The new British quarterly, The Book, is kicking things off with a poll to determine, by popular vote, "the Greatest Living British Writer." As Gordon Kerr writes in his essay introducing the poll, "Now, there's a question! It's such a big one, in fact, that it requires capitals at the beginning of each word!" Indeed. If you've got an opinion on the matter, cast your vote. I couldn't decide - how does one pick in polls like this? - so I selected John Le Carre, who seems to be sufficiently influential and popular while at the same time a little bit outside of the literary box. Thoughts?
How does an independent bookshop not only survive, but remain vital amid the encroaching chains? How does a tightly-knit community bolster its authors in a cut-throat industry? Independent bookshop owner Heidi Hallett has tackled both these issues by doing what the best independent shopkeepers do - opting for the intimate, the local.As this recent Globe and Mail article explains, Hallett's Halifax bookshop, Frog's Hollow, has its fortunes interwoven with that of her community. By hosting book launches and in-store author appearances of regional scribes, Hallett keeps her dream alive: "Local literature is a vital part of our culture here, and I am concerned that if more independent bookstores like mine start going under, we risk losing that history and heritage forever."
A recent Wall Street Journal story (I'll summarize here if you can't access it), is reporting that Borders intends to "sharply [increase] the number of titles it displays on shelves with the covers face-out." It is hoped that this move will increase sales, but "the new approach will require a typical Borders superstore to shrink its number of titles by 5% to 10%."The article goes on to note that "Reducing inventory goes against the grain of booksellers' efforts over the past 25 years or so. Chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation's largest book retailer, became household names with superstores that stocked as many as 150,000 titles or more. The rise of Amazon.com Inc., which offers a vast selection online, made it even more important for stores to offer deep inventories." A little later, the reporter concludes, "With the book market facing unmitigated gloom, Borders has little choice but to experiment."I've talked about chain stores and how they do and don't satisfy the avid reader: In "What Makes a Bookstore?", a golden oldie from about four years ago, I granted that "when it comes to hanging out, it's hard to beat the chains." But I relish and much prefer the relevance of a good independent bookstore, which should allow one to "walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood."In this framework, putting ever more books face-out and thinning inventory is exactly the opposite of what I want a bookstore to do. The failure of chain bookstores is that they try to make the bookstore experience like any other retail experience, placing the merchandise just so in the hopes that it will entice the shopper. Indeed, according to the WSJ, "The new display strategy is the brainchild of CEO George Jones, who says he learned when he was a buyer at Dillard's Inc. early in his career that dresses sell better when the entire garment is shown rather than hung sleeve-out." John Deighton, editor of the Journal of Consumer Research, has a similar point of view. "'Breakfast cereals are not stocked end-of-box out,' he says. 'You want to your product to be as enticing as possible. It's a little bizarre that it's taken booksellers this long to realize that the point of self-service is to make the product as tempting as possible.'"And who knows, tests have shown that "sales of individual titles were 9% higher than at similar Borders stores." Still, further down this path lies the ultimate in bookselling vapidity, the airport bookstore, where all the books are face-out, and the desperate traveler is forced to choose between bad or worse.As I thought about turning books into so many boxes of Froot Loops, the article left me with a final question. Many bookstore regulars may not be aware that bookstores, from chains to indies, accept what's called "co-op" from publishers. Ostensibly, this is money that is meant to help market certain titles. In practice, co-op money dictates display areas, what ends up on prominent front-of-store tables, and, yes, face out placement on shelves. The article doesn't mention co-op explicitly, but I wonder if this is another motivation for Borders. If so, putting books face-out may lead to incrementally more sales, but it may also bring in more marketing cash from publishers, and the end result is an ever more pre-packaged, market-tested, one size fits all experience for readers.Edit: Thanks to F.S. for the correct spelling of "Froot."
Back in 2003, I decided to start reading the fiction in The New Yorker consistently. Up until that point, I’d read the weekly fiction offering only if it happened to be something by a writer I particularly liked. Part of my motivation had to do with my own ambitions as a fiction writer; another part had to do with my high school teaching job, which included a course in Reading and Writing Fiction. I thought maybe, by studying closely what the magazine was publishing, I’d get a better sense of just why my own stories were getting unceremoniously rejected everywhere I sent them (with the minor exception of a brief but kind note scribbled at the bottom of a form rejection from McSweeney’s.) If not, at least I’d maybe come away with some good stories to teach in class. In the first few months of the project, I encountered some great pieces of fiction: Tobias Wolff’s "Class Picture" (an excerpt from his novel Old School), Maile Meloy’s "Red From Green," and Lara Vapnyar’s "Love Lessons, Mondays, 8 a.m." And I found that, having preemptively committed myself to reading each story, I sat down with a helpful patience, an openness to the experience and to the writer’s art. The summer of that first year, I went back to an old issue I’d kept tucked away on a shelf—the one dated June 21 & 28, 1999. This issue was designed by rock-star book designer Chip Kidd. (Incidentally, it’s the only issue in the magazine’s history whose pages have artwork that bleeds to the edges.) The cover features an illustration of Chris Ware's character Jimmy Corrigan on a beach, looking out at the sea. Scrolled down the page are twenty first sentences—from stories written by the twenty authors chosen to represent what editor Bill Buford, in his introductory comment, called “the twenty best young fiction writers in America today… the obvious names and the not-so-obvious, those who are only just now crossing a threshold of literary recognition and those who have been at home in it for some time.” I’d dipped into this issue when it first came out. I had liked the Sherman Alexie piece and the David Foster Wallace one, but set the magazine aside after being unmoved by a couple of the others. Now, though, I dug back in and found more to like—a tense and mysterious story by Chang-Rae Lee, a wicked little one by Antonya Nelson, and soberly