It’s officially been summer for coming up on two weeks, which means that, in accordance with typical publishing and bookselling practices, near the front of the bookstore there will be stacks of books by new and unknown authors all vying to become this summer’s “breakout hit.” Last year the winner of the “breakout hit” lottery was won by Alice Sebold whose book, The Lovely Bones, was much purchased and enjoyed by the majority and vehemently despised by the minority of readers who are not willing to shut off the part of the brain that determines what is tasteful and what is not. What’s funny about this way of selling books is that every bookstore that you walk into will try to make its customers think that their staff personally discovered these new authors and that the customers are among the lucky first few to enjoy these newcomers. In reality, the candidates for “breakout hit” are chosen months in advance by the publishing companies and aggressively marketed much in the same way that one would market a film. In a sense The Lovely Bones is not very different from The Hulk. In my opinion this year’s winner has already been declared: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is already the book that recreational readers ask for by name when looking for a summer reading distraction. This non-threateningly clever, historical thriller acheived success in a couple of ways. First, like all of the other “breakout hit” candidates it is engagingly written and also contains a “hook,” in this case the idea is that embedded within da Vinci’s famous artwork are hidden clues that can solve a present day murder mystery while at the same time unravelling some of humanity’s great unsolved conundrums. Very Indiana Jones. Secondly, in the weeks leading up to the release of The Da Vinci Code, Doubleday reps blitzed bookstores to talk up the book, hand out advance copies, and put up teaser posters. Finally Doubleday’s publicists were able to get the book mentioned in all the weekly newsmags and grocery store aisle gossip rags. Voila! Breakout hit… There are lots of books sitting on either side of The Da Vinci Code on the “breakout hit” display, all are almost as heavily marketed but some might be a bit more rewarding: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is narrated by a 15 year old autistic math savant who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes and tries to find out who murdered his neighbor’s dog. Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy is an example of what a multi-generational saga can look like when written by a young writer. Bangkok 8 is a debut by John Burdett. This one is perfect for those who like thrillers in exotic locals. (In this case, a U.S. Marine is dead in Thailand. Great cover art, too). Finally, Benjamin Cavell’s Rumble, Young Man, Rumble and Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians are two much lauded short story collections. Bye now…
Following the lead of powerhouses Bookforum and The New York Review, the interdisciplinary magazine BOMB appears to be in the middle of a major project to make a lot of its content available free, online. This should be a boon to highbrow bibliophiles. For years, BOMB‘s author interviews have offered deep perspective on the state of the art, while its monthly publication schedule has indemnified it against the faddishness that characterizes so much cultural coverage. Visitors to the new version of www.bombsite.com can browse interviews with the likes of Peter Nadas and Roberto Bolano (archived from 2001)… as well as the current cover-story: a conversation with Kate Valk, my favorite actor in New York and “a national treasure.” Be sure also to peruse the BOMB’s excellent literary supplement, First Proof.
Perhaps you’ve seen it on the news. A historic and potentially catastrophic storm, Hurricane Katrina, is about 24 hours from plowing into New Orleans. If there ever was a “big one,” this is it. Sustained winds are at 175 mph, and some experts think it may maintain this strength all the way to landfall. Despite the fact that New Orleans lies below sea level and needs levies and pumps to keep out the water, Mayor C. Ray Nagin has only just now ordered a mandatory evacuation. Many experts think it’s already too late. If you want to keep an eye on this storm here are some links. Blogs: Dr. Jeff Masters, Steve Gregory, Eye of the Storm, Brendan Loy, Fresh Bilge. Links to TV coverage on the web at Lost Remote. The National Hurricane Center. I may add more to this post as I find more links.
The creative writing class is a beautiful thing. The longest journeys begin with a single step, and (I’m sure) just like countless colleges and writers’ centers throughout the world, the classes I attended at The Irish Writers’ Centre were safe, exciting places to put one figurative foot in front of the other. Though clearly my metaphors need a little work…
The established rules are pretty clear to anyone who’s attended school: do your assignments, listen to the other students, respect your teacher. But of course, society is also filled with unwritten rules, observed by most and flouted by others. Don’t sip your drink too loudly at the movies; don’t answer your phone during a gig; and, if you’re attending a writing class, don’t do any of the things described below.
1. “I didn’t know we could do that!”
Lesson number one begins with a writing exercise that I love. Students are asked to turn to their nearest classmate and ask three questions about their life, then take 10 minutes writing the opening paragraph of a story using some of these details. For example, if someone mentions that they travel a lot, tan easily, and like the ocean, you could (if you’re a genius) use it as the opening to a story like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.
It’s a great warm up if there’s a big enough group, and a chance for people to express themselves to a new class in a safe way. That is until people show resentment for classmate’s use of imagination.
To illustrate: One student was told of a classmate’s insomnia, love for travelling, and fondness of Latin America. This gave birth to a Latin variation on The Hulk (or Jekyll and Hyde, if you’re feeling even more generous). It was a lively, pulpy little piece and the closing line “when he slept, he became Rodrigo, and Rodrigo was not a nice person to know” evoked gasps and a few knowing chuckles: This young man had taken some bare facts and built the foundations of a fun — if slightly derivative short story. There were backslaps all round, at first.
