The really great thing about finishing a book is that you go to write your to-do list and ‘book’ is not there. Neither are any number of book-related entries.

Manuscript? Nope. Chapter 3 rewrite? Hell no. Research ‘anal retentive’ for Chapter 40? Ask that guy on Level 6 about formatting? Get the Czech word from Grandma Zuzi for a person-whose-hungry-heart-has-become-a-stomach-that-is-eating-them-alive. Update Evernote. Download that cool mind-mapping app… buy a new pencil sharpener/laptop-case/ring binder/more colored pens (or notebooks, butcher’s paper, chocolate, Merlot, beta blockers, cold medicine, miso soup packs…).  None of that’s there.

I bought a book!

It happens sometimes. What are we calling physical books now? Book-books as opposed to e-books. I don’t feel a need to call them anything other than books, unless the distinction needs to be made. In this case, it does; I bought a paperbook.

Sometimes people buy them for me — people who know me well, who consider the content as well as the cover design and age. Pulp sci-fi collections are my favourite; recently I was given a 1963 Penguin science fiction compilation edited by Brian Aldiss, the classic orange-and-white cover overlaid with a scribble of something that might be a robot, or a satellite, or a bucket of spatulas. It includes stories by Isaac Asimov, Walter M. Miller, Clifford D. Simak, Aldiss himself, “up-and-coming British author Jim Ballard”…and John Steinbeck.

One of the first poems in Megan Boyle’s debut collection selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee is called “everyone i’ve had sex with.” The last poem in the collection is called “lies i have told.” Besides the lack of capitalization, what makes Megan Boyle’s poetry fascinating is that readers will often find themselves questioning where the line between fact and fiction is to be drawn, and also whether to laugh or cry. With these poems, Megan Boyle has taken stream-of-consciousness writing to an entirely new level, and she has done so brilliantly.

JR: The reason wolves are so strong is because they move in packs. Morgan Macgregor is out in Los Angeles doing her own thing. We thought it might shake things up a bit if we gave her a trial run on the blog. Please welcome Morgan, and tells us what you think in the comments section.

I’d Rather Be Reading by Morgan Macgregor

A writer acquaintance invited me to a semi-high-profile literary event the other day, and when I declined, he called me a cynic. I started to respond, “I’m a critic, not a cynic,” but stopped myself and remembered: I’m in Hollywood. Where cynicism is synonymous with anti-social, elitist, and where schmoozing, “doing lunch,” and playing six-degrees of separation is so ingrained in the socio-cultural structure, particularly regarding work, that staying home to read is a veritable death sentence on your career.

But that’s what I do: read, and write about reading. They’re solitary activities, and I consider them my work. This is incongruous in a place where networking is work. I tell people I meet that I love to read, and spend most of my day reading, and they say, “Oh, you’ve got to meet so-and-so, he’s a reader for this big producer and blah etc,” or “Cool, I should introduce you to my agent’s wife, she’s in with the people at such and such a place blah.” Which is all fine and nice and thank you very much (really! I mean it!), but I lament that my saying that I love books, or that I read all day, rarely instigates a conversation about books and reading, and most always a conversation about making friends and networking. I guess that’s because in Hollywood, you need friends in the industry.

Here’s the thing though. If I’m a reader, then the people in my industry are writers and publishers, and I don’t want to be friends with writers and publishers. I can think of at least two reasons why.

The first, of course, is that friendship negates fandom. I am awed by books every single day, and so I revere the people who write them. One of the offsets of the culture of connectivity is the humanizing (or rather, personalizing) of art and the people who make it. But for me, the romance of literature requires that the writer and reader maintain some significant level of disconnect, of remove from each other. I don’t want to go to parties with writers, I want to interview them. I met Jonathan Franzen recently, and was happy for the autograph table between us. I want my writers to be enigmas, so that I can be their fan.

LA’s got a couple of “cool” independent bookstores. One of them is Skylight, where the readings (due to the friendly, networky, LAish relations between the publishers, booksellers, promoters, writers and readers) are notorious for devolving into epic episodes of drinking and shooting the shit. At a recent Skylight reading, I was invited, by a very endearing writer, to attend a party of bookish people. I declined. This writer is fantastic, the reading was really fun, but I didn’t want to drink with him; I wanted to go home and read his book. And then review it.

