about as far as any renovations have gone. Oh—my girlfriend did replace the blinds on the windows after the originals fell down, but the refrigerator and stove were here long before I showed up.

      The tile on the floor is neither “elegant” nor “majestic,” but being uniformly gray, it makes it easy to find things I’ve dropped. There’s also a long and growing crack in the kitchen floor which sometimes leaves me thinking the whole apartment is splitting in two, but I’ll worry about that when it happens, I guess.

      All of my furniture is still pretty much exactly where I put it when I first moved in. Saw no reason to move it around. There’s not much of it. Mostly bookshelves. I only have three chairs—two by the kitchen table and a broken one in the middle room by my desk. I don’t get much company, though, so it’s not an issue. Just as well; they’re pretty uncomfortable chairs anyway. There is a wooden park bench against the wall across from the front door (the door itself is really just a big piece of wood with a deadbolt). I mostly just put things on the bench, and sit there when I’m putting on my shoes. It’s not very comfortable, either.

      There used to be a lot of art on the walls, but not anymore. I took it all down a couple years ago while the place was being painted (my landlord had been bugging me to get it painted for fifteen years before I finally gave in). Afterwards I never put it back up. I can’t see it anymore, so there seemed little point. There are a bunch of boxes on the floor full of stuff I never bothered to put back after that painting ordeal. Files and what-not.

      Because of the windows, I do get lots of light in here, except in the middle room by my desk, which is always shrouded in darkness. And the views out the windows are nothing short of pleasant. The kitchen windows look down on the garden out back (never actually been down there myself), and the front windows look out over the tree-lined street and the brownstones across the way. In spite of what’s happened to the rest of the neighborhood, my apartment has remained unchanged. Thanks to a very kind and reasonable landlord, my rent hasn’t even gone up that much over the past two decades. I do like this place. It’s the last cheap apartment in Park Slope. It’s my bunker. Nobody bothers me here. And I’m thinking I should probably sweep one of these days.


            I waited for weeks after turning that piece in, but I never heard a word from the columnist, and my publicist never mentioned the Times “Home” section again.


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