Friday, April 28, 2006
Then Little, Brown issued its statement yesterday that it was recalling the books, and McNally Robinson NYC got a call from CBS, who wanted to film a talking heads segment about the story in our store. I called Sarah, my boss, who thought it was a great idea to have them come, and we talked a little about the issue.
The one thing that interests me about the case is that both McCafferty and Viswanathan share the copyright on their books with a packaging company called Alloy. From what I understand, this is a company something like the ones that produced all those Nancy Drew mysteries by "Carolyn Keene" (who kept publishing books long after her death, as a team of writers took over the brand name), and something like the producers who put together "boy bands" or "girl bands". They also run the clothing line Delia's (which I have to admit I adored in my wannabe gothish high school days). What they seem to be selling is a product created from market research, not a work of art.
So the point of a packaging company is to work from a formula; to create the same hit over and over again. Viswanathan seems merely to have done it too well, or not subtly enough. I'm not saying it's not her fault that she wasn't able to use her own words to reproduce the formula (teenage girl struggles with boys, cliques, aspirations, shopping, family, comes out on top) – but it does seem she was asked to reproduce a formula.
To me this points up the flaw in a publishing industry that's focused so narrowly on the next big blockbuster that they fall very easily into repetitiveness and redundancy. Rather than seeking a diverse range of voices (Viswanathan's ethnicity notwithstanding), they look for a copy of the last thing that worked – witness the DA VINCI CODE knockoffs like THE RULE OF FOUR, THE LAST TEMPLAR, etc. I know books are certainly not the only medium to do so (movie sequels, anyone?), but it's such a boring way to make culture, not to mention art.
And ultimately, the industry isn't served well either financially or artistically by this strategy. Readers only want so much of a good thing, and no formula will work forever. By flooding the market with copycats publishers are missing out on the marketability of true creativity. And they run the risk of the copy being just too close to the original (or the previous copycat) for comfort.
The counterpoint to this strategy is what has been called "the Long Tail" – the 80 or 90 percent of books that aren't bestsellers, but that sell in small quantities for years and years. We booksellers often talk about such a book having "long legs" – there are all kinds of funny biological metaphors for longevity. At a seminar called Making Information Pay held Thursday morning in New York City and sponsored by the Book Industry Study Group and moderated by Ted Hill, president of THA Consulting (full disclosure: I just cut and pasted half of this sentence from Shelf Awareness), the discussion concerned the amazing degree to which the Internet has expanded the opportunities for selling the small book. Said Hill (full disclosure: he's also my landlord!), "Our industry is entering a new phase in which publishers need increasingly to devote resources beyond the bestsellers. We will grow by finding large numbers of small opportunities."
Of course, independent publishers and independent bookstores have understood this economy of the small scale for a long time. Our businesses are built on the slow spread of word of mouth, the obscure favorite pressed into the hands of a customer, the backlist that sells and sells. Bookstores won't complain when they sell a hundred copies of a bestseller, but they're not going to depend on it to put food on the table. In a non-corporate world, we think slow pace, long term, and it seems that the Internet age has finally caught up with us.
The OPAL MEHTA scandal will blow over. Bookstores will return their unsold copies for credit (which is probably what they would have done anyway, a detail which most media reports don't seem to note). But if we're lucky, this will lead to an examination of a publishing culture so dependent on the Next Big (Same Old) Thing. The Long Tail is the future of books, and the independents are already there.
(The CBS segment, featuring Publishers Weekly Editor Sarah Nelson, who was very gracious and insightful as usual, and a couple of intelligent McNally Robinson customers, aired this morning on the CBS Early Show. However, since I was at the store until 11 with the film crew, I was not awake to see it.)
I'd love to hear your thoughts on plagiarism, sameness, diversity, the Long Tail, and new trends in publishing. What do you think?
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
As she described it, "The class I'm teaching is the introductory class, offering an overview of the book industry with the objective of helping the students identify what kind of position they’d be suited for, e.g. editor, agent, bookseller, etc. The mission of the publishing program overall is twofold--to launch careers for their graduates, and to increase diversity within publishing."
I'd never been to the City College campus on 138th Street – it's really pretty impressive. Marcela had described the building as "labyrinthine," so I arrived early to find my way to the classroom. Students were understandably straggling in, as the weather was shockingly beautiful on Tuesday morning, and they'd just come back from spring break, so we chatted about bookstores, of course. Marcela was impressed with the focus on international fiction in our store, which I explained was a way of adapting to our neighborhood as well as reflecting the interests of the owner and staff, and we talked about the amazing number of accents you hear in SoHo.
After my introduction (I even got my name written on the chalkboard!) I told the class I'd talk to them about five things: the story of how I got into bookselling, the potential for independent bookstores and the reasons I think they're important, the perks and downsides of life as a bookseller, a typical day for me in the store, and some suggestions for where to start if they'd like to get into bookselling. With a few minor digressions and distractions, I did pretty much that – I've probably discussed most of what I said to them in previous posts.
Then Marcela and her students asked questions, which is always the fun part of any presentation. I got to talk about what new trends in books I think are interesting (graphic novels), why people would buy from independent bookstores when chains offer discounts (because independents offer so much more than just cheap books), whether independent bookstores are in danger of extinction (no way, provided that they keep being creative), what I think about Google offering full text books (that it's still a complicated issue, but posting books online has helped some authors), what kinds of books I want to have at my future bookstore in Brooklyn (really good fiction, a little bit of everything, and whatever my customers need and want), and what skills someone should have to be a good bookseller (love of books and love of people). I had talked about the perk of free books in the form of galleys, and someone asked what happened to those galleys after we read them. I explained that it's illegal to sell them (though some do), so we usually destroy or donate them.
"Have you ever thought about giving the galleys to customers?" a young man on my left asked. I started to hem and haw. No bookseller wants customers to get the idea that we're in the business of giving away books, and once you give in to one, everyone wants in.
