21 September 2012
Following is from Sue Halpern, editor of NYRB’s new ebook series. I am actually breathing a sigh of relief. The anxiety of being one these writers “whose first books had been critical successes [but] were unable to find publishers for their second” hovers; but it’s going to be okay. NYRB is publishing these writers, whose books are “loved” by editors who can’t publish them.
A few years ago, around the time I was writing a piece for The New York Review of Booksabout digital reading devices, I ran into a novelist who mentioned that many of his friends whose first books had been critical successes were unable to find publishers for their second. The economics of traditional publishing, he pointed out, did not favor non-commercial books, and when you added in the threat that digital technology posed to bookstores, the end result would be an ever-shrinking market for serious literary books.
The Water Theatre
by Lindsay Clarke
As a writer myself—my sixth book will be published next spring—I was sensitive to the novelist’s lament. I love books—not just their words, but their feel and smell and look; cracking the spine of a paperback is one of life’s great guilty pleasures. But to my surprise, I was finding in my hands-on research for The New York Review that a good story transcends its medium: I could get just as lost in an e-book as I could in a book bound between hard covers. By using the less-expensive e-book platform to introduce readers to writers they would not otherwise encounter, the digital “revolution,” as it was being called, could be harnessed to promote literary culture rather than undermine it.
What better place to launch this venture than New York Review Books, which was already leading discerning readers to great and often forgotten classics of literature? But unlike the NYRB Classics series, these books would be by contemporary authors, writers of depth and insight whose work was being bypassed by traditional American publishing because the economics did not favor them. If any audience would be receptive, I reasoned, it would be the adventurous NYRB crowd.
Sometime later I was sitting in the office of an editor at one of the Big Six publishing houses, a man of exquisite literary taste who had been in the business a long time, explaining the premise of this new venture, which we had named NYRB Lit. I was nervous—did he think it was nutty or misdirected or a waste of time? He turned away for a moment and reached for a pile of papers on his desk. “I love this book,” he said handing it to me, “but we are not going to be able to publish it here.” That word, “love,” is what animates how I want each book to come to me. I am looking for books that someone—an editor, an agent, a writer, a reader—is passionate about, a book that he or she believes must be read.
The Water Theatre, the book that was given to me that day, is now the inaugural book in the NYRB Lit series. Written by Lindsay Clarke…
This is kind of the best news I’ve heard in a while.
17 September 2012
Thanks to Lisa at Like Fire for alerting us to NYRB’s new e-book series, NYRB Lit — “devoted to publishing contemporary books of literary merit from around the world.” Launching this fall, which means, presumably, now!
I’m way behind when it comes to e-reading; when I speak of “turning the corner,” I mean my relationship to e-reading, not e-reading itself. (I tried the Kindle a couple of years ago and just couldn’t do it — no pages, all that scrolling, ick.) But then again: NYRB launching an e-reading series feels momentous; with their beautiful Classics Series (bringing worthy classic titles back into print), and tabloid-format bimonthly mag (long-form reviews and articles), NYRB has felt to me like the last man standing.
And yet, their new series feels… natural. As if they waited until it felt right, no need to rush, and then went for it. Of course it just makes sense, when your mission is to bring the best (non-blockbuster) literary work into the world, and you want to publish new work, economically risky work, that you’d take advantage of low-cost production and distribution. I’m excited.
As always, it looks as if many of the titles will be works in translation; and the “covers,” i.e. the digital thumbnails, are lovely.
I’ve been thinking about an ipad; if the rumors about an ipad mini are true, then the corner may very well be turned this fall — for me, and for NYRB.
8 October 2011
This is one of those long-form pieces accessible online that I think is worth your while. At Triquarterly, poet Michael Anania describes the sometimes-absurd ways in which academic institutions attempt to assess the “value” of a potential faculty member’s publications, based on who is publishing their work and how:
At one absurdly comic point, an administrator at my own university drew up a long list of literary magazines and presses which he sent out to people he thought of as experts in the field. He asked that they review the list and assign numerical values to each of the magazines and presses based on literary merit and stature. His plan was to multiply the number of poems, stories, lines or words—I was never quite sure which—by the “quality rating number,” then add the results and get a number that would represent the writer’s achievement. The plan was never put into effect because the chosen experts, those, at least, who didn’t simply laugh and throw his letter and list in the trash, sent their letters and lists to me, either as a not-so-gentle jab at my department or with the presumably flattering suggestion that I would be the person most qualified to assign the ratings.
