Michael Nye is not certain whether he considers his debut, All the Castles Burned, a sports novel. “My first response is no, this is not a sports novel,” he said. “But I think that’s just me not wanting to have my novel pigeonholed.” Owen Webb, a scholarship student at a prestigious private high school in Ohio and the novel’s protagonist, is a prodigious point guard. The friendship he builds with Carson, an older student, grows while they shoot hoops during a shared free period. Basketball is at the heart of All the Castles Burned. When thinking about sports novels he really appreciated, like Fat City by Leonard Gardner, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, or The Hopeful by Tracy O’Neill, he hit on one of the things that makes his book work so well. “These sports novels, and other really terrific ones, aren’t about winning a game…Sports are just a way of getting into those themes that drive our characters to making critical choices in their lives with irreversible consequences. Does it really matter if a character hits a game-winning shot? On the surface, of course not. Beneath the surface? Maybe it does.” It’s only a game until it isn’t.
The Millions: One of the things that I was most impressed by was the way the basketball games were written. How did you approach those scenes? Were there any books or pieces of writing you were looking toward as guides for how to write about the game?
Michael Nye: One of the things that has always struck me about sportswriting is how rarely it makes game action vivid. For beat writers, they have to churn out the facts of the game—who scored what at what point in the game and so forth—and rarely get to describe the action in a vivid way. I wanted to avoid moments that a reader might typically see in any kind of sports story, whether it’s in a book or in a movie. No miraculous shots, no wild scrambles of pure luck, no buzzer beaters. So I picked moments that Owen would experience and view in his unique way: Carson shooting a free throw, his on-the-ball defense at the end of the game, and all the small gestures that can lead to a fistfight. Each gave me the chance to do something a little different; respectively, the careful examination and memory of his friend and the mechanics of shooting; the tension and action of one moment; and the slow build up of game play leading to a drama much bigger than just a basketball game. Because I haven’t seen this described in other novels, I felt free to write them however I wanted to without the restraints of influence.
TM: I’m glad that you mentioned the immediate tension and the slow build up in the games because that was one of the most interesting things about the games and the novel as a whole. There’s a sense reading it that that a few characters—Carson, Owen, Owen’s father—could blow up at any minute. All sorts of small moments in the novel feel like they could directly or indirectly result in something explosive and tragic. What was the process of winding it so tightly like?
MN: The first drafts of this novel were a bit of a free-for-all. My driving thought was to finish the book, to get to the end, hurry the story along, and I didn’t think much about how to make the story tense and compelling. In later drafts, I thought of Owen being squeezed, the sense of pressure building around him.
What really helped to give the book tension was thinking about how to use first person. One of my writer-friends, Rachel Swearingen, pointed this out: Owen has survived these events and is in the here and now telling the story. The reader doesn’t know what the present day Owen is like, where he’s speaking from, how he turned out, only that he is alive and telling the story. Owen looks back on his life and sees certain events differently, perhaps, than he did in the moment. We all do that, right? We very clearly remember yesterday; we are hazy about five weeks ago, five months ago, five years ago. Neuroscience research indicates that we change and shape our memories all the time to better fit who we are right now. The more we access a memory, the more unreliable it becomes. So, every time Owen slows down, ponders, focuses on his story, the reader is reminded of the survivor, the teller of the tale. Rachel urged me to remind the reader—sometimes, not too much—of Owen’s role as narrator, and I think that really helped to construct tension and intrigue into his story.
TM: How many drafts of the book did you go through? And how much did Owen’s reflective narration change over that time?
MN: On my laptop, I have eight drafts. But I’m not sure how significantly different each draft is from the other. When I’m revising, a “new” draft might be a complete rewrite or it might be changing the word “the” and everything else in between. In the end, I would guess closer to six drafts, but I’m honestly not sure.
What changed? The book has two timelines, the first in 1994 to 1995 and the second in 2008. In early drafts of the novel, the book was split evenly between those periods. I was trying to write something sort of Nabokovian, and it only took a few months [to learn] that I don’t write anything like Nabokov and don’t much want to. It was the completely wrong influence for my writing and, more specifically, this book. As I thought about what this book was really exploring, about male friendship and class, I focused on Owen’s formative teenage years, and saved the present for a much shorter period of time. Shifting in both time and character (from a Nabokov antihero to, say, a Richard Russo storyteller) reshaped Owen, both who tells the story and the events he chose to share.
TM: I was really interested in how you dealt with class throughout the book. Owen is a scholarship student at an expensive private school and Carson is from a very rich family, and there are things about his politics sprinkled throughout the book. I was wondering how you were thinking about class in a political context as you were working on this book.
MN: There have always been class divisions, in 1994 and of course today, anytime in civilization, really. I wanted this sense of class to be particularly to Cincinnati, to the Midwest, to the era. By attending a private school, Owen becomes aware of what he doesn’t have, which is often how we think about wealth: what is denied or unattainable rather than valuing what we already possess and cherish. So much is in the details, the things that Owen is learning to become aware of, and how easily, as Carson shows, that leads to entitlement.
TM: Can you elaborate on how you approached the particularities of the place and era?
MN: I graduated both high school and college in the 1990s, so all pop culture elements like movies, books, TV shows, world events, the O.J. Simpson trial, and so forth, are fairly ingrained in my memory. There are enough details in the novel to get the facts right, but I’m reluctant to rely to heavy on culture references to make characters vivid or to move a plot along. In some ways, I want to deemphasize this by having the characters aware of, but dismissive, of events such as the Russian invasions of Chechnya or the Republican takeover of the U.S. Congress in 1994.
In fact, thinking about it now, the lack of cell phones really helps to force action into a story. Owen can’t find out about Carson with a Google search. Caitlin can’t post selfies. Google didn’t exist. Teenagers are always going to find ways to be bored or kill time, but something as simple as “I need to use a phone” helped add tension to the novel by forcing Owen to go home, leave messages, wait for phone calls. I want this world to be recognizable as another era, but I didn’t want to be steeped in nostalgia that it would feel kitschy or forced.
TM: Was that something you found difficult to avoid, having been the same age around the same time?
MN: I have no idea how effectively I truly balanced the nostalgia in this book. You know how you often only see a story or novel clearly once you’ve been removed from it for a time? Organizing my home office, I recently came across my story collection, and started flipping through it, and mostly thinking “ugh.”
I really didn’t find the nostalgia hard to avoid. While I had a perfectly fine childhood, I’m suspicious of nostalgia in narrative art. It always rings false to me. I often think I’m not remembering my past correctly: I tend to sugarcoat things, so as a fiction writer, I distrust my own memories and avoided using my specifics in the novel. Which is a good thing: I know then I’m writing Owen’s story rather than some bastardized version of my own life.
I didn’t heavily research this era. I didn’t want to be tied down to the facts when writing fiction. I double-checked that the references to music, film, and television shows were correct along Owen’s timeline, but in doing so, I was operating as a fact checker rather than looking for influence for the story. I don’t particularly enjoy doing research. And, really, the past never seems that long ago to me. When thinking about being a teenager in the 1990s, I never think “that was so long ago!” until I glance at the calendar. That’s the thing about the past and memory: when called up, it’s so visceral and sharp that it seems recent, urgent, right there in the room with me. Owen feels the same way; the Owen at the end of the novel doesn’t so much look back on his past as he relives it and carries it around with him all the time.
TM: I think my favorite piece of 1990s culture in the book were the scenes of Owen watching basketball
MN: BOOMSHAKALAKA! The 1990s is when I fell in love with basketball and the NBA (and, clearly, NBA Jam) so writing about that era was fun. I’m not sure TV ever got better than when you had a big dumb box with buttons on it, the cable literally attached to the back of your TV, that you had to thwack to change stations.
TM: Who were your go-to NBA Jam pair?
MN: For a long time, my go-to with NBA Jam was the Hornets: Larry Johnson and Kendall Gill. But! In NBA JAM: Tournament Edition, I’m pretty much unstoppable with the Warriors. Tim Hardaway and Chris Webber. Having a combo of one player for threes [and] steals and the other for rebounds [and] blocks is key. I’m a pretty big fan of 16 bit arcades/bars where I can go nuts on that game for a solid two hours.
TM: You’re a big Celtics fan, so here’s the most important question: are the Boston Celtics going to make the NBA finals this year or what?
MN: Well, why not? I’ll be a complete and total homer right now and insist they are making the Finals because Cleveland is a dumpster fire and I have no faith that We The North are anything but a regular-season team. Banner #18, baby!
I was hooked on Daniel Riley’s debut novel from the moment I heard the premise: Suzy Whitman graduates from Vassar in 1972 and heads to the beach town of Sela del Mar, California, to follow her married older sister, Grace, into life as a stewardess for Grand Pacific Airlines.
