“Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.”
Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways?
I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks.
I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either.
Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.
About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look?
The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers.
Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance?
“I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.”
What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals?
I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically.
“Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ”
“Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.”
Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.”
A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it.
“It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.”
A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales.
An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.)
Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist.
Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around.
Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse.
When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away.
“The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says.
Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list.
“Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.”
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit.
At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send.
“Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.”
The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending.
“Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.”
Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists.
“We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.”
Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store.
My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.”
Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.”
What else can authors do to support the paperback launch?
Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme.
And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference.
I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf.
“Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.”
More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet.
“The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”
As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while many of us no longer do most of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
I much prefer the U.K. version here. The woodblock art is sublime, and the red and black are nice and bold.
The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).
So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?
We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.
And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.
With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:
Arcadia by Lauren Groff (a Staff Pick, Paradise Regained: An Interview with Lauren Groff)
At Last by Edward St Aubyn (Most Anticipated, Illicit Pleasures: On Edward St Aubyn’s At Last)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (Everything is Political: An Interview with Ben Fountain, National Book Award Finalist)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Booker Prize Winner)
Building Stories by Chris Ware (Infographics of Despair: Chris Ware’s Building Stories)
By Blood by Ellen Ullman (Who We Are Now: On Ellen Ullman’s By Blood)
Canada by Richard Ford (Across the Border: Richard Ford’s Canada)
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (The Mad Music of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane)
Fobbit by David Abrams (Post-40 Bloomer: David Abrams Taking As Long As It Takes)
The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli (Going Back to the Page: An Interview with Tatjana Soli, A Millions contributor)
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (Plot, Rhyme, and Conspiracy: Hari Kunzru Colludes with His Readers, Fractured World: Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men)
HHhH by Laurent Binet (Exclusive: The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’s HHhH)
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (National Book Award Finalist)
Home by Toni Morrison (Where the Heart Is: Toni Morrison’s Home)
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (So, Nu?: Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy)
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (How Should a Writer Be? An Interview with Sheila Heti)
NW by Zadie Smith (Lamenting the Modern: On Zadie Smith’s NW, Exclusive: The First Lines of Zadie Smith’s NW)
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (National Book Award Winner)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (National Book Award Winner)
Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (Mothers and Daughters: On Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name)
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (The Lies We Tell: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth)
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (Booker Shortlisted)
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Golden Oldie: Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Exclusive: The First Lines of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue)
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (The ‘You’ In Yunior: Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, A Brief Wondrous Interview with Junot Díaz)
Watergate by Thomas Mallon (I Am Not A Character: On Thomas Mallon’s Watergate)
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (Speaking of Anne Frank…)
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (National Book Award Finalist)
A few weeks ago, whenever I told anyone I was reading Molly Ringwald’s novel-in-stories When it Happens to You, they either said, “Wow, cool!” or, “Ugh. Why?” To the latter, I replied, “Why not?” Ringwald has always presented herself as well-spoken and well-read, and being an actress isn’t necessarily a detriment to writing: after all, actors, like fiction writers, must inhabit characters and seek out a scene’s power. (And, dude, if you were in Pretty in Pink, you’re basically qualified to win a Nobel.)
I devoured When it Happens to You in a day or two. It was an engaging and pleasing read, with lines like, “Greta had always been most beautiful to him when emerging from water. Swimming pools, oceans, bath tubs.” Ringwald treats her characters with compassion, and I enjoyed seeing how each story would connect to the next. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed, perhaps because the territory mined is so familiar: there’s an affair, there are blah sentences like, “The color had drained from her face.” There’s even a description of a woman who, after almost being run over, raises “a furious fist” at the driver, like some irate extra in an action flick’s chase sequence. I longed for a more daring and complicated book; Ringwald has one in her future, I know it, but this isn’t it.
Even so, as I said, I devoured the novel, and, in general, enjoyed it. Its predictable content and structure were comforting, like a catchy pop song or a romantic comedy. You know, as Adorno might say, its familiarity helped me ward off death. Or something.
In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he’d “rather shoot [him]self in the face” than have another discussion about literature genres. I don’t blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, “It’s about people,” and leave it at that. But as I read Ringwald’s book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs.
What, you ask, are some attributes of this genre? Read on, my friend, read on.
