This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:
The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo (Most Anticipated)The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (The Gay Question: Death in Venice, By Nightfall, and The Art of Fielding)The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (2011 National Book Award Finalists Announced)The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (The Sea and the Mirror: Reflections and Refractions from a Voyage by Ship in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table)Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy (William Kennedy’s Long Dry Spell Ends with Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes)11/22/63 by Stephen King (Most Anticipated)The Free World by David Bezmozgis (The Price of the Dream: David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, The Millions Interview: David Bezmozgis)Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet (Most Anticipated)Gryphon by Charles Baxter (Most Anticipated)House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Ham Steaks and Manstarch: Nicholson Baker Returns to the Sex Beat)The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Most Anticipated)The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Most Anticipated)Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (Porn, Lies, and Videotape: On Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin)The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’, Wanting it Bad: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides)A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles (Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles)My New American Life by Francine Prose (Albania the Beautiful: Francine Prose’s My New American Life)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (A Novelist Unmoored from Himself: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (The Burden of Meaningfulness: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King)Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (Most Anticipated)Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (Most Anticipated)The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (The Favorite Takes Home the Booker)Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (Rock ‘n Roll Malaise: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia)The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (The Impermanence of Memory: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, The Millions Interview: Alan Hollinghurst Answers his Critics)Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (The Millions Interview: Karen Russell)Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson (The Millions Interview: Eleanor Henderson)The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife)The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (Most Anticipated)Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Most Anticipated)
The world stubbornly failed to end on Friday – again. This must have come as a disappointment to the followers of Rev. Harold Camping, who have spent the last five months waiting for God to whisk them off to Heaven, leaving the rest of us to endure earthquakes, fires, and the eventual violent destruction of the planet. Camping, a 90-year-old radio preacher, first predicted this “rapture” would occur on May 21, but when May 22 dawned and he and the rest of his morally radiant flock were still among us, he said he’d miscalculated and that the rapture would take place on October 21, the same day that God destroyed the world. And, well, here we all are.
If Camping wants to revise his end-times prediction again, he’ll have to get in line. Last month, Tom Perrotta, usually a purveyor of relatively cheery tales of suburban angst, published The Leftovers, set in the gloomy aftermath of a rapture-like event. At the cineplex, moviegoers have been subjected to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, which tracks the spread of a global pandemic that threatens the human race. And now, Colson Whitehead, hipster laureate of Brooklyn, has come out with Zone One, a post-apocalyptic horror tale about a mysterious plague that has turned billions of people into mindless zombies programmed to eat the flesh of the few uninfected survivors.
You can tell a lot about a society from its doomsday scenarios. Fifty or sixty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, popular culture was awash in paranoid thrillers like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which evil aliens from outer space (read: Commie bastards) infiltrate the hearts and minds of good Americans. Some decades later, after the fall of the Red Menace, we began to fear our own power over the natural world and we got such Icarus tales as Waterworld, the Kevin Costner kitschfest in which global warming has sunk all the world’s land mass, and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, in which an amusement park full of cloned dinosaurs threatens to get out of control.
Today, in the wake of humbling military stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan and the even more humbling 2008 financial crisis, one might expect to see more parables on the destructiveness of our overweening ambitions, but that would require a societal sense of ambition. Instead, as people so often do when their own ambitions get the best of them, we feel victimized. In Zuccotti Park, the unemployed blame the bankers. On Wall Street, the bankers blame the government. In Washington, politicians blame other politicians. Everyone is running around pointing fingers, claiming the other guy got us into this fix, but deep down, beneath the slick lobbying campaigns and handmade cardboard signs, I think we all have the disheartening sense that we have been judged and found wanting.
That’s the common thread of these contemporary doomsday scenarios. In the case of Rev. Camping’s predicted rapture, the Judgment Day comes straight from the Book of Revelations, which Camping claimed, citing his own wacky mathematical calculations, predicted the Second Coming of Christ on May 21, 2011. But Americans, despite what they may tell pollsters, are skeptical of an overly literal reading of the Bible and prefer their morality tales to take a secular form. Thus, Perrotta’s The Leftovers simply removes God from the story, positing a mysterious, possibly “random harvest” that has culled hundreds of millions of people from the earth, among them “Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians.”
Contagion and Zone One, on the other hand, rely on the metaphor of the plague. The makers of Contagion went to great lengths to make their plague “realistic,” consulting epidemiologists to get the “facts” of the highly infectious virus at the center of the film right, while Whitehead appears to have restricted his research for Zone One to obsessive viewings of zombie flicks like Night of the Living Dead. But whether your guiding authorities are prominent scientists or directors of schlocko cult classics, a metaphor is a metaphor, and in these stories, as in the original Vietnam-era Living Dead movies, the underlying message seems to be that there is something very destructive in our culture…and it’s spreading.