Anania focuses on the perspective of academic hiring committees, and on scholarly and poetry publishing, but I think his discussion here pertains to an “at-large” view on a writer’s “value” and “success” as well:
Fiction that makes its way into quality paperbacks or Penguin paperbacks can retain its commercially conferred value, while fiction that moves into mass-market paperback tends to lose value. In this strange form of what might otherwise be called thought, some commerce is good but too much commerce is bad or at least less good. Lingering here is the notion that the more commercial something looks, the more valuable it is, unless that look is wholly commercial and thus lowbrow, all of which is more than a bit distressing since universities are supposedly places where ideas of value are hashed out independent of corporate influence [...]
In regards to the publication of scholarly monographs, i.e. the economic evolution in this area of publishing:
The question is: are these drab, expensive monographs less good than their fancied-up predecessors? And now that scholarly, as well as literary, publishing is moving to electronic, rather than paper, media, will it be less valuable? Less tenurable? [...]
(The word “tenurable” here is, I think, rather brilliant and somewhat chilling.)
Anania also celebrates the excellence of small indie presses and debunks the notion that small and nimble means of lesser merit or value.
The increase in the numbers and variety of poets writing and publishing has been met by an increase in the number of small poetry presses. This essentially positive literary development creates new areas for the kinds of misunderstanding that are generated in tenure and promotions committees. Is a press with a name that is unfamiliar to committee members or located far away from Manhattan respectable? That is to say, does it represent a judgment a committee can rely on? Does it represent any editorial judgment at all? [...]
Here are some of the tangles you get into if you confuse commercial publishing with literary value. For years Marvin Bell had Atheneum as his publisher. He changed to Copper Canyon, a non-profit small press. Did his value as a poet decrease? Charles Wright went from Wesleyan, where he published for twenty years, to Farrar Straus, so presumably he became a better, more consequential poet [...] Lucille Clifton went from Random House to BOA. A similar decline? Gwendolyn Brooks left her New York publishers for Broadside in Detroit, though with that change her career seems to have soared [...] (Anania goes on in this vein to cite many other poets whose publishing trajectories have shifted with the times, nimbly, and for the ultimate good/value of the poet’s career.)
In regards to the flux-y moment we are in, where we can’t quite decide if print is still at the peak of the prestige pyramid, Anania writes:
To choose one combination of technical adaptations over another as having a lock on literary value is simply silly.
And finally — here, here:
One last thing—and it’s the darkest recess of the “publisher” question. There is, if only implicitly, an invasion of academic and aesthetic freedom involved here. Large, commercial publishers and glossy magazines do not necessarily represent higher judgments of literary merit. In the short term, they might offer access to larger audiences. What they do represent—you could argue “enforce”—is a fairly limited set of social and aesthetic choices. Saying that you should publish in the New Yorker is not merely a wish for greater success for you but an insistence that you become a different kind of poet, that you change your subject matter, your poetics, and your voice in order to find a shiny place among the hotel and jewelry ads. Saying that you should publish with Knopf has the same effect. I would be happy if on your own terms you were swooped up by either or both, but not if you tried to remodel yourself and your work to suit what you imagine they want.
I myself get excited about more indie presses popping up; smart and creative folks reclaiming literary publishing as a vocation, a passion, a deep commitment to the life of each book that is acquired and launched into a reading world that truly needs these books. Every business must survive, yes; and I hope all the new small presses sit down and study the economics of the thing and consider how everyone can make a decent living in the long run, how each project has the potential for profit and growth. I also hope that perceptions and judgments about literary value and success evolve in stride.
