If the Food Issue is the highlight of the New Yorker publishing year, then the Style Issue is certainly the nadir. Crammed full of glossy ads, the too-thick-to-not-be-a-double-issue magazine dwells endlessly on profiles of fashion industry bigshots, all of whom seem to have shared the same eccentric quasi-European upbringing. (They bring to mind Dr. Evil and his famous: “My childhood was typical – summer in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we would make meat helmets. When I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds. Pretty standard, really.”) And don’t get me started on those Patricia Marx shopping sprees. I do, however, note that Oliver Sacks has an article about amnesia in there, so perhaps it won’t be all bad.
The numbers are huge, 8.2 million copies sold in 24 hours in the U.S., 2.65 million in the U.K., but Harry Potter isn’t necessarily a boon for book stores. The big chains, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and the like, discount the book sharply in order to compete with one another, and then they hope that customers will pick up some other books where the profit margins are better. Independent bookstores are far less likely to discount at all. They don’t get the books in large enough quantities to get a deal from the publisher, and, less efficient than the chains, they can’t afford to trim profit margins much.Generally, this is the case for most any bestseller, where the chains discount 20%, 30%, even 40% or more, and the indies sell books at full price, getting by on atmosphere, customer loyalty, and skillfully selling non-bestsellers that may not be on the front tables at chain stores. In the case of Harry Potter, however, a whole nother layer of retail establishments gets in on the action. The big box stores, like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target, have already put the squeeze on the bookstore chains with bulk quantities of deeply discounted bestsellers, so a book like Harry Potter fits nicely into their business plan. But the net is cast even wider for Harry Potter. Grocery stores, usually not likely to have much in the way of books aside from the occasional rack of mass-market paperbacks by the register had stacks and stacks of the final boy wizard installment. Even Best Buy, whose products are probably more typically responsible for a decline in reading, had customers lined up at midnight so it could sell the book, placing Harry Potter alongside the Wii and the PlayStation3 in the pantheon of must have products hawked by the electronics giant.And so, by selling the book at full price and getting by on charm, it’s likely some of the indies got a bottom line boost from the Potter madness, but for the chain stores, squeezed by other giant corporations, profits may be tougher. On a much smaller scale, this challenge was evident in Malaysia, where book chains protested the price slashing of grocery giants, who sold Harry Potter at below cost, by boycotting the book (imagine Barnes & Noble trying that!) Eventually, the Malaysian booksellers worked out a deal with Penguin, Harry Potter’s distributor in the country, but the episode highlights the high stakes competition that book retailers face when they are forced to go up against retail heavyweights.
I once lived for furthering my collection of autographed books. Getting a book signed meant going to hear the author read, waiting in line with other fans, and then, finally, being presented with the chance to utter words of praise. Sometimes it meant getting teary-eyed with envy, worrying over whether I would ever write anything so poignant. This happened when Amy Tan walked by in purple velvet with her lap dog trailing behind her. During middle and high school, at the height of my obsession with autographs, I spent a lot of time writing letters, poems that exhibited the same longing for impossible love, and short stories that revealed I was fixated on the same themes of displacement and loneliness that I am now.
I heard Jamaica Kincaid read twice. The first time she read at the local university from her novel Lucy. I was in seventh grade and inexperienced in matters of love. She read a passage about sucking on a boy’s tongue and I was mesmerized. She stood before a large audience and I couldn’t help but see that she was someone important. The second time I went to hear her read, I got Lucy signed by her before she spoke. My father told her that I wanted to be a writer. She didn’t say anything, only proudly signed her name. Later, during the Q & A, she asked in perfectly enunciated words, “Where is that girl who wants to be a writer?” I shyly raised my hand. She went on to recommend Gertrude Stein to me. Following the reading, I began to imagine Jamaica Kincaid as my writing teacher. With her intimidating stature, I divined she would be just as intimidating of a teacher. I thought only she would be capable of whipping my writing into shape. I wanted her to treat my writing so harshly that my only option would be improvement.
