Links: Malaise Speech

Today is John Steinbeck‘s birthday. In his honor, the National Steinbeck Center is hosting events through the weekend; in related news, the entire country is hosting a massive Great Depression for the next five years or so.

Perhaps a commemorative Mark Twain coin would help?

Minnesota author Bill Holm, called the “polar bear of American literature,” has died. He was 65.

Those Robert Coover appearances at the University of Pennsylvania I mentioned earlier this week are now available online on video and MP3.

Russell Banks says Martin Scorsese‘s film adaptation of his novel The Darling is still moving along.

A healthy selection of works by Wells Tower, including an excerpt from his new collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, are online.

The viability of Tao Lin‘s plan to finance his writing by selling shares in his next novel is being disputed in the comments of yesterday’s post. Bright minds who understand finance and publishing better than I do are encouraged to weigh in. (Update: I got played on this. Maybe. Probably. Anyhow, lesson learned.)

Last call: Tomorrow I’ll be at an all-day seminar on fiction writing at George Mason University, put together by American Independent Writers. If you’ll be there, please say hi.

Screwing the System With Tao Lin and Binky Urban

In preparation for a panel on fiction writing/blogging/the death of the publishing industry/the death of newspaper book reviews that I’m participating in this Saturday, I’m trying to gather as many different perspectives on the current state of the publishing industry as I can. It’s not my bailiwick, but Twitter has been great at pointing me in a few interesting directions (@sarahw, @RonHogan, and @R_Nash being just three of many especially helpful people there worth following). Everybody agrees that the current situation is destructive, but it’s interesting to see the optimism of younger writers with little to lose set against the handwringing of the old guard that’s losing plenty.

In an interview with the Urban Elitist, Tao Lin discusses how he’s successfully financed his forthcoming novel by selling six $2,000 shares in it. Lin is somewhat infamous for his hustling for attention; I haven’t read a word of his fiction, so I have no clue if it’s worth that kind of investment. But going the Tao Lin route, however attention grabbing, still means lots of mac and cheese, at least for a while:

I have had part-time jobs almost continuously since college (I am 25), I think, except for maybe one year when I shoplifted batteries and Moleskine journals to sell on eBay. I stopped working at my last part-time job last August when I sold 60% of the royalties to my next novel, RICHARD YATES (Melville House, 2010), for $12,000. Since then my money (other than the $12,000) has come from selling pre-orders and lifetime subscriptions to books that a press I started called Muumuu House is publishing; Christmas and Chinese New Year’s money from my parents and brother; and selling drawings, drafts of things, and various “piles of shit” from my room on eBay.

Still, he’s hopeful: “I feel that within 2-4 years I will have steady cash flow from royalties from my books, foreign sales of my books, foreign royalties from my books, and other writing-related things,” he writes. Keeping authors going until steady cash flow arrives is also much on the mind of agent Amanda “Binky” Urban, who works with a host of A-list fiction writers. In an interview with Haaretz, Urban—who was in Israel as one of her clients, Haruki Murakami, picked up the Jerusalem Prize—argues that agents like herself, along with major houses, played critical roles in bringing Cormac McCarthy and Richard Ford to wider audiences. Her biggest fear in the midst of the reshaping of the publishing industry is that younger fiction writers no longer get the time to find a foothold:

“So fewer books will be published, and those whom we call midlist writers will no longer get published. The major writers will keep publishing, debut books will always be published, and the ones in the middle will have a problem…. The question is really how you keep authors alive until they break through and garner a large readership. That’s what I stay awake at night and worry about.”

It’s a legitimate concern, especially if a writer doesn’t have the temperament to perform all the duties that a publishing house traditionally has—it’s certainly hard to see the reclusive Cormac McCarthy starting out by going the Tao Lin route. The risk, perhaps, is that the fiction writers who survive this transformation are the ones who do the best job at self-promotion. Even McCarthy now has to give in a little, as he did by appearing on Oprah. Urban explains:

“I told him that before he says no, an Oprah Book Club pick means sales of between 750,000 and 1.2 million copies.” There was a long pause, and McCarthy replied that he knows he owes a lot of people, and maybe he should consider it. She asked him whom he owed, and he replied that he owed her and his publisher (Knopf). “I said, well don’t do that for us, and he said no, I think I should.”

