Best Business Novels?

Last week New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera blogged about his efforts to find a great novel about business written in the past 25 years. That didn’t work out very well for him—hey, who’s the joker who recommended William GaddisJR?—but he did prompt a lively discussion about great nonfiction books about business.

On that front, I raised my hand to suggest Steven Bach‘s Final Cut, still the most fun I’ve had reading a book largely involving dollar signs. But I remain stuck on the fiction thing. About five years back I worked on project for Business 2.0 about the most important books about business; Biz 2 is dead now, and the full article is gone to wherever Time Inc. mothballs such things, but a list is here. Yeah, we were probably reaching by putting Moby-Dick in the “leadership” category, but there’s some good stuff in there: Gary Krist‘s Extravagance, Don DeLillo‘s Cosmopolis, Saul Bellow‘s Seize the Day. I’m not sure why Richard PowersGain didn’t make the cut, because I’m certain I suggested it—it’s one of my favorite novels of the past 25 years, period. (Granted, it’s about the rise of a pharmaceutical giant that’s responsible for the lead character’s cancer, which isn’t the sort of thing a national business mag would want to promote. My editors weren’t big on my suggestion of The Road to Wigan Pier.) Any others? I’m thinking of novels that explore the big churning wheels of American business; Mark Sarvas has already collected a nice list of novels that explore office life.

Roundup: High Fuel Costs

Larry McMurtry is “outta gas” when it comes to writing fiction, he told a Dallas crowd last night during a conversation with Diana Ossana, his Brokeback Mountain screenwriting partner.

In the Rake, Max Ross takes the all-star break as an opportunity to note a couple of new baseball novels, and revisit a couple of familiar ones, including Philip Roth‘s exasperating The Great American Novel.

For the past two years Wayne State University has been amassing an sizable collection of rare books and manuscripts by black writers with some connection to Detroit. Among the holdings are works by Amiri Baraka, Donald Goines, W.E.B. DuBois, and more.

Ted Gioia has launched a new feature at Blogcritics Magazine called “The New Canon,” addressing the best works of fiction published since 1985. Not a bad way to start.

Obstacle Course

Dennis Lehane talks about his upcoming historical novel, The Given Day, with the Dallas Morning News (via). I heard Lehane read an excerpt last fall at the Folger Shakespeare Library and was floored. (Around the same time, he was also generous enough to write a brief appreciation of Richard Price‘s Clockers when I asked.) Says Lehane:

“The challenge after Mystic River was to not get caught in a cycle of Mystic Rivers,” he says. “So I wrote Shutter Island (the story of a woman who escapes from a hospital for the criminally insane, currently being filmed by Martin Scorsese). The challenge after Shutter Island was to do a book about the Boston police strike, and then I very quickly realized I was dealing with a historical epic. Every time out I have to go some place artistically different for myself. That’s just for me. I can’t speak for everyone, but ultimately I can’t get inspired unless I’m testing myself.”

Lehane was, of course, a writer for The Wire, and the story notes that (spoiler alert!) he wrote the teleplay for the episode in which Omar Little is killed. “I killed Omar,” he tells the Morning News. “I got hate mail about it.”

Canadian Cops: Polite, Literate

In relation to last week’s post about ways to innovate newspaper book sections, Canada’s National Post has an interesting idea—tap readers to blog about their reading of a book that relates to their expertise. The paper’s arts blog, The Ampersand, has invited a Toronto police officer to write about her experience reading Richard Price’s new novel, Lush Life. The first entry shines a little light on how different Toronto cops are from Price’s NYC ones:

When night watch detectives exit a tenement across the street from the scene, Matty watches as “one of them makes slant eyes with her fingertips, i.e., crammed to the rafters with Fooks”. Truly bad form if you’re a policing employee, it would be like openly farting or picking your nose in a five-star dining room. Twenty years ago we may have grunted and made such racial slurs, but that kind of behaviour is verboten “standing order 24” we say (racist comments, etc, etc will be punished, blah blah).

