There's an old adage about Hollywood that demonstrates both how small the window of success really is and, simultaneously, how hard executives try to keep it open. "Get me Winona Ryder," the producer barks, just as the young actress's career begins to peak.
Then, say a few years later as she supposedly passes her "prime," "Get me a young Winona Ryder." Finally, it's "Get me a Winona Ryder type," when, age 35 or so, the poor girl is no longer bankable.
While book publishing differs from the movie business in ways too numerous to begin to fit on this page, the businesses do share some traits—namely, the desire to hold on to success, to re-create it, to imitate it. How many novels have been touted—and, sadly, left to linger in warehouses and remainder piles—as "the next Da Vinci Code"? How many ersatz Cold Mountains have there been, or Lovely Bones, or surely, soon, Marley and Mes? Like most humans, publishers like to experience a good thing as long as possible—and who can blame them, especially when the business is in its usual state of flux and, quoting Hollywood again, "nobody knows anything."
So it's not surprising that for the last couple of years, publishers have been scrambling to duplicate the extraordinary success of Gotham's Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, the little grammar book that could, and did, become a megabestseller. According to Nielsen BookScan, Lynne Truss's ode to punctuation has sold more than 830,000 in hardcover since its '04 publication and almost 100,000 since appearing in paperback last April. Editors all over Gotham (the city) and beyond were flooded with proposals for grammar and etiquette books they hoped to be Truss-like, but for the most part weren't. Even Gotham (the publisher) played a part in furthering the Truss franchise by publishing Eats as a kids' book, which has sold, according to Nielsen BookScan, 37,000 since its August pub. Truss's follow-up, Talk to the Hand, on the other, well, hand, has sold well, but not so extraordinarily.
Now there is Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, just out from Hoboken's tiny Melville House. Part memoir, part literary gossip, but mostly a guide to the lost art of sentence diagramming, the book, penned by copy editor Kitty Burns Florey, hilariously examines the history of grammar and answers such important, universal questions as, Why did Gertrude Stein hate commas? Was Mark Twain or James Fenimore Cooper the better grammarian? And why, oh, why, is George W. Bush such a lousy speaker?
These are the things America wants to know—or, at least, I do. And with its announced first printing of 35,000, Melville is betting I'm not the only frustrated armchair fifth-grade English teacher around here.
The book, in other words, does everything Truss's does, and then some. But will readers care about where the "twas" goes in a diagram of Lewis Carroll's "Twas brillig and the slithy toves..."? That [subject] remains [verb] to be seen [passive infinitive].
After all, success, unlike sentences, is not so easily diagrammable.
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