He continued "I mean, what if you collected business cards and had a raffle once a month of your staff's favorite galley? Then you could build excitement about the book before it comes out, and get customers in your database, and you wouldn't get in trouble for selling it because you'd be giving it away."
I stopped short. "See, this is why you guys should be in this industry," I said, "because that is an original idea." Others pitched in: "You could advertise the raffle on your website!" "You could have customers review the book afterward!" "You could do more than one a month!" I promised them I'd think about the idea – I don't know if it will happen right away, but I intend to put it into action someday.
Man, I really hope some of these bright young things make it to the bookstore side of the book world. We need their fresh perspectives in our stores. I know they're going to make it big wherever they go – they certainly have a much better idea of their goals than I did when I was an aimless English major! – and it would be wonderful if some of them choose the community and hands-on opportunities of bookselling as the place to make their mark. Wouldn't be wonderful if ABA, Emerging Leaders and other groups were to take a hint from Marcela and the City College program and consider outreach programs to encourage young book people to consider bookselling as a career?
I went from the class to a book party for Mark Binelli (whose SACCO AND VANZETTI MUST DIE! I'm really excited to read), drinking wine and shmoozing with some delightful media people and booksellers, and in the evening at the store I hosted a conversation between T Cooper (LIPSHITZ SIX, OR TWO ANGRY BLONDES) and her editor, which offered fascinating insights into the process of turning manuscript into book. It was the kind of day in bookselling I love, and I realized I have no qualms about encouraging some 19-year-olds to abandon the security (and boredom) of a desk job for the every-day-is-different (though sometimes you struggle) world of the bookstore. For those who have the skills – love books, love people – it's really a future worth looking forward to.
Monday, April 24, 2006
I do have some reviews to post soon, but in case I don't get to everything in my to-be-read pile (which seems likely), today I'm posting a list of what I WANT to read, and the reasons why. I'm doing them in alphabetical order by title, because obviously I can't choose between them. Maybe you'll get to them before I do, and you can give your own report.
BROOKLAND by Emily Barton (FSG, March 2006)
The story of sisters running a gin mill in Dutch 18th century Brooklyn? Heck yeah! The female entepreneur, Brooklynite, drinker, and historical fiction buff in me are all drooling over this one.
CONVERSATIONS WITH MR. PRAIN by Joan Taylor (Melville House, May 2006)
I don't know anything about this book, except that Melville House is a rockin' indie press, and it was given to me by Robert Gray of Fresh Eyes, who knows a thing or two about books and booksellers.
THE DEVIL IN THE BUSH by Matthew Head (Felony & Mayhem, reprinted 2005)
I bought this one weeks or months ago at the behest of the fine booksellers at Partners & Crime (who are also the folks behind the Felony & Mayhem mystery reprint publishing house, which does beautiful paperbacks), and I'm just waiting for a moment to devour the WWII in Africa mystery.
FLEDGLING by Octavia Butler (Seven Stories, October 2004)
I've never read Butler, perhaps the sole African-American woman writing literary sci fi/fantasy; she died recently, quite young, but not before this race-inflected vampire story got rave reviews.
IN PURSUIT OF PRINCIPLE AND PROFIT: BUSINESS SUCCESS THROUGH SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY by Alan Reder (Tarcher/Penguin, 1994)
This was given to me by a good friend who knows about my Brooklyn bookstore plans and ideals; I'd love to read Reder's guide to running a business as a good global citizen.
THE MEANING OF NIGHT by Michael Cox (Norton, September 2006)
The jacket evokes comparisons to PERFUME, Dickens, and JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL – sounds right up my alley! This one was handed to me by a fellow bookseller, and it's the one riding around in my bag right now – but it's dauntingly long and not due out until fall, so it may have to take a backseat.
MONSTER ISLAND by David Wellington (Thunder's Mouth Press, March 2006)
Originally published online, this zombies-take-Manhattan story made it to print through another indie, Thunder's Mouth, and it's phenomenal! Honestly, I had to stop reading because the horror-movie suspense was too intense to spread out over daily subway rides – I need to find a time to read the whole thing at once and scare myself silly.
RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS: BOOKSELLING AND THE CULTURE OF CONSUMPTION by Laura Miller (University of Chicago Press, May 2006)
I know a number of other booksellers who have this book on their to-be-read stack, and we're all looking forward to talking to each other about it. Miller's academic tome is a little daunting, but it seems like an invaluable look at the ethical complications and possibilities of our "noble profession."
RUNNING A 21ST-CENTURY SMALL BUSINESS: THE OWNER'S GUIDE TO STARTING AND GROWING YOUR COMPANY by Randy Kirk (Warner Business Books, February 2006)
I'm about halfway through this one – got bogged down in a bunch of self-analysis tests, and I don't want to go on without taking them! It's a very interesting book, though – another one that I need to set aside time to finish.
SACCO AND VANZETTI MUST DIE! by Mark Binelli (Dalkey Archive Press, July 2006)
I probably won't have time to read this before I meet the author at a lunch tomorrow, but since I've been told he wrote most of it in the café of our bookstore, I'd love to take a look – not to mention the fact that it sounds like a KAVALIER & CLAY-style alternate history about Vaudeville, the famously xenophobic trials, and American identity.
WHAT I KNOW NOW: LETTERS TO MY YOUNGER SELF edited by Ellyn Spragins (Broadway, April 2006)
This is a collection of women talking to women: successful "grown-ups" from Madeleine Albright to Macy Gray reflecting on what advice they'd like to give to their confused younger selves. Sounds like an absorbing and valuable box of chocolates.
THE YELLOW-LIGHTED BOOKSHOP by Lewis Buzbee (Graywolf Press, June 2006)
Essays by a former sales rep and bookseller on the joys of reading and bookstores – what could be better to curl up with, underline, and share?
So there's the list – and this is just what I have on my shelf, and doesn't include the books I still want to buy! I'd love to hear from anyone who's read or heard about these titles, and anyone who has their own must-read-soon list.