My mother grew up in the South Bay, the part of California that Riley has lightly fictionalized in Sela del Mar, and I knew I would eat up every detail of a beachside, Watergate-era coming-of-age. But Fly Me, for all its period trappings, tells a much darker story than its sun-soaked setting would lead you to expect. Suzy soon finds that Grace’s new marriage to Mike, an unemployed journalist desperate to found the next great American magazine, is already rocky. Meanwhile, her parents are facing challenges of their own back in upstate New York. Determined to help the people she loves, Suzy finds herself drawn into a life of running drugs between the coasts — just as the nation-wide epidemic of skyjackings reaches its peak.
Riley met me at a bar in Williamsburg that obliged us by playing a steady stream of seventies rock, including many songs referenced in the pages of his novel. We talked about southern California, USC football, and subtle sexism in our parents’ generation (and also, spoiler alert, in our own).
AB: I wanted to ask you about the original seed for this book, because there are so many different things I could imagine as your entry point. Did you begin with the place, or the era of skyjackings, or the character of Suzy?
DR: My grandmother’s cousin, basically my “third grandma,” was a stewardess in the late fifties. She grew up in Los Feliz, went to USC, flew for United, and then worked in PR for LAX for decades. She helped establish the Flight Path Museum in Los Angeles. It’s a cool museum; all the volunteers are former flight attendants. I went for the first time right after I graduated from college, and I got to screw around with all these great books and resources they had there. That was sort of the very, very start of the book. Looking back at some of the notes and ideas I had back then almost feels like looking at cave paintings.
AB: So it felt like that trip to the Flight Path Museum was your way in?
DR: It was really a confluence of things. There were all these women who had flown around when I was growing up. I would always play in the annual Clipped Wings Classic golf tournament with former stewardesses. Those were mostly women who were one generation older than the characters in the book, but that younger generation was around, too. They were the moms of kids I went to school with. And my mom and her two sisters were not stewardesses, but they all worked as travel agents for long stretches. Everybody around was involved in the airport and flight and travel, in some way.
AB: One of my favorite images of Suzy from the novel’s opening is the image of her planting her skateboard in the sand and watching the airplanes.
DR: In a way the book really started for me because I used to be that person plunked down in the sand, watching the planes take off over the bay, seeing if I could guess the destination for each one. My mom always knew the flights by their numbers because she would book the tickets, and you could tell by the color of the tail.
When you grow up in California, especially in these places by the beach, the late sixties and early seventies are not far, at any moment. That stuff is in the trees, it’s in the air. Everything is an Instagram filter already. Also, certain parts of a southern California beach town look exactly like they did then. The beach doesn’t change.
So you start stacking all of that up, and you think, okay, I can build a story out of this. You start with what is familiar. It also came from feeling that nobody writes great books about the beach communities in southern California! It’s under-served by literature, this place that’s perfectly served by television and film.
And then, I had the fact that 1972 was the heaviest year of all for skyjackings.
AB: I’m surprised that isn’t talked about more. Maybe it is, and I’m just ignorant, but especially given the fact that airline security has been a huge issue for most of my adult life.
DR: Oh, yeah. It was that specific moment, when 1972 became 1973, when they basically said, we have to start instituting some sort of security. And guess what: all the skyjackings stopped! Because people couldn’t just walk onto a plane anymore with guns, bombs, and knives.
It was sort of sporadic and then all at once, because of the copycat effect. I read some excerpts from a sociological study by David G. Hubbard called The Skyjacker: His Flights of Fancy that discussed the psychological profile of the people that did this. In all cases, it’s people who feel that all of their options and lanes and lines have been severed.
AB: You have Suzy reading a quote from Renata Adler’s story in the 1972 fiction issue of The New Yorker: “I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray. It is the momentum of last resort.”
DR: Exactly — it drives these people to whatever they’re looking for, whether that’s to go to Havana to be with Castro, or needing some sort of retribution for something that happened in Vietnam. There were a lot of vets who did this, actually. It’s that idea of the push to the edge. And in that sense, then — of course this time period is populated with dozens of people like this.
AB: Did you chart the book’s plot in advance, while you were writing?
DR: I find it completely mystifying, writers who say that they write without sort of a destination in mind. That would be a total disaster for me. It has to be driving to something so that you can thread in whatever you need to do to earn the end, hopefully. So that if you go back and start from the top again, it hopefully feels completely surprising and also entirely inevitable.
The other challenge while I was writing was that I was changing so much as a writer. I mean, in your twenties you’re probably changing more than you do at any point, I think. I feel like six or seven different Dans wrote this book.
AB: There’s a quote from Keith Gessen about watching Chad Harbach re-write The Art of Fielding over a period of years: “With a long novel…it might take six months or a year to go through and re-write the whole thing to your satisfaction. By then you’d have changed again and want to start re-writing the beginning. The book could begin to swallow itself.”
DR: It’s like the guy who paints the Golden Gate Bridge. When he’s done with it he just starts over again, because it’s already corroded. As recently as September, in my last pass before the galley, I was rewriting. There was just stuff written across nine years, and I wanted it all to fit together, to bring it all to a uniform place.
AB: The book is full of period detail, but I’m curious what research you did into the daily professional routines of a stewardess in 1972.
DR: That really goes back to my visit to the Flight Path Museum. They had diaries there, and even the super cheesy ones that were really vague — “it was the best of times” kind of stuff — even those were useful. Every once in a while, you get a great detail.
There was a book that was a bestseller in 1967 called Coffee, Tea, or Me. It was allegedly written by two stewardesses, but it later turned out they were fictional and it was written by a man. It was a lot of cliched, exaggerated stuff, but you can at least get a feel for what was in the air.
There was also a great book called Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, by Kathleen Barry, that was more about the legal history. After the time period of the book, during the mid-seventies, all of the things that are the most egregious and haranguing in terms of equal rights in the workplace are brought to the Supreme Court. All the things that they can be fired for: height, weight, makeup. The stewardesses not being allowed to get married.
AB: There are a lot of period set-pieces in the book, especially the 1973 USC Rose Bowl game. Were those in there from the very beginning?
DR: Well, for me to write a truly authentic story about southern California beach towns, even though it’s seemingly irrelevant, I couldn’t write about that without writing about USC. It’s just the most pervasive thing there is.
My parents didn’t go to USC, but everyone we know did. So, you can pick at things you actually know about. But no one’s going to mistake my life for this life. I didn’t set out deliberately to not write a book about Dan in the nineties in the South Bay. But I’m really relieved, in a way, to just let the book be another thing. No one’s saying, you know, oh, you must be Suzy.
AB: Are you getting questions from people who assume that Suzy is based on your mother?
DR: A little bit, but I explain how little they have in common biographically. Suzy’s a combination of a few things. I had never explicitly thought of it before this, but while I had a great dad — the opposite of an absentee father — I was really raised by a lot of women. My mom had two sisters, and their mother was a single mom. She was divorced in 1960. I was surrounded by all these independent women, and I think a lot of that stuff fed into Suzy’s character. She’s going to work on cars, she’s going to build things, make things. She’s going to take control of something.
I didn’t realize how unique that sort of collective of women was until I started thinking through this character. So Suzy doesn’t feel exceptional to me, but she does clash with your more traditional type.
I was interested by what happens when you manipulate a character who has never at any point in her life had complete control of something. And then you tease her with that control, until you slowly have all the men in her life take that away, prod her, push her over that edge.
AB: I was wondering how you saw that interplay between Suzy and men. In the book, she’s often being circled in a somewhat predatory way.
DR: In many ways, if I put myself in my mom’s or my aunt’s shoes, or in the shoes of any woman who’s told a story from that time, it’s obvious that major, terrible things can happen. But it’s the more subtle things that I feel personally most distanced from. It’s still that way today. The part that’s most obvious to see is when someone is profoundly sexist. It’s a different thing when there are just other, really subtle things going on. Even something like her father trying to protect Suzy from the news — things that are little, more subtle digs.
AB: You repeat one image twice – the idea of being able to taste someone else’s blood in your mouth. When you use it for Mike, he’s discovered that Thomas Pynchon lives nearby and it has to do with thwarted ambition, jealousy. But with Suzy, you use it during a moment when she might be in actual mortal danger. It’s a really economical way to show us that, you know, Mike being backed into a corner is a very different thing from Suzy being backed into a corner.
DR: Yes. With the character of Mike, it was fun to think about what happens when you dial him to the worst type of that guy. When you have somebody who feels like he was on the right career path, but it’s beginning to slip away.
