THE PERPETUAL DEBUT NOVELIST
THE PUBLISHING WORLD, TURNED ON ITS HEAD IN A SELF-DEFEATING QUEST FOR MARKETABLE YOUTH, PRIZES THE POTENTIAL OF FIRST NOVELISTS MORE THAN THE SEASONED GRACES OF VETERAN TALENTS. SO WHAT IF A WRITER FOUND A WAY TO PEN ONLY INAUGURAL EFFORTS?
AN IMAGINATION MISUSED
I have this one very cynical, very petty, very silly fantasy. It goes like this: What if I published every novel I write under a different name? My age, throughout, will remain constant at, say, twenty-seven: an astounding wunderkind, yes, but not quite an astoundingly annoying one. With each go, my publisher backs the project with extravagant, enviable gusto: there is the enormous advance that has been leaked for publicity purposes; the novel is slated as the lead title for whatever month; pricey advertisements are taken out in major publications; the press release presents me as “an astonishing discovery,” and “an arresting new voice in contemporary American fiction.” The early attention, which is substantial, follows suit, siphoning the press release through a thesaurus, which, even so, results in a recycled roster of hackneyed phrases: I’m introduced to the public as “a stunning find” who writes from “a breathtakingly original perspective,” all the more impressive in someone “so young he’s practically still in utero.” Then come the reviews, which are also substantial in number: 90 percent of them tout me as “a debut writer so exciting it’s literally painful” who has created a book “powered by a precocious brilliance so tumescent you’ll rethink every thought that has ever spiked through your brainstem,” while the other 10 percent toss out the predictably vitriolic stuff that, nonetheless, lends a bit of intrigue and scandal to the whole moment.
And a “moment” it is! For instance, despite the book’s “unabashedly literary material,” it finds a solid perch on national best-seller lists, thus provoking a series of articles asserting that my work “has single-handedly proved that Americans en masse still possess a palette for serious, diverting novels.” It sells many copies. It is translated into many languages, including, for the first time ever, Sanskrit and Esperanto (scholars link it to the Rosetta Stone). I give no interviews. I allow no photographs to be taken (which prompts “investigative exclusives” in women’s magazines revealing that I’m a dashing combination of Colin Farrell and, mysteriously, Denzel Washington; which spawn bitter diatribes in men’s magazines; which spawn think pieces on “image and the written word” in newspapers). And every few years, under a new identity, I publish another book (all the while able to slyly improve my craft!). And, every time, the celebration is equally bloated and sanctimonious.
I am, in short, the Perpetual Debut Novelist.
Yes, I know it’s asinine. Believe me, I’m in no way proud. I am a young fiction writer who has recently, with the publication of a first novel, entered this “business,” and, somewhere in doing so, this trashy prank has whittled its way into my mind. Which is embarrassing. Which is sad. Which is nowhere remotely close to what I think writing is all about. Which I hate. Okay. So why is the damn thing there? Why won’t it go away? And why do I partially believe, crude as it is, that my dumb fantasy could, to some extent, be pulled off?
Well. I’ve come to think that such wickedly clever thoughts are not merely the result of (a) having spent the past five years in the world of magazines or (b) narcissism gone haywire (or at least not entirely), but emblematic of something happening in publishing today—something distressing and, often, quite tragic and expensive. Call it the Era of the Debut Novel: where first-time authors receive treatment previously reserved for established writers; where an author’s entire career seems to pivot around his first published work; where important, reputable writers feel increasingly marginalized (because they increasingly are); where certain editors often seem to spend the bulk of their energy scurrying for the Next Great Debut as opposed to the Next Great Book; where the reading public, the bulk of whom couldn’t care less about any of this, is often repeatedly disappointed; where, because of the above, an unfortunate bitterness pervades the industry; where—and this may be the most unnerving, destructive aspect—even young, hungry, and talented unpublished writers are more concerned with advances and agents than they are with, say, producing great books. (I know of someone working on a novel, for instance, who once frighteningly bragged, though she was “at least four years away from completion,” that she already had an agent “who never gets less than $100,000.”)
