Penguin…and all the other things we once thought mattered

by Kelvin Smith

Kif, the narrator of Richard Flanagan’s First Person, is writing a novel, but it’s going nowhere when his old pal Ray gets him the job of ghostwriting Ziggy Heidl’s autobiography. That’s how he and Ray ‘drifted into that world of publishing and celebrity‘ and meet Gene Paley and Pia Carnevale at the venerable firm of Schlegel TransPacific (known as Transpac or STP). As so often in contemporary novels, the golden age of publishing (including the downtown prestige offices) are part of the backdrop.

It was 1992, that time so close and now so far away when publishing executives still had such rooms and liquors cabinets; before Amazon and e-books; before phrases like granular analytics, customer fulfilment, and supply chain management had connected like tightening coils in the hangman’s noose; before the relentless rise of property values and the collapse of publishing saw publishers’ offices morph into abattoir-like assembly lines, where all staff sat cheek by jowl at long benches reminiscent, say, of Red Army canteens in Kabul, circa 1979.

Ziggy’s story is complicated and violent, but the book eventually gets written and published. Kif still has no success writing novels, but he moves to writing for TV where he has a stunning success.

Pia, the books editor, goes on to ‘survive the clearfelling of publishing companies that proceeded apace over the next few decades, finding at each point in the ever-diminishing forest another, higher tree which to climb. She ended up working at Penguin Random House in New York, the last of the great publishers in the last of great European cities [sic] and all the other things we once thought mattered.

First Person is published under the Chatto & Windus imprint, a part of none other than the Penguin Random House group of companies, where there is, no doubt, an editor – or perhaps more than one – who identifies with Pia.

Richard Flanagan, First Person, 2017