16 May 2011
The opening film for the 34th Asian American International Film Festival has been announced: AMIGO, the new film by John Sayles. Here’s the trailer:
I’m pretty excited about this; I’ve been a John Sayles fan for a long time, from the days when I first discovered auteur filmmakers and would watch all the films of a director I liked. LONE STAR, CITY OF HOPE, PASSION FISH, THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH, MEN WITH GUNS, EIGHT MEN OUT, and LIMBO are among my favorites. If you don’t know Sayles’s films, perhaps think of him as the director who launched actor Chris Cooper‘s career.
Sayles also has a new novel out – A Moment in the Sun – described by Adam Langer in the SF Chronicle as a “955-page epic criticizing American interventionism abroad and racism at home during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” Apparently it took Sayles two years to find a publisher for it.
Sayles has never been afraid to demand a lot from his readers and viewers; he is in many ways the quintessential indie artist, and a model of success on that path.
We’ve got the book in house, en shelf, surprisingly light in its ornate McSweeney’s hardcover, and I’m hoping to dig in maybe in late summer.
Come out for the AAIFF opening night in August. Details to come.
4 May 2011
I was looking forward to reading Maud Newton‘s profile of Emma Forrest at The Awl, for reasons I will describe in a moment. Forrest – a journalist, screenwriter, novelist, and now memoirist – has written a memoir, Voices in my Head, about the loss of her psychiatrist to lung cancer. Or at least I think that’s what the memoir is about. Forrest has had a career among celebrities and, at the time of her psychiatrist’s death, was recovering from a breakup with actor Colin Farrell. Maud Newton assures us that the book is not about Farrell, although the profile spends a lot of time on him and their relationship.
I experienced the loss of a therapist a few years ago; hence my initial interest in the profile, and in the memoir. Dr. P was a dear, dear man who helped me more than any doctor – any professional anyone – ever has. He woke up one morning with a headache; a few days later he was having a brain tumor removed. I saw him just after a first round of chemo; he looked gaunt and tired (and wore a funny hat), yet was in typical good spirits and optimistic about his treatment. He lived another 18 months.
For the last nine months or so of his life I wasn’t seeing him regularly, so I had no direct knowledge of his death until about a year later. Who informs a former patient when a doctor dies? No one does. (Unless, perhaps, you’re dating Colin Farrell.)
One day I was in the neighborhood of his office and walked into the lobby of his building (I had a sinking feeling; I’d tried calling a few times, months earlier, but the voice mailbox was repeatedly full). I asked the doorman if Dr. P still kept an office there, and he shook his head no. I thanked him and started to walk away, but then he stopped me and said: “The doctor – he die, you know?”
The NY Times printed an obituary of Forrest’s psychiatrist, with an online guestbook where patients, former patients, friends and family could leave their remembrances. It’s a wonderful thing that they have been able to connect; I’ve often wondered who else experienced the loss of Dr. P (how does one find out, if your doctor doesn’t make it into the NY Times?). Many good and wounded souls who continue to mourn him, I’m sure.
All this to say that, while I don’t think this is “fair,” it’s hard to feel motivated to read Forrest’s memoir. It’s an ungenerous reverse-prejudice, I suppose, not unlike the unsympathetic tinges I felt towards Elizabeth Gilbert‘s all-expenses-paid, soul-searching jaunt around the globe (Gilbert’s blurb prominently christens the front cover of Voices). In my mind I know that we are all human beings, subject to the same deep despair and loss. But the marketing of the whole thing – Forrest’s book, that is – sort of waves its big arms at you and says, “This is NOT an everywoman story.” I guess my gut longing was for someone to tell a story that I (and others) have been unable to tell (I’ve tried writing about it, unsuccessfully); and now I feel instead like someone has glamourized and commercialized it.
But, you’re saying, you haven’t even read the book. This is true. This is true. Gimme some time. In praise of Voices, Newton writes:
It’s a testament to the author’s empathy that she’s able to incorporate other patients’ eulogies into the book without robbing them of their power or giving off the slightest whiff of gimmickry [...] What’s brilliant about Forrest’s book is that she’s upfront—and funny and insightful and lyrical—about her neuroses, her compulsions, her need for attention, but she’s also willing to consider everyone else’s assessments and everyone else’s pain.