Perhaps it all started with Bret Easton Ellis. When his first novel, Less Than Zero, became a surprise bestseller in 1985 (he was not paid very highly for it; more on that later), publishers discovered that a fresh personality—and even just the vague, amorphous appeal of the New—could draw readers in as successfully (if not more so) than a compelling style or story. A few years later, in 1988, a young Michael Chabon was paid an extraordinarily high sum (at the time) for his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Then, five years later, came the true turning point: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was launched (blurbed by Ellis) with much of the early publicity surrounding her “mysterious” persona (an author photograph in a cemetery!) and, more explicitly, her new wealth ($475,000 advance!). In these cases, the pricetags were arguably deserved, since all went on to be enormous financial successes. Which is quite a difference from the willy-nilly payouts you see today.
There’s now something tragically predictable to the whole shebang: You have, of course, the notoriously massive advances (often “insanely” massive considering publishers almost never recoup). Then you have the attention (most of it focusing on the massive advance, which is often, for the record, massively exaggerated by agents and editors who, as one prominent editor explained to me, “like to see their names in the paper next to a very high number”). Then, if all goes well (which it often does not), by the time the book is actually published and reviewed something very funny has happened: it’s nearly impossible to remember that this is a first-time author who has, as yet, no Genuine Readers (and, no matter what, it’s still the Genuine Reader—he who reads for nothing more than an intense love of story and style, a fascination with the mutability of words, and a compulsive desire to simultaneously escape and learn through fantasy—that fuels the entire industry of literary publishing, or, at the very least, the artistic fantasies of the publishing industry.)
These are tremendous risks. These are risks that, yes, can sometimes result in a success story such as Tartt or Chabon or, more recently, Zadie Smith or Jonathan Safran Foer or Hari Kunzru, but, typically, result in a case like… well, frankly, I can’t remember their names (and yet I inherently believe that they, whatever their names, are equally important writers). It’s the equivalent, to use a crass but apt example, of an unknown actor receiving a $10 million paycheck for his first movie role because the studio is positive, just positive, that he’ll be a box-office phenomenon. Which, even in a business as perplexingly slapdash as the movies, would never happen.
So. To me, as a writer, reader, and unsettled observer, this trend seems potentially crippling—to writers, to publishing houses, to the fragile mechanics of how certain books and writers get published. But, before I delve into these dreary trenches, let’s back up, take a breath, sip a second cup of coffee, tell the drunk man in the wheelchair shouting gibberish under my window to please shut up, and try to figure out just how, exactly, all this might have happened in the first place.
TRYING (AND FAILING)
TO RESIST NOSTALGIA
Wherever you stumble across distended hype and chaotic, haphazard spending habits, the odds are high that a towering, clumsy corporation is somewhere nearby, accidentally squashing something of value. I make many phone calls. I speak with many experienced editors, publishers, agents (most of whom would not allow their names printed). I want their take on these matters—matters that, for mental stability, I typically chose to ignore. Each, in his own way, tells me that in the late 1970s, and especially through the 1980s, corporate influence found its way into book publishing in two major respects: (1) the inexorable rise of behemoth mall chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and (2) the consolidation of various small houses into giant conglomerates. Today this progression is so established, and so dominant, that one has trouble imagining that it was ever any different.