“I didn’t know you could do that!” one student spluttered, so outraged she could barely get the words out fast enough. “He…he used supernatural elements. That’s not allowed! Is it?”
What was the real issue? That he didn’t follow her imagined parameters of the assignment? Or that her story was a literal shopping list of what she’d just been told? She had broken the first unwritten rule of creative writing classes: Don’t get sore if someone else has a better idea.
2. “Oh, I haven’t read it.”
Early in one beginner’s class, we were assigned to bring in a book we wished we’d written. I resisted the urge to bring in something classy like Ulysses, or indeed Slash’s autobiography, and instead opted for High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Another classmate brought in A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. She praised it eloquently, saying how the fall of a tycoon was relevant, how Wolfe writes with the authority of a gifted investigative journalist, and how it echoes Wolfe’s idol, Charles Dickens. “What do you like most about it?” asked the teacher.
“Oh I haven’t read it,” she breezed, without a hint of embarrassment or contrition. She later went on to correct other people’s assertions and interpretation of Wolfe’s opus, utterly oblivious to the inconvenient fact that they had read it and she had not.
You would think it doesn’t need clarification, but apparently it does: When told to talk about a book you admire, it’s best to choose one you’ve already at least opened.
3. “I thought it was sentimental.”
Outside of medicine and pharmaceuticals, which profession do you imagine is most affected by the existence of incurable diseases? I imagine it’s creative writing teachers. In the first class I attended, the writing-about-terminal-illness cases were approaching 50 percent. Terminal illness is obviously a serious subject, but even the most powerful subject’s impact can be dulled with repetition, or when it’s used as a narrative short cut.
You’ll be surprised how callous you become when numerous consecutive students read aloud their story about the elderly neighbor (kindly or cranky), known only for one hobby (gardening or withholding children’s Frisbees) who succumbs to a disease that reveals their true colors (humor and/or courage). Making someone cry is as hard as making someone laugh, and, in both comedy and tragedy, it’s painful to endure a piece of fiction that tries and fails.
This brings us to a student we’ll call “Anna” and rule number 3: Appreciate it when classmates are being polite. Her short story was about a precocious and grating young child who didn’t like her aunt. The twist is (you’re way ahead of me) that it turns out the aunt is fighting a serious disease. It was a mawkish, deadly serious piece of work, and the 4the illness-themed piece in one class. After she read it aloud, everyone gave polite, vague, and very gentle criticisms. Many tongues seemed to be held and bitten.
Then it came time to read my debut opus, in which a boy realizes he’s getting too old for stunts on his BMX. It was a little rough around the edges, but not the bike-crash I thought it was before Anna piped up. “I thought it was sentimental,” she snipped, oblivious to the fact that she had just read out a piece that Nicholas Sparks would have deleted and re-drafted. “Yeah, it was mawkish,” she continued, louder this time, “I didn’t get it”.
“Hey listen, lady!” I didn’t say. “The only reason you’re taking such liberties is because you wrongly think your story is nuanced and insightful.”
“And if we weren’t so polite during this fragile and important learning phase, you’d know how leaden and syrupy your misery mope fest really was,” I didn’t continue.
“Thanks, Anna, that’s really helpful,” I actually said, meekly and sadly combing over my every word to look for manipulative or sentimental passages I could re-write.
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes
It’s always interesting, to me anyway, to see how current events drive books sales. Everybody is interested in Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath right now, but it will likely be at least a month or two before the first books on the storm are published – and those will be the rush jobs with lots of photographs and not much text. So for now, the vaccuum must be filled by other books. One of these, apparently, is Rising Tide a book from 1997, which according to the AP, has gotten a big boost in sales since the storm. The book by John M. Barry is subtitled “The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” and I’m guessing that people are reading it in order to see how a natural disaster might cause America to change once again. Barry spoke about Rising Tide on NPR’s Weekend Edition. And here’s an excerpt from the book. Another book seeing increased sales – judging by its Amazon ranking – is Isaac’s Storm, Erik Larsen’s 1999 book about the 1900 Galveston hurricane (which may be surpassed by Katrina as the deadliest storm in American history.) Here’s an excerpt from that book.
My travels to the East coast last weekend swept away any doubt about the importance of the current wave of bestselling books about the Bush administration. In airport lounges, on planes, and in the New York City subways people everywhere are getting their news, not from the Times or from the weekly newsmagazines, but from a handful of books by people who enjoyed unfettered access to the current administration. I especially noticed an abundance of copies of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack as well as a handful of copies of Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, (which, at the moment, come in at number one and number six respectively on Amazon’s Top 100). The content of these books is interesting, but so is the phenomenon behind them. According to many who have been following this trend, we are in uncharted territory. In the Times, David K. Kirkpatrick explains why all of this is unprecedented and suggests that the administration’s vigilance over the information that ends up in newspapers and magazines has caused a spillover into books. Here is the article.