I’ve written before about what an impressionable reader I am. So maybe my resistance/repulsion has something to do with the fact that I am currently reading Dezso Kosztolanyi‘s devastating Skylark, about a tragically ugly, unmarriageable young woman.
4 April 2011
You’ve seen them in your favorite bookstores; usually there’s a special section for them, something like a shrine. They have beautiful covers and the paper stock is somehow more substantial, more serious, than other paperbacks. They are paperbacks that feel like hardcovers, whatever that “means.”
Random House describes the NY Review of Books Classics series thus:
The NYRB Classics series is designedly and determinedly exploratory and eclectic, a mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.
Inevitably literature in translation constitutes a major part of the NYRB Classics series, simply because so much great literature has been left untranslated into English, or translated poorly, or deserves to be translated again, much as any outstanding book asks to be read again.
The series started in 1999 with the publication of Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica [...] Published in handsome uniform trade paperback editions, almost all the 250 NYRB Classics included in this collection feature an introduction by an outstanding writer, scholar, or critic of our day. Taken as a whole, NYRB Classics may be considered a series of books of unrivaled variety and quality for discerning and adventurous readers.
I discovered the series at The Corner Bookstore in Manhattan, one of the most blessed book places on earth. I have it in my mind to work my way through the entire series someday; but thankfully, I also came across this – a Top 10 NYRB Classics list – over at Conversational Reading.
There’s a subscription club that is looking very irresistible right now… this is one Book Club I can imagine joining.
15 March 2011
“[The publisher] didn’t just find some painter and some poet who would work together. She asked two men who really knew each other’s work and life backwards, which means to include all the absurdity and civilization a lively mind sees in friendship and art.”
-Larry Rivers on “Stones,” a collaboration (12 lithographs) between Rivers and Frank O’Hara
I’m intrigued by these examples of collaboration; there is a feeling of a different time, when artists mingled more freely, perhaps more deeply, and collaborations sprung from these intimacies.
“…the accumulation of time spent with a friend – the discussions about art, parties, movies visited, theater productions, visits to the opera, beaches swum at, vacations gone on, heartbreaks listened to, ecstasies encouraged, bitchiness and generosity, slow fades and sudden infatuations – these experiences might be the shared ground from which an imagined world could be created.”
Drawing to James Schuyler‘s poem “Sunday”
I’ve been thinking lately about the comeback of the stable nuclear family to the lives of artists. The artists and writers I know are all very committed to their families – to material and emotional stability. I am no exception. This can only be a good thing. Except, I wonder, maybe, for art, the creation of which is always on some level at odds with life. Stability requires schedules, boundaries, a certain measure of containment.
“Friendships are amorphous creatures, prone to sprouting new limbs and self-amputating others, easily misidentified and disconcerting in the sudden strength and satiations of appetite. Their development is messy, and it’s this fluidity that allows projects to be easily proposed.”
Pyrography: Poem and Portrait of John Ashbery II
The back-to-family zeitgeist has perhaps improved upon the messiness of artistic lives from a previous generation. For example, I’ve been reading Javier Marias‘s Written Lives, which (according to the back cover) chronicles “the fairly disastrous” stories of twenty great world authors – Faulkner, Joyce, Turgenev, Malcolm Lowry, Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, etc alia. Disastrous, indeed. And yet, I wonder if in gaining health and stability, we aren’t losing some fluidity.
LARRY RIVERS and KENNETH KOCH
In the end, we do and make and live as we can, as best we can. Rivers, O’Hara, Ashbery, Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Koch, Schuyler, Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher – these artists collaborated because they could, because the energy and chemistry was there, because they wanted to work, because why not, what did they have to lose. You just can’t force that kind of thing.
11 July 2010
I’m not planning on or interested in jumping on the Nicole Krauss-bashing bandwagon with regards to her recent jacket blurb kerfuffle. I’m not even sure kerfuffle is the right word. I do think that Laura Miller‘s piece in Salon, “Beware of Blurbs,” in the wake of all that, is worth a read: she doth speak the truth, I think (although, if I may, let me just say that I have no personal relationship with either of the wonderful authors who wrote blurbs for Long for This World).
