- 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 students
- The AP’s books guy, Hillel Italie, profiles FSG and highlights their penchant for publishing award-winning books.
I ran a piece in last week’s New York Observer reviewing William Goetzmann’s intellectual history, Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism. A dry title, I know, and somewhat dry inside the cover, too. Goetzmann is near the end of a long academic career and the book felt a little like cleaning out the closet. Still, I found it an interesting read. There’s a novel synthesis running through all the facts and anecdotes, one that I think is particularly useful in our time:There were few things America’s charter citizens agreed on, but one was that the government should be agnostic about what makes the good life. That neutrality left the field open for utopian projects like Brook Farm and Modern Times, and makes room today for everything from mega-churches to television ads that hawk deodorant as a lifestyle. In fact, Beyond the Revolution argues, the entire frenzy of American enterprise from the founding to the present can be understood as an effort to invent, peddle, connive or discern, a model for how to choose and what to value in country where anything is possible.
Last night the winners of this year’s National Book Awards were announced:Fiction: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (I’ve got this book lying around somewhere, and I’ve been somewhat interested in reading it… and I’m still somewhat interested in reading it.)Non-Fiction: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire (I was hoping that Gulag by Anne Applebaum would win. Of course, in these situations, I always want the book that I’ve read to win. It’s more fun that way.)Poetry: The Singing by C.K. Williams (This is exciting. C.K. Williams has been one of my favorite poets for a very long time. Here’s an anti-war poem of his called “The Hearth.”)Young People’s Literature: The Canning Season by Polly Horvath (I’m no expert on kid’s books, but I’m actually pretty familiar with Horvath. A few years back I worked at an agency that repped the film and TV rights for a huge catalog of books. Polly Horvath’s books were among them, and they were favorites around the office.)Additional info: Past National Book Award WinnersDexter SpeaksI found this great mini-profile of author Pete Dexter yesterday. It helps illuminate the qualities of his character that I was unable to quite describe in a post a while back about seeing him read. He is a very old-fashioned hard-nosed guy, a newspaper man. He’s got a great sense of humor too. They sort of gloss over it in the article, but I think it’s pretty remarkable that he’s driving himself around the country for this book tour. He clearly enjoys doing that sort of thing. I do, however, happen to disagree with the remarks he makes about Stephen King and the American reading public. King himself admits that he has written several clunkers along the way, but he has also written some astoundingly good books that, given a little perspective years from now, will be thought of as some of the best books of our era. I know it’s a bold statement, but think about how good The Stand, It, and The Shining are (just to pick a few of the many good books he’s written). Just because he sells as many or more books than Tom Clancy or John Grisham doesn’t mean he writes at their level. I also disagree with this: “The winner of a National Book Award argued that the reason John Grisham and James Patterson novels are so popular ‘has something to do with our lack of attention span.'” Dexter mentioned this at the reading I attended with unironic and grave concern. It’s true that millions of people read books by those authors, but I don’t think that it’s due to a lack of attention span. My theory is that people read the same types of formulaic books over and over again because it is comfortable. The vast majority of the people out there lead busy, stressful lives and they read for fun and for an escape. They don’t have time to browse endlessly at bookstores seeking out a hidden gem. They don’t want to risk buying a book that is unknown to them and that might not serve their needs, when there is a shelf full of books that they know with certainty will give them what they need. A lot of these same people would gladly be more adventurous readers if their lives permitted it, they just don’t have the time or the money to support it. This is why all those polemical right-wing and left-wing books do so well even though they bring no new discussions to the table. This is why Jerry Bruckheimer movies do so well. It is an unfortunate fact that our modern lives do not typically leave room for the adventurous consumption of creativity, and to say that people consume all this stuff that is “bad” because they are deficient in some way misses the point entirely. (I know I made essentially the same point in a post last week, but I’ve had this idea on my mind a lot lately).
In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader’s comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24’s President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running – Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes – and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life – and particularly public opinion and national politics – a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.” Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe’s novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe’s lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel’s sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative – by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic – is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe’s work – not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass’ work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass’ narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe’s, but it is Stowe’s – the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama – that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass’ best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe’s Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine – in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country’s readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain’s age and history of skin cancer). It’s all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.
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.
Today I happened to walk by one of those thrift stores connected to a hospital, and, thinking they might have a couple of shelves of books, I decided to stop in. I’m glad I did. The books were way in the back in this weird garage-like annex, and the room smelled pretty bad. This made browsing unpleasant, but I had a theory that the odor might have kept prospective shoppers out – more books for me. The store was also right on with their pricing: 50 cents for paperbacks and a dollar for hardcovers, which, in my opinion, should be the standard pricing scheme if the customer has to sift through messy, disorganized shelves. The selection turned out to be pretty great, and I had to restrict myself to only the best books I could find – books that I was surprised enough to see on the shelves that I felt passing them up would be criminal, so I ended up leaving a lot of pretty good stuff behind. If I had bought everything I wanted, I would have had a hard time getting home on the el, and furthermore, empty bookshelf space is somewhat scarce in my apartment these days. So it was only the cream of the crop for me.I grabbed three hardcovers: The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez. I was working at the bookstore when the poker craze started getting pretty big, and this classic from 1983 was one of the books we recommended to people wanting to read up on the game. I also found a copy of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which I’ve been told is one of his best. And I was delighted to spot baseball guru Bill James’ out of print treatise on the Hall of Fame, Politics of Glory. I also snagged a pocket paperback edition of John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy. All in all, a pretty good haul.
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.