1. The Long Title
When it Happens to You is not only a long title, it’s also in the second person, as are many titles in the literary fiction category. I think we should blame Dave Eggers for starting this trend with his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity. Or maybe Miranda July’s story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, really got things going. I, too, am guilty of joining the bandwagon with my hard-to-say novella title, If You’re Not Yet Like Me. Uwem Akpan demanded us to Say You’re One Of Them, and Elliott Holt will comply with her forthcoming You Are One Of Them. Ramona Ausubel’s debut, No One Is Here Except All of Us, switched things up with the first-person plural; perhaps she was inspired by fellow UC Irvine alumnus Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End.
If Ringwald hadn’t chosen the long second-person title, she might have picked one with a full name, a la, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, or The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, or Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures by Emma Straub. Sheesh. I should call my next book And So Olivo D’Havellind and You Will Move Away From this Place I Call Home. It’s sure to win the Pulitzer.
A decade later, Sean Carman’s “Lessons Learned from My Study of Literature” still makes me laugh. But the third lesson, “The thing about adultery is it’s the highest expression of pure human freedom,” has its inverse as well: that adultery in literary fiction (and in real life, too, I presume) also leads to stress, despair, and a complicated regret. Let’s just go ahead and credit Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for making extra-marital affairs in fiction so popular. Anton Chekhov also gets points for his enormously influential story, “The Lady with The Lap Dog.” And all contemporary tales of domestic unrest must also pay dues to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, with its depiction of The Wheelers, an unhappy, unfaithful couple living in the suburbs. If you aren’t sure what kind of literary novel to write, I suggest starting with an English professor who has an affair with his (her?!) student while the wife (husband?! life partner?!) sculpts and flails at home. Abortion plot-line optional.
3. Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany
The reader of literary genre fiction should feel the structure in her body, particularly with short stories. It’s a recognizable rhythm, it’s a shimmering in one’s veins as one moves from opening scene to well-placed background information to the next, more tense scene to that special, oh-so-revealing flashback about the time our protagonist ran over his rubber horse, or the time he knew he was in love with a real horse, or the time he — oh you see what I mean. In the genre of literary fiction, this structure must lead to a moment of revelation, suggested but never explained. The image of our protagonist in a Safeway parking lot, pushing his cart as if he were a cowboy riding a horse, the wind roughing up his hair, the distant neighs of horns in the far off distance. (Can you feel it? I can.) Let’s go ahead and give James Joyce his rightful due for such faintly falling, falling faintly moments of reverie and character change in literary fiction. (Damn that horse! Now I’m sobbing!)
4. A Dog barks, someone eats a watermelon, a car drives away.
In his terrific and funny Slate essay, Rosecrans Baldwin unveils how many authors write barking dogs into the backgrounds of their novels. Though he points out barking dogs in genre novels as well, I’d argue that you find them in literary fiction precisely because they show time passing. As Baldwin says, “Most authors…employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time.” In literary fiction, there is so little event, authors need that dang dog; without it, there’s only the mind, there’s only emotion, and the reader is floating in a vacuum. As James Wood has said of the aforementioned “The Lady With the Lap Dog,” Chekhov needs Gurov to eat a watermelon for half an hour in front of his new mistress in order to show time passing. Otherwise, nada is happening! For good measure, I suggest adding to your scene a car driving away. Or even better, the distant rumble of a motorcycle. Ooh. Yes.
5. The plate drops!
Years ago, Maud Newton lodged the phrase “tea towel fiction” in my brain, and it’s stuck with me. Newton quotes a judge for the Orange Prize, Katharine Viner, who said of the many submissions she read:
They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.
This is a “nothing happens” book, the former it girl of literary genre fiction. In my classes, I like to describe these stories as: “A man and a woman buy dishes at the store. When they get home, she goes to lie down, barely talking, something unsettling her. A dog barks in the distance. The man starts to put the plates away, and one breaks. The end.” What I love about this kind of narrative is that it’s often deliciously readable. How is that possible? Of course, this kind of narrative is a bit out of vogue — there’s a new it girl on the scene. It’s the same man and woman, but now time travel or zombies or tiny people who live in walnuts are involved. Raymond Carver is to blame for the popularity of the first kind of narrative, with his profound stories of small actions, uninterested as they are in directly exploring the inner lives of characters. That genius George Saunders is to blame for the latter: damn him and his faxing cave man!
I have certainly missed other tropes of this rich and admired genre. Feel free to add more in the comments — I need some tips for my next story. (I’m thinking of making it about a woman named Edan Lepucki. Woh…woh…mind melt!)