Friday, April 21, 2006
The day's coolness started early for me, as Mitchell and his publicist, Gynne (pronounced like the alcohol, and she's just as refreshing) stopped by my bookstore to sign stock. I introduced myself as a former Three Lives employee who'd met him a few years back, and he not only remembered me but was up on my career. I told him I'd see him at the reading, since my former boss had asked me to help out with what was sure to be a big crowd, and we joked about being a "floating bookseller."
I was able to introduce Mitchell to my boss, who's in the middle of reading CLOUD ATLAS for the first time. "I don't know how all of this came out of your one head!" she exclaimed (a newly converted fan). He claimed he divided himself up into six personalities and let them each do their thing, hoping eventually they'd come back together. After signing stacks of books and chatting, author and publicist had lunch in our café.
My coworkers were a little amused by my obvious starstruckness – I rang up a customer wrong and kept forgetting things that are part of the normal routine. "It's like meeting a rock star," I tried to explain. They were impressed that I was meeting my Favorite Living Author, and a couple turned over BLACK SWAN GREEN with new interest.
After my regular shift, I hurried uptown to Three Lives (after getting on the wrong subway once in my haste and distraction). The place was already filling up, and the boss had water bottles in the cooler as bulwark against the rising heat in the tiny shop. While selling dozens of copies of the new book, I said hi to a number of familiar customers and former coworkers, united in our common enthusiasm for this author and this place.
Shortly after 7, David Mitchell and Gynne arrived. T, the boss, installed him in the reading spot and introduced him as one of our favorite authors. Suddenly I felt like kicking myself for not having brought my digital camera, or much better, a tape recorder – David Mitchell speaks like writing, thinks in metaphors and says hundreds of things you wish you'd thought of and try to recall later. I'll fill in such as I can remember.
He expressed his joy at being again at Three Lives, "one of those places that reminds you that the world does not all look like the inside of a car." (Later he described the bookstore as "one of the spiritual homelands of New York.) He revealed that he'd come from the bar, and expressed the hope that the pint he'd drank was "just enough to dampen the nerves," but not so much that he'd have no idea what he was saying. Fearing that he might trail off into quiet or start babbling drivel, he requested that the crowd let him know by shouting "Speak up!" or alternately, "Drivel!"
Then he read from BLACK SWAN GREEN: first the passage where 13-year-old Jason Taylor describes his stammer, which he thinks of as a sinister character called Hangman who throttles him when he comes to certain words; then a later passage where Jason witnesses local hero Tom Yew having sex with his girlfriend in the woods, a passage that he seemed both pleased and embarrassed by. Mitchell interrupted himself with any number of silly interjections; once on reading a passage where the girlfriend says something so silly that the two have to stop snogging (which I think means kissing, though my British English knowledge sucks), he stopped, astonished with realization, and admitted, "If she'd said something, they would have stopped snogging already. The Random House copyeditors missed that one – I've defeated them again."
Finishing up to applause which was very loud in that small space, Mitchell allowed as how he'd take some questions, which came fast and furious (though he took his time answering each one), and this was where I really wished I'd had a tape recorder. He answered a question about his writing process by trying different metaphors: it's like a journey where you have to hit these three towns, and you have to figure out the best route between each one, sometimes abandoning the original plan as you see an attractive subplot you'd like to visit or skipping to the end to write your final destination. Asked whether BSG is a deliberate move away from the structural experimentation of his earlier books, he responded "It's a deep question, and the trapdoor into the depths of the question is the word 'deliberate.'" (It may not have been deliberate, but some synonym – curses on my shifty memory). Intentionality was part of it, he said, but mostly in the sense that this was the project that made him the most curious, and he thought it was important to avoid growing bored by taking on projects he wasn't yet sure he could do.
My favorite answer was to a fellow Brit asked why he'd chosen the age 13 for a coming-of-age novel, since they're usually older or younger. Mitchell answered with his definition of the novel, as opposed to something like BEOWULF, which is that the character(s) grow and change from the beginning to the end. What people call a coming of age novel, he suggested, is really just that character progression happening in a young person. The term coming of age novel is now used just as a neutral one, and sometimes as a -- he searched for the word, and I stage whispered "pejorative." "Pejorative!" he said, pointing to me. (I got an affectionate ruffle of the hair from the boss for that one.)
What he was interested in, he went on, was finding the originality inside the cliché. "I don't believe originality is out there orbiting Pluto, the 10th or 11th planet or whatever. I think it's more like deeper inside, inside the cliché, and I want to find it there." As good a description as I've heard of the Mitchell project: all the genre stories, all the old school Dickensian/Murakamian plot and action, all strikingly new and in the service of a larger project of truth and beauty.
As the temperature reached unbearable heights the questions were cut short, so I never got to ask my astonishingly insightful question (something about whether it was agonizing or cathartic to write the clearly autobiographical and sometimes painful elements of the story, but it sounded so good when I had strung it all out into a sentence that took so long to formulate that the question session ended.) We opened the doors wide and passed out water bottles, and David Mitchell proceeded to chat with every single person who approached the signing table. His affability and genuine interest in each fan made the signing drag on a little, but nobody begrudged anything one bit.
I took the opportunity to chat with his editor David, agent Doug, publicist Gynne, and sales rep Karen – the cream of the Random House crowd, and all big fans of their author, as a writer and as a person. David talked about the universally glowing reviews for BSG (the writer of one of them, author Nell Freudenberger, was in the audience, though she slipped away before I could thank her for her for really getting it in her Sunday Times review). We admitted that there was part of us that didn't entirely want his fame to grow outside of a cult audience, like the great band that you're always telling people about but you don't exactly want to become the "It" band – though then we admitted that that was totally selfish and the more readers of Mitchell the better.
