Lulu, a self-publishing outfit, went back through 50 years of New York Times fiction bestseller lists and determined that the average age of the bestselling author is 50 and a half (via BBC). It makes sense in that the upper reaches of that list are often dominated by franchise-type writers – Stephen King and Danielle Steel are cited – whose careers plateau at a point where every book they write goes to number one, no matter the quality. A younger writer with few books under his or her belt has no reputation to ride on, but the middle-aged writer can ride on reputation to year after year of number ones. But NYT bestsellers are kind of a bore, I’d be more curious about the average ages of the winners of different prizes. Regardless, it almost goes without saying that the most exciting voices in fiction are younger than 50, except for the ones who aren’t.
Skimming through the CS Monitor book section I came upon a capsule review describing Because She Can by Bridie Clark as the latest example of “assistant lit.” I assume that this trend hit the big time with the success of The Devil Wears Prada, and the subsequent movie version. But just as some see Jane Austen as a precursor to so-called “chick lit,” I wonder if “assistant lit” has some historical antecedents.One fairly obvious example that comes to mind is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perhaps the ur-assitant lit, in which the sympathetic Bob Cratchit is put upon by his terrible boss Ebenezer Scrooge, who has become something of a model for penny-pinching bosses ever since. But in that case, the action focuses on the boss, and we don’t get much of Cratchit being forced to do Scrooge’s laundry.Another, much more recent example – which actually came out after Prada – might be Rick Moody’s ambitious novel The Diviners, which offers a bleak (and not altogether successful) take on the humiliating plight of the assistant, while also, more or less, attempting to chronicle the downfall of our vacuous, celebrity-obsessed civilization.Then again, it might just be that the book that many consider to be the father of the novel, Don Quixote, also happens to be the very first example of “assistant lit.” Sancho Panza fits the bill as he is endlessly put upon by a boss who manages to both domineering and moronic. For those who have been assistants, as I once was, Don Quixote and his maddening whims will likely call up memories of capricious bosses.But certainly there must be other examples of assistant lit that long predate the current trend, or like The Diviners turn it on its head. Can anyone think of some other good examples? Share in the comments.
I’m sitting in a Barcelona internet cafe in the completely empty non-smoking section… The smoking section is packed. It’s only noon though, so it seems like most of the city isn’t really awake yet. We are staying about four blocks from Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. It is under construction as it has been for decades, and it is a bizarre building to look upon. Over the next couple of days we will see some of Gaudi’s other work. Today: art museums and La Boqueria, Barcelona’s massive open air food market. I had hoped to get a lot of reading done on the plane, but the trip was so grueling that I didn’t accomplish much. I worked my way through the first issue of The Believer, McSweeney’s magazine about books and other fluff. Heidi Julavits’ article about the lost art of book reviewing is the high point, after that it’s mostly uneven to dull. But, hey, at least the folks on Valencia keep churning out new and interesting projects. Til next time…
I made mention of a young writer named Ben Mezrich in my poker post earlier this week. Well, it turns out he’s got another high-stakes book out, but this time international finance, not poker, is the focus. Ugly Americans is about an Ivy Leaguer who follows a nebulous job offer to Japan where he ends up pulling off “a trade that could, quite simply, be described as the biggest deal in the history of the financial markets.” And it’s a true story. Kinda makes ya curious, no?In case anyone is feeling very generous as you read this. I found two things today that I really want: George Plimpton on Sports and The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus Megaset. (They’re on my wishlist.)Coming soon: “Goodbye, Los Angeles!”
I’m pleased to report that Freebird Books & Goods, the terminal stop on our “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers,” has reopened its doors. With its packed wooden shelves, comfortable chairs, creaky floors, selection of fine teas, and breathtaking view of Manhattan, Freebird has been my favorite used bookstore since I first moved in around the corner three years ago. I’m not alone in my enthusiasm; guest-blogging at The Elegant Variation earlier this year, Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End, wrote of “a palpable feeling that you’re in a place where books, no matter how old, are alive and well.”Premature nostalgia afflicted me and many of my neighbors when we heard that owners Rachel London and Samantha Citrin were moving on to other endeavors. But it turns out that Freebird is in good hands. New owner Peter Miller is a bibliophile and all-around nice guy. He’s dedicated to building on the traditions of the store, while introducing new amenities to draw in new customers.One such innovation is the Freebird blog, where Mr. Miller’s been posting images of (and commentary on) the wonderful oddities he’s come across in his journey through the stacks. Lively events and a renewed liquor license (coming soon, I’m told), should further burnish the store’s reputation. As Mr. Ferris put it, “It’s the kind of place that reminds you why you read.” So if you’re in New York this holiday season, hop the F train to Bergen and make your way down to the waterfront…and be reminded!
The Using Books blog points to a Kansas City childrens’ book store, Reading Reptile, that is taking HarperCollins to task for allegedly doctoring the photo of Clement Hurd, illustrator of the childrens’ classic Goodnight Moon, on a recent edition of the book. It seems that Hurd was once pictured holding a barely visable cigarette and now the cigarette has disappeared. The Reading Reptile folks have put together Goodnight Reality, a Web site to protest the “censorship.” Though the comparisons to Stalin may be a bit over the top, I suppose you have to fight for what you believe in.And lest I be accused of taking things too seriously, the Reading Reptile folks are probably being a little tongue in cheek about this. Judging from their “About Us” page, they’ve got a sense of humor.Update: The New York Times looks at the Goodnight Moon cigarette controversy. HarperCollins plans to find a completely different photo of Clement Hurd for future printings of the book, so that no doctoring will be required.
I was chided by my buddy Brian for devoting most of my previous post to the “mean book review” and not going into the dumbing down of the book review. To elaborate, along with ratcheting up the level of controversy, the New York Times Book Review is going to shift its focus away from more esoteric and literary fiction. In its place expect to see more non-fiction and more popular fiction reviewed. Also, the reviews themselves may become more bite-sized: “why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do?” Now, I happen to think that the New York Times Book Review isn’t a terribly engaging read in its current incarnation. Typically, I pick it up to see which new books are being mentioned and read reviews of any books that I might have already read or that I am particularly interested in for some reason. All the reviews are essentially the same length and I find that they usually don’t keep me engaged if I’m not already interested in the book that’s being reviewed. I agree that there’s a problem, but I don’t think that the solution is capsule reviews full rancorous banter. Once you start down that road it’s only a matter of time before you start issuing Entertainment Weekly-style report card grades so that we can skip the reviews entirely. I would suggest that they devote at least a few of their pages for longer format reviews where, sure, the book is being reviewed, but it’s really just a jumping off point for a broader discussion of the topic at hand. The New Yorker and the Atlantic do this and they are among the most consistently readable and interesting reviews that I come across. John Updike’s review in the New Yorker of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is an example of this. Believe it or not, the review wasn’t altogether positive, but Updike managed to convey, nonetheless, the essence of the book, and I was able to tell from the first few paragraphs of his review that I wanted to read the book. Another New Yorker book review moment: I can’t even remember the name of the book that Louis Menand reviewed when I realized that I was far more enamored by the writing and breadth of knowledge of the reviewer than by the book being reviewed (which I can’t remember anymore anyway). Menand’s book The Metaphysical Club came out soon after and proved to be even more engaging than that first review that had turned me on to his writing. Those are good “book review experiences,” and if the New York Times Book Review could manage to provide one or two of those a week, they might find the positive change that they were looking for.An update at Poynter Online has Times executive editor Bill Keller saying, “We’re not turning the Book Review into Mad magazine.” And here’s the article that got me started on all this in the first place.