Whitehead goes to some trouble to disabuse his reader of the notion that there might be any greater meaning to his macabre tale. Midway through, the hero, who goes by the nickname Mark Spitz, sarcastically recounts the ravings of “the divine-retribution folks” he’s met during his time on the run:
The human race deserved the plague, we brought it on ourselves for poisoning the planet, for the Death of God, the calculated brutalities of the global economic system, for driving primordial species to extinction: the entire collapse of values as evidenced by everything from nuclear fission to reality television to alternate side of the street parking. Mark Spitz could only endure these harangues for a minute or two before he split. It was boring. The plague was the plague. You were wearing galoshes, or you weren’t.
The author doth protest too much, methinks. How else are we supposed to read a tale set in a warzone-like sliver of the Southern tip of Manhattan, minutes from the fallen Twin Towers, in which mindless zombies, infected by a virus that turns ordinary people into flesh-eating monsters, attack one of the last bastions of civilized society?
Still, if we ignore Whitehead’s diffident demurrals and assume the book is a parable, the question remains: a parable of what? The post-apocalyptic Manhattan Whitehead describes is indeed a fallen world. In the flashback-style digressions that fill much of the book, we learn that one night, while Mark Spitz was gambling in Atlantic City with a buddy, the world was engulfed by an as-yet unexplained plague that causes its sufferers to take bites out of the uninfected, thus spreading the virus. When the book begins, the spread of the plague has stalled, and a rump government of the uninfected, based in Buffalo, New York, has launched a campaign to retake Manhattan, starting at the bottom of the island in the so-called Zone One. To accomplish the mission, Mark Spitz and his fellow survivors must eliminate the remaining zombies, who are broken into two camps: the “skels,” who wander the earth in search of human flesh, and the mysterious “stragglers,” who are infected but harmless and seem to haunt places that have emotional meaning for them.
Just as political philosophers dating back to Plato have created utopian worlds ruled by people just like themselves, creators of post-apocalyptic worlds always seem to spare those who are most like them. So, who then is Mark Spitz? He is a black man, though as is the case for Whitehead himself, this fact doesn’t define him (or even get mentioned) for most of the novel. Before the plague struck, he was an ordinary twenty-something living with his parents in the Long Island suburbs and commuting into Manhattan to work “in Customer Relationship Management, New Media Department,” for a large coffee-making conglomerate:
He dispatched bots into the electronic ether, where they mingled among the various global sites and individual feeds, and when the bots returned with a hit or blip, he sent a message: “Thanks for coming, glad you liked the joe!” or “Next time try the Mocha Burst, you’ll thank me later.”
Mark Spitz, then, is a specialist in the ersatz, a technician of corporate-sponsored caring. This expertise, if that’s the word for it, seems of a piece with his personality, which is marked by a gift for the half-hearted effort. “He staked out the B or the B chose him: it was his native land,” Whitehead writes of his hero early on, adding: “His aptitude lay in the well-executed muddle, never shining, never flunking, but gathering himself for what it took to progress past life’s next random obstacle.”
Thus, in a world filled with miserable “stragglers” haunting their most emotionally resonant corners of the earth, Mark Spitz is the last slacker, saved from death by an unerring talent for never really giving a shit. Indeed, when read this way, the book can be seen as a series of incidents in which Mark Spitz tries to work up a genuine emotion about someone or something and is thwarted either by flesh-hungry zombies or his own tepid emotional temperature.
I wish, then, that Whitehead’s book had made me care about something, whether it was solitary, loveless Mark Spitz, or the lost world of pre-apocalypse Manhattan, or even zombies. But the truth is it didn’t. Colson Whitehead is gifted with one of the surest prose styles in American letters, but he is, like his hero in this book, a bit too cool for his own damn good. His last book, Sag Harbor, set in the world of wealthy “black boys with beach houses,” touched for a single chapter upon the bitter rage that can come with being black and successful in this country, and then, as if it had veered too close to a consuming flame, retreated into good-natured tales of summertime high-jinks among Long Island’s moneyed resort dwellers.
The last fifty pages of Zone One all but turn themselves, but the rest of the novel – which is to say its first 200 pages – are one long slog through endless digressions and flashbacks within flashbacks. If there were a PowerPoint presentation called “Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Novels,” this rule, “The Story Must Always Move Forward,” would appear on the second slide, right after “Show, Don’t Tell.” Whitehead is too talented and too experienced a writer not to grasp this basic idea, so I’m left with the troubling sense that, as with his last book, Whitehead, the walking embodiment of Brooklyn literary cool, smelled the danger in his premise and pulled back.