masterful stories by Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri. I found that the issue included an excerpt from Tony Earley’s gentle, pitch-perfect Jim the Boy, a novel which I’d read and loved. Over the next seven years, I continued to read the New Yorker fiction fairly regularly. Some years I read more or less everything, while other years I took in only about half of the stories. I began to catalog my reactions in a spreadsheet. I fell in love with Alice Munro and George Saunders. I made up enough bonus-reading quizzes on stories I liked that I was able to offer one per day to my Reading and Writing Fiction students. I sat down and formulated my own criteria for evaluating fiction. I branched out into other sources of fiction, subscribing to smaller magazines like Epoch, The Gettysburg Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. I came to recognize, though, that reading magazine fiction is a crapshoot. I think that’s why many New Yorker readers rarely read this part of the magazine. When you read a piece of nonfiction, you know what you’re getting into, and you know you’ll come away from the experience with something tangible—some information or perspective on the world. And you can stop midway through and still have something to take with you. Fiction doesn’t work that way, at least for me. It’s like sex—uncomfortable if abandoned midway through. The rewards of fiction—the ecstatic transport when you’re pulled into the world of a story, given a new window into human experience—can be greater than those of nonfiction, but you can also finish a story angry that the writer has just wasted 45 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back. Given the risks involved in reading a piece of fiction, it helps to have someone whose taste you trust to limit the pool. Larry Dark became that type of guide for me in the O. Henry Prize collections from 1997 to 2002, which include dozens of stories that blew me away. The New Yorker fiction editors serve the same purpose. Though I don’t dispute that stories are published in smaller magazines that I would like better than a healthy percentage of the stories published in The New Yorker, I simply don’t have time to read all those little magazines. The New Yorker’s batting average is high enough—and it publishes enough heavy-hitters—that it’s as good a section as any to stand in if you hope to catch a home run. As the literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith has argued, there’s an unavoidable contingency to literary valuation—an arbitrariness on both a personal and a society-wide level. Yet we naturally make such judgments. We have to do so, simply to avoid being drowned by the deluge of written material that swamps us. Our literary judgments also help us define ourselves and our culture. Who am I? What do I like, and why? What vision of the world do I share? And who are we? What do we value? What stories do we want to hear about ourselves, what will our culture admit into its awareness? So that’s the context in which I’m approaching this week’s New Yorker, in which the fiction editors offer, eleven years later, a new group of 20 writers, all under 40 years of age, as the future of fiction in America. It’s an effort to shape a literary culture. And it’s an effort by people whose taste I generally trust. Overall, though, the new list doesn’t immediately excite me, I must say. ZZ Packer and Wells Tower have written debut collections of stories that I greatly admire, and several of the others have written stories that I thought were good. But, to return to the sexual metaphor of reading fiction, with some of the other writers on the list I’ve had one-night stands and never hooked up again. Others, sad to say, have fallen victim to episodes of literary coitus interruptus. The fact is, this past year I’ve gotten a bit impatient with New Yorker fiction. Busy with other reading projects, I’ve slipped back into my old habits—reading only stories whose authors particularly grabbed my interest. But—and this is another danger of magazine fiction—it’s all too easy to misjudge a writer harshly simply on the basis of one story. Like the 1999 issue, this one, I hope, will redirect my attention to worthy writers whom I may have unfairly written off. Despite the periodic disappointments of reading fiction in magazines, there’s a unique magic to the experience. There’s the gift of a new story by one of your favorite writers. There’s the joy of beginning a story by a writer you’ve never read and suddenly realizing that you’re encountering something great. It’s like being struck by lightning, set suddenly afire with pleasure. No other reading experience can turn a chance hour into sheer delight in quite this way. Say what you will, The New Yorker is one of our culture’s most stalwart curators of this type of literary experience. For that reason, its editors’ vision of the future of fiction is worth considering. It’s my hope that, like the 1999 issue, the 2010 version will include some surprising treats that open up new readerly enthusiasms for me. Bonus Link: A Speculative 20 Under 40, from 40 Years Ago
● ● ●
As some of you know, I read the New Yorker, more or less methodically, every week, and as a result the magazine very much becomes a fixture in my schedule. The problem is, I'd gotten used to my copy showing up in the mail every Wednesday, but recently and unaccountably, my issue has been showing up on Fridays, throwing my reading schedule out of whack and making me feel like I'm a little behind the curve.So, having finally gotten a chance to delve into the most recent issue, I was quite amused by Alec Wilkinson's Talk of the Town piece about lost books that are retrieved from the New York subway with help from the "Operations Specialist, Asset Recovery Rejected Material, Material Division." The idea of lost books on public transit sort of added a new element to my recent hobby of spotting what books people are reading on Chicago's El. I also recently discovered that this is a hobby that I share with some other people including the folks at the CTA Tattler (who were kind enough to link to me last week. The Tattler is a blog about what is "seen and heard on the Chicago Transit Authority" and is a must read for any Chicagoan.)Though outnumbered by iPods and tabloid newspapers, according to my unscientific research, books are the third most popular public transit accessory.
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami has a reflective piece on becoming a novelist and his love of running, presumably adapted from his forthcoming memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, in the current Summer Fiction issue of The New Yorker. The piece isn't available online, but in it he mentions his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. As Ben explained a year ago, both are out of print in the U.S. and both have essentially been disowned by Murakami, who views them as something like juvenalia. However, the curious can check out our post that links to a pdf version of Pinball, 1973, along with some commentary from Ben.