The Gottlieb Paris Review interview

There’s a great Paris Review interview with editor Robert Gottlieb filled with quotable stuff. A sample:

* “I have fixed more sentences than most people have read in their lives.”

* “Your job as an editor is to figure out what the book needs, but the writer has to provide it. You can’t be the one who says, Send him to Hong Kong at this point, let him have a love affair with a cocker spaniel. Rather, you say, This book needs something at this point: it needs opening up, it needs a direction, it needs excitement.”

* From Toni Morrison, who Gottlieb edited: “I never wrote a line until after I became an editor, and only then because I wanted to read something that I couldn’t find. That was the first book I wrote.” This, incidentally, is also what keeps me writing—wanting to read books that no one else has written, though I suspect Morrison and I have very different tastes.

* A long excerpt from John le Carré:

Negotiations were always tight with Bob. He was celebrated for not believing in huge advances, and it didn’t matter that three other houses were offering literally twice what he was offering. He felt that for half the money, you got the best. Most publishers, when you arrive in New York with your (as you hope) best-selling manuscript, send flowers to your suite, arrange for a limo, maybe, at the airport, and then let you go and put on the nosebag at some great restaurant. The whole idea is to make you feel great. With Bob you did best to arrive in jeans and sneakers, and then you lay on your tummy side-by-side with him on the floor of his office and sandwiches were brought up.

After I finished one book, I think it was A Perfect Spy, my agent called me and said, Okay, we’ve got x-zillion yen and whatnot, and I said, And lunch. My agent said, What? I said, And lunch. When I get to New York I want to be taken, by Bob, to a decent restaurant for once and not eat one of those lousy tuna sandwiches lying on my tummy in his room. Bob called me that evening and said, I think we have a deal; and is that true about lunch? And I said, Yup, Bob, that’s the break point in the deal. Very well, he said. Not a lot of laughter. So I arrived in New York, and there was Bob, a rare sight in a suit, and we went to a restaurant he had found out about. He ate extremely frugally, and drank nothing, and watched me with venomous eyes as I made my way through the menu.

* Gottlieb again:

I happen to be a kind of word whore. I will read anything from Racine to a nurse romance, if it’s a good nurse romance. Many people just aren’t like that. Some of my closest friends cannot read anything that isn’t substantial—they don’t see the point. I don’t, however, like a certain kind of very rich, ornate, literary writing. I feel as if I’m being choked, as if gravel is being poured down my throat. Books like Under the Volcano, for instance, are not for me.

And this again describes me, despite my post On books, taste, and distaste. I think my penchant for Carlos Ruiz Zafón falls into the “word whore” category.

* The main thing he gets wrong is regarding science fiction, where he says of Doris Lessing’s The Sentimental Agents that “like all space fiction, or science fiction, it is underlain by a highly moralistic, utopian impulse.” This isn’t true: a lot of science fiction might be, but it’s hard to argue that, say, Stanislaw Lem’s is, or any number of dark, contemporary SF writers who want to describe things, not change them.

Will we ever find out what happened to Flip Video?

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Cisco Killed The Flip Cam A Day Before It Was Going To Get A Cool New Live Broadcast Feature.” Which is pretty frustrating: why kill the unit right before a major upgrade that’s presumably all sunk costs? The WSJ has one possible answer in “After Cisco Sacrifices His Baby to the Gods of Wall Street, Flip Founder Jon Kaplan Speaks!“, where Kara Swisher says that axing Flip was an “effort to assure Wall Street that it was no longer serious about its wacky foray into the consumer market.” But does it have to be so public? So symbolic?

And it is symbolic: Arik Hesseldahl points out that Cisco lumps the revenue from Flip into an “other” category on its financial statements. He then goes on: “This ‘other revenue’ totaled $2.6 billion in Cisco’s fiscal 2010, up from $1.6 billion in fiscal 2009. The biggest single factor for that billion-dollar boost was $317 million in Flip camera sales. You read that right: Cisco just shut down a business that brought in $317 million in sales in its last fiscal year.”

He says, “Make no mistake, the Flip was and is a culturally significant product.” It was, and, as regular readers know, I almost never write about consumer gadgets because most of the time there’s no point and people who write about them are just wasting their breath. But the Flip was fun in that shocking, surprising way that the original iPods were. Gadgets rarely have that effect—they’re as rare, or maybe rarer, as a book that really speaks to me. But a book is forever while gadgets come and go.

I think it’s the pointlessness of closing Flip that annoys me so much. They made a fun product that a corporate leviathan is killing just because it can. Unfortunately, posts like this one aren’t likely to have much of an effect. There’s a Facebook page devoted to saving Flip, but it only has 407 members as of this writing, and, in Cisco terms, that’s indistinguishable from zero.

Still, David Pogue’s post “The Tragic Death of the Flip” has 13 pages of comments, most from people with the same reaction I did. Killing a beloved product is counterproductive, considering how hard it is to develop and sell a beloved product, and I still wonder why Cisco axed instead of sold the company. A hundred million dollars is presumably better than zero. But I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

EDIT: Some feedback points out that still-video hybrid cameras like Panasonic’s will likely take over Flip’s market. Could be, but I think the two serve different people. Those Panasonic cameras are a lot more expensive and in key ways less fun to use. I have a Canon camera for pictures and while it’s great for what it is, Flips are more approachable and more portable.

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