“I’m looking for a mystery,” my agent said.
That was the last thing I expected to hear. When I met David a little over two years ago, I was so struck with his Oxford-educated, sweater-vest-wearing persona that I’d wondered if my literary novel would be literary enough. But now he was not only looking for a mystery, but was also – I’ll spare you the precise language involved – highly dissatisfied with the ones coming across his desk.
“I could write a mystery,” I said.
It’s not just David and I. The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA. Justin Cronin has produced the vampire epic The Passage. Tom Perrotta is offering The Leftovers, a tale of a futuristic Rapturesque apocalypse. And MacArthur-certified genius Colson Whitehead is writing about zombies. It’s enough to make my historical mystery about Jack the Ripper look downright pedestrian.
What’s going on? Is it a mass sellout, a belated and half-hearted attempt by writers to chase the market? Are they being pushed into genre by their agents and publishers? Are the literary novelists simply ready for a change, perhaps because even the most exalted among them have a miniscule readership compared to genre superstars? Or are two disparate worlds finally merging?
Here’s my take on what’s happening – which, granted, is worth exactly as much as you’re currently paying for it.
Once upon a time, genre was treated as almost a different industry from literary fiction, ignored by critics, sneered at by literary writers, relegated by publishers to imprint ghettos. But the dirty little and not-particularly-well-kept secret was that, thanks to the loyalty of their fans and the relatively rapid production of their authors, these genre books were the ones who kept the entire operation in business. All those snobbish literary writers had better have hoped like hell that their publishers had enough genre moneymakers in house to finance the advance for their latest beautifully rendered and experimentally structured observation of upper class angst.
But while genre authors were always the workhorses of publishing, lately they’ve broken out as stars and are belatedly receiving real recognition. In 2010, there were 358 fantasy titles on the best seller list, more than double the number in 2006. Publishers, always the last to recognize a literary trend, are pursuing top genre writers who, for the first time, have not only bigger paychecks but genuine clout.
And as one part of the industry rises, another falls. Magazines and newspapers are dying faster than fruit flies, to the dismay of many writers who counted on nonfiction to supplement their incomes. Advances are lower than they used to be, multi-book deals are becoming as quaint as hoop skirts, and, thanks partially to the rise of ebooks, the author payout per book sale is shrinking. A lot of writers actually support themselves through other jobs, such as teaching, and they may be prepared to wait out the change and hope that literary fiction returns. But those of us who write full-time are scrambling to find additional streams of income just to survive.
Scott Spencer, who has published ten novels dating back to the mid-1970s, was once able to live exclusively on the income from his books and “make this kind of old-fashioned writer’s life work.” But, noting the inherent contradiction between the ups and downs and further downs of literary writing and his need to make a living, he is publishing Breed – “a horror novel that has no real place among the ten that have come before it” – under the name Chase Novak. He’s taken it to a new mystery imprint, Mulholland Books at Little Brown, and says the genre jump was entirely his idea. “In fact,” he says, “my agent was surprised when I sent her the first forty pages.”
“Creative people switch genres all the time,” says Miriam Parker, Spencer’s publicist at Mulholland, who started at Grand Central and has worked with a broad spectrum of writers. Her fellow publicist Crystal Patriarche agrees. “Writers just want to write,” she says, noting that quite a few members of her primarily female client list have shifted genres during the time she’s worked with them, often combining mainstream with romance or mystery. “They evolve through stages throughout their careers.”
Still, it’s hard to think of very many writers – save possibly Stephen King – who have moved from genre to literary. The floor seems to slope the other way, and Patriarche concedes that sometimes the difference isn’t so much in what the author has written as in how the publisher opts to describe it. “I’ve seen literary books blurbed as something like ‘the thinking woman’s beach read,’” she says. “And that’s a sign that the publisher is trying to appeal to consumers who are more mainstream. In this aspect the change is more industry-driven than author-driven.”
Ergo, the case of Dawn Tripp who clicked onto her Amazon page shortly after the publication of her novel Game of Secrets (Random House) only to learn that she’d written a thriller. “One reviewer called it ‘a page turning thriller,’ and another called it ‘a literary thriller told through a poet’s eye,’” says Tripp. “The tag ‘thriller’ surprised me. Although Game of Secrets has a mystery at the heart of it – an unsolved murder played out through a Scrabble game – it does not unfold in a linear way.”
