What’s in Store

Random House commissioned Zogby International to conduct a poll of more than 8,000 Americans about their book-buying habits. You can read the findings online (PDF). (Via)

Some interesting details pop up, once you scrape away the “American Dream Materialists” vs. “American Dream Spiritualists” funny business. (I have a sociologist in the family who cautions me not to treat Zogby as the gold standard in social research—I’m not articulate enough to restate all the reasons, though of course a poll on book buying commissioned by a company that’s trying to get you to buy books has inherent issues. And it’s an Internet poll, which I have to imagine skews the facts too.) Lots of us buy books at independent stores (49 percent) but not very often (9 percent of the time). We like Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar stores (47 percent) but not their online store (10 percent). Being able to find a book quickly online is more important that knowing what others thought about it. End-caps aren’t terribly useful. Hardly anybody cares about e-books.

Most interesting (at least to my own selfish interests), we consider book reviews an important factor in our book buying (49 percent)—a huge trouncing of Oprah Winfrey, who only inspires book buying five percent of the time. (Jon Stewart beat her with eight percent—where’s his book club?) Thing is, I wish I knew what people have in mind when they hear the term “book review.” Does it mean a reader review on an Amazon page or a post on a book blog or a piece in a literary review? Probably some mix of all three—after all, we’re in an era where a lot of younger readers don’t especially notice whether a story they take to appeared on the New York Times or the AP wire (“I saw it on the Internet”). Attention pollsters: Maybe break out the question into subcategories of “review” next time around?

Update: Caleb Crain weighs in.

Roundup: Strange Cargo

Edward P. Jones still isn’t working on another novel. After a reading at Boston University last month (video here, which also features Catherine Tudish and Ha Jin), he told the audience, “even if I were, it’s hard to talk about that kind of thing. It’s like you’re pregnant, and somebody talks about the future of your child, at 5, at 10, at 15, but all you’re hoping for is happiness and health. You can’t think much beyond that.”

I hadn’t heard about the Kinky Friedman precedent until I read an interview with Jonathan Miles in USA Today. Miles talks about his new novel, Dear American Airlines, which didn’t get much static from the carrier thanks to Friedman’s Elvis, Jesus, and Coca-Cola. Not that he wasn’t concerned: “American seems euphonious and iconic,” he says. “‘Dear JetBlue’ doesn’t work as well.”

Blogging from the Hay Festival, John Freeman notes that Lorrie Moore was asked by an audience member whether the United States is more receptive to short-story writers. Jhumpa Lahiri comes in handy in answering that question these days:

America has annual anthologies, such as the Best American Short Stories, which regularly sell over 100,000 copies a year, as well as prizes for stories and workshops galore. Occasionally a collection strikes a cord and people buy it. Ethan Canin’s The Emperor of Air was a bestseller, as was Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, while Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection, “Unaccustomed Earth,” which is tremendous, debuted on the “New York Times” list at number one (you can read an extract here).

Lahiri’s phenomenal success in the form is still, of course, an aberration. In response to the publisher’s question from the audience, Moore ultimately argued that Lahiri’s book of stories was such a phenomenal success because the publisher believed in it (and because it’s also a very good book).

Road Burn

Keith Gessen went on a book tour and all he got was a stupid feeling of uselessness. He writes in the Stranger:

What’s the point of a book tour? Publishers don’t believe in them anymore, and given the amount of money my publisher blew on my hotel rooms, I can see why. And airline travel, let’s face it, is immoral. But there’s still got to be something valuable about going out to face the people and reading to them directly from your book, taking their friendly questions (from the internet, you’d think I’d be confronted in every town by at least one screaming blogger; in fact, on the whole tour, not a single angry question)—something must happen to them from that. Or maybe only to you. That is, to me.

Which may explain why so much promotion of authors these days try to avoid all that travel. A story on Greatreporter.com covers some of those efforts—BookVideos, Titlepage, and 30-minute features produced by Powell’s Books. As Susan Choi puts it, “I think a lot of us have that experience of stumping around the country trying to connect with our readers, but we can’t be everywhere, and the people who read our books are scattered around.”

