While writing my very first blurb recently – it was for an old friend’s new book about the creation of America’s interstate highways – I was delighted to discover that this otherwise very strong piece of work had just two weak points. One was the title, The Big Roads, which strikes me as a big snore. The other was the subtitle, a panting pileup of purplish prose: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.
Suddenly, every time I walked into a bookstore or read a review, I started noticing similarly breathless subtitles. What had struck me initially as an unfortunate decision by the publisher of The Big Roads now began to look like a full-blown trend. Two books in particular fed this dawning revelation – Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost At Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them; and Man Down!: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fun Managers, and Just About Everything Else.
After discovering dozens of run-on subtitles, I naturally began to wonder what was at work here. My initial theory was that this sudden gush of wordiness is a natural by-product of book publishing’s desperate times. In a marketplace glutted with too many titles – and in a culture that makes books more marginal by the day – publishers seem to think that if they just shout loudly enough, people will notice their products, then buy them. In other words, the run-on subtitle is literature’s equivalent of flop sweat, that stinky slime that coats the skin of every comedian, actor and novelist who has ever gotten ready to step in front of a live audience knowing, in the pit of his stomach, that he’s going to bomb. But when I asked around, my flop sweat theory started to hold less and less water.
John Valentine co-founded The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., more than thirty years ago. Since then he has helped build it into a beloved cultural institution in the so-called “Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, where there just might be more writers per-capita than in any other place on the planet outside select zip codes in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I’d say about three years ago I started noticing more words on covers, more buzzwords,” Valentine told me when I dropped by the shop recently. When I ran my flop sweat theory past him, he shook his head. “I think it’s driven by Search – with a capital S – whether it’s Google or Amazon or whatever. A lot of our customers hear about books on NPR, and when they come in the store they can’t always remember the author or the title. The more words a customer might remember, the more keywords we can use to Google it. If a word is rather unique, we’re more likely to find it. With the river of books – with the river of everything – most people want to have more unique words associated with their product.”
Most people, maybe, but not all people. Valentine has noticed another trend running counter to the run-on subtitle. “The converse of it,” he says, “is publishers and authors who feel confident. They tend to go small.” He waved at several examples on a shelf near the front of the store – Cleopatra: A Life by Pulitzer-Prize winner Stacy Schiff; Just Kids by Patti Smith, which won a National Book Award; Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan; Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III; and Life by Keith Richards. It doesn’t get much more concise than that. Maybe It by Stephen King.
And there are exceptions to Valentine’s theory. Simon Winchester, who scored a major hit in 2005 with The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, has just published Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. Maybe Winchester simply believes in sticking with a winning formula. Tina Rosenberg, who has won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, is out with Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.
While not overly wordy, Rosenberg’s subtitle falls into what I call the “Tao of How” category – books that promise to show us how the world really works, and how we can use that knowledge to transform our humdrum lives into epic experiences full of bliss, friends, great sex, wisdom and/or bags of money. Recent efforts include Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think and Do by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler; and Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.
While working as an editor at Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Eamon Dolan bought the concept that eventually became The Big Roads. Dolan, who has since become vice president and editor-in-chief at The Penguin Press, contends that verbose subtitles have always been with us and probably always will be. He also believes that subtitles have become an especially valuable marketing tool in our digital age, echoing John Valentine’s theory.
“I’d say that subtitles are important enough to the success of a nonfiction book that hardly any such book is published without one,” Dolan said in an e-mail. “Traditionally (and still), the subtitle explicitly states the book’s subject and purpose and implicitly tries to signal who its audience is. In the 21st century, the subtitle has a more pointed intent as well – to offer keywords that might come up in web searches. While we do not design subtitles with this particular goal in mind, it is a use that suggests subtitles are as essential now as ever they were.”
Dolan doesn’t believe you can judge the effectiveness of a subtitle merely by looking at its length. Some pithy ones are perfect, he contends, while a long freight train can be just as effective. To prove his point, Dolan cites the very different subtitles on two books he edited. “A favorite subtitle of mine right now is the one for Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer – The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Its lyricism, clarity and faux-grandiosity beautifully and efficiently convey the book’s ambitious scope and endearing tone. Often the author, editor, publisher, et al, brainstorm and/or wrangle at length over titles and subtitles, but these came directly from the author even before the manuscript was complete. And we knew right away that we couldn’t improve on them. Brevity is often a goal in this realm because shorter subtitles enter the mind more readily and are easier to incorporate into a jacket design.”
