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.
Tao Lin, a young writer with a flair for cleverly drawing attention to his work, is in the news again. His latest scheme is to take investments from “the public” in his novel-in-progress in exchange for a portion of the royalties.The move appears to have been successful; shares are no longer available and Lin got written up in several mainstream publications, including a fairly lengthy piece in the Telegraph, and dozens of blogs. What nobody mentioned, however, is that this has been done before, some 40 years ago, by another outsized, New York personality.In the early years of his career, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn did the same thing, according to a John Lahr piece that originally ran in the New Yorker and is collected in his book of profiles, Show and Tell published in 2000. Shawn, son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, was a struggling writer going out of his way to achieve literary success without tapping into his father’s considerable influence. Lahr writes:Back then, Wally was forced to follow his own quirky, unconventional path. He told me he’d “sold stock in himself” – his way of rationalizing a twenty-five-hundred-dollar loan he took from a consortium of friends in the sixties, in order to go off and write his plays. (To this day, the investors receive a small yearly check).The juxtaposition of the two schemes presents an interesting notion. $2,500 40 years ago got you some small percentage of a budding artist’s career in perpetuity. $2,000 now only gets you 10% of the royalties for a novel. Inflation, I suppose.Finally, despite Shawn’s scheme (I believe) initially being revealed in a New Yorker piece and despite Shawn’s obvious ties to the magazine, The New Yorker, in its (admittedly very brief) mention of Lin’s plan on its own blog, did not catch the Shawn connection.Given the fractured state of publishing and the enthusiasm for trying new models, perhaps this shareholder form of patronage will take off, but it will have been Shawn, not Lin, who was the first innovator.
“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane (from Open Boat and Other Stories)This 1898 story, about the last survivors of a shipwreck as they fight for the safety of land on a soaked and cold dinghy, contains one of my favorite sentences in all of short fiction: “It was probably splendid, it was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.” That repetition of “probably” gets me every time.“Merry-Go-Sorry” by Carry Holladay (from Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Award)It’s a shame that Holladay hasn’t yet published a collection, for This tale of a town affected by the killing of three young boys, told in a fluid omniscient narration, is strange, ambitious, and beautiful. We venture into the minds of the accused killer, of the girl who writes him letters, of the cops investigating the murders, and so on and on, until a complicated world has emerged on the page.“Do Not Disturb” by A.M. Homes (from Things You Should Know)This story concerns a wimp of a husband and a bitch of a wife. She gets cancer, and she gets meaner. What now?“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link (from Magic for Beginners)In this wild story, a family moves from a cramped Manhattan apartment to a big haunted house outside the city. Objects start to feel “wrong” and must be discarded; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rabbits on the front lawn; the wife cannot stop painting the rooms; the daughter sleepwalks; the husband won’t return home from work. Just as the story begins to create a coherent universe, the narrative embraces something new and strange, and the reader must remake meaning once again. It’s a big, messy, playful collision of a story.Stay tuned for more recommended stories from The Millions later this week.
