Recently perusing the course offerings for Temple University’s continuing education program here in Philadelphia, Season Evans uncovered what has to be one of the more unsavory market research strategies ever employed by the publishing companies. A course titled (and misspelled) “A Sneak Peak at Next Year’s Bestsellers,” is described as follows:Every fall publishers introduce and promote a new crop of novels, books they hope are future bestsellers. This unprecedented course is your chance to get a sneak preview of five forthcoming novels from major publishers. You will read special advance copies of the books and then, as a class, critique each book and predict what readers and critics will say when the books are actually published. Contributing publishers will include: W.W. Norton, Knopf, Random House and others to be determined.Though it’s not explicitly stated that the students’ output will be delivered to the publishers, it seems likely that the publishers would only participate if this were the case. As Season points out, this would mean that students will be paying the publishers to do market research for them under the guise of learning. The course is taught by Lynn Rosen, “a publishing consultant with twenty-plus years of experience in the book industry as an editor and literary agent,” though its not clear if the concept for this course came from her.Some questions I have: do other people out there agree that this sounds unsavory? I think it is, though I’m having trouble articulating exactly why (beyond the fact that students will be paying for this “privilege.”) Also, is anyone aware of this practice going on elsewhere? Is it commonplace, or is this Temple course an anomaly?
Last summer Oprah’s book club returned from its hiatus touting Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s East of Eden as “the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back.” By doing this she turned her powerful book club on its head. Up until this point, book industry types had been treating the Oprah book club as a lottery of sorts by which a previously unknown (but hardworking and extremely talented writer) could be lifted from obscurity and delivered into the homes of readers everywhere. Apparently, after much behind-the-scenes horsetrading and Jonathan Franzen’s high profile disdain for receiving the award for The Corrections, Oprah became disgusted with the politics and controversy surrounding her club and suspended it. Then, months later she brought it back, and now she is sticking, more or less, to the classics. Recently, in fact, she announced her next selection, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by another Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Between the two Nobel Laureates, by the way, was Cry, the Beloved Country a largely forgotten book from the 1940s by Alan Paton.) Many serious readers, and perhaps I might suggest that they are being a bit snooty, are inconsolably annoyed that the covers of books that they have adored for decades are suddenly besmirched by book club logos. If anything is to be blamed, though, it is not Oprah for placing her mark on these “sacred” books; it is, perhaps, our greater culture of reading. In a better world, Steinbeck and Marquez, to give two examples, would be so widely read, that naming them for this book club would seem utterly ridiculous. Instead, and we should be happy about this, East of Eden, thanks to Oprah, was one of the most widely read books of 2003, and the same will likely be true of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 2004. So, perhaps the earlier incarnation of the Oprah Club was getting ahead of itself as it steered readers to somewhat more obscure books though they had never read, or perhaps even heard of, many of the classics. In the end, one can hardly fault Oprah for making readers out of millions of Americans, though the marketing effort behind the whole thing can make one a bit queasy. In an excellent guest post to The Millions a few months back, the author Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) wrote about her experience of being plucked from relative obscurity and brought to national prominence after being selected for the Oprah Book Club. If you haven’t yet read it, here it is.
Three months ago, after HarperCollins parent News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings, I noted comments from HarperCollins’ CEO Jane Friedman regarding sales of religious books. “Religious publishing is in a lot of trouble” was the pull quote. More recently, I pointed to the latest hot publishing trend, books about atheism, signalling something of a backlash against the religiosity that has pervaded our culture in recent years.News Corp reported its fiscal first quarter numbers this week, and once again the Publishers Lunch newsletter went back to Friedman to get her thoughts on HarperCollins’ performance (no link since it’s only available by email). This time her language seemed even stronger on this topic:As she noted last quarter, Friedman observes, “I’ve got big softness in Zondervan [HarperCollins’ Christian imprint] — and that is something we’re going to have to be watching all year… It’s not getting better.” She reports that spiritual books are “going steadily upward,” like the books published by Harper San Francisco, but “there’s a softness in the bible business” and “this is the most disturbing news, since that’s our staple.”With the Republicans so recently trounced in the elections, one has to wonder if the cultural enthusiasm for the type of Christianity that yields these sorts of books is waning (and indeed if earlier sales softness was a predictor of what would happen with the elections.)
