by Nathacha AppanahBuy at Powell’s »
March 23, 2012
1The Marriage Plot
“To start with,” Jeffrey Eugenides writes at the start of his grade-grubbing novel, The Marriage Plot, “look at all the books.”
Will you look at them? Here, scattered around the novel’s first paragraph, are Edith Wharton novels, arranged “not by title but date of publication.” There, you’ll find “the complete Modern Library set of Henry James.” Also: a “lot” of Dickens, a “smidgen” of Trollope, a few New Directions paperbacks (“mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov”), etc. These are the books that inform Madeleine Hanna’s English honors thesis on the marriage plot and, by extension, the plot of Eugenides’ novel. (Which is also a riff/homage/update on Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, and other 19th-century marriage plot novels.) Much of the action takes place in and around Eugenides’ alma mater, Brown University, circa the early 1980s—like The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex before it, The Marriage Plot is also a coming-of-age story. The book follows Madeleine, Mitchell, the theology student who loves Madeleine, and Leonard, who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to David Foster Wallace and, for reasons that never become entirely clear, is loved by Madeleine, and devotes a whole lot of space to Roland Barthes and Brown’s semiotics department. But the love affairs never really come across, and the literary bric-a-brac brings that Whit Stillman character, who reads literary criticism instead of novels, to mind. Without getting too French about it, Eugenides’ novel does that work—the work of making you feel smart, without having to have worked for it—for you, in an easy, aspirational, Town and Country magazine sort of way. By the end, I felt like The Marriage Plot really, really wanted to give me an A+ for reading it.
Deal-breaker: “A smidgen of Trollope.”
“The trouble with people who write like Sebald,” my friend L. said, when I read her the opening pages of Teju Cole’s impressionistic new novel, Open City, “is that Sebald’s already written Sebald.”
As someone who hasn’t read much W.G. Sebald—as Madeleine undoubtedly has—I still sort of knew what L. was talking about. And at first, at least, the little Sebald I have read seemed like enough to tell me where Teju Cole is coming from, and going, with this book. “And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall,” he begins,” “I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city.” Not long afterwards, in paragraph two, Cole’s narrator falls into “the habit of watching bird migrations from my apartment,” and also of talking, at some length, about symbolically important birds. (“Every time I caught sight of geese swooping in formation across the sky, I wondered how our life below might look from their perspective.....”) Discouraging stuff. But as James Wood pointed out in his astute New Yorker review, the novel discharges most if not all of its literary debts and obligations—and once it does things get a whole lot better.
Cole’s narrator, Julius, is an Afro-European psychiatry resident in New York and, when not on his rounds, a habitual walker (or, as the French would have it, flâneur) of the city. As you would expect, this gives the Cole more than a few chances to flex his observational muscles, and provides departure points for mini-essays (about Freud, death, memory, loneliness, Mahler’s 9th, 9/11, bedbugs, geopolitics, the Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi, and a few other things). It also brings Julius into contact with characters—a Haitian bootblack, a Nuyorican poet—who have their own, self-enclosed stories to tell. Not much happens. But, once I got into Cole’s rhythms, Julius’s days, nights, and thoughts began to wash over me in ways that deepened and darkened my understanding of a city I’ve known, and lived in, for most of my life. For that, I am grateful.
Verdict: Open City.
By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
John: So we kicked around the notion that perhaps MFA programs are not the locus of all that is evil in contemporary literature earlier this week, so I want to examine another perceived enemy, Big Publishing.
We should probably declare any potential biases out of the gate and note that you’re published by Knopf, which is part of Random House, which is definitely part of the Big Six. While I am published by an independent press, Soho happens to be distributed by Random House, which is one of the reasons I had the pleasure (albeit brief) of seeing my book face out in the New Fiction section at Barnes & Noble.
If you ask a lot of people these days what they think big publishers are good for, you might hear, “absolutely nothing.” This is particularly true if you’re talking to Joe Konrath. The argument that corporate-owned publishers are having a difficult time transitioning to a world where methods of text distribution are increasingly open is obvious. What this means for publishing from the standpoint of writers and booksellers and the like is complicated and probably interesting if you’re into that kind of thing (which I am, sometimes), but right now, I want to talk about an age-old complaint about big publishers, which is that they are the enemy of creativity and originality because they are slaves to the bottom line.