It’s a good time for books right now. In my year and half at the book store, I haven’t quite figured out the nuances of the publishing calendar, but it seems like spring is always the best time of year for new books. I suppose the publishers anticipate that people will have plenty of time to read during the summer. There were several interesting new releases this week: Dry is Augusten Burroughs’ follow up to last year’s Running with Scissors a memoir about his growing up in the care of a profoundly disturbed shrink. It is hilarious until you remind yourself that it’s a true story. Not sure if Dry will live up to Running with Scissors but it’s certainly worth reading if you enjoyed that book. Several great books about baseball have come out this spring (including Game Time a collection of essays by one of my favorite baseball writers Roger Angell). This week’s baseball book is Moneyball by Michael Lewis which strives to explain how the Oakland A’s and their general manager, Billy Beane, have managed to become successful while sporting one of the lowest payrolls in the Major Leagues. This has easily been the most interesting story in baseball over the last couple of years so it’s not at all surprising to see a book that focuses on it. The big novel release of the last week or so was Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood author of, most notably The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, The Blind Assassin. I have never read Atwood, but several of my trusted fellow readers are most devoted to her work.Heard on the RadioNPR often broadcasts gushing reviews of the world’s blandest music. In fact, their review of the last Red Hot Chili Peppers album was unequaled in both the reviewer’s unabashed worship of the band and the grinding dullness of the music that accompanied it. Which is saying a lot, since typically I don’t really have a huge problem with the Chili Peppers. On the hand, NPR regularly devotes air time to some very worthy books, and last week was no exception. Morning Edition devoted a long segment to interviewing Adrian Nicole LeBlanc author of Random Family. To write this remarkable book, LeBlanc spent more than ten years spending time with a family in a decaying neighborhood in the Bronx in order to chronicle their lives. She was able to draw a masterful picture of one troubled family among many. In her interview, it was especially interesting to hear how the assignment to write a single article for Rolling Stone blossomed into a ten year odyssey in the writing of her book. I also caught a tidbit of an interview with Mary Roach the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which chronicles, in a light hearted way, the numerous ways in which society has been advanced by putting the dead to work. There are the obvious medical examples, but some rather strange examples, as well. Apparently, the first crash test dummies were actually dead bodies, strapped into cars and rammed into walls. Pretty bizarre. I also caught an interview with a couple of the guys (I’m not sure which ones) who put together the book Temples of Sound. This is a fun little illustrated encyclopedia of the most storied recording studios of our musical century. Fantastic pictures accompany text filled with the magic-moment-of-creation stories that all music fans love to read about. Temples of Sound, by the way, is put out by Chronicle Books, which accounts for its great look. When perusing the shelves look out for books put out by Chronicle; they are always interesting or funny and they are beautiful visually.Yes, but is it Art?The art book that caught my eye this past week is a monograph on the artist Gordon Matta-Clark who is most famous for slicing the facades off of derelict buildings. In keeping with the style that made Matta-Clark famous, Phaidon, the publisher of many popular art books, put out a book from which a section of the spine has been cut away to reveal the bare structural binding of the book. It is a wonderful tribute to an artist who died very young as well as a triumph of creative book design.What I’m Reading NowIn Nine Innings Daniel Okrent writes about a single baseball game. In the early ’80s he followed the Milwaukee Brewers for well over a year in order that he would know this team more intimately then even their most rabid fan. Then he picked a single baseball game and used the knowledge he had gathered to write about it. The book is both a microscopic look at the elementary unit of America’s pastime and a study of the many individuals involved with the game as a backdrop. A grand book, especially for a baseball fan.
Now, this sounds like a good idea: Marvel Comics announced today that is has put more than 2,500 comic books online with more to come. The idea is that with a subscription, readers can get unlimited access to the online comic vault. Clearly Marvel’s still working out the bugs – I tried to view some of the “free samples” but got a bunch of errors – but the move makes a lot of sense. Traditional publishers are experimenting with online readers, but the widgets are designed to make it easy to view snippets of books rather than whole books. With comics, much more easily consumed on a computer screen, these efforts seem more viable, as a trove of comics a click away will likely tempt many fans.