Personally, I’m not entirely against this corporate influx, certainly not in the knee-jerk, hand-
However. There are, undeniably, some icky consequences to the exceedingly corporate climate of publishing, especially when it comes to what we call “literary” books. For instance, with the rise of the chain store came a single, and immediate, way to track book sales. Publishers now dial up Barnes & Noble to gauge a book’s success on a day-to-day basis, when before it was fine if a book took a year or two or seven to find a decent audience, or if an author took a book or two or three to establish himself. The rewards were in the good reviews, the dialogue, in knowing that something of potentially ethereal, perennially increasing value had been introduced to the culture. In other words, the scale that defines a book’s potential/success is now starkly standardized: large order from Barnes & Noble = success; small order = failure. Results are immediate! The gestation period truncated! (According to one editor, a book has two weeks to “make its mark” at Barnes & Noble before being relegated to more remote locations in the store.) Thus, when a house prepares to release a book—whether it’s a multilingual novel set in a subatomic particle, or a children’s guide to Fun with Marzipan—the bulk of the planning concerns making Barnes & Noble happy, so Barnes & Noble will request many copies, so the house will then be happy, too. In short, the process has become a bit narrow and, to some of us, frightening.
Meanwhile. With the omnipresent threat of new mergers and sell-offs, the modern author is trained not to expect much genuine, long-term support from his editor and publisher (hell, as evidenced by this essay, the modern author is, regrettably, prone to breaking down his craft with all the joys of a financial analyst questioning his stock portfolio). Yes, writers today are still ecstatic as ever to be publishing their novels—of course, of course they are; and yes, that’s what matters in the end; still, we should nonetheless be able to criticize and question the specifics without being judged as thankless and bitter, right?—but the days of being truly nurtured and embraced have, to be blunt, passed. Nowadays, as was pointed out in a recent New York magazine story (“The New Literary Lottery,” by Alex Williams; July 21, 2003), no one is kidding anyone throughout the process that, if the novel is a flop (as so many great ones are, especially if the advance was stratospheric to begin with), the writer isn’t likely to get another contract—or, specifically, another contract that could conceivably help his audience and career blossom.
This inflexible, number-driven mentality seems, at times, to cloud an editor’s perception. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, for instance, was all but rejected from her original publisher when it was delivered in full because her first book, Lucky, was a rape memoir that didn’t make any money (since the success of Sebold’s novel, it’s been on the paperback best-seller list for nearly a year). Okay, I can understand the trepidation… except I read The Lovely Bones in galleys a few months before it was published, and it seemed obvious after fifty pages that I was holding a sure hit: the writing was accessible, gentle but not too cloying, and it dealt with issues that greatly appeal to the middle-class woman who buys the bulk of hardcover books; that a writer’s prior “failure” should prevent a publishing house from responding positively to a new work’s obvious potential is discouraging. And this has happened before, which means this number-driven trend is more entrenched than newcomers might believe: Apparently, John Irving was advised in 1978 by his editor at Random House to take his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, elsewhere, because his editor knew that Random House was too timid to push it after his first three books failed to find a substantial audience; Irving listened, went to Dutton, and Garp was one of the best selling books of the seventies. So there it is: In the new, corporate model, the days of a Maxwell Perkins patiently guiding a Hemingway or Fitzgerald through his ups and downs have been replaced with an anxious, high-stakes sensibility. I’m a staunch skeptic of nostalgia, but, damn, that seems like an era worth pining for, doesn’t it?
“It is very sad,” says Jonathan Galassi, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. Here is a man who has been in publishing longer than I’ve been alive, a man who is extremely well respected and, these days, a near-anomaly: he still believes in developing writers throughout their careers (in his case, writers like Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Cunningham, Tom Wolfe, and Alice McDermott, many of whom built a readership slowly before “breaking out” and, these days, have the sort of careers writers dream of; he also published Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which makes him a personal hero). “The corporate aspect has changed the whole way books are bought,” he says. “See, it used to be that an agent would have a manuscript and think, Okay, this belongs with so-and-so at Viking. Then the book would be sent to Viking, and, if all went well, that would be the end.” Now, though, an agent isn’t sure if so-and-so at Viking is going to be there next year. So the hype starts immediately: a manuscript, justly, goes out to ten potential publishers simultaneously, the “winner” being the one who, quite simply, is willing to spend the most money. “And publishers today are simply spending too much money,” Galassi tells me. “I have very strong feelings about this. There’s no other way to look at it. A writer or an agent can’t be blamed for wanting money. It’s 100 percent the fault of the publishers.”
