Good Fortune is Good Fortune

October 6, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 16

Our own Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire is almost here. While we wait, read Boris Kachka’s profile of Hallberg for Vulture, about the expectation surrounding his highly anticipated 944-page debut novel and the experience of writing a book that is “unpublishably long.” We’ll be publishing our own illuminating interview with Hallberg on Monday.

is an intern for The Millions. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in BOMB, Ploughshares online, Music & Literature, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. She is currently the assistant fiction editor for Washington Square Review. She tweets at @bdantaslobato.


  1. City on Fire review drinking game:

    If you see the following, take a drink:
    -Reference to $2 million advance (double-down if this occurs in 1st paragraph)
    -Reference to Art of Fielding/Goldfinch/Underworld/Motherless Brooklyn or Fortress of Solitude (1 drink each)
    -Reference to author’s “ambition”
    -Reviewer confusing “ambition” with “length”
    -Reference to page count
    -Reviewer devoting more attention to “Will the advance earn out?” vs. “Is the book artistically successful?”
    -Random reference to Jonathan Franzen (double-down if Time cover mentioned)
    -Phrases “Great American Novel”/”masterpiece”/”epic” (1 drink each)
    -Reviewer actually analyzes the novel on its own merits (0 drinks, it appears you’ve stumbled upon a piece of honest, independent criticism, possibly written by someone not living in NYC; please inform Knopf and destroy it immediately)

  2. @Cheeze: Fantastic. My only addition would be drinks for references to David Foster Wallace and “Infinite Jest.” In any case, that Vulture profile would make you so drunk, you’d probably have to go have your stomach pumped.

  3. Yes, that’s a great one. Bonus drink if the reviewer makes no link between those two books other than the length.

    Also I should add another drink for referencing the movie option.

  4. “He went directly to Union Square Park and wrote one long scene in his notebook. Then he stopped. I don’t have the chops to write this, he thought. I don’t even live here.”


  5. “Oooh, Garth, your book is soooo big.”

    Tall white men who wear glasses with their thick novels is getting old.

  6. Contain your sophomoric jealousy for a second peeps – it’s a pretty good book. He’s a damn fine writer, although it’s too long (a thing every reviewer has pointed out. If there was some grand conspiracy they wouldn’t mention it).

    Also, yes, he’s white… and tall… I guess that invalidates a good novel? As ridiculous as saying The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma makes you tired of “these black men with their thin books.” Books are books, and Hallberg hops from perspective to perspective with a refreshing universality… don’t paint him as some sexist Mailer type because of how much melanin is in his skin – it’s unfair and, frankly, low. Can’t believe I just had to write that in the 21st century but that’s where we’re at as a culture…

  7. Yeah, and I can’t believe it’s 2015 and we still have to treat every overwritten, over-hyped encyclopedic novel by young white male writers like they just came down from the mountain with the fucking commandments in hand. Because that’s where we are still at as a culture, like it or not. He wants to be the next DeLillo? He actually said that? What a dork.

  8. Mygod, perhaps you missed the tongue planted in my cheek…but the hype machine behind this book (and others like it) is just so stupid and sad…and honestly, the 2 biggest-hyped books of the last 5 years (Freedom and Art of Fielding) turned out to be fatally flawed and flat-out terrible, respectively, so sorry if I’m skeptical of this one. I will say the reviews have been mixed at best — which is a bit refreshing if you ask me.

  9. @Mygod

    Get at me when a black writer gets $2 million for her debut novel. It’s not Hallberg’s fault that the state of publishing leads one to vent their frustration on him… he is an easy target, though.

  10. @butt and @Anon and @Cheeze

    Advances have gotten muuuuch bigger (by an order of magnitude) in the past ten years, and there’s still only maybe a dozen writers of literary fiction (mostly all women btw) who have ever received advances at 7 figs. Consider Zadie Smith (black and female), who got a giant advance for White Teeth back in 2000. Why? It was a giant, sprawling, encyclopedic novel, and people like that. Now she didn’t get 2 million, sure, but no one got 2 million back then. But she got the equivalent. If White Teeth was being bid over now, she’d be getting around that much or at least 7 figs. So the notion that no black women have ever gotten the biggest advances (adjusted for payment inflation by the industry) for their debut novels is just not true.

    Also, considering the play that Ta-Nehesi Coates (MacArthur award) or Roxanne Gay have been getting, and considering that every single up-and-coming agent pleads on their websites for writers of color and LGBT protagonists and “empowered women characters” it’s not like white men have an advantage in publishing. This is especially because women buy like 80% of all fiction and make up 80% of the publishing industry, so their tastes drive the industry.

    My suspicion about why Garth Risk Hallberg has been so press-shy is precisely the reactions in this post: a) racist and sexist shit about how he’s a white male and b) the jealousy effect (which combines with the former). Pretty sad that he has to be so careful.

  11. Allan Folsom got $2 million for The Day After Tomorrow. In 1993 dollars ($3.3 today). Zadie Smith got a quarter million pounds, sure. Hari Kunzru got five times that for The Impressionist, barely two years later. You know why everyone remembers the big advance for White Teeth? Because Zadie Smith is a black woman. Because it was unusual for that exact reason. Because she was an outlier.

  12. Yeah GRH has been real press shy. That GQ profile he did with the designer duds? Man, they musta held a gun to his head on that one. And the Vulture profile…it musta been hard for him to contribute that picture of his badass teenage posse. And I don’t know where people getting these miraculous publicity head shots of him. Poor guy.

  13. @butt

    $2 million for The Day After Tomorrow, which is not literary fiction. As for your other points: typical Internet Left incoherence. You say there’s a problem with diversity in the industry… and, without any evidence, you say that people remember Zadie Smith’s advance because she was black. Maybe people who think about race constantly (like you, I guess), but most remember it because she was such a good writer so incredibly early. That’s what Zadie herself has said, that it was about her being young, but I guess you’d know better than her… Then you point to Hari Kunzru, who’s Indian, and got a 7 figure advance two years later. Tell me, do you think through your positions or do you just rant without any regard for if it even supports your argument?

  14. Also, jesus christ, a big, 900 page book that’s well-written and, that’s at least grade A- literature, gets published, and is going to get a lot of attention and sell, and all everyone wants to do is shit on it and complain about “the hype.” Like, good, a book got some hype… maybe it sells a few hundred thousand copies. Small stakes that y’all tear over like hyenas. Please crawl back to whatever NanoWriMo forum is your normal hole, and leave literature to those who want to keep it alive, those who celebrate because GQ covered an author, not those who rant about “Purity”, like doing a few interviews is selling out. Looks like Knopf did its fucking job and got the book out there. Good. Hope it sells a million copies. Sorry if it’s not your books… maybe if you spent less time whining and more time writing (I notice Hallberg doesn’t have a twitter) it’d be your book next time.

  15. Mygod I think you need to lighten the fuck up. This is not about people killing literature. Some people get uncomfortable where marketing and literature intersect. They’re sort of opposite aesthetics, ya dig? You’re obviously fine with it; also an acceptable opinion.

    Categorizing all dissent as “unpublished writers whining” is as disingenuous as calling anyone who says something remotely critical about USA “unpatriotic”.

    Also, smile! It’s good for you.

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