And then you put Thomas Pynchon writing Gravity’s Rainbow in Manhattan Beach in 1969 — he was living in what was then El Porto. It’s part of Manhattan Beach now, and it’s the most still-untouched part. They actually filmed part of the movie for Inherent Vice there because you can find houses that look exactly the way they did then. Nobody knew he was a writer. He was just a former Navy guy, living there, buying his meat at the meat market.
But for Mike, that’s just the ultimate thing that guts him. I am suffering here, telling everybody that the reason I’m failing is this place where nobody could possibly get anything serious done. And then this doorstop novel comes out, and it was written right there.
AB: I was reading this book the week that James Comey was fired, which was a bizarre experience since the book unfolds in the year before the Saturday Night Massacre. I wondered about the shadow of Richard Nixon that looms over the novel. How did you strike that balance, making sure that the political turmoil of that year was brought to bear on the characters but also kept in the background?
DR: I tried to create this condition where Sela del Mar sort of had this bubble built around it — where only news that affected one personally might seep in. The beach towns in southern California can still feel that way — a little separate, a little apart. A town like Sela del Mar can yank you away from the news a little bit — draw you into a warm bath, drain the tension out of your shoulders, and recalibrate your priorities.
I’ve noticed that this year, even, when I go home to visit. The way in which folks I know in my “regular” life pay attention, minute-by-minute, to breaking news — that watchdogging and hyperventilating just seems a little less present at the beach. People go outside, they put their phones down. It’s possible to disappear into some different rhythms. It’s not complete indifference; everything political just feels a little distant. I think Suzy’s father says it in the book when he visits California — the news feels wrapped in gauze.
I think part of it, too, is just an overwhelming confidence in the protections provided by the state — the size and strength of California then and now allows one to feel not so caught up in the national narrative. I wrote a piece about the California secession movement this winter, and though there was obviously plenty of anxiety in that deep blue state about the Trump Administration, there was also this feeling among secessionists and non-secessionists alike that what was happening in Washington was just further proof of something many Californians had believed for a long time: that what happens way over there has nothing to do with what’s happening here.
I recognize only in retrospect how removed I was from the news at times growing up. We were three hours behind, way out at the farthest edge.
AB: I loved that they get free beers at the bar on Election Day, if they can prove they didn’t vote.
DR: That detail was not something I’d ever heard, but it made perfect sense. It fit perfectly within the logic of all this. It is interesting though, because I feel like a lot of this stuff still rang true when I was growing up, but I don’t know if it does anymore. It feels like it would be impossible, now, for it to feel quite so disconnected out there.
AB: Well, Manhattan Beach is also so much ritzier, now.
DR: Oh, it’s way ritzier. Hollywood is now down there, all the athletes live down there. It just doesn’t feel like it’s at that same sort of remove. But growing up, I didn’t know anything about the rest of LA. We would go to museums or to Dodger games once in a while, but I had no idea what the map looked like. But you don’t feel isolated in the way that you might if you were in a prairie town, or somewhere like that.
When I would hear that people had family in Virginia, as an elementary schooler, I was like…What? Why? And if anybody left, it was so strange. It was so cordoned off.
There’s a reason that most of the books written about beach towns that are really good are often crime or murder mysteries. Because it’s so easy to shatter that thing that anybody feels, when they’re just hypnotically looking out at the water.
During this hoops-rich period, the frenetic Madness of March having transitioned into the more austere months-long slog of the NBA Playoffs, I found myself fruitlessly poking around for a good basketball novel. I’m both a writer and great fan of the game — my podcast, Fan’s Notes, pairs the discussion of a novel with a discussion of basketball, usually the NBA. My podcasting partner and I tend to find no shortage of cultural and metaphorical linkage between the two art forms, yet modern literary fiction seems to harbor no special love for this great game.
Football has A Fan’s Notes, End Zone, The Throwback Special, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Baseball has The Natural, Shoeless Joe, Underworld, and more recently The Art of Fielding. For Christ’s sake, hockey yet has another Don DeLillo tome, the pseudonymously written Amazons. Where, I find myself wondering, is the great basketball novel?
First of all, no, The Basketball Diaries is not a basketball novel. It is a memoir, and it is about heroin — it features precious little actual basketball. John Updike’s Rabbit and Richard Ford’s Bascombe books both involve hoops to varying degrees, but not as a central concern or dramatic focus. Under the Frog, by Tibor Fischer, is a very good book about basketball players, but it concerns 1950s Hungary, the titular frog being the regime of Marshal Tito. What else is there? Walter Dean Myers wrote several young adult books that revolved around basketball; there’s also Sherman Alexie’s YA novel Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and the Blacktop series by my friend L. J. Alonge — interestingly, most books about basketball that come to mind seem to be YA written by men of color, while Big Sports Lit is very, very white.
There is not, as far as I can tell, a big work of literary fiction for adults that is “about” basketball, in the same sense that Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding is “about” baseball.
Perhaps this has to do with the particular character of these sports. Baseball, with its mano-a-mano pitcher-hitter duels, is perfectly congenial to narrative — is itself comprised of a series of mini-narratives involving protagonists and antagonists (one way or the other depending on your rooting interests). There is really no moment of solo heroism in any other major sport comparable to the walk-off home run (or strike out) to end a game; there is likewise no greater sporting scapegoat than Bill Buckner and his ilk. In less dramatic terms, a baseball game is comprised of hundreds of discrete individual plays: someone throws a ball, someone hits it, someone fields and throws it, and it is caught again by the first baseman for an out. This is how traditional narrative is structured, a series of explicable interactions between a cast of characters that mount in importance and conflict until a crucial, deciding act that resolves the plot. Even the structure of baseball’s gameplay is writerly, with its nine innings constituting nine tidy chapters inside the larger dramatic arc.
Football, too, though tritely metaphorized as violent, armed combat — marching up the field, a war of attrition, a massacre, etc. –is constituted by many clean moments of contest, various plot points interspersed between the interminable commercial breaks. American football is American in character, pairing a love of mayhem with an equal love of bureaucratic fussiness. The game’s horrifying ultraviolence is committed within the parameters of a rulebook thicker than a Cheesecake Factory menu, meted out in orderly skirmishes, and broken up by five minute replays to determine the spotting of the ball within a nanometer or two. We want war, but we want a safe war, a manageable war in which the actors stay within their prescribed roles — in which no one, in effect, goes rogue (few things are more pleasurably disconcerting than a broken play and the ensuing spectacle of a four-hundred-pound lineman hurtling toward the end zone). Again, this is very compatible with traditional storytelling, placing maximum visceral conflict and chaos within neat scene and a hyperrationalized narrative structure.
In contrast, the narrative possibilities of basketball seem somehow European in character, closer to futból than football (or as a British student of mine liked to call it, handegg). Inbounds are approximate, as are jump balls. Except in certain key situations, there are no replays and refereeing occurs on the fly. Mistakes are routinely made, lamented, forgotten.
Superstar players — the protagonists of the game, so to speak — are coveted, but the play itself is supremely team-oriented. Unlike baseball and football, in which individual statistics are iron-clad and fetishized, basketball stats are the subject of endless arguments regarding context. It is curiously difficult to disentangle the individual moments that contribute to an orange ball falling into a hole. Yes, someone shoots it, and yes, often someone assists on the shot, but a hundred other smaller actions, essentially unquantifiable — screens, shooting gravity, secondary assists, etc. — go into it as well. And even the countable stats are the subject of debate. Scoring twenty-eight points in a game sounds good until you look at how they were scored, with what efficiency, and giving up how much on the defensive end. Quants — that is, stat nerds — regularly put forth the case that a player like Andrew Bogut, a low-scoring defensive bruiser who sets vicious picks, is as valuable than a shooting threat like Isaiah Thomas. There is no comparable ambivalence in the record books of, say, baseball: a homerun is a homerun is a homerun.
All of which is to say that there is, inherent to basketball’s play, an indeterminacy that may not lend itself to conventional narrative. Moby-Dick versus Heart of Darkness, to throw a strange but perhaps productive analogy at the fridge (and thereby further mix metaphors), are like baseball versus basketball. One is about a majestic, doomed assertion of individual will; one is about ambiguous forces clashing in a mist of doubt and dread. Occasionally a basketball player comes along who is great enough to totally clarify the terms of the game: LeBron James, for example. But these players are surpassingly rare, generational.
If the orderliness of baseball and football lends itself generally to narrative, it lends itself specifically to retrospective narrative. In much the same way that we often imagine our lives as a series of cruxes (and model that imagining in our fictions), a football game can be broken down into a series of botched or successful plays, good or bad calls. These sports are almost built to be post-mortemed, in their perfect state only when finished. It seems consonant, then, that big literary sports novels are typically about a character looking back at former greatness and lost innocence — either personally or culturally, or both.
