Not too long ago, on a book finding expedition, I found a whole cache of old Granta magazines. Granta is very cool journal devoted to both short fiction and on the ground reporting of international conflicts and events. It attracts fantastic writers who tend to be relatively unknown to Americans, and so it tends to deliver angles on stories that you don’t see in the American press. Case in point: the other day I was, briefly, between books, and I picked up one of the old Grantas that I have lying around (this one was Autumn 1989). One of the stories I read was a first hand account of the Tiananmen Square massacre by a BBC journalist named John Simpson. I have always found first-hand accounts of these sorts of events to be the most fascinating type of news reporting. (The best I read this year were John Lee Anderson’s “Letters From Baghdad” in the New Yorker.) Simpson’s story on Tiananmen Square was both enthralling and terrifying, he captures a brutality that most of the Western world did not see. Immediately after I finished the article I wondered: is this piece in a book somewhere and has this guy written anything else like this? This answer to both questions is yes. Simpson’s World: Tales from a Veteran War Correspondent came out in August and it’s filled with close encounters with dictators and on the scene dispatches from all the major world conflicts from the last couple of decades.
Fans of historical fiction set in far flung lands will likely enjoy Jane Alison’s new book Natives and Exotics. It’s a multigenerational tale set in South America and Australia that spans the twentieth century. The publisher notes liken the book to W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, which is a lot to live up to. PW describes the book thusly: “More impressionistic than narrative, Alison’s third novel is a lush evocation of the way people love and alter (and are altered by) the environments they inhabit.”Closer to home is Steve Amick’s debut The Lake, the River & the Other Lake. The center of the book is the small town of Weneshkeen, Michigan. And as is so often the case, this small town buzzes with odd characters and neighborly conflicts which are exacerbated by the summer presence of inconsiderate tourists. PW says this: “Bitterly comic and surprisingly meaty, this roiling tale of passion, anger, regret and lust is dark fun for the Garrison Keillor demographic.” So I guess it’s like a much less saccharine Lake Wobegon. There’s an excerpt available here. And if that’s not enough for you, try this short story from the Southern Review.Rick Bass’ new novel, The Diezmo, is garnering comparisons to a pair literary adventure classics, The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, both favorable and unfavorable. Still, I love this sort of book so my interest has been piqued. Bass’ setting for the novel is the rough borderlands between Mexico and the Republic of Texas in 1842. Here’s a mixed review of the book from the Denver Post, and here’s an excerpt so you can make up your own minds.Ann Beattie doesn’t need much of an introduction. She’s one of America’s better-known short story writers, and her latest collection, Follies received the hard to come by Michiko Kakutani seal of approval with the declaration, “Ms. Beattie has hit her stride again.” Here’s an excerpt.
The trenches of publishing can be equal parts reward and frustration. It is amazing to have a publishing house, no matter the size, respond to your work. You engage with the editor, work through drafts, commission an artist, read the proofs and then bam: boxes and boxes of books. The unrepentantly indie Fractious Press risked such a kindness with my collection of short stories, I Like to Keep My Troubles on the Windy Side of Things.
What do you do with all of these books? Sell them, of course. Distribution can be a nightmare for large houses and indies alike. Marketing a book is more of an uphill battle than ever in our forget-me-now culture of constant media noise. And so were born internet literary stunts.
While Tao Lin certainly didn’t invent the form (check out this April 25, 2000, Village Voice article about a McSweeney’s internet stunt) he sits high atop the virtual landfills of digital fodder created to promote the written word. Since 2005, Lin has dutifully maintained a blog that antagonizes and engages readers. Recently he ran a contest where his devotees were asked to watch a video of him reading and then guess what drug he was on (mushrooms). Everything Lin does online serves to promote his books. Or is it just about promoting himself? In the current issue of Bookforum Joshua Cohen examines this notion in his excellent review of Lin’s latest book. Regardless of what you think of Lin’s persona, or his writing, the extent of his influence on prioritizing an author’s persona can be seen in how this past May his publisher, Melville House, took it upon themselves to inaugurate the Moby Awards for Best and Worst Book Trailers. When it comes to internet stunts, Lin might be the most prolific but he isn’t the only writer hoping to go viral in the name of raising awareness about a new book.
With my collection of stories, Fractious went the traditional promotional route, sending out galleys and finished review copies to both print and select online outlets. But nothing really came of it. Meaning that outside a small number of people, most of whom I know, no one really knows about this book.
So, after reading on The Rumpus about Mickey’s Hess’s “I will blurb any book within 24 hours” literary stunt, I decided to send him a PDF for yucks. Sure enough, in about twelve hours he had something for me: “Buzz bares his soul in this book. Nothing is more frustrating than discovering an author’s troubles, but what it does do is really change my preconceived judgments about certain things.”
A few weeks ago, Hess posted a revised blurb on his personal blog: “Buzz bares his soul in this book. Overcoming obstacles such as toothaches, his gently androgynous narrators (all fictional characters) are driven by two things: tough-minded exclamations and 21st-century anxieties.”