That said, he added, “Another of my favorite subtitles is an exception that proves the rule. Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis was subtitled Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. It’s double-wide, to be sure, but it earns every inch of the real estate it takes up. I love how its two halves rub against each other in a way that sparks a reader’s interest. How could such lofty qualities as heartbreak, genius, etc., arise in such a nerdy arena as a Scrabble contest? To me, and to many, many other readers, this has proven an irresistible question.”
That sweaty wrestling match Dolan describes – the author, editor, publisher, et al, locked in a room wrangling over potential titles and subtitles – is familiar to most authors of non-fiction books, and to more than a few writers of fiction. But when Malcolm Jones, a culture writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, was getting ready to publish a memoir, the wrestling match was fairly painless. “On my book, we – I think this discussion finally involved my editor, agent and wife – we tried a subtitle but it just sounded like a second title,” Jones said by e-mail. “So we figured we’d label it ‘a memoir’ and let people work it out. This, of course, resulted in the stampede of sales.” The book’s cover is elegant in its simplicity, just the words Little Boy Blues: A Memoir and a photograph of the author at the age of 10 or so, reading a newspaper and pretending to smoke an unlit pipe, the picture of future literary sophistication. It echoes the beautiful economy of the cover of Experience: A Memoir by Martin Amis, which shows the author as a tow-headed pre-teen with a scowl on his face and a cigarette clenched between his lips. That scowl and that cigarette leave no doubt that this is one bad, bad lad.
Why is such gorgeous restraint the exception in contemporary publishing? “I’m tempted to go with your flop sweat theory,” Jones says. “Having made the initial error to publish way more than they should, publishers cravenly attempt at the last minute to adorn their hundreds of titles with some sham distinction in the baseless hope that, yes, this will attract a reader or two. Or maybe some of it has to do with playing to the computer’s power to aggregate. I wish this were more far-fetched than it sounds.”
Which brings us, finally, to Earl Swift, my friend who wrote The Big Roads. He describes the creation of the book’s title and subtitle not as a wrestling match but as a “collaborative process” between himself, his editors and the publishing house’s marketing people. In the end, they agreed on a title that they felt was less opaque and more self-explanatory than the dozens of possibilities they’d bounced back and forth.
“Some publishers go for short titles so that you can stack the words vertically on the cover,” says Swift, the author of three previous non-fiction books. “That allows you to go with bigger type and give the book more visual impact. But some short titles are so obscure or general that they require amplification.”
When it came time to compose a subtitle that would help readers understand what The Big Roads was about, Swift said his main goal was to debunk a common misconception. “I thought we had to telegraph to potential readers that they don’t know the story as well as they think they do. You say ‘interstate highways’ and most people immediately think ‘Eisenhower.’ So I thought we had to signal that the people responsible for those highways are people you’ve probably never heard of.”
And so it came to pass that author and publisher agreed on a subtitle that might have once sounded breathless to me but, on second thought, actually does accomplish what it set out to do. It alerts readers to the fact that our interstate highways did not pop fully formed out of Dwight Eisenhower’s vacuous skull. For that reason, among many others, I hope the book sells faster than Krispy Kremes.
(Image: Untitled from joost-ijmuiden’s photostream)
Fifteen things about my year in reading:
1. My most immersive reading experience of the year took place in late January and February as I embarked upon Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, followed by the Lymond Chronicles. Twelve long and involved and completely transporting books later, I closed the cover of the final installment with a profound sense of loss.
3. The book I read this year that I most wish I had written myself: Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.
4. The book I read this year that I don’t understand why I hadn’t read sooner, it is so much exactly what I like: Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.
5. Three excellent novels I read for the second or third or fourth time this year and found just as fantastically good as I had the last time: Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, Cintra Wilson’s Colors Insulting to Nature, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.
6. Another important reread: Mary Renault’s trio of novels about Alexander the Great. The influence Renault’s books had on me as a young teenager cannot be overstated.
7. The indispensable and fascinating nonfiction book that I think everyone should read: Randy Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.
8. The most intellectually stimulating nonfiction book I read this year: Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. The only other book I read this year that is likely to have such a pronounced effect on my next novel (The Bacchae excluded) is Andrew Dolkart’s architectural history of Morningside Heights.
9. The most intellectually stimulating book I reread this year: Genette’s Figures of Literary Discourse. In a similar vein, I also reimmersed myself in the writings of Victor Shklovsky and read Scott McCloud’s inspired Understanding Comics.)
10. I found Keith Richards’ Life incomparably more interesting (a better book!) than Patti Smith’s Just Kids. The latter also suffers in comparison to Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, which I highly recommend.