Giving the Story Away With Flannery O’Connor

I’m in the middle of reading Brad Gooch‘s so-far-excellent biography of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery, which has prompted me to revisit a couple of her stories, “Good Country People” and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” As with a lot of authors that made it into my high-school literary anthologies, I read O’Connor way, way too early—I didn’t know enough about the world to get the irony, and I didn’t know enough about writing to get how carefully she calibrated her strange, skewed Southern characters. (There’s a beautifully turned couple of paragraphs in “The Life You Save,” where O’Connor conflates the fixer-upper nature of an old car and the mute woman in the story, about 75 words that are at once hilarious yet with a note of compassion to them too; O’Connor found a way to smirk at people where any other writer would just poke fun.)

A passage in Gooch’s biography struck me as interesting and perhaps relevant today, given the mood of mild-to-extreme panic from publishers about publicizing books, and some of the anxiety writers feel these days to be perpetually self-promoting. Gooch writes about a 1955 appearance that O’Connor made on a brand-new afternoon TV show about books on New York’s WRCA-TV called Galley Proof. The idea was that the host, New York Times Book Review assistant editor Harvey Breit, would interview an author, and the interview would be interspersed with a dramatization of the author’s book—I imagine a terrifying mix of and America’s Most Wanted.

The story to be dramatized, as it happens, was “The Life You Save.” Gooch characterizes the introverted O’Connor’s disinterest in the proceedings by excerpting an exchange between her and Breit:

Breit: Flannery, would you like to tell our audience what happens in that story?

O’Connor: No, I certainly would not. I don’t think you can paraphrase a story like that. I think there’s only one way to tell it and that’s the way it is told in the story.

In fact, the whole conversation is pretty awkward: It’s available in its entirety in the book Conversations With Flannery O’Connor, which just happens to be available in its entirety online. Breit talks much more than O’Connor does, and O’Connor responds tersely, humoring all his needless references to Mann and Cezanne and Shakespeare. It’s hard to tell without having seen the tape, but by the end Breit sounds like he’s flailing and O’Connor seems defeated:

Breit: And I, for myself, think that although Miss O’Connor can be called a Southern writer, I agree that she is not a Southern writer, just as Faulkner isn’t and that they are, for want of a better term, universal writers, writing about all mankind and about relationships and the mystery of relationships. I think that for me the distinction of Miss O’Connor is not the oblique, refined style that we’re getting so much these days. I’m relieved that you write as simply as you do. I think it may have come out in this small dramatization. Do you think so?

O’Connor: Yes, I think….

Breit: I hope so.

A lesson, perhaps, that not all authors, or critics, are made for television—or should feel forced to be.

Brunch With Robert Coover

Short notice, but those reading this on Tuesday morning might want to tune in to a talk with Robert Coover from the campus at the University of Pennsylvania. Go to the Web site for Penn’s Kelly Writers House at 10:30 a.m., and you should be able to catch the discussion, featuring an author who doesn’t do much in the way of interviewing. (I’ve looked around to see if the site archives presentations from its impressive list of fellows, but I can’t dig anything up.)

If you’re looking for a primer on Coover, or a refresher, professor Michael S. Hennessey, who’s teaching a class in postmodern American fiction to a batch of lucky students, has gathered up a set of relevant Coover links. Coover may be the only pomo author to be attached to a crummy Alicia Silverstone film.


Dept. of Self-Promotion note: My review of Bill German‘s memoir of his life with the Rolling Stones, Under Their Thumb, is in today’s Washington Post.

