Austin S. Camacho’s Airport Pitch

Earlier this week I came across a blog post by Austin S. Camacho, a D.C.-area author of crime and adventure novels, in which he mentioned the great experience he had signing his books at . . . Dulles International Airport. The idea of signing books in one of the cramped Borders Express outlets was a new one on me—I imagine it’s not a great place to find return customers—but now that even authors with books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux have to find innovative ways to promote themselves, I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Since November of 2007 he’s done 16 signings at three D.C. regional airports (Dulles International, Reagan National, and Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International). Camacho answered a few questions about his experiences via e-mail.

He has two signings this weekend: Saturday, April 18, at the Borders Express in Wheaton, Maryland, and Sunday, April 19, at Reagan National between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

How did you get the idea of doing book signings at airports? Had you seen or heard about other authors doing it?

I haven’t met anyone who approached book signings the way I have. Using the Yahoo Local search I made a list of all bookstores within an hour’s drive of my house. The stores in my local airports are all Borders stores (one in Reagan National, two in BWI and three different stores in Dulles Airport) so they came up on the list.

Any lessons learned from your first signing?

You learn quickly to leave your pocketknife at home, print eye-catching table signs, and clue the bookstore staff on who your books should appeal to.

I found the store managers very welcoming. Apparently they don’t get any of the corporate-arranged signings other stores get, and writers never call them, so they’re happy to hear from us. They print big posters at their expense (other stores don’t) and try to book the next signing at the end of the present one.

I imagine that there are a number of barriers to getting readers’ attention at an airport—they’re tired, they’re rushing to catch a flight. How do you grab somebody’s attention in that context, and is the strategy different than at a more conventional bookstore?

Most bookstores attract browsers actively looking for their next good read. Airport shoppers are either bored with time to kill waiting for their flight or rushing to find something to read on the plane. These will be impulse purchases made with little consideration so you really have to have your elevator pitch down pat. You must engage quickly, tell them in a few seconds why they might want your book, then move on to the next person if they’re not interested.

Another assumption is that people who shop at airport bookstores prefer to take comfort in the familiar: They want the new James Patterson, or a celebrity/business magazine. As a small-press author, how do you get potential readers out of that headspace?

To help their decision making process you need to know whose writing compares to yours. I can say, “If you like Patterson’s Alex Cross novels you’ll love Hannibal Jones,” and “If you like reading about Jack Reacher or Dirk Pitt you’ll enjoy the exploits of Morgan Stark and Felicity O’Brien.” If they don’t know who Pitt and Reacher are, they aren’t the market for Stark and O’Brien. If they do know those characters you can say, “I’m a big Clive Cussler fan too, but he’s not here to personalize and sign your book. I am.”

Sales-wise, how does a signing at the airport perform compared to a more conventional signing?

Sales numbers are about the same, but there are some differences. I get fewer multiple sales. More people ignore me. More people don’t speak English. On the other hand, the airport stores never return books, my books fly all over the world not just in the town the store is in, and these stores have no regular customers so I could go back the next day and find a whole new set of customers.

Are there any unique security issues that you need to be concerned about with airport signings?

Just give yourself extra time to get through security, and be prepared to be escorted if you need to visit the bathroom. I’ve packed lots more tips into my manual, Successfully Marketing your Novel in the 21st Century, which is available on Amazon.com.

What Did You Write During the Class War, Daddy?

What does Walter Benn Michaels want? In a frustrating essay in Bookforum, he argues that in recent years American literature has fallen down on the job, mainly because it has failed to get into the business of “criticizing the primacy of markets.” Instead writing novels about, say, the widening income gap, we’ve written much-praised novels that spend too much time looking backward to slavery or the Holocaust—Beloved, The Plot Against America, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union are particular failings for Michaels on this front, while American Psycho is praised for at least working off the premise that this country is sickened by its consumerism.

