These books are not meant to be used

by Kelvin Smith

In Anne Tyler’s The Beginner’s Goodbye, Aaron’s family, colleagues and neighbours try to help him adjust to his new life after his wife is killed by a falling tree. At Woolcott Publishing, the family firm he runs with his sister Nandina, there may be help at hand, but Aaron doesn’t think so. “Those books are not meant to be used”, Aaron tells Peggy.“Well, not in any serious way. They’re more like…gestures. Things you give to other people.

He’s talking about The Beginner’s series, “something on the order of the Dummies books, but without the cheerleader tone of voice – more dignified.” This series provides half of the company’s revenue and the best-seller is The Beginner’s Colicky Baby. Charles, the marketing man, promotes the list energetically, packages them as themed boxed sets, and even proposes that a full set of all title could be promoted to parents to give children when they leave home: “Open the boxes and you’ll find instructions for every conceivable eventuality. Not just the Beginner’s setting-up-house titles or the Beginner’s raising-a-family titles but Beginner’s start-to-finish, cradle-to-grave living.”

The rest of the business is vanity publishing – mostly autobiographies (My Years with the City Council), war memoirs (My War) and travel memoirs like Contents May Have Shifted During Flight. The irrepressible Charles even proposes a vanity publishing innovation entitled My Wonderful Life, a great idea for Christmas.

See, this would be a gift for the old codger in the family. His children would contract with us to publish the guy’s memoirs – pay us up front for the printing, and receive this bound leather dummy with his name filled in. On Christmas morning they’d explain that all he has to do is write his recollections down inside it. After that it goes straight to press, easy-peasy.

So publishing the Woolcott way is either well-meaning but mostly useless self-help advice, or evidence that most lives are ultimately humdrum.  A rare success in the vanity press stable is Why I Have Decided to Go On Living, a book that eventually finds an echo in the way Aaron forms a new life with Peggy.

Could a publisher like Woolcott survive in the digital publishing environment?  Probably not.  The Internet, self-publishing and social media now provide every old codger with the possibility of “publishing” a memoir with little direct cost (unlike old-fashioned vanity publishing) and no likely possibility of financial return (just as with vanity presses).   And any search engine will answer your “life problem” queries with more than enough trite advice and superficial information to rival anything the Woolcott Beginner’s titles could offer.

Anne Tyler, The Beginner’s Goodbye, 2012