As the customers finally trickled away, the other booksellers and I approached to get our books signed (after we'd trucked out about five boxes of stock for signature). Everyone got a little swan drawing, and some inscription specific to themselves. I got "To Jessica, the Joyful Alumni," and some kind words about how nice it was to see me twice in a day. After he signed my books, he stood up and asked "Any chance of a hug?" So then I got to hug my Favorite Living Author. "Thank you for this book," I said. "Thank you for your enthusiasm," he said.
Afterward, a glittering crowd were adjourning to Kettle of Fish for drinking and chatting, including author Gary Shteyngart, some media folks, and the Random House brass, and T invited me to join them. But I'd been neglecting the ALP a bit lately due to excessive social obligations, and I decided it was time to go home. David Mitchell may be my favorite author, but the ALP is my favorite person. We ate cookies and watched the tail end of a movie before retiring for the evening. It was pretty much the perfect ending to a rather extraordinary day in the life of a book nerd.
P.S. Mitchell has one more reading in New York, on April 25 at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. Need I tell you I recommend attending?
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Despite the danger that "spending time talking about things you hate is like feeding trolls on-line," (mwb), and that I risk becoming the equivalent of a book-hating Snark myself by dwelling on such an angry-making subject, I feel there's still more to be said. After all "I'm not above giving some good snark" (Lady T). And I think there is room for a passionate but nuanced discussion on these topics that will shed some light.
It turns out that as we speak, Michiko Kakutani, the queen of Snarks, is entering her 25th year as a book reviewer. And Ben Yagoda has written an intelligent and insightful piece about her on Slate, which reflects the same dissatisfaction expressed by almost everyone who commented on my blog and Bookseller Chick's post on the same topic. Yagoda actually gives her some credit for being intelligent and clearly reading all of the books she reviews, but the crux of his criticism is this:
Her [Kakutani's] main weakness is her evaluation fixation. This may seem an odd complaint—the job is called critic, after all—but in fact, whether a work is good or bad is just one of the many things to be said about it, and usually far from the most important or compelling…. One has the sense of her deciding roughly at Page 2 whether or not a book is worthy; reading the rest of it to gather evidence for her case; spending some quality time with the Thesaurus; and then taking a large blunt hammer and pounding the message home.
He reminds me that yes, Michi does like books sometimes (often non-fiction). But a Snark's praise is as single-minded as their blame. It's all about whether the book gets a thumbs up or thumbs down, and if those are the only options, most of the books all of us enjoy are getting the kill vote. This is especially true if "reviewers have a preconceived idea of what great modern literature must be…. Anything that does not fit that mould or live up to those standards is not worth a recommendation or a reader's time" (jmc).
Like Yagoda, I've also often suspected that Michi writes what is otherwise a fair-handed, if prescriptive good/bad review, and then goes through and fills it up with loaded adjectives. Yagoda quotes no less a booklover than C.S. Lewis (grading a paper by future critic Kenneth Tynan) as advising "Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dyslogistic adjectives—They shd diagnose (not merely blame) & distinguish (not merely praise.)" As Bookseller Chick points out, there's more to say about a book than whether you liked it or didn't like it, and the discussion itself might make the book worth reading even if one's judgment on it wasn't ultimately "thumbs up."
Interestingly, this prescriptive, either/or fixation seems to be the same problem of Snarkling Jessa Crispin, the Bookslut. I've talked to any number of folks who agree with the email I received that ventured "Crispin seems a little crazy, everything is so extreme for her. She either loves something or hates it miserably." Either all intelligent and literate people must read this book, or it is a waste of paper and my time! It's a pretty reductive, not to say impractical, way to read.
But Crispin has parlayed this simplistic passion into a mini-empire of blog, column in the Book Standard, speaking engagements, etc. Like Kakutani, she has narrowed her responsibilities as a reviewer down to that of entertaining at any cost, and nothing entertains like love and hate.
Snark Dale Peck, of course, has taken that entertainment thing to the next level The producers (if that's the right word) of the Tournament of Books have an amazingly hilarious commentary on his non-decision about SATURDAY vs. THE ACCIDENTAL, and the first thing they admit is that "it would be rude to take him to task in this forum when he’s only doing exactly what everyone expects him to do." Having written HATCHET JOBS and become famous as "brutally honest" or whatever, he faces what comic book nerds call "the problem of escalating evil" and has to find something even more acerbic to say in order to keep entertaining. Now, apparently, he's decided that contemporary literature needs to take on capitalism, imperialism, and every other evil –ism if it wishes to escape his ire.
Producer Kevin Guilefoile wisely doesn't try to talk Peck out of this position, he just does what good novels do and tells a story. Once, he says, he met Ken Kesey.
Kesey also said something I’ve never forgotten. He said that if you’re fortunate enough to make your living as a novelist you will almost certainly be approached one day by an individual—perhaps even a powerful or influential one—who will suggest you use your talent as a tool of some political, religious, or commercial agenda.
It is the obligation of a writer, Kesey said, to look that person in the eyes and say, Fuck you.
In other words, "Harold and the Purple Crayon didn't solve world hunger or anything" (Jason Evans). Because that's not what it was trying to do. Peck demands that literature share his worldview and fight his battles in order to be legitimate or worth reading. Once again, pretty reductive and impractical, and possibly even a little fascistic. Maybe Peck is being ultra-ironic, or just messing around. But his once entertainingly snarky reviews have gone over the edge to being anti-literature at this point, and seem dangerously close to trying to dissuade other people from reading as well.
The best comment of this whole conversation, summing up the problem and pinpointing the solution, came from an anonymous bookstore owner in New Jersey. This quintessential bookseller (whom I hope one day writes something of his own for us to read) identified the reason all of Kakutani, Peck, and Crispin's best efforts haven't managed to discourage people from the project of reading.
