At the beginning of A Man in Love, Karl Ove Knausgaard is at a birthday party with his wife and three children. He eats cake, changes diapers, lets us know how bad he is at small talk and then proves it when he gives a woman his opinion on only children. “The single-child scenario seems a bit sad if you ask me,” he tells her before learning that she has one child, not by choice but because she can’t find a suitable mate for the second. “What the fuck does this have to do with me?” he wonders and is then saved from further awkward conversation by his oldest daughter. For all of Knausgaard’s struggles, procreation is not one of them.
He can even pinpoint the exact moment he and his wife conceive their second child. “When I came, I came inside her,” he writes. “That was all I wanted. Afterwards we lay close to each other for a long time without speaking. “Now we’ll have another child,” I said at length.” If I’d read this one year ago, two years ago, I would’ve rolled my eyes, maybe thrown the book across the room. Instead I was five months pregnant, and although I did think, Oh, come on, Karl Ove, I also thought: how sweet to have that certainty, how lucky to have a memory of that momentous occasion.
Knausgaard writes a lot about his wife’s pregnancies. I found myself studying the details with a strange kind of intensity before realizing that, oh god, I was using the book as a guide to pregnancy and childbirth. This had not been my intention. I thought that when I got a positive pregnancy test I would throw myself into the world of pregnancy literature, but I’d resisted. There was no excited trip to the bookstore to buy What to Expect When You’re Expecting. It was nerves at first, but even when I passed the first trimester mark, I only halfheartedly picked Ina May Gaskin’s guide to childbirth off the shelf. I flipped through it quickly and then squirreled it away in a drawer, out of sight along with other baby items that had accumulated over the past few weeks – some presents from friends, pamphlets from doctors, samples that had mysteriously found their way to our mailbox.
But maybe it wasn’t so surprising: I’d had the same attitude while trying to get pregnant. It started off fine – I dutifully read Taking Charge of Your Fertility, bought a basal body thermometer, became familiar with my cycle. Then my husband and I figured out that our bodies had different intentions. If we were going to have a baby, it would require more intervention than charting my temperature and monitoring cervical mucus. Everything I learned next came from doctors, nurses, and specific Internet searches. I sifted through pages of message boards, but even the most helpful information was coded in endless acronyms: DH, TTC, OPK, CM, BD, 2WW, HPT, POAS, BFP, BFN, IUI, IVF, DPO, AF. I craved books again, real words, but I was picky about the texts. I didn’t want guides; I just wanted to read what I normally read. I was, I suppose, trying to reassure myself that whatever was happening to me was common enough, normal enough, to easily crop up in my regular life reading.
Only there wasn’t a lot to read. In Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, there were hints of things not going according to plan, brief enough to go unnoticed if you weren’t looking, but I was looking. In a tiny three-page chapter spaced between details of her daughter Quintana’s adoption and early childhood, Didion writes about her sudden desire to have children in her mid-twenties. One day she goes to her doctor because of a pregnancy scare, but he can’t definitively tell her if she’s pregnant or not. “A day later I started to bleed, and cried all night.” She realizes she was sad about not being pregnant. I reread those three pages a few times; the experience was similar to something I’d gone through. I wondered what happened in the gap between the crying and the adoption. Did she try to get pregnant on purpose afterwards? Did she decide she didn’t want to? I had no business knowing intimate details about her gynecological life and that this intrusive musing said more about me and how desperate I was to find someone I could relate to. Still, I couldn’t help but think how reassuring it would’ve been to read an essay on infertility written in that soothing Didion cadence. Imagine! John and I have decided we would like a baby. It is nine months later, and there is still no baby.
After awhile I remembered Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, which I’d read when it was published back in 2002, before the idea of having problems having children or even having children crossed my mind. It’s a slim, pitch perfect book about Fusselman’s father’s death and her fertility issues. I reread it and realized I’d already known how intrauterine insemination – IUI – worked before my doctor explained it because of her description of it. The book is funny and wistful and sad and captures the absurdity of the whole trying-to-conceive process. She calls the company that makes transvaginal ultrasound machines to ask how they work, she plays AC/DC songs on her acoustic guitar to pass the time. And then she gets pregnant and you’re so, so happy for her.
I found Molly Ringwald’s linked short story collection, When It Happens to You. In “The Harvest Moon”, Greta and Phillip try for their second child despite the quiet, slow dissolve of their relationship. Greta gives herself injections for an IVF cycle relying on a YouTube video for instructions. In “The Places You Don’t Walk Away From”, Greta and Phillip are back. They produced embryos, but didn’t use them. Instead they separated, put the embryos in storage and, a year later, have to document what to do with them in their divorce papers. It’s such a distinctly modern dilemma: who knew that you might have to one day decide whether to destroy, freeze or donate excess embryos, that these microscopic cellular bundles could even be preserved for later use?