This Magic Moment

Missed this: About a month back AMC announced that it’s planning to turn David Glen Gold‘s excellent 2001 novel, Carter Beats the Devil, into a series. (A film version reportedly involving Tom Cruise didn’t work out, apparently.) A trip to Gold’s blog sheds no further light on the matter, but it’s excellent reading for fans of dog photos, aficionados of (I think) random numbers, and folks who’d like to spy on a writer’s spumes of frustration about writing.

The Judy Blume Effect

Novelist David Ebershoff, a Random House editor who’s worked with Charles Bock and Norman Mailer, discusses one of his earliest memories as a reader in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

As I got older, I started spending more and more of my summers reading. I’d go down to my grandparents’ basement, a corner of which they had decorated as a Hawaiian-themed lounge. There, on an old white vinyl couch with a grass-skirt pinned to the wall above, I’d lie down with the novels that so many children before me (and since) have snuck away with: “Flowers in the Attic,” “The Outsiders,” and, perhaps prematurely, “Wifey. In the cool, dark atmosphere of that Milwaukee basement some of my first impulses to become a writer took root.

Roundup: Money Changes Everything

A Lansing, Mich., TV station covered last week’s summit of Michigan-bred authors Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, and Thomas McGuane—nice to see this kind of thing mentioned on the nightly news, even if the anchor offers a very puzzling mispronunciation of “McGuane.”

Donald Ray Pollack‘s Knockemstiff is being met with positive reviews in England, though I trust nobody there thinks the short-story collection is a window into contemporary American life.

Which might be the case with Ethan Canin‘s America America.

The Washington Post Magazine dedicates its feature well to personal essays by Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Safran Foer, Julia Glass, and Ha Jin. I gravitated toward the last one, in which Jin recalls his very earliest experiences in America; for anybody who was deeply struck, as I was, by A Free Life, it’s a must-read:

For new arrivals in America, there was always the sinister attraction of money. Suddenly one could make $4 or $5 an hour, which was equal to a whole week’s wages back home. If you were not careful, you could fall into the money-grubbing trap. Some Chinese students didn’t continue with their graduate work because they couldn’t stop making money. One fellow from Shanghai started working part time in a museum on campus but soon stopped showing up in his lab in the physics department, dropped out of graduate school within a semester, and began taking courses to learn how to sell real estate. Another in American studies, who loved teaching as a profession, could no longer write his dissertation after taking a clerical job in a bank — sometimes he put in more than 60 hours a week, the overtime even harder to resist.

Attention to the Impact of Crazy

Ed Park—whose debut novel, Personal Days, is out now—points to his interview with South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo, where he discusses how the Village Voice motivated him to write the book. Or, rather, how the fear of impending layoffs at the Voice (which was purchased by New Times, now Village Voice Media, in 2006) pushed him to start typing. The main interview is largely an object lesson in the imperfections of Google’s translation tool (“in addition to the theme of literary fiction Donna completion of these reviews of media editors are familiar with me, my work is also receiving attention to the impact of crazy “He said.), but an English version makes the story a little clearer:

In the summer of 2006, he was laid off over a corporate merger, which turned him from an editor into a writer. In an interview with the Chosun Ilbo, Park says, “I hadn’t thought of writing about office life before then. It was painful to go to work with a pending layoff, but it was an opportunity to experience friendship, relationships, fear, suffering, pathos and walkouts. I started writing the novel watching coworkers get sacked. By the time I was axed, the draft was nearly complete.”

Giant Steps

The L Magazine speaks with Jack Pendarvis about his new novel, Awesome, a story about a ridiculously egotistical giant stomping across America in an effort to regain the affections of his lady love. (A review for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune is forthcoming now online; I was very smitten with his 2007 story collection, Your Body Is Changing.) I think the new novel is more of a cultural satire than Pendarvis is willing to confess, and that his characters are less well-adjusted than he’ll say—but that’s part of the fun. Pendarvis tells the magazine:

In retrospect I saw that there might be a few political or cultural applications of the character of Awesome. And I suppose the impulse to create the character was cultural in a small way: I had noticed that lots of reviewers referred to my characters as “losers.” Whether I got a bad review or a wonderful review, people used that word. I thought, you know, “Reviewers must be the most mentally healthy and successful people on the planet,” because my characters are just — or so I thought — people with problems, and we all have problems. I thought, “What’s a winner? Should I write about a winner? Has there ever been a book about a winner? Is a winner somebody with no problems… a sexy, rich, handsome, giant with zero self-doubt?”