Setting aside for a moment the implied argument that what American literature really needs is a good novel about the widening income gap, the maddening thing about Michaels’ piece is the author’s seemingly arbitrary decisions about what books get to be considered as worthy. If he wants to say that historical novels, by definition, fail to look at the present, that’s fine as far as it goes. (Though The Plot Against America had plenty to say about present-day anti-Semitism and propagandistic administrations.) But, strangely, memoirs are wiped off the table because their stories are not about society but individuals. Margaret Thatcher is quoted to exemplify the problem here; Michaels cites her saying, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” So a book like Maxine Hong Kingston The Woman Warrior would be too shallow, concerned as it is with just one family; apparently so would Adrian Nicole LeBlanc‘s Random Family (while we’re talking about nonfiction), even though it’s one of the best-researched, most granular portraits of the effects of that widening income gap you’ll ever read—and it was written during the boom years, which according to Michaels caused this current failing in American letters. (I’m sure LeBlanc will be disappointed to hear that during that all those years of reporting in the Bronx she was just playing into Maggie’s hands.)

But The Woman Warrior has a double failing for being a story about immigrants, according to Michaels:

And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture. Ethnic identity is just the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for (one of the things Thatcher meant to deny) class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages.

Here, I’d love to shove a copy of Ha Jin‘s A Free Life in Michaels’ hands; though he may be obligated to dismiss it for being an immigrant story, it is a story about money for the mortgage. It may not be the Great American Class War Novel he’s dreaming of, but he’s never going to find it if he keeps paging through novels by Toni Morrison and Philip Roth. (Presumably the latter’s portrayal of Newark in American Pastoral didn’t scratch the itch for Michaels in the way he’d prefer.) He’s also not going to find it if he keeps moving the goal posts.

If you’re in New York tonight, you’ll be able to catch a discussion about all this, featuring Michaels, critic-novelist Dale Peck, novelist Susan Straight, and journalist David Simon. Simon’s Great American TV Show, The Wire, is praised by Michaels at the end of his essay, so I have to imagine that at some point during the conversation Richard Price‘s Clockers will come up—the novel was, as Simon has said many times, a key inspiration for The Wire, and a better argument for the book Michaels is looking for than American Psycho. One question I hope somebody asks: Would anything change if we had more novels of the kind Michaels wants? (Assuming, of course, there’s been any drop-off in them.) Would we have better public policy? A better society? Simon, I suspect, would say no—in numerous interviews he’s shied away from any big statements about the show’s impact. Novels simply don’t change the world in that way. Some time back I asked Price about the legacy of Clockers, and he figured the book mainly affected how his books were shelved:

Q: What do you think is Clockers’ legacy?

A: There are a lot of books about the urban world where Clockers will come up in the blurbs. “Not since Clockers….” Or something like that. The only thing I don’t like is that because I stay with writing about the cities, and use the police for access to a world that otherwise I would not be privy to, I don’t like crime books, and I don’t ever want to see my stuff in the crime section. I don’t want to be genre-ized.

So before we get into too many high-flown statements about what responsibility fiction has to society, it’s worth considering whether fiction has any capacity to transform it.

John Irving’s Bad Habits

I’ve had little interest in reading John Irving‘s recent books, and part of the reason for that is encapsulated in an ingenious chart on Wikipedia displaying recurring themes in his fiction—by the time of A Prayer for Owen Meany, I figured I’d gotten his moves down, and though deeply admired The World According to Garp as a teen, I never liked Dickens enough in the first place to keep up with an author who’s just “Dickensian.” Still, the Q&A with Irving in the Denver Post—tied to a stage production of Owen Meany—is interesting reading, partly because Irving cops to a few of his thematic tics. A reader notes that a number of violent deaths in the book have a sports element to them, to which Irving replies:

This is a novel about the damage Americans do to themselves; sports are a part of that damage. If world news were covered as extensively, and in such detail, as the ceaseless March Madness over college basketball, wouldn’t Americans be better informed about the world, and our place in it, than we are? Your observation is a good one. It’s not literally, of course, that sports are killing us; but what we pay intense attention to it, and what we ignore is surely doing us some harm.

And he suggests one more column for that Wikipedia page:

Virgins (in my novels) apparently interest me. Jenny Fields (Garp’s mother) is a virgin, except for once. Also (“except for once”) Dr. Larch in “The Cider House Rules.” But Jenny’s reasons are feminist, and Larch’s are eccentrically a part of his overreaction to everything. Johnny Wheelwright is in love with Owen; his heart is broken.