While it’s hard to deny that the climate of publishing has changed since Bennett Cerf established Random House in 1927 to its acquisition by Bertelsmann in the late ’90s, I think we still have a lot of evidence that there remains, at least in some corners, a full and robust dedication to putting out books where the only concern is their literary quality.
Case in point, Open City. Imagine a Hollywood pitch meeting for this book:
Editor: So there’s this African guy living in New York City and he, like, goes on these flâneur walks…
Producer: Don’t they have a cream for that?
Lots of people (you included, my friend) noted that there’s not a whole lot of action in Open City, and there’s no doubt that this book is a tough sell. What’s the marketing hook other than it’s good? That it’ll remind you of W.G. Sebald? I see the copies flying off the shelves now. Even when I recommend it to people, I’m not sure what to tell them about why they might like it.
The Marriage Plot is an easier sell because it comes attached to a literary name-brand author, but again, the content outside of the love story sounds pretty esoteric. Brown University, semiotics, Foucault, cell research, Jane Austen? Okay, the Jane Austen part is a pretty easy pitch, but not only did FSG publish this book, they trumpeted it on a Times Square billboard, right next to one for Spike TV’s Deadliest Warrior.
While I don’t doubt that corporate and bottom-line thinking plays a role, even a big role in deciding what gets published by the big guys, I also feel confident in declaring that somewhere in that decision, the fact that they love and believe in the book remains and is probably still central.
This is true even of books that become blockbusters. We look at The Hunger Games now and think it’s a no-brainer, a purely commercial calculation, except that you then realize that it’s a book where young teenagers fight each other to the death and you have to think that’s the stuff of parental protest, not massive sales.
Laura Miller tells the story of The Hunger Games’ rise to popularity and success, recounting how the most important momentum for the book was within the publisher (Scholastic) itself, that what drove the passionate and innovative marketing was the enthusiasm and drive to get other people to read this book. While present market forces may be aligned against them, I think publishing is filled with these people.
Kevin: On the day Knopf made an offer to publish my first novel there were, to my knowledge, exactly four people in the world who had read it. My agent, the acquiring editor1, my wife, and me. No doubt there was a meeting at which that editor had to convince a roomful of her colleagues that they should spend money on an advance that would preempt another publisher from taking the book, but the entire decision was based on enthusiasm for the novel by a single individual.
Inevitably, there are going to be times when an author will become frustrated by some publishing bureaucracy or committee—it might be over the cover or some distribution issues or marketing or what have you—but I have never met even one person at Knopf or Vintage or Random House (or any other traditional publisher) who isn’t just boiled-nuts passionate about putting out great work and sharing books they love with other people. I can’t imagine anyone getting into that difficult (and generally low-paying) business for any other reason.
I know and like Joe Konrath—he’s a Chicago guy and we run into each other from time to time, usually where beer is served. Joe is smart. I think his experience with publishing has been somewhat different from mine, and he certainly felt a greater level of frustration. He now believes the Big Six publishers are doomed—and probably the hundreds of indie presses, and thousands of bookstores, too. He thinks that’s fine.
Joe has become a passionate advocate for self-publishing and has had great success at it. But I also don’t believe Joe’s success is easily replicable. Joe is more prolific than just about anyone else, for one. He can write a novel in a couple of months, and can probably co-write one in less than that. He is inhumanly persistent—he claims to have written 10 novels before he had one published. Joe is a tireless seller of his own work, famously visiting more than 500 stores in a single book tour. He also has built a readership base over the course of a decade or so, partially through his blog, but mostly by having had something like seven novels published by Disney subsidiary Hyperion.
It is easier to self-publish now than at any time in history. But despite the monstrous underground tunnels of bandwidth spinning outward from Seattle and Cupertino, the biggest obstacle to self-publishing today is the same as it ever was—distribution. And by distribution I don’t mean getting books to people, I mean getting your book to a person. Because while publishing a book has never been easier, finding someone to read it has never been harder. Anyone can upload her book to Amazon and charge 99 cents for it (if that’s all you think it’s worth), but you could probably find more readers peddling collated and stapled manuscript pages out of the trunk of your car. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but exceptions are not the same as examples.
