Laughing ’Till I Cry: Authors on TV

Author Barry Eisler? Or another guy wanting a table with his back against the wall?
Do you know this man?  He appears at least a couple times a day in my Twitter stream.  I think he’s hot.  And a damned good writer.  But even with all that going for him, if I went to a restaurant and he was sitting at a table in the corner, I would never recognize him.  And it’s not just that I have a problem with pattern recognition (though I do), because if I were the hostess of a restaurant and someone called to make a reservation for “B. Eisler,” I wouldn’t automatically give him the best table because I assumed he was that Barry Eisler.

And yet, this is precisely what happens on TV.  Take the show Castle.  Bestselling thriller novelist Richard (Rick) Castle is recognized everywhere.  And I mean everywhere.  Plus, he has more money than the average Texas oilman.  OK, sure.  I know he’s supposed to be fantastically successful, but he has one hell of an apartment, plays cards with the mayor, is allowed free reign in the police station, and has his release parties at—if I recall correctly—the Tavern on the Green.  (Or someplace similar.  The actual name may not have been mentioned.)  Ummm . . . seriously?  No.  People have their release parties at places where their fans can come see them, not places where people have to dress in black tie to get their hands on the book!

Rick Castle in the TV show Castle: Delighted to meet eager, young readers (ahem)

And when does Rick Castle write his books, anyway?  Between chasing down criminals, attending various social events, taking care of his perfect daughter and less-than-perfect mother, he never seems to have a free minute.

Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote: Still life with mug and blank page. Realism!
In this respect, the most true-to-life author on TV is probably Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote.  I know!  It sounds preposterous!  But she lives in a small town, so it’s not unlikely that she would be recognized by all her neighbors.  She has a small, affordable-looking house.  You actually see her writing, even.  She turns down events because she has to write and the engagements she does take on (though they lead her into murder) are usually tied to her writing.

This limo might be from the wedding party at the banquet hall NEXT to the comic shop.
But the writers of Castle aren’t the only ones portraying the publishing industry in completely bizarre ways and leaving Jessica out there on her own.  One that made me laugh out loud was the Criminal Minds episode entitled “True Night.”  In it a graphic novelist (a comic book artist, to those unfamiliar with the term), is picked up in a limo by his agent, who is distressed that he might be late for a signing.

Wait a minute, I have to wipe the tears of laughter off my face before I continue.  The comic book artist has an agent who has a limo and driver?  And the agent comes to the author’s house to ferry him to a signing at a comic book shop?  This episode takes place in Los Angeles, and the writers must have been in la-la land when they characterized the agent’s position in this way. 

And then there’s the darling, dorky McGee from NCIS.  He’s made a ton of money off his first—and only—book.  He’s made millions off this book.  So much, in fact, that his publisher has a framed picture of him on her wall.  She keeps his work-in-progress manuscript in a safe in her office and no one else is allowed to see it.  (He doesn’t, apparently, have an agent.  Not very smart.  After all, who’s going to pick him up in a limo and ferry him to his signings?  Oh, wait, he doesn’t do signings.  He doesn’t do anything to publicize his book at all.  And yet, miraculously, it sells like hotcakes.)

I have the sneaking suspicion that all these ridiculous, over-the-top portrayals of authors, agents, and publishers are masturbatory fantasies by the writers of the television shows.  Television writers are not that different from novelists, after all.  In fact, some of them are novelists.  So they know perfectly well that the world they depict is pure fantasy, unless Barry Eisler’s walking more red carpets than he’s Tweeting. And it’s not fantasy that the viewer really needs.  Oh, sure, Castle has to be famous for the series to work.  But some of the credit for that could have gone to his famous actress mother and not to his personal authorial success.  And someone had to notice the graphic artist in Criminal Minds going off the rails, but that could have been a friend.  And McGee could have written a half-dozen books before becoming a big enough success to afford a fancy car, and have his book—if not his face—recognized everywhere.

Laura K. Curtis lives in Westchester, NY, with her husband and 3 dogs who’ve taught her how easily love can co-exist with the desire to kill.  She blogs at Women of Mystery and maintains an online store at TorchSongs GlassWorks.  She can also be found on Twitter and poking her nose into all sorts of trouble in various spots around the web.


  1. Terrie Farley Moran

    The Sleuthsisters (you know who you are) happen to be friends of and sometimes stalkers of Barry Eisler. I shall forward this column to them with great glee! And thanks, Laura for this dose of reality. You would be amazed the questions I have been asked by readers–apart from the always popular “Where do you get your ideas?” People have asked who pays my way when I attend a writers conference. Some assume that I get a gazillion free copies of books so I could certainly give them a couple, etc. AND I’m a short story writer–clear path to millionairehood that is!

  2. Laura K. Curtis

    It’s so funny, isn’t it, Terrie? I mean, it’s falttering at some level that people believe authors COULD be like movie stars, but they’d only have to stop and think for a minute to realize it’s not true!

  3. Kerry Hammond

    This was a very amusing post, thanks for making me smile on this wonderful Friday.

  4. bungluna

    I hear what you’re saying and understand that writers are not the gazillionaire celebrities depicted on tv. And yet I would more readily recognize one of my favorite authors on the street that most of what passes for ‘stars’ nowadays. I rather like the tv fantasy of it all. In my ideal world, writers would be bigger celebrities than anyone else!

