Even coming from the weird and wacked-out world of Tinseltown, the news that Sean Penn is to appear in a Hollywood biopic of Maxwell Perkins is somewhat startling. Perkins was a mild, courteous, self-effacing publisher’s editor.
He was, admittedly, such a brilliant editor that he has been a touchstone of quality and seriousness for those in the books business for over 60 years (“He’s not exactly Max Perkins, is he?” one author might say to another when asked about an editor).
As Scott Berg describes in his brilliant biography, Perkins did all the things a publisher should do, but rarely does. He was a brilliant judge of talent, editing among others, Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell, Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald. He had a good eye and a flawless sense of structure. He helped his authors through personal crises. He even lent them money.
On the other hand, he was a publisher, and the books business has stubbornly resisted all attempts by cinema or TV to make it seem interesting. Apart from the pervy character played by Frank Finlay in the 1970s TV serial Bouquet of Barbed Wire, there have been few major screen protagonists who worked in books. In both film and television, publishers tend to be bit-part players, small cogs in the machinery of a plot – eccentric or dull, urbane or nerdish, but never heroic.
Perhaps that is all about to change and producers will be looking to the books business for new storylines. The lunches with agents! The tricky negotiations over digital rights! The furtive bunk-ups during sales conferences! The power-point presentations to Waterstones!
I can hardly wait.