Three flights and twenty hours after departing New York, I arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, the land of potato pancakes, sour cream, and Baltas beer, where “thank you” is pronounced “achoo,” like a sneeze. Vilnius is the city closest to the geographical center of Europe, and because it’s also at a cultural crossroads, the city has been hit hard by the forces of history. Napoleon’s army liberated Lithuania from the Russians in 1812, and during their later retreat through Vilnius, forty thousand men died. The twentieth century saw both German and Soviet rule and genocides at the hands of the Nazis and the KGB. Independence came less than twenty years ago, when Lithuania was the first of the Baltic States to throw off Soviet rule. Even now, landlocked Vilnius is the hardest of the Baltic capital cities to travel to.I came to Vilnius by way of the Summer Literary Seminars, which is currently holding its first ever Lithuanian conference. Poets and writers have traveled from as far as Australia and South Africa to take classes with writers like Lynne Tillman, Phillip Lopate, Mac Wellman, and Peter Cole. Class days are interspersed with lecture days, and all days usually end with readings. The Lithuanian stage director Gytis Padegimas spoke about the state of contemporary Lithuanian drama and how critical resistance to new playwrights keep many of them from writing. Almantas Samalaviciu, the editor of Lithunia’s largest cultural journal, traced the developments in twentieth century Lithuanian literature, from Soviet rule through the liberation. But not all of the focus is on Lithuanian literature. Catherine Tice of the New York Review of Books gave a lecture on the contemporary essay and its provinces. Max Winter of Fence and Mike Spry of Montreal’s Matrix offered guidance on publishing with North American literary magazines.With Vilnius as our campus, the history of place, as well the new sights and sounds play a large role in the conference, too. Over a handful of entries, I plan to guide you through some of the more interesting discussions and events of the conference, and intersperse some Vilnius culture as well. If you want a head start, Open Letter recently published a translation of Ričardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, the preeminent postmodern Lithuanian novel. Or for more of a historical background, turn to Laimonas Briedis’s City of Strangers. I’m on Lithuanian time, which is notorious for lagging behind, but more dispatches will be coming soon.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Nobel Laureate with a decent claim to the mantle of “greatest living writer,” has a new book out this week called Memories of My Melancholy Whores. It’s been out in the Spanish-speaking world for a year, so most folks have heard what this slim volume is about: according to the Times Online: “a respected journalist, breaking the rules of a lifetime to fall madly, anarchically, transgressively in love with a 14-year-old girl on the eve of his 90th birthday.” The review goes on to say, “There is not in this slender book one stale sentence, redundant word or unfinished thought.” But Tania Mejer in the Boston Herald writes, “To call Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s latest effort disturbing is an understatement,” and later, “every time I reflect on the story, I can’t help but think how unsettling it is.” In fact, the reviews across the board seem torn over this book – is it yet another transcendent example of Marquez’s writing or is it creepy? Luckily the Complete Review is keeping score and gives this one a B+. See Also: The Marquez scoop and an early look. Update: Here’s the glowing review in the Chicago Tribune that Pete mentioned in the comments. Amazing the disparate reactions to this book.23-year-old Uzodinma Iweala started his debut novel, Beasts of No Nation in high school after reading an article about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. The novel is told in the pidgin voice of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. Iweala, who is American-born but has Nigerian roots, is already receiving plaudits from some big names. In an interview with MoorishGirl, Salman Rushdie named it “book he most enjoyed reading recently,” and Ali Smith in a review at the Guardian described the book as “a novel so scorched by loss and anger that it’s hard to hold and so gripping in its sheer hopeless lifeforce that it’s hard to put down.”
Some of you may know that I’m a pretty big fan of comics, or to put it more broadly, stories told in a visual format. I’m not heavily into the superhero stuff, but I love newspaper comics and graphic novels as well as cartoons and animation of all kinds. So, naturally, I was pretty excited when I discovered Scott McCloud a couple of years back. McCloud is the author of two fascinating books, the first, Understanding Comics, is a study of visual storytelling. It is presented in a very clever comic format, and even if you never intend to create your own comic one day, it brings up a lot of interesting stuff about how we convey perceive narratives. A second book called Reinventing Comics addresses the many doors that have been opened to the medium by the advent of computers and the internet. Today I happened upon McCloud’s website. I’m not sure why I never thought to look for it before, but I’m glad I found it. There’s a blog, a daily improvisational comic, and tons of other comics by him and others. Check it out. It’ll keep you busy for a while.
I’ve written often of books about baseball (especially ones by Roger Angell). Baseball values words over images – I prefer listening to games on the radio to watching them on television, for example – and so lends itself well to the page. Football is a different story, entirely. If one doesn’t see these men bash each other on cold, gray Sunday afternoons, then what’s the point really? Reading about a spectacle kind of defeats the purpose. And this probably explains why there isn’t much “football literature” to speak of. The only football book I’ve ever read is George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, which, though terrific, is really more about Plimpton than football. Most of the other football books I’ve seen have been the ghostwritten memoirs of retired Hall of Famers. But the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley, in his series which “reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past” recently wrote about a football book that deserves to sit amongst all those baseball books on the shelves of sports literature. Instant Replay was a collaboration between Jerry Kramer, a guard for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, and Dick Schaap, a sportswriter. By unlikely but entirely happy coincidence, Kramer had been persuaded to keep a diary of his 1967 season by Dick Schaap, an uncommonly capable and convivial sports journalist. Schaap knew that Kramer was intelligent, literate, observant and thoughtful, and suspected — rightly — that he could provide a unique view of pro football from its innermost trenches: the offensive line.The book sounds like a treat for any football fan, especially at this time of year.