American Made

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese writer who’s deeply influenced by American ones—it’s telling that his upcoming memoir of distance running is titled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. So it’s not that surprising to hear that in recent years he’s been translating a host of American classics, including The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Long Goodbye, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Miss Brolly reports on stumbling over a copy of that last book.) Speaking with the Mainichi Daily News (which is apparently running a week’s worth of interviews with the author), Murakami calls out Raymond Chandler for special attention:

“Chandler’s writing style really grabbed me,” he says. “There’s something special about his writing. For years, I’ve always wondered what it was. Even after I’d translated him, though, I’m still wondering what it is that makes him special.”

Murakami’s strong interest in the secret behind that writing style was also evident in the long postscript he wrote for his translation of “The Long Goodbye.” In the afterword, Murakami writes: “Chandler’s creativity lies in the ‘ego set like a black box.'”

If there’s a listing somewhere in English of all the books that Murakami has translated, I can’t find it. But a quick Google shows that his love for American pop culture is evident: He’s translated a book on Pet Sounds and Mikal Gilmore‘s Shot to the Heart.

Roundup: Fighting Words

Among the many fine pieces in the new Bookforum—and as Wyatt Mason reminds us, there’s still plenty of serious literary criticism being done—is an interview with Ron Hansen, who talks about (among other things) what drew him to writing about the West: “Part of it was that I thought the western seemed loaded with potential to tell us who we are now but had fallen on hard times with its melodrama and clichés of character and plot. I hoped to take the typical outlaw narratives as seriously as Shakespeare took Holinshed’s Chronicles and to find in the West of the nineteenth century some genetic markers for our present condition.”

If you’re studying alcoholism in American literature, you have plenty to work with: The Amherst Bulletin reports on an upcoming UMass continuing-ed course featuring Robert Louis Stevenson, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Yates, and more. (via)

Oddest goodie-bag gift ever: To thank John Irving for showing up, the Guardian Hay festival is bringing in a Greco-Roman wrestling champ, so the novelist-wrestler could get in a workout.

The Independent sits down with Gore Vidal, still snippy about his reputation:

“Mailer once said that ‘Vidal lacks the wound.’ What do you think he was referring to: the fact that your grandfather was a senator? Your privileged upbringing?”

“Privileged? You mean more privileged than a fat boy from South Africa,” Vidal snaps [Mailer’s father was born in Cape Town] “with a doting mother?”

Victory Lap

Last night I attended a lecture at Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theatre by John Updike, who spoke on “The Clarity of Things: What Is American About American Art?” It was an interesting speech and a nice opportunity to revisit some Winslow Homer and Charles Sheeler pieces I admire, though it wasn’t without its issues—more on that later today at Washington City Paper‘s staff blog. (Update: That post is now up.) The lecture was part of an annual series run by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the latest issue of its magazine, Humanities, is largely dedicated to Updike. The hard copy of the magazine includes excerpts of his writing on art; online, there’s an interview with NEH chairman Bruce Cole, and an appreciation by Adam Gopnik. I haven’t kept up closely with Updike’s recent work—In the Beauty of the Lilies made me feel like he had a weakened perspective on modern American life, Terrorist only bolstered that notion, and I’ve tried to avoid the rest lest I get more dispirited. But Gopnik gets at the talents that made Updike great—chiefly an ability to be so knowledgeable yet preserve a certain wide-eyed youthfulness. Gopnik writes:

Certainly, a note of almost religious happiness rises from his art writing. However much it may be frowned on by the pros for being insufficiently “serious” or “critical,” i.e., contextual or historical, it has always seemed to this ex-pro truthful in its unashamed enthusiasms, the desire to match the artist evocation for evocation, representational trick for trick. (In the decade when I wrote about art for the New Yorker, supplying context and history up the reader’s wazoo and beyond, Updike would emerge a couple of weeks later in the New York Review of Books with a few diffident and amateurish-seeming pages which always seemed, frustratingly, closer to the true mark, more infused with the artist’s own ambitions and resonating with the real feel of the thing.)