When I started a book blog two and half years ago, I had no idea I would be paying such close attention to the activities of Oprah Winfrey, but here I am, again. The truth is, when I worked at a book store a few years ago (and not a very Oprah-friendly one, mind you) her influence on book sales and mainstream book culture in America was evident on a daily basis. With a few reservations, I applauded Oprah’s decision to highlight “classic” novels, because it put these essential books into the hands of readers who might not otherwise be drawn to them. Now it appears as though this phase of Oprah’s club has ended, and her gaze (which can bestow millions upon an unsuspecting author) has fallen once again upon the living. She says that she was “moved” by a letter signed by various living authors asking her to consider contemporary books once again, but perhaps, with the Summer of Faulkner, the “classics” experiment had simply run its course.Even if it hadn’t been preceded by the Faulkner books, the current selection, James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces would be a disappointment. While entertaining (I’m told), it’s the switch to non-fiction, and more importantly, confessional memoir, that bothers me. Oprah’s entire show is a confessional memoir. Her guests are invited on the show to pour out their souls so that viewers can cry along with them, and Oprah joins in. While previous picks, classic or otherwise, take us out of Oprah’s world and into a narrative created by the author, books like A Million Little Pieces are indistinguishable from the content of her show, all of which makes this choice seem incredibly self-serving. Perhaps she’ll get everyone to read a self-help book next.Several other bloggers have already weighed in: Scott, Annie, Authorstore
The “Best Books of 2003” lists are coming fast and furious now. I’ve grabbed the links to a handful of them for your reading pleasure. The New York Times selected just nine books to be dubbed “Editors’ Choice,” a prestigious honor. The Seattle Times put together slightly a quirkier list of best books, while SFGate does a more all-inclusive notable books list. I also dug up some lists from a couple of papers that are not known for being literary trendsetters, but whose lists are rather refreshing, and perhaps more in tune with the tastes of the broader reading public when looked at next to the heavyweights: here are the “best books” lists of The Star Telegram in Dallas and the Sun Herald out of Biloxi, Mississippi. There isn’t a book that appears on all five of those lists, nor even on four out of five. There are four books which appear on three out of five lists, and together they make an eclectic bunch. The best of the year? Perhaps not, but a good little quartet:Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezDrop City by T.C. BoyleHow to Breathe Underwater by Julie OrringerThe Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise ErdrichAnd now, weighing in at 133lbs. is the BIGGEST book of the year… (and according to Guinness, it’s actually the biggest of all time)
Every so often in a reader’s life, he stumbles upon two books that complement each other like red meat and red wine. Such a happy accident befell me last month, when I happened to read Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker hard on the heels of Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God.The Frank book, an evisceration of the free-market discourse and management culture of the 90s, was a fine read on its own: funny, incisive, and angry. And yet, in its argumentation, it at first struck me as inferior to Frank’s more recent What’s the Matter With Kansas? Like Lewis Lapham, who published excerpts from both books in Harper’s, Frank has a tendency to preach to the choir. This often doesn’t bother me; I sit right in the middle of that choir. When Frank demonstrates the tension between a free market and economic democracy, I say “Amen.” When he decries the commodification of the counterculture, I shout “Hallelujah.”When Frank gets down to naming names, however, I get uneasy. One Market Under God does not hesitate to lay the sorry state of the world at the feet of specific, individual evildoers, and I, raised to try to see the best in people, prefer to blame systemic ills. And so I’m not sure if Frank’s depiction of scheming, iniquitous fat cats is a workable belief or a bit of populist wishful thinking.Or I wasn’t sure, until I picked up Liar’s Poker. Here Michael Lewis, himself a former stockbroker, takes us inside Salomon Brothers, the investment bank where he worked in the rip-roaring 80s. Lewis establishes his centrist credentials early and often, and generally eschews editorializing. It is especially appalling, then, (if weirdly engrossing) to discover that Salomon Brothers is full of…scheming, iniquitous fat cats!Liar’s Poker is like a nonfiction version of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (IMDb). The visionary salesmen and traders of Solomon Brothers screw the little guy at every turn, and we get to see every dirty detail. They rip off investors, lie to the public, devalue successful companies, inflate worthless ones, lay off employees, throw phones at underlings, grope secretaries, consume conspicuously, and generally turn themselves into caricatures of the worst kind of capitalist exploitation. The free-market they promote is, in fact, far from free.In an ideal marketplace, knowledge is symmetrical. The vulgar version: buyer and seller are in possession of the same set of facts, and prices reach equilibrium according to the law of supply and demand. This is why there are laws against rolling back odometers, and against making false claims in advertisements. But investment banks, as Lewis portrays them, rely on the market’s inefficiency at distributing information – its tendency to allow those most heavily invested in a market to control the flow of knowledge within and about that market – to buy below fair-market value, and to sell well above it.Of course, we are assured, such excesses have since been curbed by regulation. (This is part of the 90s market populism analyzed in One Market Under God, wherein Wall Street is brought to heel by Main Street.) Insider trading laws are now stringent, we are told; firewalls have arisen between the trading floors where commodities are sold and the equity departments where they are underwritten. But Wall Street is still raking it in, while Main Street drifts and eddies on stagnant wages.Perhaps the current investment bank bonanza is merely the financial industry’s reward for its own newfound virtuousness. Still, the next time you hear an I-banker lamenting the regulatory climate, or claiming that Sarbanes-Oxley is driving all the moneymen to London, ask him what kind of bonus he got last year, and whether he’s still living in New York. Then tell him you’ve got a bridge you’re looking to sell…See also: Max’s review of Liar’s Poker