11. Some of the top-caliber crime writers whose books I read for the first time this year: Arnaldur Indridason, Liz Rigbey, Caroline Carver, Deon Meyer, Ake Edwardson, Asa Larsson, C. J. Sansom, Jo Nesbo.
12. Writers whose new books I devoured this year because I like their previous ones so much: Lee Child, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Atkinson, Robert Crais, Ken Bruen, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper, Joe Hill, Tana French, Jo Walton, Connie Willis, Joshilyn Jackson.
13. Top 2010 guilty pleasure reading, both in its guiltiness and in its pleasurability: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books. (Richard Kadrey’s books are too well-written to count as a guilty pleasure, but they are immensely pleasurable.)
14. I found Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom excellent, but it did not have a deep effect on me.
15. In September, I got a Kindle. It has saved me a lot of neckache while traveling, some dollars that might have been spent on full-price hardbacks and the pain of reading poor-quality mass-market paperbacks when I can’t find anything better. The best value-for-money discovery: Lewis Shiner’s superb novel Black & White, available at his website as a free PDF.
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Life by Keith Richards: Any Stones fan will enjoy this. The only problem is you have to get through the drug-filled later 70’s and 80’s, which are kind of a rock-n-roll fantasy drag. I wish there’d been a little more talk about the records and a little less of the drogas, but what are you gonna do. He really warms up by the end though, and even has a recipe for bangers and mash. Most of the history is stuff you’ve heard before, but it’s fun to hear it from Keith’s mouth. It’s most interesting to hear him talk about the other dudes…I guess he does love Mick like a brother–although they’ve had their differences–he adores Charlie, hates Bill, and had an antagonistic, but mutually respectful relationship with Brian. Mick Taylor is aloof, and Ronnie is a hard-core Stone. I’m so surprised that Mick wrote the “Brown Sugar” riff.
Stoner by John Williams: My favorite book I read this year. He has a plain-Jane, perfectly mild style that is so satisfying. It’s like a great roasted chicken. It’s the life story of a guy named Stoner, who comes to work in the academic world, and is basically screwed over from all sides time and time again. Between his wife and the dean of students, he’s just not catching any breaks. There is less humor here than, say the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, but the matter-of-fact storytelling hooked me like a fish. I didn’t know a thing about John Williams beforehand, but after reading Stoner, I picked up Augustus (which I also recommend) and Butcher’s Crossing (which I haven’t yet read).
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah: The author was lost in the wars of Sierra Leone and picked up by roving packs of guerilla warriors. At something like the age of 13 he was given an AK-47 and enough drugs to numb himself to the massacres he then unleashed. His reintroduction to society is actually the most interesting part.
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens: Hitchens is an atheist who is basically making the claim that religion—and thus God–are man-made inventions that are more excuses for violence, repression, and intolerance than anything else. Science and reason are his new dogma. It is a very interesting read because he is articulate and funny, and he has many things to say about discrediting the foundations of the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah (among others). The histories of all religions are so jam-packed with violence and abuse, the point is hammered home a little too hard at times…and I’d be left wondering “what about the people who didn’t kill or molest anyone?” He’s a really brilliant guy though and even if I wasn’t necessarily convinced, I think it’s worth the read.
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Rock-and-roll memoirs are among the most persistently disappointing of literary subgenres. Like athletes, rock musicians are rarely articulate about their craft. Both groups have easy recourse to common bodies of stale jargon—athletes give glory to God and say they “just went out and gave 110%”; rockers are all about the music, are glad to be clean, and didn’t really mean to suggest in their last interview that they were ambivalent about success. Genius that relies on fleeting inspiration, gut feeling, and unthinking improvisation is ill suited to the slow, reflective process of writing. It takes an outsider to get inside. Observers like John McPhee, John Updike, and Gay Talese have done this with sports. But rock music has eluded even serious writers. When Rolling Stone sent Truman Capote on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1972, he complained that there was simply nothing to write about, and never filed.
Capote’s work ethic had certainly eroded by then, but even the canonical body of book-length rock writing, by the likes of Greil Marcus, Stanley Booth, and Nick Tosches, never feels like more than the musings of very smart devotees about frequently inane artists. Nothing essential is transmitted. Read Updike’s Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, and you understand baseball. Read Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, and you have a headache. If something essential about rock music eludes capture by writers as fine as the ones I’ve listed, it positively dissipates when the musicians themselves try to explain it.