Yevgeniy Yevtushenko read in Russian at the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Neither my father nor I spoke Russian, but my father decided to expose me to culture. What I remember is Yevtushenko’s ostentatious blue jacket and his sweeping gestures when he spoke. I later learned Russian, partly thanks to falling in love with his incomprehensible poetic voice, I read some of the poems from his collected works, wondering which he might have read that evening.
When Jennifer Egan came to the suburban Barnes and Nobel to read from her novel The Invisible Circus, my mother and I were the only audience members. Afterwards, I asked Egan one of those typical questions about her writing schedule. I came away with the interesting information that she worked part-time as a detective. Later, I composed a letter to her, which led to another obsession. I spent a grand portion of the day waiting for the mail. A letter was just another passage into the literary world. Not only was I waiting for personal letters, I was also waiting for acceptances from literary journals.
The postman arrived after I got home from school, so I would sit in the armchair near the window and wait for his footsteps. They would culminate in the metal clamor of the mailbox closing. When he had moved on to the next house, I would open the door and collect the mail.
I received one response from Jennifer Egan and an acceptance from a neighborhood newspaper, but most often I received letters from my pen pal who lived on the other side of the city. I met her at a poetry reading at a café called Brewed Awakenings. I played Irish tin whistle and read some poetry. She came up to me afterwards and gave me a copy of the literary journal called Zink in which she had been published. She was also a writer and yet she was incredibly accessible. She asked for my address, and pulled a blank piece of paper from the pouch around her neck for me to write on. I felt uncomfortable about giving a stranger my address, but I did it anyway. At that time of my life I said “yes” to everything.
To my surprise, a few days later I received a typed letter from her in a handmade envelope. I wrote back and she was quick to respond. It wasn’t long before I began to live my life in order to write it to her in a letter. The events that occurred during the day, occurred so that I could describe them. It was then that my writing probably took on its autobiographical quality.
As an adult, I haven’t had such a faithful pen pal, another writer with whom to commiserate. The advent of email and real responsibilities make it impossible to live just for handwritten letters, but most of all, it’s hard to find someone who can be a friend and somewhat of an idol at the same time.
Though I once attended readings regularly and took great comfort in spending Sunday night at the fiction series at the KGB Bar, some of the luster has been lost. Writers seem so accessible that an autographed book doesn’t bring me the same pleasure as it once did and writers seem just as much friends as idols. Now a writer myself, I realize that writing isn’t such a magical process. Still, there are moments when I can happily transport myself to those simpler times of books and letters, the time when I was open to every ounce of experience. Just recently I came away from a reading with a signed copy of Joshua Cohen’s Witz, heard Mary Gaitskill read at the crowded Franklin Park Reading Series, and went to hear Cory Doctorow, Rivka Galchen, and Gary Schteyngart talk about the bleak future while drinking dark and stormys. I also went to hear Jennifer Egan read at Greenlight Bookstore. This time it was to a packed house, inspiring me with the possibility that my writing can also grow in this way.
[Image credit: Weston Boyd]
Jeff Bryant and Trevor Jackson are back again this year with their terrific Underrated Writers series. They’ve asked a number of bloggers to nominate writers they feel are not getting the recognition the deserve. From the introduction:The results, as with last year, are delightful, in the most literal sense of the word. We have writers from almost every continent, poets from the past, essayists who are concerned for the future, and novelists desperate to understand the now.I participated last year, but was unable to join in this year. However, two Millions contributors took part. Garth selected Vasily Aksyonov (I read Generations of Winter on Garth’s recommendation almost two years ago and was blown away by it). Garth also selected Patrick Chamoiseau and Jay Cantor.Andrew, meanwhile, nominated a pair of Candian writers, Trevor Cole and Kenneth J. Harvey, with his premise being that all too often writers from north of the border get short shrift down here.