And maybe because it’s a relatively new phenomenon that’s finally being discussed more openly, more and more books are being published that I would’ve loved to read then when I was looking. In Ben Lerner’s 10:04, the main character acts as a sperm donor for his best friend’s baby. He writes about the room where men do their thing – the porn, the television, the couch – and then spirals into an exaggerated neurosis of the instruction given to keep his hands clean so he won’t contaminate the sample. It reminded me of a picture my husband once texted me from a similar room: a pump bottle of soap with a label that said, HAND SOAP. DO NOT USE AS LUBRICANT.
There’s a fertility clinic in Emily Gould’s Friendship too. Sally is close to 40 and wants children. In the waiting room she pages through Plum, “the magazine for mature mothers.” It’s a fact that fertility clinics have the most varied selection of magazines. At my clinic I would slip copies of the New Yorker in my bag if I didn’t finish an article before seeing the doctor; I was paying enough to be there, I figured, to keep it.
In both 10:04 and Friendship the cost associated with these kinds of treatments are openly discussed. Lerner uses an IUI as a unit of currency – the “strong, six figure advance” the main character gets for his book is broken down into fifty-four IUIs, and the fact that the money can be used to fund the insemination is one of the main reasons for writing the proposal in the first place. For Sally in Friendship it’s her wealth that allows for the possibility of fertility treatments to happen, and when Bev – younger, poorer – gets pregnant accidentally, the reason they first get involved in each other’s lives is because Sally has the money to afford a baby and compensate Bev, while Bev can barely afford her own lifestyle, let alone one that includes another human.
These distillations of the monetary anxiety, how surreal and uncomfortable it is to assign price tags to it, along with the general existential and physical anxiety that accompanies the problem of wanting a child and not having one were what I was looking for and what I’m still looking for even if I’m not necessarily in that stage anymore. It just took some time to cobble together a reading list to reflect it all.
During that waiting period, a friend who knows things about the Bible and can find comfort in it in a way that I’ve always had trouble with emailed me the story of Hannah and Elkanah from the Old Testament. Samuel 1:1 starts off like this, “Elkanah… had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.” They pray for a child, but Hannah’s fervent, passionate praying is mistaken for drunkenness. When it’s clarified that she wasn’t drunk (even though she should’ve had a few glasses of holy wine to take the edge off), her prayer is granted and she finally has a son, Samuel.
The treatments are modern, I suppose, but the narrative is ancient. As the main character in 10:04 says in an imagined conversation with his potential future progeny, “Everyone gets help making a baby, it’s never just a mom and a dad, because everybody depends on everybody else.” Sometimes it’s your friends and family, sometimes it’s your doctors and drugs, but, I’ve learned, you need stories to depend on too.
Can’t say they didn’t try to warn me. When I told my agent I was planning to attend a book fair for the first time in my life, this year’s Book Expo America in New York, she said, “I avoid it like the plague. It’s basically a lot of people — primarily made up of aspiring writers — scrambling for free books. The London Book Fair is far more professional and focused. Everyone’s there trying to conduct business, as opposed to trying to score a free carry-all from a publisher to fill with free books. BEA really is a madhouse.”
Fellow writers sounded similar alarms. Don’t go, several advised, because it will swallow you whole — so many books, so many people, so many writers (more than 600 this year). You’ll despair, these writers warned. You’ll come away convinced that no book of yours could ever possibly cut through such a typhoon of clutter. One writer told me that going to BEA is an especially bad idea if you’re in my current delicate condition: author of a novel that’s making the rounds of publishers.
But I like to think that, even as the years pile up, I’m still willing to try anything once. Especially if I can score a free pass. Which I did. Which explains why I found myself elbowing my way through the mob at the Jacob Javits Center on Thursday morning, desperately seeking Snooki.
By the time I found her in the Perseus Books zone, the former star of Jersey Shore was well on her way to a major case of writer’s cramp. Fans snaked the length of the display area, then around the corner and out of sight. They were waiting for Snooki, nee Nicole Polizzi, to autograph something that is not, technically, even a book. It’s a pamphlet containing the table of contents and a five-page introduction to Baby Bumps: From Party Girl to Proud Mama, and All the Messy Milestones Along the Way, a book about Snooki’s recent pregnancy that will be published next January. Dressed in a short short dress and high high heels, her arms draped with pearls, her skin as smooth and brown as warm caramel, Snooki signed as fast as she knew how, exchanging pleasantries and patiently posing for pictures with every fan. A real pro.
