I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah’s Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah’s name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah’s new focus on classic literature was having on America’s reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah’s club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight “book of the year” titles for the Harry Potter Series.)
[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Max writes:When I finished college, I followed my then-girlfriend (now wife) to Los Angeles, where she was to attend grad school. Fortuitously, some buddies of mine from high school were headed to L.A. as well. I found an apartment with them and we set out looking for jobs. At the time, I felt singularly unqualified to do anything in particular despite just a couple of months before having been handed a diploma that had cost into the six figures.In L.A., of course, when you look aimlessly for employment, you land in the entertainment industry, which is exactly what happened to my friends and me. As I began my job hunt, I was sufficiently dazzled by this prospect even though I had never up until that point considered acting, directing, or screenwriting. As I would soon find out, if you’re not the “talent” in Hollywood, you’re just another guy at a desk.I landed at a second-rate agency in Beverly Hills as an assistant for a newly hired literary agent. We’ll call him Bert. I was so clueless that every mundane detail was a revelation: “We send out thirty copies of this script to production companies!?” “I’m supposed to call your client and tell him ‘I have Bert on the line for you?'” As I soon realized that the job mostly entailed getting coffee and related menial tasks and looking busy when the head of the firm came through, I pushed for anything that would make the hours there bearable. I got along with my fellow assistants but the bosses tended to look beyond me into the distance when I talked to them. Attempting to play to my strengths, I asked Bert if I could read some scripts.I tore into them ruthlessly. Part of this was because these scripts were undoubtedly bad – heist and car chase rehashes – and part of it was because I had never read a script before and had no idea what they looked like. I produced pages of notes cataloging logical falacies, stilted dialog, and poor character development (this for a knock-off of Vin Diesel-vehicle The Fast and the Furious) and included lots of snarky asides. I handed the notes off to Bert and he never mentioned them again.From there my trajectory was decidedly downward. I was transferred to another agent, in a move that I now realize was intended to punish her poor performance – give her the worst assistant so she knows she’s on thin ice – and then ultimately “laid off” to punish her further. From there, I headed down the path of temp work and retail before turning things around by going back to school. As it has been for many, my first brush with Hollywood was humbling.Megan Hustad responds:Ever heard of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? Me, too! I was an assistant at Vintage Books, and my boss handed me the manuscript (for the fourth in the series, I think, but none had been published in the U.S. yet) and asked me to make six copies. I was to keep one, distribute the rest, and read overnight. That was big clue Nos. 1-6; seldom were so many souls asked to weigh in on a manuscript overnight. But no, I strolled in the following morning with this assessment: “I dunno, it seems ‘small’ to me. I just can’t picture the audience at all.” I may have added an aside about library ladies too, but I’ve suppressed the memory, so I couldn’t tell you.Thing is, the impulse to cough up withering assessments of proposals, scripts, or what have you, is strong. Especially when you’re employed in a creative industry but mainly engaged in menial tasks– how else, you think, can I help people understand that I’m capable of so, so much more than I’m being asked to do? This is what I learned, however, after eventually quitting Vintage (because my, ahem, “career” there had stalled out) and reading a lot of success manuals from the 1910s and 1920s, when snark was first in vogue: It’s actually very difficult to make positive and affirming statements, using American English, and still sound like you have a brain. Very demanding, intellectually. I mean, Lincoln had it down, but it didn’t come easy. You basically have to practice. Uselessness rating: 4For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew
A few days ago, during my weekly visit to the comic book store, I stopped at the dense graphic-novel shelves, tyrannized by choice. Before me sat row upon row of the laughably misleading (The Essential Dazzler), the highly unnecessary (ElfQuest: Volume 14), and the already-read (Essex County). After a minute of unfocused browsing, I arrived at a chunk of Punishers. Thanks to a 2009 alt-weekly story, I’d recalled that The Punisher’s Six Hours To Kill was set in Philadelphia, where I live. I picked it up and flipped on through, remembering why I hadn’t read The Punisher since I was 13: it was really kind of dumb.
Still, I’d come closer to buying the book than I reasonably should have—and the only reason for that was its setting. Eighteen years had passed since I’d given Frank Castle any thought—eighteen years in which he’d killed his way through Queens, Detroit, and Nome. Yet all it had taken to rekindle my interest was for him to hop in his van and roar down the Turnpike. Had I read Six Hours To Kill, I might’ve recognized a street, a park, or a building—and that would’ve drawn me in. Whether in comics, films, or novels, this verisimilitude is a gift—recognition that you actually exist.
In 1995, Steve Lopez debuted with Third and Indiana, named after an intersection in Philly’s crumbling Badlands. The book was mediocre—its villain was a cartoon, its heroes whimpering saints—but its street details were compelling. “An old man with a white mustache and a newsboy hat cooked ribs and chicken on the sidewalk in a barbecue fashioned from a black metal drum.” “Kensington Avenue… sat in eternal darkness and gloom under the El, and the tracks were supported by an archway of rusted iron crablegs, a symbol of the city’s industrial death.”