Lee Abrams: Not Wrong

Like Mark Sarvas, I’m not especially outraged at the latest batch of statements about newspaper book reviews from Lee Abrams, Tribune Co.’s innovation chief. Sure, his assertions read like a lot of off-the-top-of-my-head spitballing—I picture him pacing wildly around a room, flailing his arms Jim Cramer-like, while some poor intern struggles to type all of the chatter. But none of Abrams’ assertions demand throwing journalism into a wood chipper, the first idea that most print-media managers have in the face of tanking revenues and investor pressures. So, I’m willing to hear the guy out.

Here’s Abrams’ statement:

*Books: Heard a conversation about how Book reporting doesn’t generate revenue and may have to go away. WAIT! Maybe Book reviews and coverage are one of those things that don’t generate revenue right now, BUT–are trademarks for newspapers and elicit high passion from readers. At XM, we had Opera channels. Low listenership…HIGH passion…AND–it was one of those things that even if people didn’t listen or even like Opera, it was one of those things you had to have for completeness. Maybe Book sections in newspapers are just dated. Not the idea…but the look and feel. Maybe they’re modeled after a book store in 1967 whereas we’re in the Borders, Amazon, B&N era. Maybe they are too scholarly. Maybe they avoid genres like Christian books, Celebrity books and Popular novels, opting instead for reviews of the Philippine Socialist Movement in the 1800’s. The point here is maybe Book sections need to be as dramatically re-thought as Borders re-thought retail. Not dumbing down–but getting in sync with the 21st Century mainstream book reader.

The good news here is that Abrams recognizes that there’s a small but passionate readership for book reviews—one that can potentially be monetized—and that covering the literary world is part of the mission statement of any media organization. (At least that’s how I interpret “one of those things you had to have for completeness.”) I’m not even especially troubled by the notion of more coverage of popular/Christian/celeb books. In fact, let’s expand it—make the books editor at the daily paper the ideas person, the person who’s able and willing to jump on the blog and round up the relevant books and call the relevant authors regarding the issues of the day. That’s across the paper—world, national, local, sports, etc. (Slate and the Washington Post work together on something like this, compiling reading lists on varied subjects, and the print version often winds up in the Sunday Outlook section.) Five essential books on NASA; the two best books on the neighborhood that’s about to be re-zoned for a strip mall; a handful of books on gun control; a top-ten reading list of best baseball stories, and talk to the person out in the city who wrote one that maybe didn’t make the list. All of this supplementing the regular Sunday review.

Doing that won’t save the newspaper book review. But it might do one thing that book-review managers have clearly failed to do: Make a regular case for the relevance of books to the newspaper’s audience, across all sections. If the presence and relevance of books is in the face of readers’ (and managing editors’) faces on a regular basis, the book section looks a little less like a money pit—and if the books editor is doing his or her damnedest to follow the news throughout the week, it’s easier to be all about the Philippine Socialist Movement in the 1880s on Sunday.

Yes, I’m mindful that book review editors don’t have much time on their hands; I’ve met a few lately, and they’re much less cheery now than they were when I started writing reviews in earnest five years ago. But if productivity and relevance are the new mantras at newspapers—and they certainly are at Tribune Co.—the pressure is on book reviews to make a case for themselves. I’m not sold on Sarvas’ suggestion about fixing the L.A. Times Book Review (essentially, blow it up and start anew on the Web), partly because I don’t think the cost savings gained by being online-only are enough to finance a dream review, partly because going online means alienating a book-review readership that still embraces print, but mainly because going on the Web isn’t enough now. Book reviews are already online—the trick is to figure out how to get the tendrils of the ideas in books to run throughout the paper’s Web site, and make that role so strong that when the wood chipper does finally arrive, the person in charge of it thinks twice before tossing the book review in first.