What I would like to draw your attention to, a year after Michael Jackson‘s death, are a few recent homages (of sorts) to him that warmed my heart: one at Conversational Reading — a kind of side joke aimed, I suppose, at Nicole Krauss, but giving MJ his due nonetheless; another at The Millions, as part of Jon Sands‘s terrific commencement address to the Bronx Academy of Letters; and finally Nancy Griffin‘s excellent article in the current issue of Vanity Fair, “The Thriller Diaries.”
What can I say. I was 10 years old when Thriller was released. My sisters were 12 and 13. MJ was our Beatles, our James Brown, our Elvis. To some degree, our JFK. From Griffin’s article:
To me, Thriller seems like the last time that everyone on the planet got excited at the same time by the same thing: no matter where you went in the world, they were playing those songs, and you could dance to them. Since then, the fragmentation of pop culture has destroyed our sense of collective exhilaration, and I miss that.
Me, too. RIP, MJ.
7 May 2010
Notice the hyphen in this blog title — not a slash, nor a conjunction, but a hyphen. Allow me to explain…
An interesting and timely convergence: I’ve just finished reading Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca — thanks to fellow Millions contributor Emily Wilkinson for the recommendation — along with a review of Long for This World in the Philadelphia City Paper – which is bundled with a review of fellow Millions contributor Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel The Singer’s Gun. That’s quite a vortex of convergences, actually — with the Emily vectors criss-crossing and bracing the whole thing like a Norman Foster structure. But that’s not the convergence I’m speaking of, primarily. Read on…
Rebecca was gripping; I really couldn’t get enough, fast enough. Some of you may also know the novel from its 1940 film version, directed by Alfred Hitchcock under David O. Selznick, and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. As I read, I was aware of two things: that I was reading genre fiction, and that the novel is stunningly well-crafted.
When I use the term genre fiction, I am mostly referring to certain conventions of plot and structure: in the case of Rebecca, we have a complex and intricate blend of a few different genre plots — a murder mystery, a romance between a wealthy older man and a young woman, a courtroom drama, a (possibly) homoerotic thriller/horror, and a coming-of-age story. Each of these threads is fueled by impeccably wrought suspense, which is channeled through an “unreliable” narrator, i.e. memories from the past relayed through an unknowing (live-time) consciousness. From the moment the novel opens, Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again — the reader’s mind is filled with questions — about the subdued, world-weary narrator, about the “he” that is her companion, about how the past, like a vicious sea tempest, has swallowed these two characters (and others), tumbled them about, and spit them out on shore.
Rebecca is lauded as du Maurier’s masterpiece and has had an enormous readership over the years; but at the time of publication (1938), the novel was received with mixed reviews. It’s been criticized as melodramatic formula fiction with one-dimensional characters. According to Wikipedia, The Times wrote that “the material is of the humblest…nothing in this is beyond the novelette…”, and du Maurier was contrasted with more intellectual female writers such as George Elliott and Iris Murdoch.
Me, I am obviously a Rebecca fan (and, by the way, I am also crazy for Elliott and Murdoch); plot, I often tell my writing students, is nothing to worry over. Borrow a plot, steal a plot, there are — as EM Forster wrote — only Two Plots anyway: somebody goes on a journey, or somebody new comes to town. Within your plot, write well: tend to your sentences; become masters of inventive, crisp, language; know your characters and your settings intimately, make them concrete, dimensional, specific, real.
The only problem, to my mind, with a familiar plot is if the characters act inexplicably, unconvincingly, or too predictably (which is a different kind of unconvincing, I think) within it. And it’s the characters in Rebecca — each of them mysterious, prismatic, moving targets, and beautifully differentiated — along with mesmerizing descriptions of Manderley (a grand English estate) and its milieu, which propel the novel’s unsettling emotional movement, scene by scene. It’s a dark novel — its hero and heroine both flawed and on some level doomed — with no easy or happy ending; the Hollywood Production Code of the 1940s in fact mandated that Hitchcock/Selznick change major elements of the story to meet prescribed standards for “cultural acceptability.”