And this type of literary sentimentality, in turn, pervades the cultures of football and baseball, which are forever backward-looking, enshrining and nostalgiazing moments, sometimes as they still happen. Memorable plays are almost immediately assigned names as historically pungent as World War II battles: “The Immaculate Reception,” “The Shot Heard Round the World,” “The Catch.” Even the bungled plays have immortal names: “The Fail Mary,” “The Butt Fumble.”
There aren’t really similarly fetishized moments in basketball. Its fluid and complex play does not invite the same kind of nostalgic retrospection, and indeed, it is unsentimental about its history to a degree that routinely enrages former greats. Basketball could never serve as a good metaphor for America’s glorious past, or even its fallen present (football still serves admirably here: see Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) but it might be just the sport for a more skeptical and circumspect twenty-first century, an era when we need a literature of certainty less than ever.
Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father’s Day just a week and a half away, you’re leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don’t know what book to get him.
Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book.
Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20.
1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad
A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt — as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day.
Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada.
2. Literary Fiction Dad
He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War.
But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic.
3. Big Bad Noir Daddy
Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages.
But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read.
4. Politically Incorrect Dad
He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask.
Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight.
5. World War II Buff Dad
Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe or Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater.
A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill.
6. Civil War Buff Dad
Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders.
This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page.
7. Business Maven Dad
If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent.
But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages.
8. True Crime Dad
Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways.
Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence.
9. Sports Nut Dad
As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate.
To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading.
10. Vinyl Collector Dad
The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix.
Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear.
11. Aspiring Writer Dad
If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary.
But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry.
Image Credit: The Athenaeum.
In an interview for Guernica Jonathan Lee talks to Chris Parris-Lamb, the literary agent who represented Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, John Darnielle’s National Book Award-nominated Wolf in White Van, and now our very own Garth Risk Hallberg’s upcoming City on Fire, about “The Art of Agenting.” Pair with our own Edan Lepucki’s conversation with her agent, “Don’t Ever Do It for the Money,” and with the opening lines of City on Fire, a Millions exclusive.
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April, the general flow of eulogy settled on two interpretations of his legacy: in the first, as a titanic but essentially regional author (The Times obituary called One Hundred Years of Solitude “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history”); in the second, as a model for the diminishing novelties of subsequent magical realists, like Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende.
Fair enough. Garcia Marquez himself saw his style as fundamentally linked to the politics of his continent in his lifetime. (Correctly — for example, nothing has ever better captured how important the theft of time must feel in a totalitarian state than the dictator who lives on and on for centuries in The Autumn of the Patriarch.) It’s also true that he gave license to a new kind of fabulism, unique in that it didn’t descend from Swift or Cervantes, and therefore didn’t depend on either satire or comedy to atone for the recklessness of its inventions.
Those are narrow channels of influence, however, and there’s a third, untracked, more expansive reading of his work to make. It might go like this: he solved an essential problem of the novel; he arrived at a moment of crisis for the form and offered the warring parties a graceful way out of it; and if there’s a single novel that can claim paternity for the last 20 years of American fiction, it’s probably One Hundred Years of Solitude.
That book was published in America in 1972, and it was a sensation, critically and commercially, William Kennedy famously calling it, with un-Albanyish zeal, “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (If you somehow haven’t heard of it, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the multi-generational chronicle of a Colombian family called the Buendias.) At the time, there was a battle afoot between two kinds of fiction. Writers like Jean Stafford and Michael Shaara, traditional realists, were winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the National Book Award, inclined toward a more radical approach, went to John Barth and William Gaddis, campus experimentalists grinding out the logical final steps of the project inaugurated by Borges, by Ulysses, Hopscotch, Albert Angelo. Each side loathed the other. Updike’s declaration about Thomas Pynchon — “I don’t like the funny names” — might as well stand in for the whole cultural apparatus that was committed to realism; on the other hand Barth’s foundational postmodernist essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” called realism “used up,” and Gaddis said that such writing “never takes your breath away…it’s for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.”
The great formal achievement of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that it treated the two positions not as antipodal but as dialectical. It satisfied the modernist commitment to narrative innovation in two ways, first in its compression and dilation of time — what would become the hallmark of magical realism — and second in its use of the fantastic, the twins who die at the same instant, the visitation of the ghosts, the glass city, Remedios being sublimated into heaven as she does the laundry.
But Garcia Marquez made the ingenious decision to embed those moments of originality within the stubbornly enduring structure of the traditional realist novel, turning his book into a family saga by way of a dream — Trollope by way of Barthelme. By doing so, he managed to defuse a central tension, one that had divided novelists since Hemingway and Joyce pitched their opposing camps. Of course, there were writers before Garcia Marquez who had blended the magical and the prosaic (Kafka, most famously) but none of them were perhaps as fully committed to narrative as Garcia Marquez seemed — to story. Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity.
That’s also why its influence has been so subtly pervasive. Many of our heaviest hitters — Franzen, Wallace, Eisenberg, Tartt, Saunders, Chabon — were born around 1960, and therefore came of age during the book’s ascendancy. Considered in that light, their debt to it seems plain, whether or not they would acknowledge it, whether or not they found the book stimulating, indeed whether or not they’ve even read it.
The reason is that all of them play the same trick, filigreeing traditional realism with enough carefully selective post-modernism to claim its gloss of coolness — but without the unfortunate consequence of making their work difficult to read. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there’s the Golem of Prague; in The Art of Fielding there’s the self-consciously literary exhumation of the corpse; in The Corrections, there’s the magical device of Correctall, the pill that allows Chip Lambert to forget his anxiety and enter a state of dreamlike euphoria. (It’s a sign of our age how often American magical realism is pharmaceutical, after Franzen’s example — the decision-making drug in Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel; the test subjects in George Saunders’s magnificent “Escape from Spiderhead.”) Fiction is an essentially conventional art form, most at home in the bourgeoisie, but its practitioners have — quite rightly! — never been at ease with that fact. The compromise at which we’ve arrived is that every book now has the credibility of the avant-garde within a Victorian structure. It’s more fun to claim the influence of John Hawkes than John Galsworthy; it’s more fun to read a book whose plot is patterned after Jane Austen than B.S. Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, the first American novelist to take the full implications of Garcia Marquez on board may have been our smartest one, Philip Roth. (It’s not a coincidence that he spent the 1970s publishing Eastern European novelists, and, as Roth Unbound described, sneaking money to them via illicit networks — a fact that ought to shame the Nobel committee members who have claimed that American writers are unworthy of the prize because they’re too inward-looking, too insular.) His books The Counterlife and Operation Shylock were precursors of the great florescence of faux-mo novels in the 2000’s, using false flags and mirrored characters without their pace or urgency. The logical culmination of the trend is probably The Marriage Plot, which states the tension outright, dropping a college student who just wants to read 19th-century novels into the semiotics craze of the 1980s.
At their weakest, these post-Garcia Marquez books have been kinetic without moving, emotional without evoking any real sensation, readable without deserving to be read. The novel of this type that comes to mind for me is Absurdistan by the sometimes terrific Gary Shteyngart, a disagreeable blend of absurdism and soft sentimentality. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Colson Whitehead can feel similarly limited by their very limitlessness — their work at times too ironized for readers to treat its narrative seriously, but too committed to narrative to offer the sense of alienation, dread, and obliqueness we feel in, for example, Don DeLillo and William Gibson. The writer for whom cultural critics were so eager to give Garcia Marquez credit, Salman Rushdie, might be the least exciting of the bunch. The Pale King offers a glimpse of what David Foster Wallace’s pushback against his own trend might have looked like — his reconnection with difficulty as a means of higher artistic consciousness.
Recent Pulitzer Prize committees have waded into this fray again; books of high seriousness, eschewing the jokey gloss of the comic book generation, have won the prize, including three lovely but deeply conservative novels, Tinkers by Paul Harding, March by Geraldine Brooks, and Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. How much does that matter? The painter Gerhard Richter has spent the last 50 years dissolving what previously seemed like a crucial distinction between figurative and abstract painting; is it possible that novelists, too, no longer need to declare a single allegiance? If so, the books that Garcia Marquez gave a generation permission to write, produced during the truce between fabulism and realism, may begin to look odd: artifacts of the historical moment they thought they were creating. One of the pieces of shallow wisdom people like to repeat is that every great book either creates or dissolves a genre, and sometimes it’s true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it hasn’t quite received credit for this, established the school of fiction we currently consider great. It’s up to some other genius to dissolve it.