Links: First-Time Callers

Hello there. There’s a goodly chance that you’re here today because Mark Sarvas was nice enough to include this blog on his list of ten “Really, Really Smart Literary Blogs.” I feel a bit like the little old lady whose hair is still in curlers when the Prize Patrol van arrives, but I appreciate your swinging by. If this is your first time here, a few “greatest hits” posts you might want to look at: my piece on the best books of 2008, some stray thoughts on Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a few more on the future of book reviewing, a guide to Haruki Murakami‘s translations of American authors, and some thoughts about best practices about for DIY publishing. I usually do link roundup like this once a week, but as with many things in life, this is changeable. Onward.

Don DeLillo‘s America points to a cache of DeLillo radio
interviews on YouTube
.

Jay McInerney talks to the Wall Street Journal about his new story collection, How It Ended which includes an update on the life of Alison Poole, the protagonist of his novel Story of My Life. Poole was modeled after one of his ex-girlfriends, Rielle Hunter, perhaps better known for her attachment to former presidential candidate John Edwards.

One less teacher is using Toni Morrison‘s Beloved in the classroom. Kids are still using The Scarlet Letter to learn about public humiliation, though.

The Daily Iowan catches up with longtime Kurt Vonnegut confidante Loree Rackstraw; make sure to check out the slideshow, which has some fine images of Vonnegutiana in Rackstraw’s home.

It’s the 25th anniversary of Sandra CisnerosThe House on Mango Street. At a recent event at Rice University honoring the book, she offered some of the best advice for writers I’ve heard: “First, you write like you’re talking to someone in your pajamas. Then you revise like your enemy is reading it.”

God’s Work

Writing at the Web site for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, David E. Anderson ponders the role of religion in John Updike‘s work, specifically through Updike’s final collection of poems, Endpoint. As Anderson points out, Updike was a deeply religious writer who enjoyed writing about New England and Pennsylvania Protestants, but changed his denomination a few times, and always seemed to approach the subject tenuously, as if his faith would crack easily. “I feared it might empty out of me the last drops of what feeble faith had got me thus far,” he writes of taking an assignment for the New Yorker on the future of faith. What finally bolsters Updike is, to be perhaps a little reductionist, a pretty show that God puts on for him in Florence, Italy:

“Lightning. Hectic gusts. The rain was furious. I was not alone in the universe. … I was filled with a glad sense of exterior activity. My burden of being was being shared. God was at work—at ease, even, in this nocturnal Florentine commotion, this heavenly wrath and architectural defiance, this Jacobean wrestle…. All this felt like a transaction, a rescue, an answered prayer.”

Anderson has a healthy run-down of many of Updike’s more religion-oriented writings, from his poem “Six Stanzas at Easter” to his 1989 novel S.. But surprisingly he doesn’t mention the 1986 novel Roger’s Version, which in many ways exemplifies Updike’s concerns about keeping faith while living in the modern world. The core of the story is a tussle between a divinity scholar, Roger Lambert, and a programmer, Dale Kohler, who believes he can prove God’s existence via computer. Lambert isn’t buying it, partly because he still wants the pretty show:

“I must confess I find your whole idea aesthetically and ethically repulsive. Aesthetically because it describes a God Who lets Himself be intellectually trapped, and ethically because it eliminates faith from religion, it takes away our freedom to believe or doubt. A God you could prove makes the whole thing immensely, oh, uninteresting.”

That’s not to suggest that Updike’s faith was shallow—he certainly read more than his fair share of theology in his time. But even to the end, in late novels like In the Beauty of the Lilies, he seemed to be based on a relatively simple worry that faith could easily slide into mere superstition. That was certainly part of the inspiration for Roger’s Version, as he told a reporter in a contemporary interview included in Conversations With John Updike: “I was sitting at my word processor one day, and I noticed this scramble of numbers that it throws up. The notion of there being a magical secret in that code of numbers occurred to me, being a superstitious sort of person.”

