A joint's only as classy as the last guy in the door (Joni's publishing parable du jour)

Several months ago, I went to a private party at an upscale restaurant in Philly. In attendance were a number of classical musicians, some movie people, a few attorneys, agents, and that sort. Everyone was dressed for the opera, including the waiters. I had my customary ONE glass of champagne (I get tipsy only in the company of people and dogs who can be trusted to still love me in the morning) and then refilled my dainty fluted glass from a water bottle I kept tucked away on a window ledge. Not everyone at the soiree was that timid/circumspect about consumption, but folks generally behaved like they were at a business function, which they were. (Make no mistake: all publishing and entertainment industry parties are business functions.)

Late in the evening, I and a producer who'd chatted me up decided to scout out the ladies room. A waiter penguin pointed toward an ornate staircase, and because the hand of God is upon me, the producer headed up just in front of me with her hand on the scrolling banister. About halfway up, she stopped with a choked shriek of horror. Someone -- either a bar patron or one of the less circumspect party-goers -- had barfed, and we'd walked right into it. She got the worst of the deal, but I didn't escape entirely untainted. It was on the banister, the wall, the carpeted steps...

"Oh, God...oh, God..." she whispered, frozen on the stairway, holding her hand as far from herself as is possible when one's own hand has suddenly become an object of revulsion. "Help."

I dashed down the steps and pushed through a swinging door to the kitchen, calling, "Towels! One wet, one dry! Stat!"

By the time the two busboys and I got back to the producer, she was seething. The hostess and maitre d' soon joined the fray, frantically apologizing, swiping at the producer's dress and my dressy Nine West shoes with damp bar rags, and trying their best to make it right with vouchers for dinner for two with our spouses.

"Don't bother," the producer said icily. "I won't be back."

The hostess turned to me with the vouchers, but I shook my head.

"I know it's not your fault," I said. "I'm sure it's a very nice place, but..."

One of the busboys shrugged and said philosophically, "Joint's only as classy as the last guy in the door."

Ain't it the truth?

Last year, I read a bestselling novel by a very successful author, and everything was chugging along fine until -- blllaaaagh -- out of nowhere, one of the minor characters did something really stupid. And then a bunch of stilted dialogue ensued, trying to justify this choice. I could just see the editor's note on the first draft: What? WTF? And then the author thinking, Zounds! I better trump up some way to justify that because I'm certainly not going to cut something that entertains me like this does.

I tried to be cordial and read on, but the book found it's way to my bedside heap and sat there for about seven months collecting dust, until yesterday, when I admitted to myself that as much as I wanted to read that book, I just couldn't go back without thinking about that one absolutely putrid moment. I chucked it into a box in my garage. A book for which I paid twenty-four bucks. Written by an author I respect...but not as much as I used to.

It seems like a lot of response to one moment in a fleeting appearance by a minor character, but I'm sorry -- it stank up the place! I can't walk through the front door of that book ever again without thinking...bllaaagh.

You know what they say about theatre: "There are no small parts, only small actors." Well, the same dynamic applies to a novel. Truth be told, there's no such thing as a minor character. And a book is only as good as the last character on deck.


Well, yuck! But you're right, the cardboard character and interestingly bad dialogue can leave a reader with a terrible impression. I recently abandoned an expensive hardcover novel the same reason.
Lark said…
I had a similar experience. I read a series by a VERY successful author--sucked in by the characters in the first 3 books only to be viciously betrayed in book 4. I threw the book across the room in utter disgust. It was a WTF? moment that still chaps six months later. And still disappoints.

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