Gay is the new vampire. Everywhere in YA fiction, boys are kissing boys, girls are sidling up against the captains of their swim teams, and queer kids are getting cute. It’s wonderful. YA books with LGBTQ themes and characters, written by straight and by LGBTQ authors, are winning critical acclaim and they’re selling.
A super short list of great recent YA LGBTQ books might include Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, everything by David Levithan, The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson, Some Day This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron, and The Vast Fields of the Ordinary by Nick Burd.
While some of YA LGBTQ lit’s appeal might be its current sociopolitical relevance, most of its appeal is simply that this is our world now. We live in an era where, year by year and state by state, our lives are becoming fully integrated into mainstream American culture. “There’s no question,” says Emily Danforth, the author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, “that there are generations now of teen readers ready for these books. It feels more normal — and that’s a problematic word — if you’re 14 to have queer friends and talk about sexuality in a way that is very different than it was 15 years ago.“ Not to mention, there’s a universality here: All teens, regardless of their orientation or identity, are working out what it means to be sexual beings, with the confusions, desires, and pressures that entails.
Yet there’s a tremendous disconnect between what’s happening in the YA marketplace and what’s going on with adult fiction. This is true across genres, for both literary and commercial books. While there are some well-known LGTBQ writers like Michael Cunningham, Alice Walker, Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, and Dorothy Allison, there aren’t many. In fact, these few writers feel more like the token exceptions that prove the rule. Overall, mainstream LGTBQ adult fiction is non-existent, even in 2014.
But why, especially when contrasted with the YA boom, is this the case? On first thought, we might attribute the differences in popularity to demographics, to generational perspectives, with all the statistics showing that younger people are more likely to be gay friendly than older folks. Perhaps straight teens are cool with the LGBTQ experience in a way straight adults simply are not? When thinking about these differences, author and writer for The Huffington Post Kergan Edwards-Stout said, “Younger people in general seem to be much accepting of LGBT issues and people and approach life a little more globally. I think older audiences tend to be closing themselves off, instead of expanding.”
Unlike the static adult audience, the YA audience is dynamic. Every six years or so, the next mini-generation of teen readers emerges, with new interests, references, and cultural trends that can be tapped into. However, with a 2012 study showing that about 43 percent of YA readers are adults (primarily between the ages of 18 to 44), this demographic explanation alone doesn’t suffice. After all, if so many adults are willing to read YA fiction with LGBTQ themes, why aren’t they also reading adult fiction with LGBTQ themes in comparable numbers? We need to look at deeper distinctions to help us understand this disparity between the YA and adult marketplaces and understand the ongoing exclusion of LGBQT writers.
There is a thick history here where writers with non-dominant identities (LGTBQ writers, writers of color) are isolated into their own genres. That is to say, if you’re gay, you don’t write “fiction.” You write, “Gay fiction.” This still holds true. Novels like The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud or The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, which feature gay characters, are fine, but novels with actual LGTBQ protagonists written by an actual LGTBQ authors are likely to be relegated to their own audiences, genres, and bookstore shelves. These books often aren’t seen as marketably mainstream.
First, there’s the cultural element to consider. There may be cues in LGBTQ novels and stories that straight readers “don’t get.” Fictional LGBTQ characters sometimes inhabit spaces that are unfamiliar to straight readers. There are the gay bars, lesbian hang-outs, and…queer poetry readings? While we can talk about these occasional unique cultural differences, this isn’t really it.
Because there’s the sex. And sex, as any reader of Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, or Philip Roth will know, is a constant of contemporary fiction. Where would our literature be without heterosexual adultery as a convenient plot device? And the thing about gay sex is that it can be “a bother,” to use Kergan Edwards-Stout’s euphemism, for straight readers. Which is to say, two same-sex teens kissing in a YA novel may be acceptable to a predominantly straight audience. But two dudes blowing each other — or engaging in anal — is, well, a touch “too gay.” From a commercial perspective, the nitty gritty of LGTBQ relationships is often still seen as unpalatable and other.
Aside from sucking generally, this dismissal of LGBTQ artwork has personal resonance for many LGTBQ readers and writers, including me. A couple years ago, an agent told me via email that my first manuscript was, in a sense, “too gay.” The agent’s exact words were, “this is America, after all, where a million soccer moms will read 50 SHADES OF GREY, but wouldn’t touch a book that is far less graphically gay than that one is graphically straight (or so I hear, anyway).” That concluding parenthetical aside — “(or so I hear, anyway)” — is perfect and speaks to the lowest common denominator of audience acceptability. It’s as if the liberal, cosmopolitan agent is shrugging, What can you do about the tastes of the heterosexual hoi polloi?
Though exuberant gayness certainly wasn’t the only thing that made my first manuscript not commercially viable, I was struck by the straight-up-ness of the agent’s assessment: Gayness, like actual gayness (versus the unremittingly pleasant kind you might encounter through Modern Family, Ellen, or a David Sedaris audiobook), well, it just doesn’t sell. This issue, when compounded by the well-documented gender disparities in publishing, is exacerbated for lesbian, trans, and queer writers for whom the intersectionalities of their identities mean they are even more likely to be excluded and ignored.
Of course, this isn’t anybody’s fault per se, which is exactly the point. You can’t blame agents for not representing LGBTQ adult fiction because they think it won’t sell to publishers, since the publishers are pretty convinced it won’t sell to readers. It’s a form of cultural exclusion that isn’t unique to publishing. There are few out Hollywood actors, for example, and fewer still mainstream movies with LGBTQ protagonists (unless they die vis-à-vis AIDS or driving off a cliff a la Thelma & Louis — my gosh, it’s 2014, and the two most mainstream gay movies are still Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia.)
Which isn’t to say there aren’t amazing LGBTQ adult books (and movies) created every year. Caleb Crain’s splendid 2013 novel Necessary Errors proves how well-crafted prose, engaging characters, and beautiful language can capture any audience. And as YA author Nick Burd wrote in an email interview, “I like to think that all readers dive into books willing to encounter people and situations that are foreign to them. But I guess that’s slightly wishful thinking.“ Still, LGBT books for adult audiences, especially those containing a fair bit of sexual congress, face significant barriers. Luckily, there are smaller presses like ITNA, established earlier this year by Christopher Stoddard, the goal of which is to publish off-beat books, all of which so far feature gay, occasionally transgressive themes.
With all these factors to consider, it benefits us to look at the burden of “relatability.” When the notion of “relatability” is discussed, this burden is usually placed on the cultural object, on the book or movie. Audiences, we’re told, are drawn in by relatable characters, relevant stories, and accessible prose. But this should be a two-way street. Readers need to challenge themselves, to expand their own definitions of what they find relatable, to break free from provincial mindsets where the sole purpose of art is to provide a mirror, not of life, but of readers’ own lives. We need to explode the established notions of relatability. All the LGBTQ writers I talked to or emailed with conveyed this idea in some way or another.
What’s clear is progress, even if it’s slow, is being made. Research by YA author Malinda Lo, building on the work of Christine Jenkins, shows consistent growth in publication of YA LGBTA novels going back all the way to 1969 — with the biggest gains occurring since 2004. These teen readers, with their broadening notions of relatability, are growing up, growing into adult readers. Hopefully, soon they will be eager to share in more adult LGBTQ stories, ready to embrace a world that only spins forward.
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Reading Chad Harbach’s 2010 essay “MFA vs. NYC” today one feels keenly the four years that have elapsed since it first appeared in the magazine he co-founded, n+1. At the start of 2010, the iPad did not exist and Borders did. By that year, degree-granting creative writing programs had proliferated from just 79 in 1976 to 1,269, while New York publishing, struck by the double-blow of e-books and the 2008 financial crisis, was bleeding jobs at a frightening pace. In 2010, both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award went to books published by tiny independent presses, and neither Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer after being published by the nonprofit Bellevue Literary Press, nor Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, which took the NBA after being published by the one-man operation McPherson & Company, had been reviewed by the New York Times before they won their awards.
So even back then it was a bit of an understatement to suggest, as Harbach did in his n+1 essay, that “the university now rivals, if it hasn’t already surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” Today, though, when Harbach’s piece has resurfaced as the title essay of a new collection, MFA vs. NYC, it would be hard to find many writers who still believe, as Harbach maintains, that New York publishing and university creative writing programs remain “two complementary systems of roughly matched strength.” Put it this way: if you have kids and want to keep writing, would you aim for a teaching job in an MFA program or try your luck as a freelance writer in NYC? Thought so.