Back to The City Paper, and Emily #2. Here is the gist of the review, by Justin Bauer:
Chung is good at assembling [...] conventions: Long for This World includes a wedding and a funeral or two, a few generations of a family gathering in a single house, and simmering cross-cultural conflict between the modern demands of youth and the dictates of tradition.
These elements aren’t mere empty gestures. Like a useful cliché, most exist because they get at something universal; this is the case not only with soapy family dramas, but also romances and science fiction and cop thrillers. For some novels, it’s enough to animate these relationships and shared experiences with the specifics of a situation or a culture. But Chung’s story [...] uses these commonalities to develop a circle of delicately drawn characters out of a series of resonant snapshots.
Chung builds her narrative out of those isolated, telling moments. They’re not obviously stitched together, and she moves freely between different characters’ histories and perspectives. But it’s Jane whose particular vision provides a key to the whole. Her debate between love and lust, responsibility and self-gratification, defines her relationships to family and lovers and work. Even as Chung refracts this debate across other scenes and characters, she maintains her photographic style, careful in its reserve, with no unnecessary disclosure.
And here is a bit from the review of The Singer’s Gun:
“Emily St. John Mandel’s strange, spare novel also features a single central character working to define himself despite the legacy of family, and, like Chung, Mandel co-opts the structures of a specific genre to highlight this.
The Singer’s Gun wears the trappings of a thriller, with an FBI investigation, a femme fatale and a double cross or two. But Mandel avoids tension, intentionally [...] she concerns herself much more with careful description and boredom and waiting than with tension. The criminal stuff is important as a canvas, but by removing the velocity of the thriller form, that canvas lets Anton carefully unpack the deeper issues of morality and obligation that his author’s really interested in.”
Fascinating, no? Readers who remember my bust-up over at The Millions when I wrote about genre fiction (carelessly, inaccurately — it was my first blog post for a significant audience ever; quite the learning experience) might be particularly amused by these convergences.
I confess I would not have expected Long for This World to be described as “conventional” or “like a useful cliche,” though now, given what I both think and preach about plot, it makes perfect sense. When readers have told me that they “couldn’t put it down” or have described it as a “page-turner,” I’ve been surprised. Pleasantly, though — since my greater worry was that the book might be inaccessible in its fragmented-narrative form.
I feel, in the end, in good company. I keep a running list of books that I feel are both genre-influenced page-turners and emotionally complex; familiar in terms of universal story lines / uses of conventional literary tropes, and also rich in language and characterization. Rebecca joins this list, as does The Singer’s Gun (which is on my to-read pile); others include Edith Wharton‘s The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, Sarah Waters‘s Fingersmith, Balzac‘s Pere Goriot, Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina, and Elizabeth Bowen‘s The House in Paris. Read these, is what I most wanted to express in that original post at The Millions; be entertained, absorbed, and also challenged, transformed, enriched; it needn’t be either/or.
2 April 2010
A thoughtful review up at Fiction Writers Review, by Celeste Ng.
Because of [the] collage-like structure, the novel offers the same pleasures—and challenges—of a photography exhibit. Reading, we leapfrog across space and time, from a kitchen in a small South Korean town to a village in Darfur to a gallery in Paris, and we must put together the pieces. What’s the significance of this moment? Why is this snapshot placed beside that one? How do these all fit together?…
Chung presents each scene with confidence and trusts us to make the necessary connections, to see what the characters are saying by allowing themselves to be seen. And in fact, one of the joys in reading this debut is connecting the pieces, then stepping back for the big view: the intricate and nuanced family story that emerges… a portrait of the way the Hans are both fractured and then relinked in unexpected ways. Its quietness belies the deep emotions within.
Read the complete review here.
14 March 2010
I knew I was a lucky duck to have my author photograph taken by Robin Holland, but I’ve just been struck by just how lucky.
Check out Robin’s new Web site. Her portraits of well-known authors, artists, musicians, cultural thinkers, filmmakers, actors — over a period of some (I think) two decades — are just stunning. I’d mention a few “highlights” here, but honestly, every single photograph is amazing. Peruse the portfolio, and wonder why that other fella with no last name is doing all the portrait photography at the New Yorker.