My Letter From Moses Sussman, or How I Decided to Become a Communist
In the fall semester of 1989, a year so far back that its details have become hazy, a young man, almost the exact same age as myself, sat in an English class staring at me with a mix of bewilderment and disbelief. “Moses,” as I’ll call him, had spent the better part of five minutes explaining to me that he had rented a bus to attend a Billy Joel concert, and he was hoping that I would buy a seat on it and go to the show with him. I am using the words “explaining” and “asking” somewhat charitably. In truth, he had been running under the assumption that I was already on board with this plan and would be perfectly willing to go on this little excursion with him. I had been telling him that there was no way I was going to go. To a more objective eye, it wasn’t difficult to see why. On the day in question, and I recall this quite vividly, I was covered from head to toe in black, including black nail polish and black Velvet Underground T-shirt that was lovingly silk-screened with the original S-and-M themed paperback that the band took their name from.
I’ve got a lot of fond memories of that shirt.
We had been friends once; maybe we still were. I can recall vividly seeing “Stand By Me” in the theater with him, shortly after my buddy Joey had celebrated our forthcoming entrance to high school by swallowing his father’s gun. The event had left quite an impact on me, and we had been fairly close for the years after that.
We played chess together (which he was better at), performed in plays together, and spent time at each others’ houses before eventually growing apart, for reasons I can’t recall for the life of me. The incident with the concert was one of several altercations between the two of us that occurred during our senior year, and reflected a growing rift between us, one which I don’t think either one of us had dwelled on before then. The concert represented, for Moses, I think, his semi-annual attempt to run with the absurdly normal high school Alpha Dogs, just as my VU t-shirt embodied a defiant shout that I didn’t care if the whole world thought I was a freak. I remember having to explain that I liked other kinds of music, and that yes, the Velvet Underground was a band. He didn’t really seemed to believe this. It was a little like talking to the parents in some absurdly over-simplistic teenage movie. I was surprised that he didn’t use the phrase “kids today.”
After that there was an a cappella choir that I refused to join, and a blow-up involving a scene from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that I had forgotten to memorize. By the end of the year I had been treated to a constant stream of reports from mutual friends that he absolutely hated me. When we headed in separate directions, I wasn’t particularly hurt or surprised that I didn’t hear from him the following year. In fact, I didn’t hear for nineteen years. It was only this Monday that he finally broke our decades-old silence.
I think it would be fair to admit that in the nineteen years since I’d seen Moses, the world had absolutely beaten me. My current career as the most over-educated factory worker is frankly embarrassing, and my writing career capsized in the wake of the responsibilities of parenthood. It is often difficult to talk to old friends these days, as questions like “What are you doing?” can be difficult to answer. This does not have any particular baring on Moses’s email, but it gave me reason to reflect when I read he had to say.
It turns out that Moses Sussman is now a self-help guru.
His initial letter, written with all the artificial warmth and friendliness of a Mitt Romney speech, contained absolutely no inquiry into how I was, how I was doing, what I had done with the past two decades, or if in fact I was still alive. What it discussed, and at great length, was a book which Mr. Sussman had just written. The book was a self-help manual, which for the sake of anonymity I’ll call “You Are The Hero!” Moses was hoping that I would buy it. Specifically, he was hoping I would by it on August 4th from Amazon.com. He also asked if I could get a few of my friends to buy it too. He said that he was asking more or less everybody he had ever met in his entire life to buy the book on the same day, so that the combined force of our sales would move it to the top of the Amazon and New York Times best-seller lists. He also added that he was planning the whole event as a fundraiser for a children’s hospital in Miami. He would, depending on how well the book sold, be donating anywhere from 25% to 100% of the royalties to the hospital. If it did moderately well, it would be twenty-five percent. If it made the best-seller list, he would give it all away. The letter then showed me several quotes from people who liked the book and assured me that I would find it “fun” and “profound.” There was also a Facebook group that I could join for “fans” of the book and a website I could look at, if I so desired.
On the surface, this sounds fairly innocuous, but I was more than a little offended by this letter, for several reasons.
In the first place, as a writer, the idea of “buying” your way onto the New York Times best-seller list strikes me as cheating. The point of the list is to reflect what people are actually interested in. It’s not a test of how willing your friends and family are to help you out. Furthermore, Moses’s book was being published by what appeared to be a vanity press. As such, it probably isn’t eligible for the New York Times list. Saying he would donate 100% of his royalties to a good cause if he ended up on the New York Times list was promising something couldn’t deliver on.
In the second place, as a fundraiser, this particular campaign wasn’t effective. Twenty-five percent of the royalties of a book (which was, by far the likeliest scenario) would be approximately 2% of the overall cost, less if I ended up paying for shipping and handling. The real point in referring to it as a fundraiser, I think, was to make it sound like buying the book is a worthwhile thing to do. In fact, I have received a few other messages from old friends, encouraging me to “help raise money for cancer.” Most of these also referred to it as “fun” and “profound” which suggested they were written by Moses himself.