Perhaps this fundamental disconnect between the balance implied by its title and the economic realities of literary life circa 2014 explains the underthrob of panic that courses through a number of the essays in the new collection by writers outside the orbit of Planet MFA. Harbach, who edited this new volume, has tapped his stable of n+1 writers, a fair number of whom, like him, went to Harvard and earned six-figure advances for their first books. Whatever is ailing these folks, it isn’t lack of chutzpah or unwillingness to do what it takes to succeed, and yet what was clearly intended as a series of artsy-smartsy essays examining the state of play in literary America too often comes off as an extended moan of self-pity from a once-cosseted corner of Brownstone Brooklyn.
Harbach himself, whose 2011 novel Art of Fielding has done very well, is not among the moaners. Aside from the reprinted title essay and a perfunctory editor’s introduction, he mostly keeps his head down here. Not so his n+1 co-editor Keith Gessen, and Gessen’s longtime girlfriend Emily Gould, whose essays together form the emotional heart of the collection.
Gessen contributes a pair of linked essays, “Money (2006)” and “Money (2014),” which as their titles suggest, offer a before-and-after portrait of Gessen’s struggle to make a living as a NYC writer. The first, originally published in n+1 two years before the release of Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, reads as a snarling, embittered defense of intellectual defensiveness. “Bad magazines,” he writes, “vulgarize your ideas and literally spray your pages with perfume.” Prestigious magazines are even worse, working writers so hard with “style editing, copyediting, query editing, [and] bulletproofing” that a freelancer soon realized he has “landed a $6-an-hour job, featuring heavy lifting.”
But this journalistic wage slavery is bliss compared to university teaching, which, Gessen reports, “buys the writer off with patronage, even as it destroys the fundamental preconditions for his being.” And don’t get him started on the tortures associated with publishing a book. Authors, he relates, must “spend every day prostituting themselves: with photographs, interviews, readings with accordions, live blogs on Amazon.com.” And get this: publishing companies are in business and want writers’ books to sell! To the public! For money!
Gessen redeems himself somewhat in his second essay, an account of his decision to risk destruction of “the fundamental preconditions of his being” and spend a semester teaching creative writing after the money from his book and his journalism runs out. He is blunt in his disdain for the teaching of creative writing, but as he describes his reasoning, it becomes clear that what he fears most is getting stuck in a room full of younger, grasping versions of himself:
In fact what I most wanted was to be told, by a writer, that I was myself a writer, that I had it. And so by teaching such a class, weren’t you also taking part in that deception, in the deception that all these students might become writers? And weren’t you also forced, all the time, to lie to them, in effect, whether mildly or baldly, about their work?
After driving away a quarter of his students after the first class, Gessen finds that it’s more complicated than that. Yes, his students’ egos can be fragile, and not all of them are great writers, but if he listens, if he responds to what they’ve actually written, they improve. “I even began to feel, in a way I’d never felt as a student, that the old saw about how you can’t teaching writing was possibly untrue,” he writes.
The narrative arc from “Money (2006)” to “Money (2014)” is essentially a happy one, but in the bigger picture of the economics of literary culture, the lesson is hardly uplifting. Gessen did everything a young NYC author could possibly do to succeed. He went to Harvard. He helped start a small but influential literary magazine. He served a year as staff book reviewer for New York magazine. He published a first novel that earned him a six-figure advance. Yet despite continuing to write for New York’s glossiest magazines, only a few years after his novel came out, Gessen couldn’t afford repairs on his car and had a rent check bounce. And what did he do? He did what all American writers do these days when they need money: he got with the program.
If the moral of this story is not sufficiently plain, Gessen need only glance across the breakfast table at Emily Gould, whose essay “Into the Woods” offers a poignant cautionary tale for those who fail to see the writing on the wall. Gould first came to public attention as a blogger at Gawker.com where she famously posted a picture of herself in a bathing suit on a Brooklyn rooftop giving the camera the finger. New York publishing appears to have mistaken interest in the bathing suit for interest in her prose style, and in 2008 she sold a memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever, to Simon and Schuster for $200,000.
Gould says it began to dawn on her that all wasn’t well when a young marketing assistant suggested that Gould, who had sold the book in part because of her compulsive online oversharing, start a blog. Sensing her handlers had no idea how to frame her public persona, she suggested they position her as the next voice of her generation. “They looked at me like I’d emitted a long, loud, smelly fart,” she reports. “And so – swear to god – I amended what I’d said: ‘Okay, say I’m a voice of my generation.’”
When the book tanked, Gould found herself emotionally and creatively paralyzed. “[B]y summer 2012 I was broke, and in debt, and it was no one’s fault but mine,” she writes. “Besides a couple of freelance writing assignments, my only source of income for more than a year had come from teaching yoga, for which I got paid $40 a class. In 2011 I made $7,000.”
It is, I grant you, a touch grating to be asked to feel sorry for a college-educated woman from the leafy Maryland suburbs whose pain at not being anointed the voice of her generation was so debilitating that she was forced to teach yoga classes for forty bucks an hour. Indeed, though the tale ends on an upbeat note with the sale of Gould’s debut novel, Friendship, due out in July, there is more than enough Schadenfreude piled up in Gould’s essay to satisfy even the most bitter of Brooklyn wannabe authors. But in the great scheme of things, Gould’s story should give pause to Brooklyn wannabes and anyone else who cares about American literature in the post-print age.
For one brief shining moment, roughly from the end of World War II to the late 1960s, print truly was king. King Print, whose Art Deco palaces once dotted Midtown Manhattan, owed its reign to a fleeting, historically anomalous period between the creation of print technologies that made newspapers, magazines, and paperback books cheap and easy to distribute and the innovations in television production that rendered those print advances obsolete. King Print limped along, a wounded but still powerful despot until the late 1990s when the Great Dragon Internet slew it once and for all.
The reign of King Print gave us not only great magazines like the New Yorker and newspapers like the New York Times, both of which soared in the postwar years, but also the work of writers as varied as Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson, all of whom made a good living nearly exclusively from writing. But as we look back at this period we need to keep two very important things in mind. First, outside that one period, no one but hacks and geniuses really made money writing books, and most of the time even the hacks and the geniuses ended up poor. Second, were it not for the advent of the MFA system as a jobs program for midlist authors, we could be back in the 1850s, when serious writers either lived off their families like Henry Thoreau and Emily Dickinson or retreated into government sinecures like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.
It is odd, especially for a group of writers like the n+1 set, who pride themselves on their intellectualism and historical insight, that their book on the subject mostly elides this essential historical explanation for the personal predicaments besetting members of their own tribe. MFA vs. NYC is prodigious in its effort to drill down into the sedimentary layers of Planet MFA. In one essay, Eric Bennett tells a fascinating, if somewhat conspiracy-minded tale of how Paul Engle, an early director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, took money and intellectual succor from the CIA to help build the program into the academic juggernaut it is today. In another, an excerpt from a 1988 essay, the late David Foster Wallace, in his early High Peevish period, catalogs the reasons why writing programs are creatively deadening. Even Gordon Lish, now best known for having hacked Raymond Carver’s early stories to bits nearly forty years ago, is trotted out in an essay by n+1 editor Carla Blumenkranz, despite the fact that Lish never lasted in the academy and taught instead in private, cult-like evening sessions held in people’s homes.
Meanwhile, aside from one or two backward glances, the book’s discussion of Planet NYC is relentlessly first-person present tense. In addition to pieces from writers like Gessen and Gould, Harbach includes essays by literary agents, publicists, and editors all chirpily describing their work and career paths. The industry pieces are smart and informative – agent Jim Rutman’s “The Disappointment Business” is especially good – but they feel shoehorned in from a very different book designed to give fledgling writers a behind-the-scenes tour of New York publishing.
All this adds up to a curious meta-narrative that weaves unspoken through this otherwise disjointed collection of essays: that half a century ago the university-industrial complex, perhaps aided by the CIA, tunneled underneath New York publishing and blew the thing sky high, sapping its ability to pay its writers and sending the likes of Gessen and Gould out into the wastelands of Brooklyn in search of freelance gigs and rent money. But this ignores the obvious, actual reason why MFA programs are winning the hearts and minds of today’s authors. Universities remain profit centers because, for now at least, they are analog. Students will pay thousands of dollars a year for a seat in a MFA program because it is a real seat in a real room taught by a real professor, who can be paid decently for his or her work. Harness that to a generation increasingly delaying committing to marriage and a career and you have a fairly powerful economic engine.
Books, on the other hand, like everything else that can be reproduced digitally are rapidly declining in per-unit value. It has been fascinating to me over the past few weeks to see the essays I was reading in MFA vs. NYC appear one by one on my Facebook feed, published around the Web. Gould’s piece, retitled “How much my novel cost me,” is available for free on Medium. Bennett’s piece, now titled “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” recently went viral on the website for the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can find Blumenkranz’s piece on Gordon Lish on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog and even Harbach’s title essay has been unearthed from the n+1 archives and put on their website. I imagine that a moderately industrious person could assemble a Tumblr site in a matter of hours that would reproduce for free much of what n+1 Books would like to sell you for $16 in a bookstore.