I'd guess that at least three-quarters of my customers couldn't care ratshit about any review written by "professional" reviewers...including the Snarks. Customers seek out - and are swayed by - opinions of Trusted Fellow Readers. Sometimes that Trusted Fellow Reader is me, or one of the great folks that work with me. Sometimes that Trusted Fellow Reader is Oprah. Hell, sometimes it's just their drunken, promiscuous sister-in-law (the one that starts wearing her bikini to the liquor store in April). The point is this - the Snarks' actual influence on the public's book-buying habits is insignificant. They are, truth be told, a bunch of two-bit entertainers, whoring out the conflict and drama needed to hold the audience's interest...and if they could do it even half as well as the authors they disparage, they'd be reviewees instead of reviewers.
The Trusted Fellow Reader (TFR) – my new favorite acronym (next to the ALP). The antidote to Snarks and snarkiness, the TFR is free from the obligation to entertain us with rapier wit or withering sophistication, and motivated, like us, by the desire to read books for enjoyment, enlightenment, escape, or any combination thereof.
One of the reasons we read, along with the solitary joy of good books, is for the community it creates, the conversations about books that are much more interesting than good/bad. While I will probably still continue to read reviews in the Times and other places, just to get a sense of the national conversation about books, I will tend, like the customers, to go to my TFRs for my own recommendations and conversations. And as a bookseller, becoming a TFR for my customers as well as my friends is my primary aspiration. It's something worth striving for.
What do you think?
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
I will mention something in line with the general joyfulness: the Pulitzer Prizes have been announced, and the winner in fiction is a favorite of mine: Geraldine Brooks' (not to be confused with poet Gwendolyn Brooks) Civil War novel MARCH (not to be confused with E. L. Doctorow's Civil War novel of the same name, which was also nominated. Weird.) Brook's book (which I reviewed for Publishers Weekly) is a serious but accessible historical novel, which takes the absent father figure from Alcott's LITTLE WOMEN and imagines his unspoken wartime experiences, engaging him with good intentions, casual and purposeful racism, horrific violence, and the explosion of his dreamy idealism. It's a heavy one, but ultimately a satisfying narrative. It's out in paperback now, so believe the hype and give it a read.
I promise I'll be posting more on the issue of book reviewers soon -- just give me a minute to come down from my own dreamy spring fever. Hope you all are enjoying it too!
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Voyage Along the Horizon
by Javier Marias
(Believer Books, April 2006)
Book by Book: Notes On Reading And Life
by Michael Dirda
(Henry Holt, May 2006)
The last two books I read have a thematic unity: they are both, in different ways, books about reading. Marias' novel is a story-within-a-novel-within-a-novel about a novelist. Dirda's book is literally about what he's read: a commonplace book of quotations mixed with his own summaries of what he's learned from books. (This theme stuff seems to happen surprisingly often with my reading lately – or maybe you can find a link between any two works of art if you look hard enough, and since I've been reviewing them in pairs, I tend to look for the link. Go fig.)
The other thing they have in common, unfortunately, is that I wasn't crazy about either one. Possibly my expectations were too high. The beautiful cover of VOYAGE is evocative of kids' adventure stories, sailor's drawings, maybe even Joseph Cornell boxes, and the jacket flap seemed to promise R. L. Stevenson or Conrad style excitement with some fun pomo tricks. And it's blurbed by Charles Baxter, one of my favorite fiction writers (his FEAST OF LOVE makes my Top 5 Contemporary Novels). Believer Books, like its doting literary parent McSweeney's, pays loving attention to the book as an object, and their small list, though all in paperback, are all delectable packages.
But maybe I'm just not the Conrad fan I thought I was – somehow Marias' faux-nineteenth century story never took off for me. The narrator is more Dorian Gray than Jim Hawkins; he hardly even seems interested in the story until the end. And the same sort of lack of interest, or else unexplainable overinterest, applied to all of the characters. The narrator finds himself, after a boring dinner party, at the reading of an unpublished novel by a friend of the author. The novel concerns a quixotic voyage spearheaded by a charismatic captain and attended by a dour novelist, whose main interest is his obsession with the previous strange adventures of a famous pianist who will also be on board. His attempts to find out more about the pianist fail, as do his attempts to regale the pianist with the story of the infamous captain's swashbuckling backstory (though we get to read that story as well). But the adventures are jarring rather than exciting, and that odd mild disinterest, even when proclaiming great passions, keeps pervading all levels of the story. At the end of the reading, the man who has been reading the novel (whose name our narrator can't even remember) pronounces
My friend's novel is, unfortunately, mediocre. It reveals only the literary pretensions of an eager young writer. Well, I don't know – perhaps I shouldn't be quite so harsh, perhaps I am allowing my anger to get the best of me. and it may even be possible that Voyage Along The Horizon is in fact a very respectable novel, but then what is 'respectable' compared to the destiny I had envisioned for it? A terrible disappointment, I can assure you.
Which pretty much sums up my feelings exactly. It's odd that Marias includes such an apt dismissal of what is in fact his own writing within his own novel, but he was a 19-year-old writer at the time (this is a reissue), and while I certainly couldn't have written this novel when I was nineteen (or any other time), we all do silly things at that edge. Meh – put it down to another book judged by its cover, respectable but not much worth recommending. (I would like to read other works by Marias, though – I've heard great things about his other novels and would like to give him a second shot.)
Dirda's failings, in contrast, are not those of youth, but those of age. He's obviously read a great deal (almost entirely from the Western canon) in his time as a critic and Washington Post writer, and his banks of quotations are rich and evocative of a world of literature, philosophy, and thought worth delving into. But consider this passage, which contains both an amazing description of the Snark in its native environment, and a description which might be applied to Dirda himself:
The strong critic sometimes grows tendentious, supercilious, or holier-than-thou, and actually might be happier as an op-ed columnist. In his turn, the gentler critic can seem to possess no standards at all, to be one of those people who likes everything; he may even relax into a carpet-slippers-and-port literary essayist, dreamily relating the adventures of his sensitive soul among the masterpieces.
