A Feast of Literary Delights: It Was a Shaky Year for the Bottom Line in New York Publishing. but for Readers, It Was a Year of Riches

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It was a shaky year for the bottom line in New York publishing. But for readers, it was a year of riches.

ON THE EVENING OF NOV. 28, 1966, A rainy Monday, an extraordinary event took place at the Plaza Hotel in New York City: a writer threw a party, a masked ball, in honor of Katharine Graham, owner of The Washington Post and this magazine. More than 500 of the nation's most powerful and famous citizens, from tycoons to movie stars to literary lions, were invited. And most of them showed up, making it the first time in history, and probably forever, that the rich and famous did the bidding of a writer. Of course, the writer was Truman Capote. He was then the best-known author in the country, having published "In Cold Blood" earlier in the year. He was also the favorite court jester of high society both here and in Europe. Capote knew everybody, from the Kennedys to members of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and he invited them all to his Black and White Ball.

Capote's guest list supplies a sharp snapshot of the way things were--and how much the times have changed. Not one person from the world of rock and roll made the cut. That wasn't hip then. Neither, for that matter, were young people. Capote invited about three people under 30, including Mia Farrow, who appeared in her capacity as Mrs. Frank Sinatra. Only three artists got invited. And a couple of publishers and magazine editors. But there were lots of writers on the list, those being the days before celebrity elbowed accomplishment off the stage.

Writers today dwell in an uneasy shadowland somewhere between the wax museum and the midway. When William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg died this year, they were universally hailed as grand old men of American letters, which essentially negated the very idea that made them famous in the first place--the idea of a loyal opposition, of writing to resist, bellyache and generally nose-thumb the dominant culture. But the very notion of a dissonant counterculture, as embodied by the Beats, is no longer comprehensible. Alternative to what? The culture has been democratized, and everything carries the same weight.

Writers in the mid-'60s stood at the red-hot center of things. When The New Yorker serialized

"In Cold Blood," readers haunted their mailboxes for the next installment. In 1968 Harper's devoted an entire issue to "The Armies of the Night," Norman Mailer's account of the march on the Pentagon. George Plimpton, in his fascinating new biography of Capote, an oral history like the life he coauthored of Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick, suggests that Capote was the most well-known writer of the century alter Ernest Hemingway. Not because people read what he wrote but because they'd seen him on television, a gay man-child with a catty tongue. Writers--Capote, Mailer, Gore Vidal--were once staples on the talk shows. They added a touch of class, and besides, they were characters. Writers today are largely absent from those shows, because when TV producers want celebrity they go straight to the real thing. So, more tellingly, do publishers. Morrow reportedly paid $6 million for Whoopi Goldberg's book this year, and Little, Brown handed over $8 million for O.J.'s girlfriend's story.

Both books were celebrated failures, and both were held up as evidence that the publishing business has lost its collective mind, paying too much for bad books and generally neglecting the cause of literature. Publishing, you will hear, is in a crisis. Sales are down. Chain stores are aggressively running independent booksellers out of business. And electronic booksellers on the Internet are scaring everybody. In truth, the real crisis in publishing is a loss of nerve, and it reflects a much more widespread crisis of faith in the culture at large. Publishers do not know who their audience is, because American culture has gone through so many convulsions in the last quarter century that uncertainty is its only constant. …