Want to know what’s ailing New York publishing? That’s it, in a nutshell. Why would anyone pay full price for this book when its authors, many of them complaining about how hard it is to make money from writing, are giving away their work for free online? The answer is obvious. By and large, people won’t. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said.
But can serious writing survive in such an atmosphere? I would argue that the authors of MFA vs. NYC, perhaps inadvertently, are showing the way. After all, my caveats notwithstanding, these are serious essays and people will read them, probably more so now that they are online than if they had appeared exclusively in print. The problem is, obviously, that if you give something away, it’s devilishly hard to get paid good money for it, which means that authors will have to look for alternative sources of revenue. Which, as Keith Gessen seems to have already discovered, means getting with the program.
Like so many this fall, I read The Goldfinch at one of those sleepless-night clips: the light sighing back on, the pillow rotated 90 degrees, that despairing look at the clock. But it wasn’t just in admiration of, as Janice Clark puts it, the “unfakeable depth and luster of long gestation,” nor was I aping Stephen King and reading “with a mixture of terror and excitement.” No — I was up late because Donna Tartt, a Mississippi-reared 49 year old woman, has apparently been following me around with her notebook in hand for the last 14 years. Her lead character, Theo Decker, is pretty much me.
Now, in matters of age, locale, race, and sex, there is little wonder to that. Theo and I are both 27 year old white guys from New York, and there are a lot of us — too many, probably. The first real attention-grabbing coincidence came when 13 year-old Theo’s building on 57th street off Sutton turned out to be the same as my own. I greedily accumulated evidence: it has to be on the odd-numbered side since at one point Theo walks south down Sutton and turns onto 57th before crossing; it’s not the building on the corner, but the doormen walk away from oncoming traffic to hail cabs, something you would only do when particularly close to their careening turns. Put this together and it’s most likely the second canopy down: 447.
Now, this was all nice and Prousty, but there’s nothing essay-worthy here. It’s a pretty, doublewide block and the other Sutton place streets have narrative complications (bridge traffic; lack of light). Fine. I tweeted: “Protagonist of #thegoldfinch is my exact age and grew up on the same block as me. What a likable guy!” and got a favorite from a stranger who didn’t subsequently follow me.
But then things started to get weird. 27-year-old Theo is a 18th and 19th century British antique dealer; I’m a 18th and 19th century French antique dealer. He spends 90 percent of his time working front of house and 10 percent in the restoration shop downstairs — same as me. We both sort through veneers, use ammonia on bronzes, join chairs with wacky old clamps, and match wood-grains. In fact, when I took an unauthorized Goldfinch break from practicing shellac application on ancient wood strips, Theo was sorting through the exact same set.
And it’s strange: the aspects of my job that have always seemed mundane are rendered delightful in Tartt’s capable hands. It’s all there, from the way we mark our catalogues with pencil (have I been picturesque all this time?) to the way we identify symmetrically dinged-up gilding as problematic (does everyone know to look for uneven wear?). Although, I have to say that Tartt’s trick of not vacuuming objects to make collectors think they’re finding overlooked gems doesn’t really work. Clients just glaze right on by.
The indulgence with which the author treats my profession might be the product of research vs. actuality. (How I flinched in the King review when he wrote, “There’s a lot more about furniture restoration than I needed.” Story of my life, S.K.) When you’re studying something there is such joy in discovery. Every flourish feels necessary. Tartt’s realization that cabinet doors shift over time must have been a eureka moment instead of part of an unbroken chain of osmosis. As I was reading the book, I’d walk around the store and see my work as literary instead of mere lunchbreak impediments.
There are even nods at French furniture. Hobie the loveable old well-read British furniture restorer (as opposed to Mark, the loveable old well-read Russian furniture restorer in our shop) may claim early on that it’s not his “bailiwick,” but toward the end Theo points out “inlaid French cabinets and tables in the French court style with garlanded carvings and veneer work that would have made Hobie gasp in admiration.”
Now, we don’t do the alchemy in the book, that piecing together of broken-down old classics to create borderline unimpeachable Frankenstein monsters of furniture. But I know who did. The source material is beyond a doubt the Dickensian-named “Buggins scandal” — an anecdote I will no longer be able to tell during pauses at dinner parties. As a reader, my tension leaked away the second I saw Hobie (a name, that I would argue is related to Hobbs, the dealer behind l’affaire Buggins) melding two pieces. The whole crucial subplot got shorted out by inevitability — it was like reading The Art of Fielding after having endured the Chuck Knoblauch era. (I never believe Yankees fans who say they loved that book. It’s too soon to get any sort of pleasure out of the yips; it’s like being shocked by 3rd act Kryptonite.)
The minor accumulation of my own personal facts just didn’t stop — Popchik, the charming Maltese in the book? Meet ZoZo, the charming Maltese I had from (drumroll) ages 13-27. The pleasantly horrific Subway Inn, where Theo’s dad sneaks a drink? My own exact high school sneakaway. Not all the incidental details are perfect. I went to school on the Upper East Side, not the Upper West; Theo grew up in 7C, but I was parked in 8B.
Tartt somehow even hacked into my private empathetic experiences. Not to make too big a thing of it, but there was an uncanny feel in reading about a teenager taking a scary midday walk from the Upper East Side to a 57th and Sutton apartment on the day of a terrorist attack. I saw again the way the cops that remained uptown looked; I remembered that the demographics of people walking in each direction were so much more mixed then normal. This was subliminal stuff — I hadn’t thought about it in such specificity since the day of.
(Although, then, the book takes care to note that this attack is not a substitute for 9/11. In fact, it’s not quite clear when the book actually takes place — Theo shoplifts XBOX games at one point, and there is an iPod, and those were the hottest devices of 2002 (I know this because I remember being around Theo’s age and desperately wanting an XBOX and an iPod), but then, somewhat shockingly, Jet Li’s Unleashed (2005) is mentioned. This means the “contemporary” action of the book happens in 2019. Future Fiction! Future Fiction with our exact smart phone technology and without drone package delivery or the singularity! Was this a move to get it further away from 9/11? Or is it just when the movie will come out? (This will be a killer movie if they gussie up the Amsterdam stuff a bit.)
Is The Goldfinch good? I don’t know. A friend hated it and I was totally unable to mount a defense. It was like someone attacking my own biography. How could she have thought Theo was an unsympathetic, cynically drawn lead? Is this why people sometimes ignore my Facebook messages? I’ve started wondering how many other people have had this happen to them. Was there a brave civil rights lawyer who just shook his head when Atticus gets all that food? A woman in a tool-filled kimono who started crying the second Seymour pulled out the gun? Willowy chivalry fetishists cursing in 17th Century Spanish?
Or did these people also feel the other side of things — the strange validation of this massive coincidence? Never before have I have been confident enough to talk at parties about how shellac is made (pro-tip: you really want to DIY with the flakes, that store-bought stuff loses its pop). Maybe clients won’t find it disingenuous if I talk about how a piece perfectly fits their aesthetic. Perhaps, King be damned, I can throw a description of this really killer Italian 18th century console table into my novel. And my childhood street might not be as boring as I’ve always thought.
Oh, and speaking of that inevitable movie? I’ll be hitting the gym double time, because I’m pretty sure I’d be the perfect Theo Decker.
“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.”
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
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The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2013 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 154 novels on the list, nominated by 120 libraries in 44 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2011 (including translations).
Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary tendencies of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.
Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least seven libraries.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (15 libraries representing Australia, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, England, Germany, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United States)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (9 libraries representing Belgium and the United States)
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (9 libraries representing Canada, Ireland, and the United States)
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (9 libraries representing Austria, Ireland, Norway, and the United States)
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (7 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, and the United States)
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (7 libraries representing Belgium, the Czech Republic, England, Greece, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States)
You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:
In Canada, Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
In Australia, Autumn Laing by Alex Miller
In New Zealand, The Conductor by Sarah Quigley
There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:
From Iceland, The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma
From India, The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya
From Jamaica, The Goat Woman of Largo Bay by Gillian Royes
From Mexico, My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec
From Sweden, The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson
“Can the hoary trope of mistaken identity still play in the age of Google images?” asks Alex Witchel in the New York Times Book Review. Witchel is talking about the premise of Michael Frayn’s new novel Skios and soon answers herself: “Well, no,” she says, “but since the author is Michael Frayn…it’s tempting to cut him some slack.”