I found myself reading Dirda's "literary essays" with a furrowed brow, wondering: has this man ever met a poor person? a poorly educated person? a person who reads graphic novels? Has it ever occurred to him that his prescriptions for "the good life" may not be possible or applicable for the majority of humanity? (Not that I could be said to let my social conscience drive my reading habits, but I also wouldn't presume to prescribe my reading as the universal way to live a true and full life.)
Something about Dirda's Oxford don tone rubbed me the wrong way, and made me suspicious of what might otherwise have been a charming, if slight, "adventure among the masterpieces." There were good moments – the list of what should be included in a good guest room library was intriguing and conversation-starting, if not exactly a burning issue for most of us – but I felt that Dirda could have used a little more contemporary reading (or even some nonfiction) to round out his view of the "life" part of his title.
These two are likely to be the rare books on the front table that I have read, but won't be picking up to hand to customers minding their own business (I sold about three BLACK SWAN GREENs today – yay!). But I imagine their audience is out there. There's a meta-hipster somewhere who's dying for Marias' Conrad-meets-Wilde layer cake; and there's a book-loving uncle with a birthday who's going to be thrilled to receive Dirda's gentle collection. I can sell 'em, but I can't say I loved 'em.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Of course, as in those other competitions, a lot of the outcome can depend on the luck of the draw -- who you face in the first round, and who's judging. But it's not really any less arbitrary than the panel/committee method, and it's a lot more transparent. The judges write up their experience with the two books and their criterion for judging, and you can log your agreement or disagreement. This year they even had a "Zombie Round" for books that got knocked out early but were big crowd (i.e. Morning News reader) favorites. And it's totally fun for book nerds to play the "Who would win in a fight?" game with authors.
But there are some folks who don't seem to be having much fun at all. The judges for this contest were chosen from the top ranks of book reviewers, including blogger Maud Newton, as well as Karl Iagnemma and many others whose names sound familiar from the book pages. Two of the biggest names in the judging pool are Jessa Crispin (aka Bookslut) and Dale Peck (author of HATCHET JOBS and penner of the famous first line "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation"). Everyone knows Peck makes his living by writing stinging reviews -- his book's title indicates that he knows it too.
But here's a quote from Peck's judgement call on THE ACCIDENTAL vs. SATURDAY:
"Regardless, until writers realize the social compact is spiritual and species suicide, a pseudoethical pressure valve that allows Western society to pretend it’s examining its troubled conscience when all it’s doing is assuaging the guilt we feel for exploiting the rest of the world—and destroying it in the process—then the literary novel will remain little more than a series of embarrassing, irrelevant mea culpas. Speaking to the present context, this is my way of saying that I refuse to advance either of these books, even by the flip of a coin; as meaningless as the title “novel of the year” is, neither of these deserves it."
(The editors apparently had to flip a coin themselves to allow the tournament to continue; Peck refused to do so even on request.)
And here's something from Crispin's piece on THE HISTORY OF LOVE vs. EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE:
"It’s not so much which book I liked more as which book I hated less. Both are chock full of the preciousness and sentimentality that I hate in literature. As Foer has been annoying me since his first book, Everything is Illuminated, was released, I had higher hopes for History of Love, the book written by his wife, Nicole Krauss. Well, except for that title. And except for the fact that a twentysomething was writing about the Holocaust. And except for the love story. Really, it was just blind optimism. While not as sentimental as Foer’s book, it made up for it in sappiness. But that’s what you get for asking me to read a love story."
So here's my question:
Do you people even LIKE books???
Far be it from me to excrecate all negative reviews -- not all books are great, and some books have good parts and bad parts, and it's good for readers and reviewers to be honest about those. And I can't really comment about Peck's opinion of the state of Western civilization, or Crispin's experiences with love. But if you tend to think that every book you read is mind-shatteringly horrible, I feel it's time to ask yourself whether this whole reading thing is really for you.
Peck and Crispin seem to have joined Michiko Kakutani -- actually, they've quickly shot past her -- in the ranks of the Snarks. A Snark is one who complains, criticizes, whines, noodges, belittles, scoffs, etc., often for the sake of doing so or to hear oneself talk. To snark is to express such an opinion (though a lot depends on the delivery). "Snarky" is the adjectival form, often used in the sentence beginning "Stop being so..." It's how I describe myself when I'm in a toweringly bad mood and annoyed by everything. For some, it seems to be a philosophy of life.
For Crispin, Kakutani, and Peck, it seems that the books have become little more than vehicle for expressing one's own sophistication, erudition, and wit, preferably at the book's expense. They remind me of the Rock Snob defined in David Kamp and Steven Daly's ROCK SNOB'S DICTIONARY:
"n: a reference term for the sort of pop connoisseur for whom the actual enjoyment of music is but a side dish to the accumulation of arcane knowledge about it."
This tends to put both Rock Snobs and Book Snarks out of touch with the reason most of us turn to books and music: because we actually like them. And you have to wonder what that does for the relevance of their reviews to the reading public.
Obviously, this kind of thing makes me mad. (It actually nearly spoiled the TOB for me, though there were fortunately enough enjoyable reviews to make it worth while.) I just don't understand why reviewers with such a seeming antipathy for the medium they judge, such a knee-jerk negative reaction to almost any book that crosses their paths, have such overinflated reputations as reviewers. Maybe I'm just a big nerd with undiscriminating tastes.
Actually though, my next round of book reviews includes two books I was disappointed by, but I can see their merits even though they didn't do it for me. The Snarks seem to have lost the ability to think so equivocally. Since I'm seeing through my customers' eyes as well as my own, it's necessary for me to realize that what I don't like, someone else may. It's another way of achieving the kind of open-mindedness literature is supposed to impart. Apparently, it doesn't always work.
Anyway, I'd rather be a lowly bookseller than a famous Snark any day. They don't seem to be having as much fun as we are.
Opinions on Snarks and snarkiness?
Monday, April 10, 2006
To give credit where credit is due, the event was primarily organized by the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA), and the eats were sponsored by Bookazine, an independent book distributor.