Morgan Entrekin, publisher and editor-in-chief of Grove/Atlantic, disagrees. “Hell, it’s never been a better time to be a fiction writer—especially a first-time fiction writer!” he enthusiastically tells me. “Why? That’s simple. Because there’s more money!” Frankly, I’m shocked to hear him express such enthusiasm for this trend, knowing that, as head of arguably the last major independent house in the country, he simply can’t compete in frenzied bidding wars with the bigger houses. (It was big news recently when Charles Frazier, who published the hit Cold Mountain with Entrekin, sold his next book—or, specifically, a three-paragraph treatment of his next book—to Random House for $11 million, a sum Entrekin couldn’t come close to equaling.) “Sure, it’s tough,” Entrekin says when I bring all this up. “Hey, I wanted Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, and offered $150,000, which was already an enormous sum for me. Still, it went for something much higher.” He then boasts about Grove/Atlantic’s success with Nick McDonnell’s novel Twelve, while admitting that, had he not been close with McDonnell’s father, the novel very well may have gone to auction, and then to a rival with more money. Finally, he brings up Ellis’s Less Than Zero, informing me that he purchased it for a slight $3,000 in 1985, and that he likely would have lost it today in an auction. Okay, so doesn’t that make him somewhat depressed? Not to mention that, in today’s climate, could a book purchased for so little even have a shot at the kind of success it had in 1985, since advances tend to dictate the degree to which marketing will use its muscle? “Maybe not,” he admits, before adding: “But, hell, it’s a strange business. Sure, with all the money today, publishers do, to some extent, control the best-seller lists. Still, there are exceptions.”
Another major shift that occurred, mainly in the 1980s, was the way works of fiction and their authors were covered by the media. In addition to Ellis, writers such as Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney managed to become literary celebrities: young, stylish New Yorker and Esquire contributors whose personal exploits were as popular with the reading public as those of their characters. Publishers, as mentioned, became giddily aware that they could “sell” the writer as effectively (if not more so) than they could the writer’s work (an increasingly difficult feat in this age of the Nonexistent Attention Span). Instead of: Look at this fantastic story written in this fantastic style, we are now assaulted with: Look at this fantastic author (who’s now rich!) who… oh yeah, who has also created this fantastic story written in this fantastic style!
Me, I’ve come of age in this environment, where callously conceived ideas of public personalities (be it a president or a pre-pubescent movie star or, yes, a novelist) are the status quo, and, frankly, I’m not tremendously bothered: it’s good for a cheap thrill, and what can I say, I believe that cheap thrills have their place, if only to remind us of people’s potential for awfulness. Nonetheless, as someone who gets a much more piercing, fiery, and utterly inspiring thrill out of a good book, and who realizes that most writers themselves are for the most part shy, softspoken, untelevisable figures who aren’t, in the magazine sense, “compelling,” I find this new outlook a touch worrisome. It’s flat-out inconceivable to me that, not so long ago, when people such as Norman Mailer, Carson McCullers, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Martin Amis published their first books in their twenties, it was their style and stories that, first and foremost, garnered attention (the media then was much more akin to an immensely influential Genuine Reader, as opposed to the equally influential Bitter Reader of today, who pithily harps on “insidery” matters such as a writer’s connections, clothes, and finances). So I wonder: How many great contemporary books have I missed hearing about because their authors failed to fit some media-friendly mold? And did anyone hear about them? And, most importantly, do I still have a chance of ever discovering them?