Standing nearby was a guy in a sportcoat who looked more Princeton than Jersey Shore. This was Scott Miller, Snooki’s agent, who has sold all four of her books — two novels and now two non-fiction books. He waved at the throng. “It’s great to see so many people interested in books,” Miller said. “This is crazy but it’s not Comic Con, where people wear costumes. I haven’t seen any Hemingways here. Yet.”
“How’s business?” I asked.
“Everyone says the book business is dying,” Miller replied. “But books are still selling and there are new ways to sell them. Every business has challenges, but print books are stabilizing. I’m happy.”
He has a point, I thought. This might be a madhouse, but would the alternative be better — this vast airplane hangar of a building with nobody in it? Imagine if they threw a book fair and nobody came. Now that would get the doomsayers lathered up.
Her signing duties done, Snooki paused to reflect on the relative difficulty of writing fiction versus non-fiction. “Making up things in your head is hard,” she said. “Writing Confessions of a Guidette was easy. But this book, Baby Bumps, was the easiest because I’m telling stories that actually happened. This is not a how-to book about pregnancy, like What To Expect When You’re Expecting. That’s a great book, but it has no humor. I need relatable stories with a sense of humor.”
Point taken. What to Expect must be doing something right — it has been on The New York Times bestseller list roughly since the invention of bread — but it can’t touch lines like this from Baby Bumps: “My pregnancy began with the thought, ‘Holy shit! My egg hatched!'” Or: “Since my ‘eggs hatched!’ moment, my life has changed 180 degrees — all for the better. I’m a different person now. I love who I’ve become…I’m sure people who think of me as a wasted smurf on Jersey Shore might find it hard to believe that, these days, the only bottles I care about are full of formula or milk. I’d rather go to the gym than a club. The only men who see my boobs are my fiance and my son.”
Determined to shift gears, I made my way for the stage where Pulitzer Prize-winner A. Scott Berg was getting ready to speak about his forthcoming biography of Woodrow Wilson. On the way I spotted a bunch of brand-name authors signing their books, including Allan Gurganus, Jonathan Lethem, and Daniel Handler, d.b.a. Lemony Snicket. The major autograph area had dividers that funneled the fans to the long tables where authors autographed books by the metric ton. The vast autograph area brought to mind the cattle pens in a Midwestern feed lot. Indeed, many of the people waiting in line looked like beasts of burden, draped with bulging bags of swag and hankering for more. My agent wasn’t lying.
The turnout for A. Scott Berg’s talk was modest, more like a graduate seminar than a cattle roundup. “The real reason why I devoted 13 years of my life to Woodrow Wilson is that it’s a story filled with tragedy, romance, and compassion — unlike anyone else who has ever lived in the White House. A personal story is what I tried to capture — Woodrow Wilson the man. I wanted to humanize this guy.”
And I wanted to get out of there. It hadn’t been the soul-crushing experience I’d been warned about, but enough is enough. Just before I reached the exit, I was stunned by the sight of four slabs of beefcake flexing their muscles as cameras clicked and book lovers gaped. Had I been teleported to a male stripper convention in Vegas? No, these guys were the frontmen for Ellora’s Cave, publisher of “erotic romance” books that made $30,000 a dozen years ago and now grosses upwards of $15 million a year.
Why is the company so successful?
“Because sex sells,” said Patty Marks, the CEO, as though I must be one dim bulb. “Another reason is technology. Traditional publishers said women wouldn’t read this stuff. And let’s face it, most women are less comfortable with going into a drugstore and buying a copy of Playgirl than men are with buying a copy of Playboy. But with e-books, no one knows what you’re reading. And our books are not just erotica — they’re erotic romance. Sex has to be part of the plot, but so does romance. And just like romance novels, the books have to have a happily-ever-after or a happy-for-now ending.”
Ellora’s Cave is now paying royalties to more than 800 authors who have put out more than 5,000 books, with titles that pull no punches, including Nailed and Buck Naked and Top or Bottom? One of the company’s most visible authors is Desiree Holt, a 76-year-old grandmother known as “the porn queen of Texas hill country.”
So it turns out that Scott Miller, Snooki’s agent, was right. The book business isn’t dying. Books are still selling and people are finding new ways to sell them. I asked the four slabs of beefcake to flex for my camera. They happily complied. They understand that sex sells. Amen. I was out of there, a virgin no more.