Forgotten Ladies

Longtime journalist and fiction writer Gary Indiana—his new novel, The Shanghai Gesture, sits in my to-be-read pile—uses his engaging if mind-zappingly Day-Glo blog to enthuse about Jane Bowles‘ 1943 novel, Two Serious Ladies, which he argues isn’t just a lost classic but indeed a “perfect book.” There are a couple of obvious reasons why the book seems to have fallen off the larger critical radar: Bowles’ career was overshadowed by that of her more famous husband, Paul, and its lesbian themes didn’t go over well with a World War II-era audience. Best as I can tell, the book is currently out of print in the U.S., though relatively affordable used copies are available (I’m considering this one, by virtue of its cover alone). (Update: Once again, a wise commenter corrects me, noting that the novel is included in My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles.)

But if there were problems with bad timing then, there are no excuses now. Indiana writes:

The structure of Two Serious Ladies has, as far as I know, no direct precedent in literature. Neither the lives nor the happenings in the two women’s lives are at all intertwined, nor do they “alternate” the way novels rich in subplots do. The book simply, abruptly, abandons Christina Goering in mid-¬novel, so to speak, and jumps into the story of the Copperfields in Panama….

Jane Bowles devised a brilliantly original technique to splice two almost completely disconnected narratives into perfectly harmonious movements of the same story. Each mirrors the other in ways that are both logical and inexplicable. Two Serious Ladies captures the haphazardness of human connections in a world of transience. The two brief moments of contact between its subjects constitute the book’s sole concession to “plot.” It’s the finest novel ever written by an American, actually, the only one I’ve never repeatedly picked up without reading straight through to the end.

The book certainly struck Bowles’ husband. As Millicent Dillon writes in A Little Original Sin, her biography of Jane Bowles, “Two Serious Ladies had a profound influence on Paul when he read it. As he himself says, it was the generating force that brought him back to fiction. And there is, in fact, in The Sheltering Sky a curious resemblance to Two Serious Ladies…. [Both] are novels that deal with the same basic themes: choice, sin, sex, and the spirit.”

Back to Dresden

This month marks the publication of Loree Rackstraw‘s Love as Always, Kurt, a collection of correspondence the author had with Kurt Vonnegut for four decades. The two were friends and sometimes lovers, which would seem to make for an intriguing story, but the book has received middling reviews for not delving too deep into the writer’s mind. That may explain why the small brushfire that Kyle Smith created in his review of the book has little to do with the book’s actual content. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Smith takes a few swipes at what he perceives as Vonnegut’s simpleminded politics, going so far as to knock down the central thesis of Slaugherhouse-Five—that the bombing of Dresden was utterly pointless and spoke to the larger pointlessness of war.

I’m no World War II scholar, and I don’t know if Smith is right. (And Smith, the film critic for the New York Post, is no WWII scholar; I know him mainly through A Christmas Caroline, a fluffy, throwaway comic novel from a couple of years back that merged Dickens and The Devil Wears Prada.) But his review has spawned some lively chatter both on the Journal’s letters page and in the comments of Smith’s blog, which has spawned a discussion not just of the Dresden bombing but of the utility of war in general. The conversation remained civil, which may speak to the power of Vonnegut’s light touch—it may be the only blog comment thread in history that discusses Nazis without exploding into a fireball of hate.

Short Shrift

“If it happens three times, it’s a trend,” goes the thinking at a lot of publications, so it’s easy to see how A.O. Scott‘s essay in the New York Times on the revival of the short story came to be. There are new biographies out about Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Donald Barthelme; all three made their reputations on their short stories; hence, there must be some newfound interest in reading short stories. “[I]f the golden age of American magazines is long gone, the short story itself has shown remarkable durability, and may even be poised for a resurgence,” Scott writes. (Note that “may,” always a useful hedge in a trend piece.)

Imagine the harm to Scott’s thesis had Brad Gooch figured he’d needed another year to work on his O’Connor biography. That’s the problem; the alleged trend is really just an accident of timing. Calling out Wells Tower‘s new collection as a special example of the power of the short story doesn’t help the argument; after all, no matter how poor the financial prospects of the short story are, every year brings a much-praised story collection. Indeed, wouldn’t the timing for this piece have been better a year ago, when Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth topped the New York Times bestseller list?