In Pete Dexter’s Brotherly Love, gangsters and union guys battle it out on similarly gritty streets: “Michael sees them too late, one on the sidewalk, one on the street. He takes the pistol out of his coat pocket, beginning to run, and shoots four times, blowing out the front window of a poultry store kitty-corner in the Italian Market.” I live two blocks from the Market, and when I walk through with my wife, I’ll point towards Ninth and Catherine. “In Brotherly Love, there was a shootout right over there,” I’ll say. My hope, perhaps, is that she’ll find me somehow tougher—after all, I witnessed a goddamn shooting. Instead, she’ll ask, “Wait—this was in a book? So it didn’t actually… happen?” “No, not really,” I’ll mumble. But… I could’ve sworn…
Such split thinking speaks, of course, to the vitality of narrative, to how it tricks us towards belief. But unlike camping with the Joads or mourning poor Piggy, reading about one’s hometown doesn’t transport so much as extend, enlarging our maps with each page. I’ve spent time in nearby Germantown thanks to David Goodis’ Black Friday: “He was very careful about it as he walked along Morton Street, watching the doors, the porch posts, the brick walls underneath the porch.” When Point Breeze makes the paper, I’ve been there through The Corrections: “Friable houses with bedsheet curtains. Expanses of fresh asphalt that seemed to seal the neighborhood’s fate more than promise renewal.”
Until I wrote this piece, I hadn’t seen the thread that runs through my Philly reading: I focus on areas that I’d otherwise never enter; on things I’d rather not see. Like a Baltimorean watching The Wire, I experience the nearby underbelly without having to actually experience it. This might make me an earnest investigator or an entitled cultural sightseer; probably a mixture of both. But whatever my motive, I’m not nearly as interested in the places I already know. Were there a Philadelphia novel about a Bella Vista freelancer, I’d probably have to skip it. I spend enough time with myself.
In a recent issue of Superman, The Man of Steel began a cross-country walk in West Philadelphia. As with The Punisher, his visit made the news—but this time, much of it harped on errors. For one, Superman trekked through “The South Side”—a term used in Chicago, but never Philadelphia. And at a diner, he ordered a “Philly cheese steak sandwich,” as natural-sounding as a Bulgarian weekender. Such details, while seemingly petty, are crucial to hometown readers. We might be too busy, or nervous, or lazy to go out and explore what surrounds us—but if you’re the author, by God, you’d better get it right. Because we’ll take your stories as journalism; they’ll shape our thoughts for years. We may or may not be tourists, but you are surely our guide.
(Image: west philly, from lisacee’s photostream)
Matthew Kneale won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2001 for his maritime historical novel English Passengers. Now Kneale has a collection of stories out that takes a more contemporary look at traveling. Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance is about the complexities of exploring today’s world. A review in The Scotsman says that Kneale’s “‘small crimes’ are usually ones of hypocrisy from Europeans traveling in developing countries – well-intentioned souls suddenly confronted with the unpleasant realities of life among the picturesque peasants.” Here’s an excerpt from the book and here’s a little essay by Kneale about some of his more harrowing moments on the road.As Hotel Rwanda helped raise the profile of genocide in Africa, a soon to be released British novel uses a similar, fictionalized tragedy as its backdrop. Andrew Miller’s The Optimists is the story of Clem Glass, a photojournalist who returns home from Africa unable to come to terms with what he has witnessed there. A review in The Times discusses the difficulties in embarking on such a novel: “The novelist has to mediate a political event more skillfully than a journalist and the tension between subject and mediator is what should be driving the story. In The Optimists there is more awkwardness than tension.” At the Meet the Author Web site (which is filled with video interviews with authors) Miller discusses what he was trying to accomplish with the novel. Update: a review in the Guardian.James Salter has a collection of short stories coming out in April called Last Night. Publishers Weekly says, “The reserved, elegiac nature of Salter’s prose and his mannered, well-bred characters lend the collection a distanced tone, but at their best these are stirring stories, worthy additions to a formidable body of work.” That formidable body of work, by the way, includes a previous collection of stories that won a PEN/Faulkner Award in 1989, Dusk and Other Stories. For another taste of Salter, here’s his recent reminiscence of food in France from the New York Times. And here’s a story from the new book.
HarperCollins, which has been more and more active in many facets of the online world, is rolling out a “virtual book tour” with the BlogHer Advertising Network and Community. With hundreds of blogs in the network, BlogHer represents an ample crop of writers and readers for HarperCollins, which is spurred on by BlogHer’s data that among women who read blogs in the network “32 percent spent at least $100 purchasing books online in the past six months.” The idea is that HarperCollins will make review copies of several books available for bloggers in the network to read and review “and participate in book title discussions on their own blogs and on BlogHer.org.”It all seems like a perfectly reasonable plan to build an Oprah-like grass roots phenomenon, but I have two reservations. First, Oprah doesn’t have a special arrangement with any specific publisher, and while there is likely some corporate horse-trading behind the scenes when she makes her picks, at least we know she isn’t limited to only talking about selections from a small subset of all the books out there. Secondly, BlogHer operates an ad network. From the press release, it doesn’t appear as though HarperCollins will be buying ads through the network, but if that does happen, then this initiative will have crossed a line. Obviously, I have no problem with advertising on blogs and/or getting review copies from publishers, but advertising shouldn’t be explicitly tied to an initiative like this.Update: Some of the concerns I raised have been addressed in a followup post.
The hot memoir on shelves right now is that of former crack dealer and current big-time chef Jeff Henderson, whose book Cooked tells the story of how learning to cook in a prison kitchen changed his life. I heard Henderson on the radio a week or two ago and was definitely intrigued by his story which provides an inside look at dealing drugs, prison, and the kitchens of top-tier restaurants. A recent post at the Freakonomics blog shares a couple of brief excerpts which only made me more curious about the book. There’s also a pdf excerpt at Henderson’s Web site, and an interview with Henderson at Gothamist.