Everything else aside, I can tell you that there is not a single toothache in the book. There is, however, a story that involves children losing their baby teeth, painlessly. Am I surprised that Hess hasn’t actually read all of the stories? Not really. Perhaps Hess’s ultimate motive was to create a spectacle of stunts? Make examples of those, like me, who take part in, fall for, such a stunt? Only he can say. I feel like asking would feed into the stunt more – and I acknowledge that writing this piece makes me truly complicit in engaging self-promotional activity.
But thinking about it more, maybe Hess was really calling into question the validity of promotional blurbs, printed or otherwise. Litanies of hyperbolic praise have long adorned the front and back covers of books (writing at Red Room in 2009, Matthew Pearl credited Ralph Waldo Emerson with being the first author to blurb a book, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career“). The purpose of the jacket blurb is obvious: if you like Author A, then you’re sure to like Author B, whose debut has been raved about by Author A.
Sit around with enough agents and editors and blurbs will come up – the bigger the name issuing the blurb, the better. Writers tend to know other writers, but many blurbs come in via professional associations – sharing an agent or publisher – so in a way they are also stunts, promoting one person’s words using someone else’s words by virtue of doing a favor for someone you may or may not know very well.
Adjective-heavy, blurbs try to relay a book’s tone, its author’s approach to storytelling boiled down to a sentence, maybe two. While jacket blurbs might not be as connected to the cult of personality as certain online promotional tactics, they still aren’t really about the writing. They are more about the writer and what he or she does with the written word.
The internet provides an outlet to anyone that wants to pipe up about something. This has changed how the public becomes aware of everything, whether a book, movie, storewide sale or a politician’s stance on an issue. In the pre-internet book trade, awareness was created through specific outlets, very much influencing the new books we found out about by via high-profile reviews and interviews. Today, with some degree of perseverance, you can find out about pretty much anything with a simple search and some mouse clicking.
This leaves large and small publishers alike, as well as self-published authors, vying for attention. So, is there a difference between traditional promotional activities and internet stunts? I suppose people talk more about stunts, but then they are talking more about you and not your writing. Promotional marketing tools can be very savvy about blurring the line between objective critiques and ads. Which, after my little foray into this world makes me wonder, more than ever: How much of consumer culture is about actual content?
(Image: for sale, from hive’s photostream)
For some reason I’ve always been wary of audio books. For one thing, they are expensive and for another the whole idea of listening to a book seems antithetical to the author’s original task of putting words to paper. Recent events, however, have alleviated this wariness. A friend of mine has suddenly gained access to free audio books, and when she offered me some titles to choose from, I couldn’t help myself. I am in a constant struggle to read as many books as possible, and, working at the book store, my list of must-read books increases at a far greater rate than I am able to manage. With my newfound acceptance of audiobooks, though, I have mbeen able to greatly increase my reading productivity. In fact, I finished listening to a terrific book on the way to work today, Positively Fifth Street by James McManus, and I must say I was sad to have it end. McManus’ book did wonders for my terrible Los Angeles commute (I know, it’s such a cliche, but LA traffic is no joke). This book has been very popular since it came out a few weeks ago, and many had been eagerly anticipating it ever since the Harper’s magazine article that was the book’s progenitor. McManus was sent to Vegas to cover the both the trial of the murderers of Ted Binion and the World Series of Poker that Binion’s father had created and that the family he left behind continued to run every year. Upon his arrival, McManus makes the fateful decision to use his advance money for the Harper’s article to enter the tournament, and, though he has never played professionaly, he makes it all the way to the final table. He paints both the trial and his no limit poker travails with vivid prose, and he really makes you root for him. The Vegas setting combined with the participatory journalist angle reminded me a lot of Fear and Loathing, and though the books are very different, Fifth Street is easily as invigorating as the original tale of a lost weekend in the desert.Books I’d love to read (but will I ever get around to it?)As I mentioned above my list of books to read is monsterous and ever-increasing. In fact, my list is so long that there are quite a few books on my shelf that I fully intend to read — that I would love to read — but are constantly being bumped farther down my list by books that I deem to be of a higher priority. Long gone are the days when I would casually finish up a book and then blithely wander around the local bookstore hoping to come across something that piqued my interest. My backed up piles now stare up at me plaintively, wondering if I will ever get around to reading them. Since, I’m not sure when I will ever get around to reading some of these, I will do what I have determined arbitrarily to be the next best thing: mention them here. A casual glance at the book shelf behind me reveals several books that are waiting out their purgatory: The Hole in the Flag is Andrei Codrescu’s account of the fall of the oppressive regime in his native country. I want to read this because I love Codrescu’s commentary on NPR and because I visited Romania almost ten years ago and have been fascinated by the country ever since. I hope to read Mr. Jefferson’s University by Garry Wills for similar reasons. Wills is a masterful historian and biographer, and I attended the college that is the subject of the book. Plus, the National Geographic Directions series of travel writing, of which this book is a part, has proven, in my experience, to be very much worth reading. Down to Earth by Ted Steinberg is about nature’s role in American history. I read about this book when it came out last fall and it reminded me of Guns, Germs, and Steel the Pulitzer Prize winner by Jared Diamond. I loved that book so figured I’d be into this one as well. I snagged an advance copy of An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson when it appeared in the book store last summer. I had just finished John Keegan’s masterful history of The Second World War, and so I couldn’t pass on a free book about the Allies liberation of North Africa. The book has since won the Pulitzer and I haven’t even cracked the spine. I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point. Well, there are many more to name, so I think I’ll stop there before this gets too depressing. So many books to read.Leonard Michaels RIPIn my rant about that 70’s O. Henry book yesterday, I neglected to mention the collection’s first story “Robinson Crusoe Liebowitz” by Leonard Michaels. The story centers around a man hiding in his lover’s bedroom. He is persecuted by twin tormentors: his fear of being discovered by his lover’s fiance and his burning need to urinate. It is a dark and clever story. It stuck in my mind, and when a customer mentioned today at the store that Michaels had recently passed away, I remembered poor Liebowitz and his straining bladder. I don’t know much about Michaels, though I would like to read his novel The Men’s Club if I can manage to track it down, so I’ll let his obit tell the rest of the story.
