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.
When someone reads your rough draft, it's like letting them see you half-dressed. It's about arriving at a level of intellectual comfort – or having faith in the process. In a successful collaboration, both people feel like they did less than half the work.
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This story brought me back to my bookselling days.A consumer alert for the millions who have seen the Sex and the City movie: There is no such book as Love Letters of Great Men, which Carrie Bradshaw reads while in bed with Mr. Big.The closest text in the real world apparently is Love Letters of Great Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day, first released in the 1920s and reissued last year by Kessinger Publishing, which specializes in bringing back old works.Rarely a day went by at the bookstore without a strange request: books long out of print or requests for misremembered titles were common. I can imagine beleaguered booksellers across the country taking pains to untangle the confusion wrought by Carrie Bradshaw et al. Meanwhile, Sex and the City fans who have purchased Love Letters of Great Men and Women - the book has achieved an astonishing #123 sales rank at Amazon - are becoming acquainted with the likes of Victor Hugo, Goethe, and Alexander Pope, according to the bits of the book and table of contents available at Google Books. Sometimes it is a strange world we live in.(Via my mom, who made a good point when she directed me to this story: "sounds like an opportunity for a fast writer.")
In the current New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith dives deep into the philosophical frame of avant-garde novels in a review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. The article is, generally speaking, written more for an academic audience than a casual reader (if you don't have a precise working definition of "lyrical realism" it can be hard to gain traction in places), but overall it provides a provocative framework for thinking about the ways that postmodern thought has influenced the form of the novel.McCarthy is the General Secretary for the International Necronautical Society, a group founded around a mash-up of postmodern thinkers and writers - Derrida, Heidegger, Dostoevsky - and fond of manifesto-esque statements about the "brute materiality of the external world."As an intellectual perspective, postmodernism is concerned with the untruth of systems, be they moral, metaphysical, or hermeneutic and in the realm of art it takes aim at the question of narrative authenticity - who exactly is the "I" telling the story. The result is the destruction of traditional form and the rise of the avant-garde. When false systems are stripped away - including the form of a story and the social constructions which gird a narrator's identity - what remains is the "brute materiality" of the world. For this reason, Smith writes, "it's not unusual for avant-garde fiction writers to aspire to the concrete quality of poetry."But poetry, as Auden famously put it, "makes nothing happen," and something has to happen in a novel. Remainder is a search for authenticity, for the Real McCoy, and as Smith describes it, the novel finds it in the game of cricket (her review of Remainder appears alongside an equally rigorous review of Netherland) which is elevated, Smith writes, for its "pure facticity." The game is an array of objects ordered in space: a ball, a batsmen, crisp white lines, and proceeds by a series of events that can be definitively known.What has always perplexed me about avant-garde literature is why the writer conceiving a story does not receive the same high status as a wad of gum on the sidewalk or a cricket ball flying through space. For all the worry of avant-garde literature, I am convinced that a human being telling a story is every bit as real as a rock.
Millions contributor Garth pointed me to a funny little piece by Calvin Trillin in the New York Times in which the New Yorker writer is asked to test out the new Lexus "Advanced Parking Guidance System." Perhaps you've heard of this; it supposedly enables the car to park itself. Trillin, as he indicates, believes that he has been asked to try this newfangled technology out because he was the author of Tepper Isn't Going Out, "which is considered by most scholars to have been the first parking novel" and because in 1964 he was the founding co-editor of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, which, Trillin says, "I've seen referred to as a one-issue publication even though we prefer to say that the second issue hasn't come out yet." Indeed, Trillin views himself as something of a parking expert:If I were asked to name my talent - talent, that is, in the way the Miss America pageant uses the word talent, as in "Miss West Virginia will now do her talent" - I would say "parallel parking." For the second issue of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, I've been preparing an article on how I came up with the term "slicing the bread" to describe maneuvering into a spot that leaves only the width of a bread slice between your bumpers and the bumpers of the cars ahead of and behind you. In a later issue, I intend to discuss "breaking the matzo" - getting into a spot so small that a matzo would crack if you tried to place it between the relevant bumpers. Just for the record, the last time I broke a matzo was May 1994, on Riverside Drive, between 83rd and 84th; unfortunately, there were no witnesses.Good stuff.