Maybe, but back then no editor would’ve wanted to hear it. A year ago critics were engrossed in Richard Price‘s Lush Life, and the kind of people who write trend pieces were talking about the revival of the big, ambitious novel about life in the big city. Scott is a very smart critic, and he’s not so foolish as to suggest that the novel is going to be completely supplanted by the short story—even if he does suggest, glibly, that “the death of the novel is yesterday’s news.” But his notion that the Kindle might revive the short story sounds off, an effortful statement shoved into the piece in order to give it some heft. (And anyway, isn’t the point of the Kindle that it can contain dozens of epics?) Even if a publisher did come up with some kind of dollar-a-story payment scheme for short fiction, the sort of quick-hit storytelling that Scott imagines we crave—a “handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention”—only really exists in flash fiction, and though many have tried, enthusiasm for that form is limited. Ultimately, readers care more about the quality of the narrative than the length of it. After all, no serious person ever recommended Raymond Carver‘s “A Small, Good Thing” to somebody simply because it’s short.

Links: Closing the Book

Emory Elliott, a University of California Riverside professor praised as one of the leading scholars of American Literature, died Tuesday of a heart attack. The news release from the university details his many accomplishments, including his work editing the Columbia Literary History of the United States. “He was one of a handful of the top people in American literature,” a colleague tells the Riverside Press-Enterprise. Another colleague, Cathy Davidson, tells more.

I’m not a big fan of April Fool’s jokes (mainly because I fall for them too easily), but the alleged blockbuster by “Pete Tarslaw,” The Tornado Ashes Club was nicely done. The cover in particular is brilliantly conceived, taking every available tool to announce that the book is an important epic: the panoramic landscape, the earth tones, the unassuming fonts. All that’s missing is the superfluous words “A Novel” stamped on the front. More details at GalleyCat.

Susan Orlean recently asked whether book blurbs actually drive sales. All I know of Greg Schwipps‘ writing is an OK flash-fiction thing he did for Esquire, but I’m interested in his debut novel, What This River Keeps, on the strength of Kent Haruf‘s good-as-Steinbeck blurb alone. (Also, it matters to me if you’re a profligate blurber or not: Haruf blurbs rarely, so I pay more attention. Blurbs from Dave Eggers, Kurt Andersen, and Scott Turow are now pretty much meaningless.)

Speaking of Steinbeck, the students in the opera program at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music Houston Grand Opera have impeccable timing, staging an opera of The Grapes of Wrath. (On a related note, commenters are doing a nice job schooling me in all the musical works based on literary fiction.)

Barack Obama is now a famously crummy gifter, and a good idea for what the president should have passed along to the Queen comes from, of all places, Breitbart: “Imagine how cool Obama would have looked had he handed the Queen a first edition by Paul Dunbar or W.E.B. Dubois. If he wanted to stay high-tech he could have loaded a Kindle with the works of Maya Angelou and James Baldwin.” But true to form, the usual intellectual disease vectors populate the comments.

“Oversized Sweaters and Stirrup Pants”

Books fade and the Internet takes over everything, but the urge for college students to launch a literary magazine never dies: Three seniors at Brown University have launched an online journal called Wag’s Revue. In an interview with the Brown Daily Herald, cofounder Will Litton argues that there’s room for an online publication that puts some restrictions on length and quality of content. “When there’s unlimited space to print whatever, you can blog everyday and end up with a crockpot of really mediocre writing,” Litton says. “So much is getting published, there’s no journal with stringent editorial controls.”

Fair enough, though as much as the handsome presentation of the magazine online suggests that those controls are in place, the 28-page essay on the “hipster/douchebag dialectic” is going to have to wait for another day. Instead I gravitated toward the interview with Wells Tower, having just read his excellent short story “Retreat. In the interview, he discusses the tangled history of that particular story, hitting it big in the Paris Review before struggling back up as a reporter. And amusingly, he discusses one of the crummy jobs he was forced to take along the way:

I had a data entry gig, which was so unbelievably dehumanizing. I just had huge stacks of invoices with obscure numbers that corresponded to obscure electronics parts. Even if they’d describe the electronics parts with actual language instead of numbers, I still would have had no idea what I was keying into the computer. It was me and my boss, who was this kind of satanic woman with oversized sweaters and stirrup pants. She was just constantly cracking the whip on me. I could never enter enough invoices to make her happy. It was terrible.