I have always wrestled, pretty unsuccessfully I think, with reading and writing poetry, and am often reluctant to discuss it in too much detail, as a novice pilot might be reluctant to land his plane at night. Occasionally, though, poems have the ability to break through whatever barrier to poetry I have inside my head and deliver to me the poignant seed of beauty that supporters of the medium so often rave about. Sometime earlier this year the New Yorker started occasionally putting a poem on its back page instead of the usual “Sketchbook.” One of those back page poems (in the March 3rd issue) was an intensely moving anti-war poem by one of my favorie poets (if it could be said that I have favorite poets) C. K. Williams. It is called “The Hearth.” This one is definitely one of those “break through the barrier” poems for me, as is a very different sort of poem called “The Clerk’s Tale” by Spencer Reece, which appeared on the back page of the New Fiction Issue (June 16 & 23). I love the way this poem makes lyrical the banalities of suburban, modern life. According to the Author Notes for that issue Reece will “publish his first collection of poems next year.” I haven’t been able to find any info about this upcoming book, but I will post if I do find anything out. In other poetry news, FSG recently put out the brick-sized Collected Poems of Robert Lowell. This book has already recieved a ton of press including a major review in the New Yorker and the front page of the New York Times Book Review. The book itself is beautiful and the poems within are melancholy and transcendant; whether you are a longtime fan of Lowell or unaware of his work completely, as you flip from poem to poem you will find it difficult to pull yourself away.So, What Else is NewSometimes, even though there are mountains of unread books all around me, I find myself wishing that one of my favorite writers had a new book out. So instead of continuing to slog dutifully through my teetering piles, I decided to see what will soon be out that I can breathlessly begin to read the very day that I lay my eyes upon it: — David Foster Wallace fans will be happy to hear that an as yet untitled (and perhaps even unfinished) short story collection is slated to come out sometime in January or soon thereafter. — Jonathan Lethem’s remarkable story “View From a Headlock” in this week’s New Yorker turns out to be an excerpt from his new novel The Fortress of Solitude. Look for this one in September. — Vandela Vida, one half of the McSweeney’s super couple, has a new book coming out at the end of August called And Now You Can Go. Here’s an excerpt. — Jhumpa Lahiri has a new book coming out in September called The Namesake. This one was excerpted in the new fiction issue of the New York as a story called “Gogol.” — Apparently David Sedaris’ long-awaited new book will be titled Repeat After Me and will hit shelves a few months shy of a year from now. Anything else out there? let me know.
I spent a lot of time on the el yesterday riding all over Chicago, and there were lots of folks reading books. When you actually look at what people read, you realize that the reading habits of average folks range far beyond the coverage of newspaper book sections. In terms of what actually gets read, genre fiction certainly seems more popular than literary fiction. Here are the books people were reading on the red, purple, and brown lines yesterday.The Tristan Betrayal (a posthumous effort by Robert Ludlum that inspires PW to say “Perhaps it’s time to let the master rest in peace.”)Five Quarters of the Orange (Joanne Harris’ follow-up to Johnny Depp-vehicle Chocolat)Dutch II (part 2 of a trilogy by Teri Woods – and put out by Teri Woods Publishing – that scores an Amazon ranking of 1,229)Devil in the White City (I think every resident of Chicago has read Erik Larson’s account of murder at the World’s Fair.)Great Expectations (I love it when I see people reading classic novels on the el – it can restore ones faith in society, I think)Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer is reaching the masses!)Hotel Pastis (Peter Mayle’s “novel of Provence”)Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen never goes out of style)Deception Point (The obligatory Dan Brown thriller – law requires that at least one Dan Brown novel be present in every train car and a dozen on every airplane.)Elantris (PW says: “[Brandon] Sanderson’s outstanding fantasy debut, refreshingly complete unto itself and free of the usual genre cliches.”)Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth (Lana Turner never goes out of style either)We Thought You Would Be Prettier (Laurie Notaro’s “true tales of the dorkiest girl alive” – ranked 1,446 on Amazon)