I was lucky enough to hitch a ride to Phoenixville from NYC with Eileen Dengler, the secretary of NAIBA, who organized the trip. It's about a two-hour ride, and we chatted happily all the way. I've recently been asked to join the NAIBA board, a totally flattering offer which of course I've accepted – it will be wonderful to help with NAIBA's work of bringing booksellers in our region together, and offering them resources to help them get better at what they do. Eileen helped fill me in on the details of what that job will entail, and we compared notes about the state of our personal libraries (teetering with too many books, or course).
The booksellers gathered at Bridge Street books, located on (surprise) Bridge Street, the main drag of Phoenixville. The store is owned by Suzanne Kelly, a young alumni of (now closed) Jean's Books in a neighboring town. She opened the shop in July of 2005, and as I learned in talking to her before others arrived, she did it all without a huge nest egg or rich relative – she found loans through the Small Business Administration, ingeniously using the books in her inventory as collateral (since they're all returnable to the publisher, they count!) I told her Andrew Laties (REBEL BOOKSELLER) would be proud, and she wrote down the name of the book so she could look him up herself.
Suzanne's shop is light-filled and homey, with a great kid's section, a wonderful selection of literature, nonfiction, and gift books, intelligent sidelines, and beautiful windows. And lucky her – she lives upstairs! My favorite touch was that Suzanne displayed write-ups of recommendations from both staff and customers. Customer picks is a brilliant idea – everyone loves to know what their neighbors are reading.
Soon the booksellers and other attendees started showing up – we were joined by Ron, a wonderfully exuberant sales rep from Bookazine, and John Mutter, the force behind the indispensable Shelf Awareness newsletter. I was thrilled to talk to John – it's like talking to the New York Times or Rolling Stone of the bookselling world. He took careful notes, so he may be reporting on the event in SA in the next few days.
After everyone arrived, we relocated across the street to Steel City Coffee, a great local coffee shop (with a cool stage where Suzanne has held some of her large author events). What a great partnership – the indie bookstore and the indie coffee shop! Finally we made with the formal introductions. In attendance were Jim and Becky of the three-year-old Seeds of Wisdom Books (West Grove, PA); Angie of young art-oriented bookstore Voices and Visions (Philadelphia, PA); Harvey and Rob of Clinton Bookshop, open 28 years but under Harvey's ownership for about three (Clinton, NJ); Susan of the young and super-successful New Age bookstore Breathe Books (Baltimore, MD); Kenny, whose Manhattan shop is closing after 40 years but who plans to open a new shop in New Jersey; Steve and Shelly, who plan to open a bookstore in about two months; and Wendy, who's still in the earlier stages of planning a store.
Along with Suzanne, Eileen, me, Ron, John, and Baker & Taylor sales rep Erin (who arrived later), these book folks didn't need an agenda or list of topics to get the conversation going. We jumped from topic to topic, including initial financing, opening mistakes, author events and other events, corporate and school sales, staffing, rents, partnerships with local businesses and trade organizations, the difference between New York City stores and other stores in the region (more on that in a later post), customer reward programs, managing credit, discounting, competing (or not) with Amazon and the chains, networking and advocacy, and a hundred and one other things. I took some notes, but I took away a lot more in terms of seeds of ideas, and in new relationships with my colleagues who are passionate about the same things I am.
And in the end, I realized that so much of what we learned from each other revolved around relationships. For independent booksellers, nothing is more important in order to keep our businesses strong. We need to develop and grow and nurture relationships with teachers, corporations, authors, publicists, our towns, our credit managers, other local businesses, sales reps, trade organizations, libraries, and of course, other bookstores. This meeting helped us all to internalize that, and it was also part of making that happen. I can't wait to talk more with Angie about her great business plan, Susan about her brilliant event lineup, Harvey about his super collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce, or Suzanne about her fantastic lease arrangement. And I know I've got ideas and insights to offer them as well.
As we left the coffee shop, I thanked one of the baristas for hosting us. "Thanks for being a great crowd," he said. "So what are you guys here for?" I told him that we were a group of independent booksellers from all over the mid-Atlantic, who get together to share ideas.
"That's really cool," he said. And it was.
Friday, April 07, 2006
The magazine guy at our store does a tremendous job of stocking art and style mags, fashion rags and tabloids, and hefty quarterlies and literary journals. I ran into him in the back room the other day sorting returns and asked if there were any leftover copies of the old Paris Review (shh, it's one of the perks of being a bookseller.) He handed over a stripped cover copy of the previous edition and told me he was glad to find someone who was interested in reading the literary magazines, since he'd almost given up on it himself.
The phraseology we agreed on was that we couldn't often afford to spend the limited currency of our reading time on the luxury of literary magazines, when there's so much, well, literature out there demanding our attention. Reading interviews, reviews, excerpts, new short stories and miscellany – it's sometimes hard to find, or justify, the hours demanded. One almost needs to lead a literary life of leisure (or LEH-zhoor, as the ALP pronounces it) to be a regular reader of the wealth of writing coming out on a monthly or quarterly basis between these well-edited pages.
But when I've got a few minutes burning a hole in my metaphorical pocket, there are a couple of litmags that I'm happy to spend it on. Here's my rundown of my three favorite journals, and my journal reading this month.
The Paris Review (quarterly, $12.) The grand old dame of literary magazines, headed for fifty years by the illustrious late George Plimpton. All the big guys were/are published here, and the ongoing Art of Fiction series, in which acclaimed writers talk about their craft and method, is always fascinating. (I learned here that Richard Powers likes to type his novels on a remote keyboard, so he can't see the words he's writing on the computer screen until afterward.) I spent an amazing morning in a café reading the Winter 2005 issue, which contains a great interview with Orhan Pamuk and some perfect poetry by Jack Gilbert.
