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.
In the New Yorker, Ian Frazier shares some stories about how the modern novel is threatening to bring down the American economy.Right now, it’s costing me forty-five dollars to fill up my 4Runner, which is about two novels. Tough decisions are going to have to be made. I’m used to having a newly released hardcover on the dash of my vehicle, another in the back seat for the kids. At home, we’ve got a novel in each bedroom, two in the family room, one in the laundry room for my wife when she’s down there, and a novella in the john. We go through a couple of dozen novels in a year without even noticing. I hate to say it, but this can’t go on.
Reuters reported today that The New York Sun is in financial trouble, and may be forced to close shop before the end of the month, unless it can find a backer. In some ways, this isn’t a surprising development. Global affairs, in the current, real-time sense of the term, require enormous resources to cover thoroughly, and economies of scale would seem to cut against a small-circulation newspaper. But the intellectual seriousness of the conservative-leaning Sun has helped it make inroads in an increasingly wide-open market: the book section.Under the editorship of the poet and critic Adam Kirsch (who has two books out this year), The Sun has become, for my money, the best newspaper book section in the country. Kirsch resembles James Wood in his donnish regard for literary tradition, but, more importantly, he shares with Wood an appreciation for the notion of writerly sensibility – and has been willing to assign books to writers whose well-honed sensibilities diverge from his own. Recent pleasures include Kirsch on canonical German Adalbert Stifter, Benjamin Lytal on contemporary master Marilynne Robinson, Otto Pinzler on the varieties of crime fiction, and Caleb Crain on the evolving English language. This breadth of interest and commitment to excellence (in reviewer and subject) are the key ingredients in the kind of book reviews worth reading. It would be sad, after such a promising start, to see The Sun go.[Correction: An attentive reader informs us that, although Adam Kirsch is “the book critic for The New York Sun“, and is, in some sense, the book section, he is not the section’s editor. That title, and presumably the role of assigning reviews, belongs to David Wallace-Wells.]
There’s a very entertaining article at the CBC Web site about the pros and cons of being prolific as a writer. It leads with a discussion of the output of Alexander McCall Smith of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame, who regularly churns out 3,000 words at a sitting. Prolific authors are often envied, but if they happen to be genre writers they are likely to be derided as well, even as publishers covet them and count on them to bankroll riskier publishing endeavors: The dream of most publishers is to have at least one “house author,” a writer with a robust fan base who can dependably churn out one title a year – giving the publisher the financial solidity to take the occasional flyer on more challenging (read: less gainful) authors.The article also includes a great quote from DFW: Musing on the seemingly inexhaustible John Updike, David Foster Wallace once asked, “Has the son-of-a-bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” Updike’s absurdly prodigious output – in the form of novels, as well as short stories, travel writing and literary criticism – has undermined his stature in the eyes of Foster Wallace, as well as many fiction readers. I would tend to agree that volume can degrade one’s reputation in the eyes of the reader. The article goes on to mention Joyce Carol Oates whose level of output many seem to take as a personal insult, and closes with an amusing comparison of Oates and Stephen King courtesy George Murray, proprietor of Bookninja.Curious about the output of different writers? This search returns lots of interesting numbers.
You’ve got to hand it to Oprah. After a public snub from Jonathan Franzen, an abrupt switch to focusing on classic books, and a return to the contemporary with a confessional memoir that turns out to plagiarized – resulting in the very public humiliation of its author on her show – one would think that Oprah would have run out of opportunities to grab big headlines with her book club. And yet, by selecting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and convincing the famously reclusive author to appear on her show, she has done it yet again.I had a couple of thoughts about this pick. In the early days of the club, Oprah selected quite a few emotionally challenging books, often with female protagonists in some sort of peril. With her selection of Franzen’s The Corrections, however, the club broke out of its shell and then traversed the various ups and downs noted above. Still, it is fascinating to me that this unabashedly mass market phenomenon, the TV show book club, would pick a book that is by all accounts harrowing and devastatingly serious and not an easy read in any sense. It’s not the first time Oprah has selected a formally “difficult” book. Recall the “Summer of Faulkner.” Still, to take a book that is all of the above and also contemporary seems rather incredible. It will also be interesting, if The Road goes on to win a Pulitizer or National Book Award, to have had Oprah “anoint” a book before our more formal institutions have.Secondly, I couldn’t help but think about poor Franzen as I read the news that McCarthy would appear on Oprah’s show. Franzen, of course, famously feuded with Oprah after she selected his book and he was publicly ambivalent about being an “Oprah author.” This led to plenty of comments like this one from an independent bookstore owner at the time of the controversy, saying that she felt “that good literature cannot be an Oprah selection.” With McCarthy appearing on the show for his “first television interview ever,” it’s hard to make that argument any more. We’re talking about a legitimate Nobel Prize candidate here (and somehow this is different from Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic One Hundred Years of Solitude being selected a while back). And poor Franzen, taking a public stand for his art and facing plenty of ridicule at the time, has had his legs cut out from under him by a literary giant – a famously reclusive one at that – eschewing the hand-wringing and taking the Oprah honor in stride.Update: It’s been pointed out to me that The Road missed its chance to win the National Book Award – it went to The Echo Maker, as you’ll recall. The Road is still in the running for the Pulitzer, but as it is far from the typical Pulitzer candidate, I’d guess its chances there are slim. So McCarthy will have to be satisfied with the unlikely duo of an Oprah Pick and a TMN Tournament of Books win (which the book appears likely to snag).