Frankly, I’m not sure. One editor I speak with laments about how he’s publishing a book this year by a writer he loves, a writer who has written twenty-five novels, a writer who once upon a time was nominated for top prizes and considered canonical (by those who bother to consider canons), but who is now very old and—let’s cut right to it—not terribly marketable by today’s notions of marketability. “I can’t repackage his story,” this editor gripes to me. “I think I was the only person to make a bid for the book, and it was a very, very modest bid. And now, I can’t sell him on anything other than that he’s written a great book—one of his truly greatest books, I believe. Which, okay, should be fine. Except I can’t even get a mention in the New York Times Book Review! I mean, you tell me, what am I supposed to do?”
As someone who hopes to be writing and publishing books when I too am very old and impossible to “repackage,” this is a bleak fate to contemplate. Perhaps it is despondency, then, that leads me, at this point in the conversation, to share with this editor my idea of the Perpetual Debut Novelist. I am curious: Would his writer be better off trying such a demented stunt?
To which he replies:
“Absolutely! Wow, what a notion! Actually, you know, that’s not such a bad idea…”
THE RISE OF THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE
(AND A NEOPHYTE’S SOLUTIONS!)
Okay, okay, okay. With this slick, sterile, unforgiving spectrum better understood, it’s actually quite easy to see how we’ve entered the Era of the Debut Novel. These days, in certain circles, it’s fashionable to chalk the phenomenon up to society’s current infatuation with the Now, and the Next Big Thing, and, especially, the Next Big (Young) Thing—to furrow the brow, clench the jaw, lean back severely in the leather club chair, and blame it on the Josh Hartnett–ification of literature. And, certainly, there’s some validity to this, but to pin it all on our obsession with fast, easily digestible, queasily disposable pulp (or our vulgar talent to make anything appear so) is overly facile.
Take, first off, the evolution in sales tracking, and the simple fact that a debut writer has absolutely no sales record. “That right there,” one editor tells me, “is what makes debuts so much easier to position these days.” Or, as agent Christy Fletcher told New York magazine: “It’s like credit. It’s better to have no credit than bad credit.” In other words: the house will, undoubtedly, be purely enthusiastic about a new author, since there are no discouraging numbers from the past to dampen its enthusiasms and restrict its spread-sheet prognostications (and, as in the case of Alice Sebold or John Irving’s first books, the numbers are often pretty discouraging, and to rise above that requires real, and increasingly rare, gumption). And so it’s easier to sell the first-time author to Barnes & Noble as potential (an abstract quantity) than it is to repackage a seasoned writer with an iffy sales record (an actual quantity). And so the first-time author gets a larger print run. And the larger overall campaign (prime placement at Barnes & Noble costs tens of thousands of dollars). And the hype. And so the first-time author gets, alas, something the second- or third- or fourth-time author often misses out on: a fighting chance to publish a book that gets read by someone other than a great aunt and an anonymous Publishers Weekly reviewer.
So, I get all that. I do. It almost, even, makes sense. Except, when I really turn it around in my mind, the main problem with a house’s being so governed by a Barnes & Noble track record (and vice versa) is that, for the most part, it doesn’t really mean anything. Excluding a teeny, catty, incestuous group of readers and magazine editors located mainly in New York City, most people don’t particularly care about an author and his career so much as they do about discovering a book that’s interesting, provocative, moving, tormenting, whatever (hence the ubiquitous conversation where Person A says: “Oh, I just read a stunning book!” Person B: “Really? By whom?” Person A: “Oh, damn it—I can’t remember. But it was about…”). Assuming the author doesn’t write a carbon copy of his last book, there should be a fresh chance to “sell” a new story, and maybe by extension foster inadvertent interest in his previous books. Prior numbers should mean something, sure, just not everything. Unfortunately, the belief held by many of today’s editors and publishers in the magnetic draw of story and style—a belief, really, in what makes books books—has been gutted out, and replaced with a chilly, condescending, focus-group mentality. This must change.