Into the long and prosaic line of rock star autobiographies comes Life, by Keith Richards (co-written by James Fox), which will be released on October 26th and which is excerpted in the most recent issue Rolling Stone. I’ve had high hopes for Keith’s autobiography, and not only because I’m a Stones fan. Rock autobiographies that aren’t Bob Dylan’s Chronicles fall into two equally hollow categories:
1.) The sentimental redemption tale, in which our hero discovers the blues in his small town in rural England or northern Minnesota, finds success, finds that this success comes too early and too fast, uses a lot of drugs and alienates a lot of people, finally cleans up, and unconvincingly assures us that he now knows what satisfaction is. Eric Clapton’s recent autobiography and the popular film adaptations of the lives of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash fall into this category.
2.) The raunchy, no-apologies tell-all, in which the rock star has a lot of sex, takes a lot of drugs, and refuses to repent doing either. Gene Simmons’s Kiss and Make-Up is the benchmark here, though elements of the tell-all are essential to any mainstream rock autobiography.
Keith’s life presents a chance to avoid the dual-track stagnation. For one thing, Keith Richards doesn’t deal in redemption; survival is his game. He’s cleaned up but still seems like an outlaw. This isn’t because he refuses to apologize, but because, by force of personality, he’s kept beyond the cultural discourse wherein fans simultaneously crave tales of backstage debauchery and demand apologies for them. Only Dylan has been so successful at staying above the public’s wildly oscillating morals. And while we’re speaking of debauchery, Keith’s addictions could be legitimate points of interest. The needles-and-groupies portions of most rock books tend to devolve into numbly pornographic lists. But Keith’s sustained cocaine and heroin usage has become so legendary that it might be interesting to know how he didn’t die.
As it turns out, the answer makes Keith sound like Warren Buffett telling you how he made his money. Richards and Fox write:
It’s not only the high quality of drugs I had that I attribute my survival to. I was very meticulous about how much I took. I’d never put more in to get a little higher. That’s where most people fuck up on drugs. It’s the greed involved that never really affected me…Maybe that’s a measure of control, and maybe I’m rare in that respect. Maybe there I have an advantage.
That’s it. Keith Richards survived because he had a sense of moderation, and because he could afford the really good stuff.
Not only is this passage laughably anticlimactic, it just doesn’t sound like Keith. This is not to fault James Fox; his task was nigh impossible. Richards is one of the better interviews in rock and roll. His memories change a lot from interview to interview, but he is amusing and tries to be honest. His appeal, however, depends on his gravelly voice and his erratic deportment. Abstracted to the page and filtered through a co-author, things Keith would say tend to sound silly: “The travelling physician we’ll call Dr. Bill, to give it a Burroughsian ring.” Just as often, the excerpts don’t sound like Keith at all, as when he suddenly morphs into a frat boy: “No wonder I’m famous for partying! The ultimate party, if it’s any good, you can’t remember it.”
As that last quote suggests, Life does not refrain from the obligatory relation of prurient details. There is indeed a lot of sex in the Rolling Stone excerpts. Even the sex that might have been interesting is degraded. Of his relationship with Anita Pallenberg, whom he stole from soon-to-be-deceased bandmate Brian Jones, Keith says, “I still remember the smell of the orange trees in Valencia. When you get laid with Anita Pallenberg for the first time, you remember things.” Spoken like someone who doesn’t remember; everyone knows Valencia smells like oranges. Of another sexual encounter with Pallenberg, Keith says, “Phew.”
The excerpts do offer insight into another of Keith’s tortured and talked-about relationships: the one he’s maintained for forty years with Mick Jagger. The Glimmer Twins’ dynamic tends to be inscrutable, and Keith offers a bit of directness. Jagger, he muses, was jealous of Keith’s friendships with other men. He felt like he owned Keith. “…I love the man dearly; I’m still his mate,” Richards says. “But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.” Now we’re getting somewhere.
Or are we? As interesting as all this is, anyone who’s read even a few interviews with Jagger or Richards knows that there is no easy way to describe their friendship; the pair is always saying, “Yes, but…” Every blanket statement that makes for a nice block quote comes with a qualifier that does not. This is true of any subject, from Keith Richards to George Washington. Good biographers use nuance to approximate a life; they bring us closer to how a person lived. And a serious autobiographer can draw us even nearer to understanding, for no barriers of consciousness need surmounting; the author is already inside. But rock stars are subject to a specific set of demands, and by the nature of their work, they’re disposed to give us what we want. And as long as we desire accountings of every grain of cocaine and tallies of every groupie, we will remain in the audience, watching.