Award season is in full swing, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have just been announced on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”. After two years in a row of the fiction finalists numbering four women versus one male author, the gender count is reversed this time. The list also includes some very well-known names (Junot Díaz, fresh off his Genius Grant, is a previous Pulitzer winner; Dave Eggers is a former Pulitzer finalist; and Louse Erdrich is a former NBCC Award winner). This is something of a departure from the more obscure focus of recent years.
In nonfiction, Anthony Shadid got a posthumous nod after he dies while reporting from Syria.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (The Millions review, Díaz’s Year in Reading, a Top Ten book)
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (excerpt [pdf], a former Top Ten book)
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (excerpt)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (The Millions interview, excerpt)
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (excerpt)
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 by Anne Applebaum
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (excerpt)
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4 by Robert Caro (The Millions review, excerpt)
The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez
I met Ben Fountain in the fall of 2009, when we were both residents at Ucross, an artists’ retreat and absurdly beautiful deer-filled paradise in northeastern Wyoming. Our offices were a few feet away from one another, and we would often cross paths in the kitchen as we retrieved more coffee or hot water for tea. We talked about Joan Didion, about Haiti, about literary journals, about running, about Annie Proulx, about snakes, about rejection. I had just been dumped by my agent, and Ben was starting a new novel after his previous one had died on the table. To this day, I believe Ben’s presence at Ucross helped me write as much as I did. All day we worked, and at night, after dinner, we played ping pong and gave each other updates on our books. I knew in my bones that the novel Ben was writing was it, that it was brilliant. I was right. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about a 19-year-old soldier home on leave and, along with his army squad, a guest of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game, is extraordinary. Here is a novel that is deeply engaged with our contemporary world, timely and timeless at once. Plus, it’s such fun to read.
Ben Fountain is also the author of the short story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award. I still can’t believe he answers my emails.
The Millions: The prose of this novel knocked me out: it’s beautiful, exuberant, funny, dirty, sweet — equal parts slang and poetry. I’m curious how you crafted sentences like, “They could be the congregation of the richest church in town, Our Anorexic Lady of the Upscale Honky Bling,” and, “Day perches on his seat back surveying the field like an African king high on his throne, looking down on all his little subject bitches,” and, “Maybe it’s age, he thought, leaning back on his blanket, watching the sun do its stately pinwheel through the trees.” Is a lot of this first draft brilliance, just listening to the characters in your mind, or do you work the language over and over to get this kind of shine? I suppose this is just a boring old craft question, but I must know: How do you do this?
Ben Fountain: From the start — beginning with the first impulse for the story — it seemed that the book needed to have a particular attitude in the language, a hopefully headlong, borderline reckless mashup of high and low, ineffable and vulgar, etc. If it was going to happen, it had to happen at the level of the sentence and build from there. There was a sound, as much as anything, that the book needed to have, and that’s what I went after in the writing, trying to home in on the sound of it and find the words for it on the page. Usually I had to work it over and over to get it right, but that’s true of pretty much everything I do. Even the “simple” sentences seem to come hard.
TM: I know, from being your writing camp buddy, that you wrote the first draft of this novel by hand, on various legal pads, and that you then transcribed the longhand work to the laptop. Was this how you worked on the book from start to finish? How did the labor of this novel inform the finished product?
BF: I always do it that way — write the first draft out on legal pads, then enter it into the computer, print it out, mark up the hard copy with pen or pencil, feed those into the computer, print out another hard copy, and so on. I don’t particularly like composing on the computer because, well, I just don’t. Having that damn cursor always blinking, like it’s saying come on, come on, think of something. I like pens and pencils and papers, and writing it out longhand seems to match the pace of my thinking, which, as you might infer, is none too swift.
TM: I was interested in the times that Billy — and the novel’s slightly elevated, yet intimate, third person narrator — makes pronouncements about America; for instance: “Americans are incredibly polite as long as they get what they want,” and, “Somewhere along the way, America became a giant mall with a country attached.” Where did you get the cojones to make such grand, true, wise, angry pronouncements about our country?
BF: Well, Billy turned out to be a clarifying lens through which to view America. He’s seeing it all with fresh eyes, as one sees a foreign country for the first time, where you don’t take anything for granted, and where everything seems to be such a mystery. A lot of these pronouncements about America simply came from trying to put myself in his skin, and seeing as he sees things. And maybe Billy, as a poorly educated, relatively unsophisticated 19-year-old kid from a small town in Texas, isn’t having these thoughts per se, not in so many words, but the narrative voice is conveying the substance of what Billy is thinking and feeling. If we could sit Billy down at any one moment and have him articulate precisely what he was experiencing — walking him through the experience, patiently, taking as much time as was needed — this, or something much like it, is what we’d end up with.