And then you have the crudest, most uncomfortable development of late: the advances. With a first-time writer, it’s once again the potential that’s being hawked as opposed to the actual, and it’s therefore easier to entice bidding wars, and, with the rapping-digital-kangaroo cash floating about, easier to keep the bids rising. Morgan Entrekin is the only editor I speak with who praises this development. Jonathan Galassi and the others find it dangerous. As an example, Galassi names a just-published story collection that was bought for $400,000—a fine, elegant collection, “but there’s no way it’s going to sell more than 10,000 copies,” he says. (I apologize for not naming the works—a “journalistic” taboo, I know—but I’m openly on the side of the writer here, and I see no point in throwing more authors into the dismal pool of those known as Writer with an Insane Advance.) In a situation such as this, there are a few nasty results: (1) other writers may not receive decent contracts because of a publisher’s overspending on the fine, elegant collection; (2) writers worry, foolishly, that if they don’t receive $400,000 for their fine, elegant collections that they’ve somehow missed the boat; while (3) the writer who got the $400,000 is offered, based on his sales record, say, $30,000 when he goes to sell his bigger, more ambitious second book.
“How can that not affect someone’s sense of self worth?” another editor says to me after describing a similar situation. “And it’s happening more and more. You have writers today wondering, as they publish their second book, if their career is already shot, either because they got too much money or not enough.” And so you have the bitterness, the puréed nerves, and, as if that’s not gloomy enough, another editor I talk to makes the following disturbing point: “It’s to the advantage of an editor to spend too much money now. He’ll get himself into Publishers Weekly’s ‘Hot Deals’ column, which alerts agents that he’s someone to go to. His boss isn’t going to fire him for foolish spending, because he’s in ‘Hot Deals’ and lunching with all the top agents.” In other words, advances have turned publishers, at times, into little more than vanity projects for larger corporations. And I can’t help but wonder: At what point does the industry admit such imprudence, as was forced to happen with the helium-hyped Internet companies—arguably the tech equivalents of debut writers—of a few years ago?
And then there is the fact that the advance determines the entire campaign of a book. For instance, if a house has two novels coming out in a month, and Novel X was purchased after a mad bidding war for $300,000 and Novel Y for $30,000, all of its energy will go toward Novel X. But what if, as sometimes happens, early response to Novel X isn’t so stellar, while people are adoring Novel Y? It would make sense to shift the promotional mechanisms accordingly. Unfortunately, publishers are rarely willing to do this—despite the fact that, in purely business terms, it’s a bargain!—and more and more books (these days quite often debuts) are forced upon readers as works that will make you “rethink every thought that has ever spiked through your brainstem” while also wondering “where the author buys her clothes.” (This reminds me of that other ubiquitous discussion where Person A says: “Did you read Novel X?” Person B: “Yeah, I bought it because I saw that article-thing in wherever, but I didn’t really like it.” Person A: “Yeah, me neither.” Both of them, unknowingly, may have loved Novel Y, a book they’ll likely never pick up.)
Even more distressing, I think, is that advances are tastelessly used for publicity purposes—especially with the first-time author. Perhaps this is in part because there just aren’t so many young, stylish writers such as Ellis and McInerney (or, perhaps, it’s that now glossy magazines can make the most frumpy author look like a generic sexpot) and so a publisher uses the author’s sudden wealth as a lame stand-in for his or her lack of real “sexiness” (a lame promotional device in the first place). In his infamously misinterpreted 1996 essay, “Perchance to Dream” (aka “The Harper’s Essay”), Jonathan Franzen addresses this trend when he points out that the only authors to grace the cover of Time magazine in recent years were Scott Turow and Stephen King. “These are honorable writers; but no one doubts it was the size of their contracts that won them covers,” Franzen writes, adding: “The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority.”