“Gatekeeper”: Not a Four-Letter Word

In Salon, Louis Bayard and Laura Miller stress out over the potential demise of the critic. This is insider baseball to be sure (and Bayard’s a pal, though he didn’t tip me to the piece), but I was happy to see something on the subject that doesn’t simplistically frame the discussion as a journo-versus-blogger squabble. Using Ronan McDonald‘s new book, The Death of the Critic, as a launchpad, Bayard and Miller get into the roles of academia, the state of the reader, the state of the novel, (yes) the death rattle of newspaper book sections, and more. And I’m glad that Miller (who I briefly worked with ages ago on this project) is willing to plant her feet firmly and unapologetically respect the gatekeeping role of the journalist-critic:

I think of blogs not as alternatives to reviews or essays, but as a forum for short items, news and remarks, as well as links and responses to longer pieces posted on the sites that commission them. I could be wrong, though, as I’m not really a reader of blogs. I have a hard enough time keeping up with the book review sections of the New York and Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, Bookforum, the Atlantic, Harper’s, TLS, the New Republic, etc., as well as the British newspapers like the Guardian and Independent, which I read online. Yet even in those publications I often find that the pieces I’m excited to be reading are the exception rather than the rule. I’m all for cultural gatekeepers because there’s way more out there than I have time to read and it’s not always easy to find the best of it.

The Goldberg Variation

I was asked recently what bookselling-industry tipsheet Shelf Awareness is. “It’s a daily roundup of bookstore closings around the country,” I said. These days anything that will help sell a book is worth trying, and though I suspect that pretty soon some ASCAP or BMI rep will arrive to suck all the fun out of this, I admire the efforts of the Booksmith in San Francisco to attach a mix-CD giveaway to a handful of its offerings. Among the selections are the Decemberists’ “Myla Goldberg,” Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and so on. “”I was inspired by the song Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush,” Martha Petit, the staffer who assembled the disc, tells LitMinds. “Todd (also a Booksmith staffer) and I were discussing what a great song it is and I relayed the story of a friend who also loved the song but had no clue that it was a reference to Emile Bronte’s novel.” (via Book Patrol)

A Royalty Pain

A Persian translation of John Barth‘s first novel, The Floating Opera, recently won a literary prize in Iran. According to a story published on the Tehran Times Web site, Barth would’ve been happier about the award if he had approved the publication of the translation:

In a letter to the Qoqnus publishing company, American novelist John Barth has asked Iranian publishers to publish the copyrighted books only with the permission of the copyright owners.

However, he stated that it is a great pleasure for an author to see that his books are translated into other languages and published in other countries and that he feels honored by the recent publication of his 50-year-old novel in Iran.

John Barth was not the first writer who objected to the unauthorized publication of his book in Iran, [Qognus managing director Amir] Hosseinzadegan added.

He explained that many foreign publishers do not sign agreements with Iranian publishing companies and many of them who sign agreements are not satisfied with their royalties since book prices are much lower in Iran compared to Western countries.

My ability to understand and navigate Iranian bookselling sites is limited, but Barth’s novel doesn’t appear to be available on the Qognus pages of this site.

Broken-Down Town

Myron Magnet‘s essay on Saul Bellow‘s 1970 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, is largely intended to bolster the case post-Giuliani crime reforms in New York—the piece appears in City Journal, published the conservative Manhattan Institute. Setting politics aside, though, the piece works well as a glimpse into how Bellow provoked arguments about class, race, and city life:

The novel’s personification of all that crime is a tall, powerfully built thief whom Sammler sees several times working the Riverside Drive bus, a dandified black man sporting a camel’s-hair coat, homburg, and Dior sunglasses. Sammler, slightly taller, can watch him over the heads of the other standees as he skillfully snaps open the handbags and methodically empties the purses of his unaware victims. One day, shielded from the other passengers by his broad, well-tailored back, the thief robs a weak old man with red-lidded eyes of “sea-mucus blue,” cowering in the bus’s back corner, his “false teeth dropping from his upper gums” in his terror. The thief pulls open the man’s jacket with its ragged lining, takes out his plastic wallet, and methodically rifles through the contents, pocketing the money and the Social Security check, while dropping the family photos like so much trash. Then, in a gesture of ironic contempt, he jerks the knot of the old man’s tie “approximately, but only approximately, into place.”