TM: Do you see yourself as a political novelist?
BF: Everything is political, if we’re living among other human beings. Certainly everything in a society is political, right down to what we do in bed with other people. If it’s not political– i.e., the Texas sodomy law was finally declared unconstitutional a few years ago — it’s because a political choice was made. And war is perhaps the ultimate political sphere. Some presentations of the Iraq war — Hollywood movies, especially — have tried to be neutral, to simply present the soldiers’ experience on the ground without political commentary. Well, what you get then is a video game. To me, the question of “why” follows close on the heels of “what” — why are these people trying to kill each other? Why are these violent things happening? Any realistic exploration of the war is going to have to include the political element, otherwise it’s just not worth the time.
TM: I was intrigued by this notion of Billy, All-American Hero, existing outside of the American way. He views his fellow citizens at a remove; they seem to him a familiar-yet-strange species, constantly grabbing his biceps, thanking him for his service, asking him how it feels to be in battle, to lose his comrade, and so on. He plays a role for them, and he’s painfully aware of that role. This is so rich and complicated; Billy as a character is perhaps my favorite aspect of the novel. Can you talk a little bit about what went into the making of Billy Lynn, and how you navigated his identity: as a young man, as a Texan, as a grunt, and so on?
BF: I touch on this some in my answer to your earlier question, how I tried to negotiate the territory between Billy’s relative youth and inexperience, on the one hand, and his acute visceral reactions to what’s going on around him. Billy may be poorly educated, but he’s no dummy; on the contrary. He wants to see things for what they are and is largely succeeding, and that puts him way ahead of most of us, educated or not. And there’s his basic decency, maybe an implicit morality in his insistence on seeing things for what they are even as he tries not to make waves or inconvenience anyone, if he can help it. As for trying to get myself into his skin, well, I was a 19-year-old male, once, about six centuries ago, and I tried to tap into my memories of that, where so much of your existence centers around sex and booze — physical gratification — as well as anxiety about who you are and what you’re going to do with your life, and even what it means to live a good life. That whipsaw between intense physicality and existential confusion, back and forth, back and forth, from one moment to the next. Being young is an impossible, crazy-making experience, much of the time.
TM: How much research went into this novel? And, tell me, honestly: How much time did you spend thinking about Beyonce, who performs with Destiny’s Child in the novel’s halftime show?
BF: Lots of research on military life, war, the Iraq war in particular. I’ve never been in the military myself, so I was starting from a standpoint of profound ignorance. It’s not a casual thing, undertaking to write a book like this when you’ve never been in combat or even in the military; I’ve been shot at, in Haiti, but that’s something different from combat. So I read everything I could get my hands on — memoirs, reportage, all the magazine articles; watched the documentaries; talked to the soldiers who were generous enough to talk to me. I felt like I had to earn the right to write this book, and the only way I could do that was by working very hard to imagine myself into the soldier’s experience, and hopefully write it correctly.
Beyonce? Ha ha. She’s a very pretty woman, no doubt. But I didn’t spend too much time thinking about her, and probably won’t, unless I decide to try a novel about a pop music star.
TM: Speaking of Destiny’s Child, was it a challenge to balance the real-life, pop cultural references of the book with what’s fictionalized?
BF: It didn’t feel like any more of a challenge than any other part of the book. For one thing, the action of the book, at least in the “now” sense, is set at a pro football game at Texas Stadium, so the entire setting is in the context of a pop-culture entertainment event. Placing the action in that context basically teed up everything else for me. And, by the way, very little had to be fictionalized; pop culture in this day and age is so surreal, so over-the-top and borderline insane, that all I had to do was take samples from life, for the most part.
TM: And because this is The Millions, I must ask you, What are you reading now?
BF: I recently read an extraordinarily fine novel in galleys called The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, due to be published in September. It’s set in the Iraq war. I also read another very fine book in galleys called Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee. I recently re-read Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, in a new translation by Benjamin Moser — a tremendous book, and New Directions has just put out four new translations of Lispector’s novels that I’m looking forward to getting into. Presently, I’m into Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours, which is a great delight and ongoing revelation. I have never read a boring sentence by Tom Bissell.
Our own Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel The Lola Quartet is out today. New Yorkers can see her (and some other Millions staffers) read on Sunday. Also out are Robert Caro’s latest installment of his LBJ biography, Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds, Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, and Steve Coll’s oil industry exposé Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.