Is it? Maybe — it’s fiction, after all, and that being the case Frayn can do whatever he wants — but as a reader, and a writer, I wonder about that slack. More generally, I wonder about works of fiction that take place in a world identical to that which you and I inhabit, except for one thing: technology is all but ignored. I’m not referring to Luddite authors here — to Jonathan Franzen’s rejection of e-books and Twitter. I’m talking about whether a character in a literary novel set in the year 2012 need even be aware of Twitter, or at the very least, email.
It isn’t hard to make a case against including technology in fiction.
First, technology can be awkward to write about. Also, to read about. The jargon is clumsy: download, reboot, global positioning device. It’s embarrassing, really. So I understand an author’s impulse to avoid littering pages of otherwise lyrical prose with the bleep-boop-beep of tech speak. For this reason, authors often forgo current technologies when they want their characters to communicate with one another, or to reveal important, plot-forwarding information. I get it. What could be less romantic than a text message?
Fiction allows for a certain level of restraint, after all, where the author need not include a protagonist’s every bathroom break or end each scene with the characters saying goodbye. Why then, if it’s common practice to avoid including other unglamorous functions of characters’ daily lives — like said bathroom break — is it necessary to show them texting and refreshing their inboxes?
Think of it this way: in most cases, a bowel movement will not move the plot forward; an email will.
Despite all the trouble technology might cause, when it’s absent from contemporary novels, a big white elephant appears on the page and starts ambling around. (Perhaps searching for an unprotected Wi-Fi network?) Usually these are good books, full of beautiful language and arresting characters that teach me what it means to be human. But, as was the case with Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, the obvious absence of things like search engines and smart phones makes me pause and think, “Couldn’t she have at least Googled her father’s name before she set off to the Arctic in search of him?”
In “A Kind of Vast Fiction” — an essay in the form of an email thread published in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books (edited by Jeff Martin and The Millions’ C. Max Magee) — David Gates and Jonathan Lethem discuss strategies for including, and avoiding, technology in fiction. Midway through the conversation, after Gates admits to being wary of certain social networking sites, Lethem asks, “So you’re Googling and YouTubing, if not Twizzling or Fnorgling, fair enough. But are your characters doing the same? Do you find it as difficult as I do to get this un-Brave, no-longer-that-New World onto the page in any credible way?” Gates’s response is packed with insight:
I have no idea how to handle this new mode of living (I guess “living” is the word) in fiction. I probably spend more time emailing and reading online than I do having non-virtual human contact — and I bet I’m not that unusual. If my characters were like that, would their lives be eventful enough to write about? On the other hand, if I write about people for whom the internet is — as far as the reader can see — peripheral or nonexistent, am I not essentially writing historical fiction? In the last story I finished, I used the expedient of sending my main character on a vacation where she’s sworn to limit her internet and cell phone use. And how do you deal with the problem of writing something that may be dated by the time the book comes out? My novel Preston Falls, which appeared in 1998, has a now-hilarious account of an email exchange — “He hit Send,” and so forth. And I just received a piece of student fiction which mentions Facebook and Skype in adjacent paragraphs; my instinct is that this is showing off, but maybe it’s no different from Jane Austen mentioning a fortepiano and a huswife on the same page.
I’m interested in novels that render what Gates calls “this new mode of living” — those that successfully incorporate technology into their characters’ experiences. The following came to mind when I began to think about what recent works of fiction had either pulled this off or at least tried.
Consider Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding:
The fact that they didn’t communicate by cell phone, didn’t chat or text, could reasonably be chalked up to the fact that they didn’t need to, they lived fifty yards apart and saw each other five days a week, but then again the students did little but chat and text, text messages were their surest form of intimacy, and to never have texted or been texted by Owen, not to know Owen’s number even for emergency purposes, not that this was an emergency, seemed suddenly to expose a great gulf between them.
The above appears almost 300-pages into this 512-page novel. Though The Art of Fielding takes place on a college campus, this is one of the first mentions of texting in the book. And I can recall no mention of social networking in the first few hundred pages. This struck me as odd, perhaps because I recently spent two years on a university campus as a graduate student; I’m all too aware of how fiercely attached students are to technology. (I saw more bicycle accidents than I can count at USC because cyclists tend to keep both their hands and their eyes glued to iPhone screens while they ride.) So when these basic technologies are finally acknowledged in the book, the moment feels inevitable, as if the white elephant has at last grown impatient and begun to scuff his great foot, threatening to charge.
But the above excerpt is more than a cursory reference to text messages. This paragraph-long neurotic meditation, written from the point of view of sixty-year-old Westish College president Guert Affenlight (who has fallen in love with a student), provides the book’s most profound thoughts on modern relationships. College student or otherwise, who hasn’t known the specific despair of being unable to get a hold of a lover? These days, to get a hold of means to text or to Skype or to email with an all caps subject line. Chad Harbach knows this. He might have fought it at first, but with this passage he illustrates that there is no way around mentioning technology — that if your characters aren’t going to use it they still need to acknowledge it. Because either way, it’s going to affect them: they are alive and in love in the Twenty-First Century.
Now here are a few sections from early on in Jennifer Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep. In it, Danny has traveled from New York to stay at his cousin’s remote castle-cum-New-Age-resort, somewhere in Austria, Germany or the Czech Republic (he isn’t sure), where there is no internet or cell connection:
Danny tried to get away after breakfast to set up his satellite dish. The need to be back in touch was getting uncomfortable, distracting, like a headache or a sore toe or some other low-grade physical thing that after a while starts to blot out everything else.
And when he finally does get his satellite dish hooked up (is there any less elegant sounding piece of equipment than a satellite dish?), it soon falls into a mucky, black swimming pool and he in turn chucks his phone into the forest:
Eventually Danny calmed down enough to start looking for his phone. The longer he groped in the cypress, pulling threads in his jacket and sending fat little birds squawking out into the air, the more precious that clunky plastic thing started to get in his head. Like a relic. Just to have it. And there it was, finally, caught between two branches. Danny felt like sobbing. He couldn’t resist holding the phone up to his ear one more time.
Maybe that’s all a tad melodramatic, but isn’t it accurate that even in 2006 a person who’d been separated from his cell phone would be brought to some level of hysteria? It isn’t for nothing that there are two ways of being haunted by a missing cell phone: the phantom weight of it in your jeans pocket, and the phantom vibration of a call you couldn’t possibly have received. You miss the object — the gadget — and you miss what it represents. Egan’s use of technology in this book is successful because it speaks to both gadget lust and a longing to be in touch in a way that only technology can deliver.
A quarter of the way into his 2009 novel Await Your Reply Dan Chaon plugs in a concise, seemingly arbitrary chapter written in the second-person. After briefly painting a portrait of “you” as an unknowing target of identity theft and victim of suburban malaise, the narrator says:
You don’t feel particularly vulnerable, with your firewall and constantly updating virus protection, and most of the predators are almost laughably clumsy. At work you receive an email that is so patently ridiculous that you forward it to a few of your friends. Miss Emmanuela Kunta, Await Your Reply, it says in the subject line, and there is something almost adorable about its awkwardness.
“Dear One,” the email begins.
What follows is perhaps my all-time favorite fictionalized email, if not my favorite page of published writing of the last decade: a spam email claiming to have been sent by a nineteen-year-old girl from the Ivory Coast. The fact that the passage nearly brings me to tears each time I read it has to be proof that what we tag as technology (email and the like) is surely more human than machine. Or maybe it’s proof that Dan Chaon is a master of the art of fiction. I’d argue both.
Technology propels the plot throughout Await Your Reply, a book about shedding and remaking identities. Chaon is smart enough to capitalize on the many ways that the internet and gadgets make this work more possible now than ever before. Where he excels is in knowing just how and where to aim his lens at these tools. Rather than blur the human element of the narrative, technology helps bring into focus an honest story about our modern life: computer viruses and stolen identities and missed connections:
“Who falls for this?” you would like to know…But for some reason, driving home, you find yourself thinking of…Miss Emmanuela Kunta in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, the orphan daughter of a wealthy gold agent…and she walks along a market street…and she turns and her brown eyes are heavy with sorrow. Await your reply.
If an email can demonstrate this kind of vulnerability and hope, then email it will be. Technology it will be.
It turns out that each of these instances of technology in fiction has to do with the way that technology connects characters. And what are characters if not people like us — people for whom the stuff of connecting with others is messy and hard and all we ever really want?
Maybe, then, if this is the truth about technology, there shouldn’t be any slack given to those authors who forgo including it in their books. You might even say it’s foolish to miss the opportunity to show that technology is not a series of tubes, or a high-pitched beeping sound, or an awkward element to work around, but rather a vital part of the modern human experience.
Image via Nate_Steiner/Flickr