  5. nelizadrew

    I actually met a woman (at a bookshop, where else?) who had chased down Philip Roth for an autograph on a NYC street.
    I, on the other hand, had three conversations with Michael Palmer about his pants (he kept changing the darn things every half an hour) before I figured out who he was — author photos are often like Glamour Shots portraits of twelve-year-olds, vaguely familiar but not all that much like the real thing).
    And don’t orget Bones? The idea that publishers would be giving her cars (without a fictional, successful TV series about “character Kathy” maybe) is just as absurd.

  6. Laura K. Curtis

    @neliza –
    I loved that episode. I really did laugh until I choked when she said “oh, this car? My publisher gave it to me.”

    @bungluna –
    In m world, too!

  7. nelizadrew

    Maybe if TV showed writers as retail drones with a beat-up laptop stashed in their hatchback or teachers and stay-at-home moms and cubicle dwellers with overactive imaginations… nah, that’d never work. Not only must they lead Exciting Lives, they must also possess Great Hair.
    I’m going to go LOL myself into editing this stupid mess I keep putting off. (My latest excuses are, in order: 1) need to apply for summer PT jobs; 2) several pro bono marketing/web/copyediting assignments 3) helping Hubby set up consulting company, 4) laptop screen has become too tiny for the amount of tracked changes, 5) my desk chair sucks.
    *staples butt to crappy desk chair*

  8. Teresa Nielsen Hayden

    I know an editor who has a collection of fiction set in the publishing industry. It amuses her. The only way I can explain this is by telling an industry joke:
    [quote]— Ask me why we work in publishing.
    — Okay, I’ll bite. Why are we in publishing?
    [b]– [/b]For the money, the power, and the glamor.
    [/quote]That one always gets a laugh.

    Movies and TV shows about writers are written by writers who know better. Books about the glamorous, sexy, fast-paced world of trade book publishing are bought and edited by editors who know better. I suspect that literary agents have similar opinions about fictional agents — but they still represent those properties, even though they know better.

    I’ll bet librarians have this conversation, too.

  9. Laura K. Curtis

    @tub –

    Those are the same reasons teachers are in their profession! Fancy that!

  10. Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

    I don’t watch NCIS and only occasionally check out Castle but I did notice the hilarity of Brennan getting a car on Bones.

    When Monk was on, it used to bother me that he was so brilliant, he was regularly recognized by strangers, sometimes by name, if not by face. Sometimes, they’d even know his cases: “Hey, you’re the guy who solved the murder of that girl!” Seriously? I’d like people to name one famous detective in real life. I’m sure there are brilliant ones out there with amazing Monk-like clearance rates but they are not celebrities (Anthony Pellicano notwithstanding). At least some writers are famous; a famous police consultant is rather ridiculous.

  11. Dr. Lewis Preschel

    I didn’t see Bones get her car, but of all the choices at least Kathy Reich has written novels. I have two degrees, a MD and an MLIS which means I read a lot. I am now trying to write, but I still don’t understand how a professional, lawyer, physician, or plumber for that matter, can have the time to do his job right and also be a detective or a writer. I guess they have better time management than I do.
    I get a laugh out of the physicians like Dick Van Dyke’s character in Diagnosis Murder, who was the head of the department of medicine but had time to investigate murder cases. When did he dictate his charts and or perform office hours.
    Then he’d have a barbeque on the beach while discussing the case at his leisure. If I could have figured out how to do that, I’d still be a practicing physician.
    The greatest invention in the world for writers was the suspension of disbelief that the general public brings to the stories we write.
    Reality makes me wonder why anyone would want to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or especially a novelist? Someone tell me why?

  12. Ralph Vaughan

    In one episode of “Murder, She Wrote,” a judge asked Jessica Fletcher, and quite rightly, I believe, if all her family members and friends were homicidal maniacs. On a more positive note, at least one of her shows consisted of her actually reading one of her books to the audience, and us following the explaoits of her fictional detective. If I’m not mistaken, and I may be, McGhee wrote two books. But did you notice the episode where, after writing just the one book, he was able to bluff his way into a club just because the bouncer recognized his pen-name and back-cover photo…of course, a dolled-up Ziva, Michelle and Abby probably didn’t hurt.

  13. Clare Miller

    I recently saw a Bones rerun in which Brennan’s publicist told her that she didn’t need to work at her job anymore because her book had hit “the bestseller list”…

    When it comes to McGee, I wonder if it’s not misplaced jealousy or bitterness on the writers’ part. He’s pretty clearly described as a “bad” writer–purple prose, his coworkers think the writing is bad even as they get angry about him basing the characters on them, and when he’s writing his second book, he has no idea who the killer is. (Ralph, we never hear about McGee finishing his second book, so I have no idea.) And then that “bad” writing sells incredibly well, his “publisher” (she seems like a cross between an agent and an editor, so no idea what’s going on there…) coddles him, and yes, he gets into a club because the bouncer recognizes him.

  14. Summer Brooks

    I could be misremembering, but I thought McGee never finished his second book because of the guy who was killing the people he’d based his characters on? I don’t recall hearing about the second book after that episode.

    I do know that in a more recent episode, McGee admitted that he’d lost most if not all the money he made from the book in the economic downturn… didn’t sound like he had millions, but maybe close to a million?

    I had enjoyed the running jokes about Brennan’s books in earlier seasons, but did they ever mention her working on a book, or any of her books this most recent season? I started wondering about it while watching that same Bones rerun with the publicist, and given that they’d skipped an entire “year” between seasons, I wondered if they decided to let that aspect of the story go?

  15. catslide roof

    Thnaks for Shaering it

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