Junot Diaz’s Victory Lap

Junot Diaz is just about done talking to you: By May, he tells the Cornell Daily Sun, he’ll be finished with readings and appearances related to his excellent 2007 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so he can finally get cracking on a new work. Diaz covers a handful of topics in a Q&A with the paper, including the death of literary culture (“Literacy has never been a part of global cultural practice”), Horace Engdahl (“I think that he’s simultaneously a dumbass, and I think he’s simultaneously correct”), and his best advice for teaching writing:

I teach only undergraduates who don’t want to be writers … I just wanted to say that cause it’s a different energy … the kids … they’re more fun.

Writing is for me more of an excuse to make the students critical-minded. You know … There’s really no magic. Half of it is exposure. You expose them to the forms, the grammar of whatever convention you’re talking about, whether it’s the short story or the novel … you have the students practice it. The third component is that you really have to have a tremendous amount of compassion. You have to teach the students how to be gentle with themselves, not to be so critical, not to be so incredibly self-eviscerating. The only way you can model that is that if you actually have compassion. I think all three are the components that you tend to end up bringing to the class.

What the Heck Is Dale Peck Thinking?

Last week the Washington Post ran a review by Elizabeth Hand that all but vaporized Dale Peck‘s new novel, Body Surfing. Peck, the author of literary fiction and well-known takedowns in the New Republic has recently undertaken an odd career shift, moving into thrillers and children’s books (plus a highly remunerative deal to collaborate with Heroes creator Tim Kring). So, closing her review of Body Surfing, Hand had to ask: “Given his past as a respected writer of literary fiction, and a possible future in the land of commercial blockbusters, whatever possessed Dale Peck to write this book?”

The day before the review ran, the Southeast Review had the answer, and a few more besides. In a wide-ranging Q&A, Peck says part of the impetus for Body Surfing was an interest in accessing his inner Stephen King:

The initial idea, I have to say, was just one of those inspirational flashes: “What if there was a world in which…?” But in developing it, I did think a lot about early Stephen King novels, of which I was (and am) a huge fan. I’m not the first person to notice that one of King’s greatest strengths as a writer is his insistence on locating horror within the domestic context, and in Body Surfing I wanted to make sure that readers experience Jasper as a real teenager before he became a demon—that the loss of our everyday existence is every bit as big of a loss as the destruction of the world or the universe or life as we know it, which seems to be the stake in so many thrillers these days.

And, Peck might argue, Hand’s negative review of Body Surfing is all he can expect these days. In the interview, he says that his takedowns (especially the infamous Rick Moody one) have mainly hurt his reputation as a writer, and made it harder for his books to find a home. He figures that any and all potential reviewers would have their knives out, and that left publishers wary:

[E]ditors would—cynically or wisely, depending on your point of view—reject my work, often without reading it, simply because they felt that external factors would make it impossible for it to succeed in the marketplace. At the same time, when I submitted my children’s book anonymously, nearly every publisher in town bid on it, so I knew the problem wasn’t my writing, but how people thought about my writing—or, even more ridiculously, how people thought other people thought about my writing. It’s all pretty tedious, and still dogs me to this day.

Links: Get It Right

I’ve just finished Marlon James‘ second novel, The Book of Night Women, which is every bit as good as Maud Newton says it is. (If you’re in D.C., he reads at Borders L Street on March 3.)

An excellent blog post by Dave Tabler on the contretemps between Sinclair Lewis and William Stidger, the model for Elmer Gantry. (h/t Whet Moser)

Wednesday marked the 100th anniversary of Wallace Stegner‘s birth. The New York TimesTimothy Egan recalls how Stegner was screwed over by the Times.

The film version of Revolutionary Road tanked at the box office, but the book’s doing fine.

Scott Esposito crowdsourced his decision about which John Barth book to read first.

Michael Dirda writes an appreciation of John Updike for the Chronicle of Higher Education. And that’s it: I’m done with John Updike appreciations until the biography comes out.