Again, the current issue of The New York Review of Books features one splendid fiction writer's meditations on another brilliant fiction writer Last his time, it was Eisenberg on Nádas; this time it's Zadie Smith considering the critical legacy of E.M. Forster, who provided the inspiration for On Beauty.As a novelist, Forster has suffered by comparison to his more conspicuously innovative contemporaries (for my money, Howards End is as much a technical achievement as that other Bloomsbury monument, Mrs. Dalloway); Smith suggests that Forster is underrated as a critic, as well.Perhaps his critical medium - BBC radio - made it easy to overlook Forster's seriousness; perhaps his characteristic modesty did as well. Still, we can learn much from Forster, and from Smith's appreciation of him:He could sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other. Stubbornly he defends Joyce, though he doesn't much like him, and Woolf, though she bemuses him, and Eliot, though he fears him [...] Forster was not Valéry, but he defended Valéry's right to be Valéry. He understood the beauty of complexity and saluted it where he saw it.
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."
The discussion about the future of book criticism can seem like a bubble sometimes, but I was reminded, in A.O. Scott's charming tribute to Roger Ebert in Sunday's New York Times, that book reviewers and their readers should not feel singled out in these challenging times. Scott noted the disappearance of movie critics as well at papers across the country, due to layoffs, buyouts, and cutting costs, adding:Such attrition is hardly limited to movie reviewers, and it has more to do with the economics of newspapers than with the health of criticism as a cultural undertaking. If you spend time prowling the blogs, you may discover that the problem is not a shortage of criticism but a glut: an endless, sometimes bracing, sometimes vexing barrage of deep polemic, passionate analysis and fierce contention reflecting nearly every possible permutation of taste and sensibility.I noted a year ago that the this same issue of the "economics of newspapers" had more to do with the demise of newspaper book coverage than anything else:The important thing to remember, I think, is that the disappearance of book sections isn't a book section problem, it's a newspaper industry problem, and the solution to book section woes will come with the solutions to the larger newspaper industry problems.Scott also takes umbrage at the notion that Ebert's famous TV career (which first brought him recognition with a show called "Sneak Previews") was somehow damaging to film criticism as a whole:It seems to me that "Sneak Previews" and its descendants, far from advancing the vulgarization of film criticism, extended its reach and strengthened its essentially democratic character.The same, perhaps, could be said of the role of personal publishing in film and book criticism which revels in the "essentially democratic character" of these pursuits.I also noticed at one point in Scott's profile that he describes Ebert as an "enthusiast." This word can be derogatory, comparing the "amateur" critic to the professional one, but Scott uses it in a different sense, making clear a difference in attitudes and aims - enthusiasm versus criticism. This isn't to suggest that an enthusiast blindly loves every film he sees and that the critic is filled with disdain, it merely describes two different approaches, both useful and neither mutually exclusive and each speaking to audiences in certain ways. Part of the tension felt right now, perhaps, is that blogging and the internet have allowed for enthusiasm to encroach upon the terrain of criticism at a time when the arts landscape itself seems to be shrinking. Ebert (and Scott in his praise for him), however, provide a useful reminder that audiences perhaps gravitate most towards unique voices that are able to offer both enthusiasm and criticism rather than attempt to demarcate the boundaries between the two.
Aspiring writers might want to consider moving to Japan and focusing on thumbing text messages instead of developing intricate story lines or characters. At least, that is what this front page story from the Sunday New York Times seems to be saying.In 2007, five of the top 10 best-selling novels in Japan were written by teenagers, or early 20-somethings, on cell phones. These novels were published in installments on various specialized Web sites. Although the phenomenon emerged in 2000, according to the NYT, it really took off two or three years ago; one of the Web sites hit the one million "cellphone novels" mark last month. Publishers soon recognized the trend and began republishing popular, finished novels, churning out one best seller after another."The sentences are too simple, the stories are too predictable," one of the authors is quoted as saying. Yet, apparently demand for these "tear-jerkers" is on the rise, and, already, there is talk of creating and naming a genre for it. (Yes, the "cellphone novel.") With direct flights from New York to Tokyo at just under $1,000 and new cell phone plans in Japan providing unlimited data transfers, i.e., text messages and Web-posting capability, this might be the best deal available to witty writers who don't care much for style, and, well, errr, the story.Update: Ben translates an excerpt of one of these best-selling cell phone novels and puts the phenomenon in context.