And although it feels all indie and DIY in theory, to go the self-publishing route at this moment is to spurn the Big Six (as well as the hundreds of wonderful independent presses in this country), only to do a trust fall into the arms of the Even Bigger Three—Amazon, Google, and Apple. The companies with an oligopoly on e-book distribution now want to be the publishers, too. As someone who, some 15 years ago, talked his wife into buying 100 shares of Apple at $20, I am all in favor of that. But as someone who loves books, I can tell you that you would be putting your blood, sweat, and lachrymal discharge into the hands of corporations for whom books are exactly the same as water filters and diapers. I’m not trying to demonize three companies, which I regularly patronize, but the folks who run those places don’t care which books they sell. They certainly don’t care about your book. Books are all just cans of Coke in a warehouse to them, each one the same as every other.
And to be a real publisher (or a real writer or a real reader), the first thing you need to care very much about is which books. Which books still matters a lot. Which books still matters to Soho and Random House and FSG. Which books still matters to the folks in these comments and to Judge Abramovich—to you and to me. Which books is the whole point of this Rooster exercise.
Maybe traditional publishers are doomed. I’m not smart enough to know. But if you walk down Broadway in Manhattan, and if you walk into Powell’s or any other indie bookstore (or a chain bookstore, too) you will meet thousands and thousands of people who really do give a damn which book you read, who don’t think of novels as commodities—people for whom every book is not equal to every other book at a similar price.
Earlier in this tournament I said something to the effect that writing a book is easy, but writing a book you care about is hard.
You could say the same is true about publishing a book.
Or selling one.
This is not to dis the entire self-publishing industry, or authors who choose to self-publish. Much that is happening on that front is exciting. One day I will no doubt have a project that I will want to go it alone with, and I’ll be grateful for the technology that allows me to do it.
In the meantime, whom would you rather ask to recommend a good book—Jeff Bezos or Sonny Mehta?
John: I’m no expert on this stuff, and I only occasionally think about it deeply, but my hunch and my hope is that there will be space for all of these players in the future book firmament. Obviously, it’s shaking out in different ways for different people. Scott Turow, bestselling author and president of the Writers Guild says we should be worried about Amazon’s ability to monopolize the market for bookselling as they turn toward becoming both publisher and distributor. He’s worried, he says, for midlist authors who will get squeezed in the process. Speaking from that territory, things do look kind of bleak and self-publishing has to be considered as an option, as another of our old Chicago friends Neal Pollack has done for himself with his novel, Jewball.
Robert Bausch, another writer of significant grace and accomplishment, is also going the self-publishing route because he wrote a book he thought was good, but couldn’t find a publisher. All in all, I’m glad there’s a way for me to read that book and funnel some money to the author.
But as you note, not everyone is Joe Konrath. I do the best to beat the pavement for my work, but for whatever reason, I can either do that, or I can write. I can’t seem to do both at the same time, and success at self-publishing (in monetary terms) seems to require the simultaneous wearing of those hats.
I think a self-published book in the Tournament of Books is inevitable, and I could easily see it happening next year. The problem, though, as you note, is that we first have to know it exists.
Thinking about more pleasant things, we should say a word or two about the judgment. I’m pleased since it went the way I would vote. Judge Abramovich captures what I think is an essential quality to Open City for those of us who like it, in that the book seems to infect you. For me, it still feels fresh and alive inside me, even though I read it months ago. The Marriage Plot was a good story that I enjoyed, but it didn’t get inside me. I think a book written in C-major, like The Marriage Plot, stands a pretty good chance of me “liking” it, particularly if it’s skillfully written. On the other hand, its conventional nature makes it less likely to unsettle or unhouse me in the way Open City managed to do.
Kevin: My ambivalence toward Open City aside, you can really sense from these judgments the way this book has quietly captivated and seduced—I think that’s the right phrase—the first two judges in the tourney (and you as well). In the comments, too, we have been hearing more and more impassioned support for it. It’s a little bit exciting, I have to say, to actually watch how a novel as not low-concept, but as opposite of high-concept as this one, picks up its champions one at a time.
So the semifinals are set for the final week of the tourney. 1Q84 will meet Lightning Rods, while The Sisters Brothers will take on Open City. The winners of those matches will meet our Zombies to determine which two books will enter the championship match.
Speaking of Zombies, The Marriage Plot did not have enough support to knock off either The Art of Fielding or State of Wonder. If the Zombie Round were held today, those would still be our lesioned and decaying flesh-eating anti-heroes. Same as it ever has been.
But in the interest of suspense, I will say that there is at least one book among the remaining four that, should it lose, can knock out either Harbach or Patchett.
See you Monday.
1There probably were editors at other houses who had possession of the manuscript at that point, but I have no idea which or how many of them had read it. ↩