Furthermore, what’s most disconcerting is that, now, reviews are starting to take on the crass, tragic tone of business articles mixed with, as was pointed out in a recent Slate essay (“The Fact in Fiction,” by Katie Roiphe; April 22, 2003), the cloying pointlessness of gossip rags. This is no more apparent than with debut novels. For instance, here is the opening paragraph of a review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated that Brooke Allen wrote in the Atlantic Monthly last year:
Jonathan Safran Foer is a twenty-four-year-old recent Princeton graduate whose first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, has attracted a great deal of pre-publication success and attention. It received a huge advance, reportedly in the neighborhood of $500,000; is the lead debut-section title on Houghton Mifflin’s spring list; and is soon to be translated into thirteen languages. Quite a bonanza for an inventive but immature fictional excursion, sometimes pleasant, sometimes just pretentious.
Erica Wagner, a critic for the Times (London), has made such sentiment her specialty. Here is the third paragraph of her review of The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru:
One should begin by saying, “Poor Hari Kunzru” (despite his immense advance). There is no question that this is a writer of skill and seriousness, and his intentions are clearly honourable. But the early publicity surrounding this novel—please, what is an “epochal debut”?—does it no favours: nothing could live up to such expectations.
And here’s the last graph:
Yet Pran [the protagonist] never convinces: this is especially true in the final third of the novel, in which he makes his transition to “Englishness.” Would this have been less of a disappointment if I had not expected so much from the novel? Yes, perhaps. But that is hardly Kunzru’s fault, is it?
Wagner even managed to turn a Times review of Donna Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend, into a mini-dissertation on the subject. After explaining the hype around Tartt (which really only creates it, as how many of her readers are avid attendees of book fairs and perusers of press releases?), she goes off on a tangent focusing mainly on Zadie Smith—
No, pity the young novelist (and they’re almost always young) plucked from his or her garret, showered with cash… and instructed to produce another novel in the next couple of years. Wonder why Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, the follow-up to her remarkable debut White Teeth was such a letdown? It’s not because Smith lost her touch. Rather, White Teeth was the culmination of a (young) lifetime’s experiences… It’s why it’s wonderful, even if it has its flaws. The Autograph Man reads like something written by an extremely clever and talented person who is desperately watching the clock.
—which I, personally, find to be such a shame because this seemed to be the main sentiment in the coverage of The Autograph Man. Thomas Mallon, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, echoed this in a review under the headline TOO LITTLE TOO SOON. As someone who found White Teeth enjoyable but, overall, frustratingly ramshackle (Smith herself has written that it should have been 100 pages shorter), I thought The Autograph Man was far and away the better book. It was stylistically more taut, structurally more sound, and in the prose reverberated the kind of longing and melancholy that great fiction can deliver better than any other medium. I can’t help but wonder what the response would have been if Smith published her so called “sophomore effort” as a Perpetual Debut Novelist, whether its reception would have been as glorious as that of White Teeth. My gut says yes, it would have—that critics would have felt more like discoverers than slaves to marketing hype, and would have been more than happy to highlight the book’s many pleasures.
That said, I have to admit that I do find there to be something almost honorable happening in the cases above: a critic criticizing an industry in serious need of some criticism. At the same time, this banter should not be in reviews—should not, in the cases above, be the main objective of the review of an author’s first work. As mentioned, the Genuine Reader does not care about any of this at all, and shouldn’t be forced to care by a cynical employee of a newspaper or magazine. The Genuine Reader wants, at the very least, to know three things: (1) Is this book interesting? (2) Why is this book interesting? (3) Is it interesting in a way that would appeal to my sensibility? Critics and their editors, after all, become the real perpetuators of hype by choosing to listen to a press release or not (it’s not as if we are bombarded by previews and billboards fiendishly promoting novels as we are with movies). So part of me wants to take such critics aside and calmly ask them to please stop complaining. To please stop reading the press releases so closely if they bother you so. To please do your job and let the business writers do theirs. Because if they did, publishers would, maybe, just maybe, be less inclined to resort to gaudy hyperbole in order to get their books covered in a semirespectable way, and everyone would be that much more content. Maybe, even—and I know I sound laughably naïve in writing this, but oh, well—the cheap dialogue concerning monetary logistics could be replaced with the far more interesting and lively matters of plot, style, structure, story, impact. We could, in other words, discuss fiction—first fiction, second fiction, twenty-sixth fiction—for what it actually is: an invention of the imagination, a lasting and unique way of making sense out of reality with fantasy. Maybe then I could forget about being the Perpetual Debut Novelist. Maybe I could stop feeling so awkward and embarrassed as I foolishly contemplate impossibly large sums of money. Maybe, alas, I could get back to what really matters here.