Copy Editing the Great American Novel

The Bellingham, Wa., Herald has an interesting casual Q&A with Dave Cole, a freelance editor who works on a lot of high-end literary fiction, including novels like Denis Johnson‘s Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s forthcoming Nobody Move, and Aravind Adiga‘s The White Tiger. Cole appears to be more of a copy editor than the Robert Gottlieb type the interviewer implies, but he still plays a valuable role. As Andrea Barrett points out, “In addition to tracking down and checking an awful lot of obscure details and spellings and place names, he also did that admirable thing of not fixing what wasn’t broken.”

Cole discusses the hardest part of the gig:

My greatest challenge is to determine what the author’s rules are. You can’t impose grammatical rules on manuscripts when an author deliberately breaks rules (for effect). I have to learn the structure well enough to call attention to it when an author strays. I have to be diplomatic, because you want an author to hear what you’re saying.

A particularly difficult task in the case of Tree of Smoke, I’d imagine. Cole isn’t mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgments, but then, attentive copy editors rarely get the credit they deserve.

March Through the South

Next month marks the launch of the Southern Literary Trail, which honors 18 towns in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi that were home to some of the country’s best-loved writers. There’ll be readings on the grounds of William Faulkner‘s house; performances at the Margaret Mitchell house and museum; screenings of films based on the works of Carson McCullers; a whole bunch of events related to the centennial of Eudora Welty‘s birth; and more. The very idea of it was enough to get Harper Lee out of doors for a bit recently.

What If We Give It Away?

The London Independent has a feature on Stona Fitch, novelist, Scruffy the Cat multi-instrumentalist, and founder of the Concord, Massachusetts-based Concord Free Press, which gives away copies of limited-edition novels under the condition that you give money to a charity of your choosing, and then pass the book along. It’s no way to make a living, but at least it’s a more noble method of free distribution than that of Wild Animus.

Fitch, who’s published his 2001 novel, Senseless, with Soho Press, says he’s gotten some pushback about the enterprise from some in the publishing industry:

“It’s a threatening idea to publishers. A couple have said it’s the death of the business and I should stop immediately,” Fitch laughs. A tiny not-for-profit organisation is not about to topple the bestseller list or reduce J K Rowling to begging on the streets. But it is trying to effect a change in attitude, something reflected in the website’s strapline: “Free their books and their minds will follow”.

“I’m not saying every book should be free, but the inmates have the keys to the asylum now,” he says. “Publishing books is not hard, it’s making money from publishing that’s really hard. We’re blessedly relieved of the burden of profitability.”

Interesting phrase, “burden of profitability.” To be more precise, the burden is to be profitable to a degree that the corporate owners of the mainstream publishing industry demand. Much like the newspaper industry, book publishers have shifted from a model that was long comfortable with grocery-store profit margins to one that was demanding double-digit profit percentages year over year, as Gideon Lewis-Kraus points out in one of the few useful details in what is an overall silly piece in Harper’s about the Frankfurt Book Fair. (The piece is chiefly concerned with skewering the vanity of agents and publishing honchos—as if such vanity were unique to the publishing industry, as if Morgan Entrekin would be a better publisher if he were a better dancer, dancing to better music at a better party.) So if Fitch wants to make some of his efforts available for free, that may be a better value proposition for him in the long run—he’s building more goodwill with an audience than he could with a large publisher. Everybody in the publishing industry is now facing an era of creative destruction, so clearly some new models are in order.

But Fitch’s efforts, however noble and potentially valuable, don’t address how publishers and authors make money right now, while everybody’s getting vigorously Schumpetered. I’ll be curious to hear how successful indie publisher Two Dollar Radio will be with its subscription model, where $50 gets you at least five of the books it’ll put out this year. I don’t pay very close attention to the publishing industry—watching the sausage-making processes ruined me as a music fan—but it seems that whatever efficiencies a publisher gains from such a model (a better sense of number of readers and anticipated income) is lashed to a stronger need to better brand your company (“Why do I want every book you publish?”) and retooling a list to be more subscriber-friendly could come at the expense of worthy writers who suddenly don’t “fit” the brand. In the effort to avoid the burden of profitability, such systems can become as corporate as the ones indies are trying to avoid.