Julia & Houghton

MV5BMTM1OTkyNDYzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzUwNTI3Mg@@._V1._CR117,0,465,465_SS100_Michael and I went to see “Julie & Julia” on Saturday afternoon and we both really liked it. It’s true what the critics are saying, though — whenever the story switches back to 2002-’03 and the “Julie blogger so frustrated with her life” parts, you simply bide time until the action reverts back to Meryl Streep’s amazing work as Julia Child in the 1950s and ’60s. (To Amy Adams: if the role calls for short hair, why not just cut your freakin’ hair? That wig was so drugstore and distracted from your otherwise excellent performance. There’s a better wig — better everything — on Meryl.)

Anyhow. Good movie, go see it, even if you cringe at the idea of a Nora Ephron production. Do grab a big bite to eat first. It’s a dazzling food movie; check out this bit o’ Kim Severson genius in the NYT last week about that.

But you know what else? It’s a wonderful PUBLISHING movie, too. The excitement (and letdown) Julia feels as her cookbook, the seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking, wends its way from idea to completion is as present as the aroma of a good boeuf bourguignon. We see Julia struggle with the manuscript. We see rejection.

And sadly, we also see my own publisher drop the ball, as a roomful of ancestral Houghton Mifflin editors and publishers toss Julia out like a burnt cassoulet after she and her colleagues worked eight years (with a $250 advance!) on the first draft of what would become Mastering. …

This of course leads to the happy ending (this is so not a spoiler alert, or shouldn’t be) when Knopf saves the day and publishes Julia’s book — my favorite scenes in the movie. (It’s now in its 49th printing. Forty-ninth.) Audiences groan with pleasure at the sight of all that wonderful food. I also made satisfied sighing noises at the sight of carbon paper and red pencils and when Julia at last puts a mammoth stack of manuscript pages in an 8×11 cardboard box to send off to her publisher. Bliss! So much better than uploading a Word doc attachment to an e-mail. Which is why I was so insistent on sending my own manuscript that way. It really is the same as pulling a perfect souffle out of the oven.

Meanwhile, poor Houghton Mifflin. (Now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) It hasn’t been an easy year or two for them — the company was sold/acquired three times in the last decade or so, propped up by an almost incalculably valuable backlist and textbook division, pillaged by over-extended hedge-fund investors, and then the center of an industry dust-up late last year when it announced (and then tried to un-announce) that it was indefinitely suspending the acquisition of new manuscripts and proposals. That last bit of bad news led to the exit of the publisher of the trade division — someone who was much admired.

But may I say? Things are looking up at HMH. They are too buying manuscripts and making book deals. There’s a new publisher in place, as of this month. The editor in chief, in my own personal experience, is brillllliant — and she has lavished all sorts of attention on this particular author. Their fall catalog has a lot of interesting titles, which I can only be happily subjective about, since it includes Tinsel. The publicity and marketing people are nothing but enthusiastic. My book was originally contracted with Henry Holt, which also treated me quite well. But when my editor, George, was lured to Houghton in 2007, I was happy he took my book with him, and I still am.

Hang in there, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Maybe you’ll fare better in a Philip Roth biopic.

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