Memoirs of an invisible writer
Earlier this week, the author Suki Kim wrote an article for The New Republic titled “The Reluctant Memoirist.” It relates how Kim landed a contract to write a nonfiction book about the privileged youth of the upper classes in North Korea, which she researched by going undercover as an English-language teacher at a university in Pyongyang. She called the result Without You, There is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, but when she saw the cover design, she was surprised to see two additional words under the title: A Memoir. Here’s her account of what happened next:
I immediately emailed my editor. “I really do not feel comfortable with my book being called a memoir,” I told her…My editor would not budge. She noted that my book was written in the first person—a device I had employed, like many journalists, to provide a narrative framework for my reporting. To call it journalism, she argued, would limit its potential readership…I tried to push back. “This is no Eat, Pray, Love,” I argued during a phone call with my editor and agent.
“You only wish,” my agent laughed.
Kim says: “But that was the whole point. I did not wish that my book were Eat, Pray, Love…It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life. I was being moved from a position of authority—What do you know?—to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?” And the response, when her “memoir” was released, was much as she had feared. Instead of placing her book in the tradition of such journalists as Ted Conover and Barbara Ehrenreich, which is where it clearly belonged, reviewers read it as an example of the memoir genre, leading to concerns about the author’s “deception.” Kim was labeled as an opportunist because she underwent her experience in order to write a book about it—a charge that could reasonably be leveled at every reporter ever. She found herself appearing on panels with memoirists, fielding questions about her personal growth, rather than about North Korea itself. It’s a story that raises a complicated web of questions about the commercial strategies of mainstream publishing, the way categories affect the way we approach a work of nonfiction, and even how we perceive authors based on gender and race, and it’s hard to disentangle any single factor from the rest. But I’d like to focus on one element in particular: the relationship between the author, the agent, and the editor, and how it seems to have failed in this case.
I haven’t read Kim’s book, and I’m sure that her editor and agent have their own perspectives on the matter. But most writers who go the route of conventional publishing can probably understand the emotions that she expresses. Kim writes about how she had dreaded the moment when “I would have no control over my fate,” but she was surprised to find that it happened in New York, not Pyongyang. Writing of the struggle over the book’s subtitle, she concludes: “It soon became clear that this was a battle I could not win, and I relented.” Which is really an amazing statement, given the nature of the participants involved. The agent works for the author, a point that is forgotten so often that it seems worth italicizing. Similarly, the editor and the author both work for the publishing house: it isn’t a chain of command. Yet I also understand that perception. The entire process of selling a book to a commercial publisher encourages the author to feel like a supplicant. Most of us find an agent by submitting queries in hopes that just one will land an offer of representation, and even if we get it, the memory of the search can create a perceived power dynamic that persists in the face of all evidence. We pay our agents fifteen percent; they’re here to provide a service. And the obstacle race of finding an editor also obscures the fact that once a book is sold, it creates a partnership of equals, in which the author, if anyone, should have the last word about the packaging of his or her work.
But it’s easy to forget this, and having been through the process myself more than once, I can absolutely see why. In this instance, though, it wasn’t just a theoretical concern. The sense of dependence and obligation it enforces allowed Kim’s agent and editor to fall short in one area where they could have been of real value: as the author’s protectors. Kim recognized that it was a bad call, but she didn’t feel empowered to change it, and even if other issues were involved, the dynamic certainly didn’t help. (Which isn’t to say that editorial feedback on the highest level can’t be valuable. When I went out with the pitch for Astounding, I explicitly sold it as a biography of John W. Campbell, but it was my editor who suggested that the scope be expanded to include other authors from the same era. I was the one, in turn, who brought up the names of Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, and everybody was pleased with the result. That’s how it’s supposed to work.) And Kim’s example is one that every writer should remember. These forces, invisible to most readers, affect every book that we see: the title, the cover, the jacket copy, and its positioning in the marketplace are all conscious decisions, and they don’t always reflect the writer’s wishes or best interests. Sometimes they do, but only when those choices emerge from an atmosphere of trust. The writer often has to fight for it, and the structures of publishing and agenting don’t make it easy. But the author’s voice deserves to take precedence over the agent and the editor—because without us, there is no them.