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.)
In today's Public Editor column in the New York Times, Daniel Okrent takes the opportunity to mercilessly bash the Tony Awards as well as the Times' lavish coverage of them. The only productions eligible for Tony's are ones that take place "on" Broadway as opposed to "Off," despite the fact that "the various Off or Off Off Broadway houses ... launched all but one winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in the last decade (the exception originated in a nonprofit theater in Florida)." Meanwhile back at the Times, Okrent claims that there will soon be better coverage of theatre: "the Times is on the brink of a long-planned, apparently expensive and unquestionably overdue renovation of its cultural report, scheduled to premiere in the fall."
I found an interesting interview with Jonathan Safran Foer today. I'll be including this in an upcoming post about books to look forward to this year, but I wanted to post it separately first because I think it's pretty interesting, and I can't recall seeing it posted anywhere else. In the interview he talks about his forthcoming novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which will include photography along with the text, and which seems to be a continuation of the rule-breaking, avant-garde style he has been cultivating. The rest of the interview provides an interesting picture of this young author. The only annoying thing is that the interview is kind of hard to get to. First go to this link, click on Foer and then click on "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
From Michael Chabon's site, an update on his forthcoming novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and a preview of The Best American Short Stories 2005, which Chabon is editing. The inclusion of "at least four" genre stories, including ones by Dennis Lehane and Tom Bissell, will surely rankle literary purists.Letters to Frank Conroy from his studentsThe AP's books guy, Hillel Italie, profiles FSG and highlights their penchant for publishing award-winning books.
Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours was one of the biggest hits of the last ten years, so it's fair to say that his follow-up Specimen Days is being anticipated by many readers. Like The Hours, Specimen Days is composed of three interrelated stories. The title of the novel is borrowed from Walt Whitman's autobiography, and much as Virginia Woolf was the inspiration for The Hours, Whitman provides raw material for Specimen Days. The book gets a gushing review in the New York Observer: Specimen Days is "an extraordinary book, as ambitious as it is generous; and the depth of its kindness, or grace, is to convey that it is we ourselves, the multitude, who are extraordinary, or might be."Another anticipated follow up is Dai Sijie's Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch, which comes on the heels of Sijie's popular novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Traveling Couch (no relation to the Traveling Pants as far as I know) is about a French-trained psychoanalyst who returns to his native China where his sweetheart is a political prisoner. You can read an excerpt of the book here.Terry Gamble has new book out, Good Family, her second novel after her 2003 debut, Water Dancers. Good Family starts like this: "In the years before our grandmother died, when my sister and I wore matching dresses, and the grown-ups, unburdened by conscience, drank gin and smoked; those years before planes made a mockery of distance, and physics a mockery of time; in the years before I knew what it was like to be regarded with hard, needy want, when my family still had its goodness, and I my innocence; in those years before Negroes were blacks, and soldiers went AWOL, and women were given their constrained, abridged liberties, we traveled to Michigan by train."Kaui Hart Hemmings is the author of a debut collection of stories, House of Thieves, that sounds very interesting. Hemmings is Hawaiian, and PW says "a dusty, dreamy Hawaii rife with sexual frustration, loneliness and adolescent heartbreak is the setting for the nine stories of Hemmings's bold debut collection." Her story "The Minor Wars" appeared in the 2004 Best Nonrequired Reading, and here you can read an excerpt of the title story which appeared in Zoetrope: All Story.
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The other day I threw myself across the bed and began lamenting my writing career (or lack thereof). This is one of my hobbies--if not my favorite one, then at least the one at which I most excel. My husband (and fellow Millions contributor), Patrick, said, "Oh be quiet. You just want a two-book deal and Marion Ettlinger to take your author photo." The nerve! I might have thrown a pillow at his face, and went on with my self-loathing. You see, Patrick and I love to make fun of Ms. Ettlinger. She is probably the most famous photographer of authors, (she even has a book of them), and her images of Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Joyce Carol Oates are burned in the cultural retina. Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we'd only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned. Perhaps it's that last quality--old fashioned--that rubs me the wrong way. Looking at these photos, I get the sense that the writers (even the young ones) are long gone, lost to an era when people gazed longingly out of train windows, mailed handwritten letters, or actually read books. I can't imagine any of these writers alive, moving their mouths, checking their email, eating dinner. Maybe that's the point: we want our authors to be Authors, unreachable and removed from the world of the reader. But as we head towards 2010, that's more and more implausible. Newsflash: writers live in the world. There are a few of Ettlinger's photos I like. The full-body shots are better than the close-ups. Take the one, for instance, of David Foster Wallace; his plaid jacket, his downward gaze, and the sky above, create a lovely, even haunting, composition. Or the one, of James Ellroy: he's gone whole hog with the photo's anachronistic qualities, and it's fun. Other full body shots, however, are a disaster. Hey, Melissa Bank, did you learn that pose in yoga? If I were to title this picture, I'd call it, "The Failed Seduction." We've all been there, Ladies, haven't we? Some of the close-ups, particularly of the women, are just weird. I hate when authors cup their own head with their hands. What, will it fall off? Clearly, the writer is trying to appear thoughtful. Most of the time, though, they look like they're starring in a pain killer ad. Ann Patchett and Amy Hempel's pictures are the worst examples of this, although, to be fair, this is an epidemic in many author photos, not just ones by Ettlinger. Browsing through these pictures got me thinking about other author photos. Many bad examples abound. There's the "I love my dog!" variety, a la Dean Koontz and J.A. Jance--somehow Ellroy doesn't fall into this category, perhaps because the dog in his photo looks hired, just another old-timey prop. There's also the Trench Coat Club, which is usually reserved for mystery writers, but we see it here, with Adam Haslett. And there's the "I'm just a harmless debut author" Club, wherein the writer strikes a more casual pose, and smiles like a well-intentioned, but potentially useless, babysitter. Aimee Phan is a good example of this, but she is just one of many. Lastly, there's the "My spouse took this picture the night before it was due" Club. I won't even bother with an example--just imagine your least-flattering Facebook picture, and you'll understand. Let me be clear: I am not damning these writers, or their work--far from it. It's simply the photos I protest. But getting one's picture taken for a book jacket must be a daunting task. How do you decide how to represent yourself to the reading public? You want to look serious, but not too serious! You want to look attractive, but not too attractive! You want to look young, but not...you catch my drift. It can't be easy. I remember an author-friend telling me he wanted to forgo the photo altogether. I said he couldn't, or else people would assume he was ghastly. And that's true. Only Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger can pull off real anonymity. I suppose that if Marion Ettlinger ever calls me, I'll do my hair, slap on some eyeshadow, and ready for my close-up. Perhaps Patrick is correct: it is my most embarrassing fantasy.
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