The Believer (monthly, $8.00) As the review/interview offshoot of McSweeney's Quarterly, this one tends to be more to my taste than its (always inventive but often too avant-cutesy) parent. There's a great self-deprecating regular column by my favorite British wit Nick Hornby called "Stuff I've Been Reading," as well as awesome interviews and reviews of books probably a little more pop culture-ish than those found in The Paris Review. I just got to the March issue, which has a piece by Richard Powers (again, yay!) on genetic screening, and a wonderful interview with Alice Quinn about, surprise, EDGAR ALLEN POE & THE JUKE-BOX. (The insightful and right-thinking interviewer Meghan O'Rourke opines "One thing that seems to me a justification for the existence of this book is that it doesn't simply collect unfinished or second-rate poems to fill a demand for new work. Instead, it offers insight into the stages of Bishop's process, and how her mind worked over a problem for years and years." I promise I hadn't read this when I wrote my last post, but it's nice to know someone else agrees.)
A Public Space (quarterly, $12.) This is a brand-new kid on the litmag block, headed by Paris Review alum Brigid Hughes (and assistant editored by another of my brilliant coworkers). I picked up the first issue because the cover is an awesome photo of some Brooklyn kids practicing the sport of "mattress flipping", and I was blown away by its quality. There's fiction by my favorite fantasy surrealist Aimee Bender, a stirringly difficult essay by the brilliant Calvinist Marilynne Robinson (GILEAD), short essays by Rick Moody and lesser-known but equally compelling chroniclers, and interviews with Haruki Murakami and other Japanese writers and translators about Japanese and American fiction. It's a great mix of big names, passionate beginners, and experts in their field, with a wonderfully inclusive but high quality sensibility, and definitely one to watch.
That same morning in the café I pored over A PUBLIC SPACE and THE PARIS REVIEW and was struck by the similarity of some of the language of Turkish Pamuk and Japanese Murakami: the competing forces of individuality and community on a novelist, especially in countries where belonging to the group is all-important. This serendipitous resonance could only have become clear on a morning of when I had a little extra leisure to spend on the rich "extras" of the literary world, and I'm grateful for it.
What about you, dear readers? You find time to read blogs (as I do) – are you willing and able to read literary magazines or journals? Which ones make your list?
Monday, April 03, 2006
But not everyone feels the same way. A friend of mine at FSG mentioned that Quinn "had made a lot of enemies" by insisting on publishing this book, and The Times had an article on April 1st detailing the controversy. At the head of the opposition is Helen Vendler, who insists that Bishop would never have wanted these unfinished poems to see the light of publication, that they aren't up to her standards and, by implication, that Quinn is exploiting Bishop's legacy.
This sparked a conversation the other night with the ALP about artists and the historical record. The exchange was inspired not only by Bishop, but also by George Lucas. To the best of our knowledge, it is now impossible to acquire the original movie versions of the original STAR WARS trilogy on DVD. The only version available is the "new and improved" one, with the additions Lucas made thirty years after the fact using new special effects technology and slightly tweaked plot elements (Greedo shoots first, etc.)
It is, of course, Lucas' prerogative to mess with his movies. (One opinion holds that he's bought into the myth of the Myth, that the attention of Joseph Campbell and others who see STAR WARS as an archetypal hero story has convinced Lucas that that was what he meant all along, and that he's back constructing the original movies to reflect what he insists was the larger picture; but his personal intentions and illusions are clearly something we can't see.) But destroying the original versions -- or making them unavailable -- is a blow to the history of culture, a loss of the once Real Thing that audiences responded to in the first place. Making the "improved" versions available would be a great choice. Making them the only option is, in essence, stealing the historical record.
One of literature's most famous modifiers of his own work, of course, was another poet: Walt Whitman. He published six edititions of LEAVES OF GRASS, each time adding poems and revising others. As poet Galway Kinnell points out in his introduction to ESSENTIAL WHITMAN (Ecco, April 2006), "Many of Whitman's revisions seem intended to domesticate the 'barbaric yawp' and make his verse sound more recognizably like poetry... He revised straightforward phrases to make them more literary and deleted some of his happiest, most unliterary touches." Yet the new poems in the later editions can't be scrapped to go back to the first edition, and indeed, some of the changes are in fact good ones. (Kinnell has dealt with the problem of mixed choices on the part of the author by incorporating old and new versions, so that "some of the poems in this book... are in versions that have never existed before." He makes this clear in the intro, however; he's not passing off his versions as Whitman's, only as an amalgam of what he considers the best of Whitman's choices.)
The reason LEAVES OF GRASS remains a true text is that all of the editions Whitman created are still extant. Different versions are published, editors make choices about what to leave in and leave out, but it's always acknowledged that Whitman's book was a long work in progress, and that later editions are not "definitive" editions. The record remains intact, and our literature is the richer for it.
The reason I'm all for Alice Quinn's audacious move in publishing Bishop's scraps and fragments is this: she makes it completely clear that that is what they are. There is no claim that these are "lost masterpieces" or that they should be placed on the same footing as the COLLECTED POEMS. The carefully footnoted poems, prose, and manuscript pages in this book are always viewed as a different sort of thing. They are part of the great poet's work, but incomplete parts. They may be a source for felicitous phrases and beautiful thoughts and structures, but they cannot be read in the same way as the poems Bishop chose to publish. Bishop didn't destroy these poems, though she didn't publish them, so there is a sense in which she must have thought them valuable. And for us, as grateful readers or new discoverers of her poetry, they have great value. If Quinn had published these pieces without making it extremely clear that Bishop considered them unfinished, or if she had "finished" them using her own judgement, that would have been dishonest and exploitative. That they are treated as part of the literary historical record is what makes Quinn's collaboration with Bishop a fruitful one.
What do you think: should this volume have been published? What should an editor do or not do; what responsibilities does he/she have to the author's intentions? Should final versions be privileged over earlier ones? Should drafts be destroyed? As writers, what are we to do with the incompleteness of our intentions? As readers, what are we to do with the incompleteness of our heroes?