Caroline Leavitt, whose Pictures of You has also been described as a literary thriller, started her career with a different publisher years ago. “My first two literary books were reviewed great but didn’t sell,” she recalls, “and then my publisher called me in and said ‘It’s time to go commercial with your third, so let’s all sit down and hammer out a plot.’” Leavitt followed the outline, “but with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach” and, predictably, the resultant book flopped on both the critical and commercial level. When her publisher didn’t think Pictures of You was commercial enough, she went to Algonquin, a place she describes as an Edenic paradise for writers, and now, after eight books, she has a New York Times best seller.
Even though Leavitt claims she isn’t entirely sure what a literary thriller is, she’ll take it. “A good book is a good book,” she says. “I’ve decided that genre is strictly a marketing tool.” Tripp is equally sanguine. “I don’t balk at the term ‘thriller,’” she says. “I don’t think in terms of genre. I write what moves me.”
While some writers find the genre shift has been almost sprung upon them, others are happy to produce books which are consciously designed to be commercial. Once they get the hang of genre – which can be a steep learning curve as they give themselves a crash course in learning how to plot – they end up having fun with the idea.
“There’s something about writing as Chase Novak that allows me to tell this story in a style that is leaner and more in service to propulsive story,” says Spencer. He took care to choose a style that innately appealed to him as a reader; although he’d never liked fantasy or adventure, “the possibility of horror rearing its head at any moment is something that I give a great deal of thought to while driving my car, taking a walk, or trying to fall asleep. My mother recently said to me ‘When you were little, you were always convinced that Dad and I wanted to kill you.’”
The key to a successful transition is that the writer chooses a genre they enjoy reading, with which he instinctively clicks. I’ve had a blast writing my historical mystery. Not only did the extensive research into Victorian England bring me back to my happy days in journalism, but I bought a bunch of mysteries and read them like a student, breaking apart the plots, analyzing movements through geographic space and time, using note cards to track multiple characters across a layered and detailed literary landscape. Only someone who’s never tried to do this would declare it easier than literary writing, or the books which result less worthy of respect. There’s a big difference between selling and selling out.
Of course, there’s always the danger that genre is a cul-de-sac and that once a writer turns into it, he’ll never get out. “I’ve had clients whose agents or editors turned down their second book because it wasn’t close enough to their first and thus what readers expect of them,” says Patriarche. Leavitt, who quite correctly points out that “writing the same book over and over is the opposite of what it means to be a writer,” also notes that “once you’ve had a commercial success, there’s definitely pressure on you to repeat it with your next book.”
So while publishers might happily support a literary author making the switch to genre they’ll probably be less enthusiastic when that writer develops an itch to move back toward literary writing. The obvious compromise – write literary under one name, genre under another – works for some, but is a stopgap solution while the industry struggles to catch up with the reality of what’s happening. Because it’s not just a matter of writers flipping back and forth, it’s a matter of genre and literary cross-pollinating to produce a new species. Genre books written by literary writers are different than those written by authors who have always embraced and exemplified that genre.
“You might call Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets a ‘psychological thriller’ but that somewhat misses the mark,” says Patriarche. “It’s a thrilling book, but does it play by the rules of a thriller? The problem is we don’t have names for these books, so we call them by the old names, even when the terms don’t fit.” But like any good publicist, she’s prepared to find the opportunity in the midst of the crisis. “It’s hard to get publicity for any book these days, especially one that’s hard to label, but a book that straddles genres can actually be an opportunity for a publicist to open it up to the readership of both genres.”
“More than ever the market requires publicists to approach all books on an individual basis,” says Parker. “I always ask myself ‘Who is the audience for this book and what’s the most effective way to target that audience?’ It can be fun, like when I was at Grand Central and we were bringing out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. We created a great video trailer, which was widely viewed and shared, and built an active Facebook community around book.”
It will probably always be open to debate whether these innovations are the result of writers seeking creative expression and wider audiences or a calculated move on the part of publishers who are simply trying to sell more product, even if it means slightly misrepresenting a book to its potential audience. But either way, the future seems to be stories which combine the pacing and plots of genre with the themes and style of literary writing.
In other words, this crappy market may actually end up producing better books. Because hybrids, bastards, and half-breeds tend to be heartier than those delicate offspring that result from too much careful inbreeding. Just ask the Tudors. The best commercial writers were moving toward this anyway, creating highly metaphorical fantasy works and socially-conscious mysteries, expanding the definition of their genres even before the ex-pat literary crew jumped on the bandwagon. “We’re going to see more blending as everyone attempts to grab a larger audience,” predicts Patriarche, “and the literary snobs are going to have to stop looking down on genre.”
Image credit: Fotomatom/Flickr