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Genius and the Masculine Mania of Publishing

In A. Scott Berg’s book, and in the new film, the worn-out trope of the male literary genius gets one more day in the sun.

At the opening of this glossy, hammy, nostalgic movie about the working relationship between Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe, there is a note in typewriter font: “A True Story.” It jettisons the usual caveat “based on,” just as Genius rids itself of the subtle equivocation of the title the film gets its story from, A. Scott Berg’s 1978 biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, which deliberately leaves open the question as to whether it’s the editor or the edited who is the genius. Neither book nor movie is interested in questioning whether genius is real, or what on earth it might mean—genius simply exists like the weather, and it shines brightly on these two men.

Berg’s acclaimed book, showered with accolades, including the National Book Award, is the consummate inside-baseball account of how the publishing industry functioned in the first half of the twentieth century. Far from considering it a golden age, Berg shows instead how concerned an editor had to be, even a century ago, with print runs, dust jackets, advances, marketing, reviews, and sales. When Perkins arrived in the advertising department of Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1910, burned out after a few years as a newspaper journalist, he was confronted with a stuffy, risk-averse family firm that relied on the judgment of its bewhiskered old guard and supplemented its funds through its in-house bookstore and its successful literary magazine. A bestseller or two each season could float the rest of the list, but nobody—not even Max Perkins—could guarantee a particular book would move enough units to be successful. Thus any editor, “of genius” or otherwise, had to work on his list as a whole, shuttling between a wide range of projects in different stages of development: marking up page proofs, cajoling authors, reading stacks of manuscripts and letters of introduction, and occasionally making offers that could change a life.

Genius, understandably, strips out much of the grind of Perkins’s day job, focusing instead on his relationship with Thomas Wolfe, his physically imposing and emotionally demanding protégé, played by Jude Law, an actor considerably too old, too short, and too English to convincingly inhabit the role of the Southern giant. Wolfe made his name in the early 1930s with the autobiographical behemoths Look Homeward, Angel (now best remembered as a hit Broadway play, which won the Pulitzer prize in 1958), and Of Time and the River, which became a literary legend for the long tussle between editor and author to tame its enormous length between two covers. As Berg put it, “Of Time and the River sprang from the symbiotic union of two artistic forces—Wolfe’s passion and Perkins’s judgment.”

The film dramatizes the making of that book, and the paternalistic struggle between the flinty Yankee Perkins, played by Colin Firth, and the Asheville wild man. When writer and editor decide that Wolfe’s second book is about big ideas like “rivers” and “America” and “the search for a true father,” it’s all taken quite seriously in the film, along with the notion, derived from Berg, that Wolfe was the son that Perkins, blessed with five daughters, never had. Nobody ever questions why girls are such an inevitable spiritual disappointment.

Genius leaves little breathing space for the women—Laura Linney’s Louise Perkins and Nicole Kidman’s Aline Bernstein, Wolfe’s older, married lover who bankrolled him during the writing of his first book. Their artistic ambitions, to write and produce drama, are routinely belittled by the men and by the movie itself, which plays Louise’s amateur theatrical efforts for laughs. Bernstein, just as passionate and unstable as Wolfe, stuffs a handful of pills into her mouth in Perkins’s office and later comes to menace him with a tiny pistol—more laughter from the audience. Women’s intemperance, after all, is laughable when it isn’t a sad burden on men. (It should be noted that Zelda Fitzgerald appears once in the movie, sitting mute at the Perkins’s dinner table—otherwise she exists only as an expense on Fitzgerald’s ledger that Perkins generously defrays.)

It’s clear in Berg’s narrative that women occupy a separate sphere from the world of literary genius. They can be supportive, like Perkins’s daughters, even successful, like his bestselling author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote The Yearling. But even when they are writers, they are always women first. When we first meet Perkins in the book, he’s dispensing wisdom to a class of aspiring editors at NYU. After talking at length about Hemingway and Fitzgerald, we’re told that Perkins “then commented on several of his best-selling women novelists.” The few, that is, who could get to him—the editor “maintained his distance” from female writers and admitted to one of his male authors that he was “always scared when confronted by a charming young woman.” But Berg insists that women found Perkins “magnetic” and “most wrote to please him.” His habitual joking at their expense is waved away as “the humor of the time.” Similarly of its time, and of its place, is Wolfe’s “strong provincial anti-Semitism,” something Berg tells us the author “inherited from his mother.” Men are never to blame for what they believe, or the damage their beliefs inflict. Towards the end of the film, Wolfe and Perkins share an old saw about the ancient need for storytelling as something cavemen did around the fire to keep at bay their fear of the wolves out there in the dark. There is no consideration that anyone might be scared of what the men themselves will do, or what their stories will tell.

Writers like Thomas Wolfe built a legend on what they took from life, deliberately refusing to acknowledge their cultural debts. This is made clear in a truly egregious scene in which Wolfe, in a cab with Perkins, enthusiastically taps out a beat on his editor’s knee, exclaiming about the “dark rhythms” that inspire his writing. The film cuts to a crowded Harlem speakeasy in which the literary men are the only white patrons. After insisting to his uptight mentor that jazz can be creative, Wolfe proves his point by paying the bandleader to riff on the one piece of music Perkins will admit to liking, the Scottish ballad “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.” This scene is the only hint that there is any other kind of culture in New York during the 1920s and 30s, even if it couldn’t penetrate the grey edifice of Scribner’s: Most of the landmark works of Harlem Renaissance literature came out with the houses run by “outsiders,” the Jewish Horace Liveright and Alfred A. Knopf, by way of his wife Blanche.

A much more palatable version of the union-of-opposites story occurs when Perkins goes to visit Hemingway in Key West, played by a genial and perfectly cast Dominic West, who helps his tweed-suited editor haul a gigantic tarpon onto the dock and display it for the camera, underlining that it’s Perkins who is the fish out of water. The editor’s natural habitat is the grey office and the red pencil, not the blazing sunshine and the ocean; his business is words, not life. (Or, as Law pronounces it in his toe-curling Southern drawl, laaaaaaf.)

But publishing, as depicted in the book and the movie, is an introspective business, and the film struggles mightily to dramatize the work of reading, writing, and editing, with loud scratches of red pencil on paper. It’s a film that rarely looks out of the window. Instead, there are many worshipful shots from outside that pan up the Scribner’s sign on the side of its former Beaux-Arts home at Fifth Avenue & 48th, now a Sephora. The current tenant of Perkins’s aerie is a web development firm that named its conference rooms The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. And that’s part of the irony of this determinedly irony-resistant film: The “genius” for which Max Perkins is generally held responsible—at least the kind of genius of which the interior designers of tech firms are aware—belongs to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, not Wolfe. But even that is an accident of time and taste: In one of the film’s best scenes, a lucid and weary Scott Fitzgerald welcomes Wolfe to his house in California, its thin curtains drawn against the sun’s glare, and tells him that This Side of Paradise, the messy novel that made him a star at 24, has just gone out of print for the first time in 18 years, and that Gatsby is probably next, having netted him around three dollars in royalties for the past calendar year. Even the current revival of interest in Gatsby hasn’t done anything so far for Fitzgerald’s hero from Paradise, Amory Blaine, and whether this film will do anything for Thomas Wolfe is doubtful. The creation of a work, the laboring to get it into the hands of readers, is only a part of the story. The rest of it, the guarantee of the lastingness of literary fame and legacy, is smoke and mirrors.