- And as more publishers sign up to a service called BookScan, an even more precise tracking system, this method will only become more engrained. BookScan is basically the publishing world’s equivalent of the Neilsen Ratings System: a crude and constant poll of booksellers across the country. Primarily, the service was used by the media as a way to report approximate sales figures, but this changed last year when Random House became the first major publisher to sign up. What, exactly, does this mean? It’s impossible to say at the moment, though, based on what the Neilsens have done for TV—giving shows these days one or two weeks to find a mass audience; wholly erasing the chance of a remotely interesting endeavor such as Seinfeld or Late Night with Conan O’Brien, both of which floundered in their first few years, to find its footing—the outlook isn’t so serene. ↩
- A quick personal note: Since publishing my novel, one of my most frequent anxiety dreams is calling my editor to ask a question and hearing through the holes in the receiver, “What? Who’s this? Who do you want—Oh, oh… I’m sorry, she went to [insert publisher name here]. But don’t worry, I’m thrilled to be working with you. Thrilled! What, again, is the name of your book?” ↩
- I’m picturing the inspired reader here who dives excitedly into the backlist. Okay, actually, I’m picturing myself here, and what happened when I read certain books by Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, Lorrie Moore, Stanley Elkin, Denis Johnson… I could go on and on. Point is, people do, when they fall for a storyteller, giddily devour everything they can find, which means that, on a business level, the patient publisher will benefit off backlist sales, as is happening now with Sebold’s Lucky. ↩
- Here’s a recent example. The first paragraph of the press release accompanying Nell Freudenberger’s recently-published debut collection Lucky Girls reads: “The career of Nell Freudenberger was launched in the Summer 2001 ‘Debut Fiction’ of The New Yorker. Then the magazine’s 26-year-old assistant, Freudenberger dazzled readers with her story ‘Lucky Girls,’ the first one she’d ever published. Almost immediately, the bidding war for her first book—a collection of stories—was in the headlines from Publishers Weekly to Entertainment Weekly and the New York Observer.” Basically, the publisher is playing gossip columnist here—trumpeting the money and hype as opposed to the actual book. And the media followed suit: “TOO YOUNG, TOO PRETTY, TOO SUCCESSFUL” read a Salon.com review of sorts. As a fiction writer, I can’t imagine that Freudenberger was completely comfortable with this. ↩
- A brief aside about that essay. While profiling Franzen in the New York Times Magazine, Emily Eakin made it sound as if Franzen was using the essay as “a reckless public vow” that he’d “deliver a book that had it all, a novel that was intimate, socially engaged and compelling.” Anyone who actually reads this essay will see that this assertion is absolute nonsense. The essay is about being depressed and feeling irrelevant as a writer working in the era of TV and the Internet. ↩
- I love that phrase: The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority. So upsetting, so accurate. Having worked in magazines—ostensibly cultural barometers to some degree—I can attest that, when trying to convince an editor to highlight a writer, the first question is “What was the advance?” as if this serves as some noble justification for coverage. Sadly, what reader, while deep into an enjoyable book, possibly cares what the author was paid? ↩
- This reminds me of a listing for a Hari Kunzru reading I came across last year in Time Out New York, where the magazine referred to him as “a newly minted millionaire,” as if his novel and what it contains was nothing but an obscure side note to the event. ↩
What did you think?
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