In the third place I haven’t heard from this man for twenty years, and sending me a piece of spam after that long is crass. This is someone who really didn’t like me, and in his own way had made that clear. Why in God’s name should I be buying his book now?
And in the fourth place, it‘s a self-help book. I would like to think, as a lover of books, that I am open to reading almost any kind of material that has been printed on paper, but so help me God, I think I would rather die. In my house the phrase “Tuesdays With Morrie” is considered obscene. Not only that, but it seems to me that the idea of getting your friends to buy your way onto the Best-Seller List seems somewhat hypocritical in light of the overall theme of those sorts of books. Isn’t the point of those things usually that you can do anything you want if you set your mind to it? It didn’t really seem to gel.
I did a little digging on what had happened to my old friend. He appeared to be the founder of his own business, and had previously written another self-help book, one that was so badly titled it almost seemed like a parody. His credentials for this career seemed to involve a Bachelor’s Degree from Brandeis University, but not much else. As far as I could tell, he seemed to be working some sort of lecture circuit, the sort of place where the title “Best-Selling Author” would probably have a nice ring to it. I couldn’t say how much money he was making doing this, but he was living in a section of Long Island I probably couldn’t afford.
One of the advantages to failure, one of the distinct few, is that you can tell more or less everyone you’ve ever met to go screw. Poverty does not encourage a lot of calls from old friends. I sent my old friend a response, outlining all my objections. His answer surprised me: he agreed with most of what I said. He acknowledged that his letter was impersonal, and apologized. He recalled that we had a falling out and expressed regret about that. He also admitted that only a small percentage of the cost would go to the hospital. He said that he was aware that he would probably not make the New York Times list, but added that he didn’t care. It was just a carrot to get people to buy the book, which he still wanted me to do. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with the idea of having people buy the book just so he could get on the list. He added that he knew several people who had simply bought several thousand copies of their own book to get on the list and he thought that this was better. In short, everybody cheats, so why shouldn’t he? This led me to conclude that there was another thing about this whole business I didn’t like — it would probably work. Don’t get me wrong; I doubt that his book will end up on the best-seller list. In fact, I doubt that was ever really the point. It will however, succeed in stroking Moses’ ego. I finished writing a book this year. There are precisely eleven copies in existence. Every time one of those copies gets read, I get a kick out of it. I can imagine it would be no less so if I sold one thousand. I must admit that if one thousand people all bought Moses’ on the same day, it might, say, make it onto Amazon’s list of best-sellers in the “self-help” section, which would probably give him enough excuse to add the phrase “best-selling author” to the front of his name when he’s out talking to businessmen in Alabama or old ladies on Long Island or where ever it is that self-help gurus go to. It makes me wonder: is he right? When you write a book, does it really matter why people buy it? Is there a difference between success and commerce?
I walked through my local Barnes and Noble with my kids the other day, and the answer seemed to be no. Walking around the children‘s department, it looked more like a toy store. Half the books aimed at my son’s age seem to be tied in to a Pixar movie. The heavily promoted books in young adult literature seem to largely consist of washed-down versions of more successful books like Twilight and the Harry Potter novels. The adults section is better, but only marginally so. The nonfiction section of the New York Times best-seller list is filled with topical biographies and political treaties that are destined to come and go in a heartbeat. I don’t think any of these books were published on their merits, nor is their success a reflection of their worth. I buy my kid Cars books because he likes the movie, and the latest generation of Wizard and Vampire novels are published for the sake of putting a story in between a familiar-looking cover. The quickly-written Michael Jackson biography that ran up and down the nonfiction charts last week, well, that probably wasn’t up there for its insightfulness. I would bet that all of these volumes are destined for the remainder bin, equally on their way to being forgotten. Does it really matter that Moses Sussman doesn’t have any real strategy for selling books beyond getting his old roommates and friends to them? Why shouldn’t he get a piece of the action?
I can’t help but wonder if maybe the communists had it right. I can’t believe the communists would let a novelization of an animated Star Wars movie qualify as a book. They didn’t have any sense of humor about that sort of thing. Tolstoy would have been at the front of the store, instead of printed in a caricature on the side of the plastic bags that middle-class Americans use to carry home their copies of US Weekly. I wonder if anyone had ever put a Tolstoy novel into the Tolstoy bag. I suppose it’s possible.
Last night I told my wife this story. “Was this guy rich?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “He was rich. His father was one of the richest people in town. Their house was enormous.”
Megan nodded. “It seems like a rich guy thing to do.”
I thought about the eleven copies of my book. I thought about the way I felt the first time someone told me they finished it, and that they liked it. It was my wife’s best friend; she’d finished it in something like three days. I took it to be a good sign.
This story ends quietly, without any fanfare. I didn’t buy the book. I won’t be buying the Sunday New York Times, so I can avoid the list. I just want to avoid the whole situation. In the last email I sent him, I reminded Moses of the story of the bus trip to Billy Joel. “I had forgotten about that,” he said. “There was a blizzard. Everybody except one person canceled. I don‘t even remember who it was.”
Best laid plans, I guess. Best laid plans.