Which brings me to the second reason for my hesitance to make literary friends: I want to write reviews that are unclouded by my personal feelings for the publisher or the writer. Literary friendships feel fundamentally wrong to me, in the context of my wanting to be a serious reader (by which I don’t mean a reader of serious literature, but a person who reads books seriously), especially in that I want to review the books that I read.

Back in the olden days, literary reviews were Journalism: impartial, objective pieces of literature themselves. Untainted by the churning pressure to draw attention’s to one’s blog, to ingratiate oneself with publishers, or to pacify the feelings of writer friends, reviews were still opinions, sure, but they were virgin opinions. I’m not saying I don’t think there’s anybody upholding that standard today, but I’m far from being the first person to publicly bemoan the devolution of mainstream literary criticism into starry-eyed, watery synopses and sales pitches. And I can’t help but assume that one of the main reasons for this is that we’re all friends.

I love Los Angeles. I embrace all of the cliches that are a part of Hollywood, and I accept that I’ll always be a reader living in the heart of the film industry. I like LA’s underdog status in the literary world. I like discovering writers likeMaile Meloy and Marisa Silver, who don’t get as much play in New York, and the smug vindication I feel at knowing they could live there, but don’t. I like reading This Book Will Change Your Life and Imperial Bedrooms and knowing where every street is. I felt like those books were full of inside jokes just for me (even if Imperial Bedroomsdidn’t end up being a very good joke.) But I’m going to keep doing things my way, cynical or not.

Thank you for the invite, really, but I’m going to go home and read.

Morgan Macgregor is a reader and blogger living in Los Angeles. She likes
contemporary American fiction and talking about it. Probably because she’s Canadian.

Dear Corporate Publisher,

Since last year was the worst year in publishing history—that is, the worst year since the year before—I’ve got a few questions for you (along with some unsolicited advice):

Are you publishing all of your authors, or are you just printing most of them? Because if you’re just printing most of them, why bother? Why not re-allocate all those printing and shipping costs into marketing the books you’re actually publishing? Just a thought.

Does the reading public really need a million titles per year? Wouldn’t it be a little easier to sort out the growing demand for a hundred thousand? Don’t get me wrong, I like eclectic, I like many voices, but it seems to me a hundred thousand is a lot of voices. You only published fifty thousand in 1990, and as I recall, the industry was in better shape.

Instead of acquiring books at the budget deadline (books which you have no real intention of marketing beyond a little co-op for 90 days to fill table space at the chains—where your titles are gathering dust in a warehouse, as the demand stacks up at independents), why not re-structure?

Why not give all your titles the benefit of marketing support, publicity budgets, tour budgets? Do you think they might sell more than a thousand copies? Do you think you might have less returns?

Why not make your sales reps lives easier by cutting your catalog in half? Maybe that would allow your reps to push your backlist—after all, you’ve already printed the books, already paid the advances? Hey, and that’s another way to fill those invaluable brick-and-mortar stores without publishing a million titles per year. Maybe if you marketed your books, instead of letting them sit heavy in the chains, you wouldn’t have to pay all that postage on all those returns? Just a thought.

Why not teach your publicists to take bloggers seriously? Have you noticed that newspapers are dying out? Have you noticed that a lot of book blogs are generating serious traffic in the maven market—the one market most helpful in creating advance buzz? Oh wait, and it doesn’t cost you anything! The bloggers come to you, offering to promote your books (because they already know about them because their ear is more to the ground than your publicist), and yet, often as not, you don’t even reply to their e-mails, or interview requests. Maybe you should be aggressively profiling these people and offering them swag? Maybe you should be pitching them. Just a thought.

Why not hire better graphic designers? Most cover designs suck. I’m sorry, but if I have to look at the sweaty withers of another horse running into the sunset, another vintage lampshade, another goddamn dog, I’m gonna’ shoot myself!

Why not boldly target new audiences, instead of mourning the loss of the ones you’ve already alienated? The reason I ask is this: I wrote a book, it sold modestly well due to the forces of luck and a lot of sweat, but I must’ve heard a thousand times: I gave your book to my niece so-and-so, and she loved it—and she /never/ reads. I’m serious, I hear it all the time.

Maybe we could make books cool again. There’s a lot of cool books being written, but nobody’s making them cool (see sweaty horse withers, and publicist with no faith in blogs).

Maybe “Reality Hunger” is more like a “Big Mac Attack.” Maybe you shouldn’t publish books that feed this hunger. Maybe you should just stick to your guns and believe in the tried-and-true novel—put your best foot forward, so to speak, and quit pandering.

Maybe you should start dictating markets again.

I know, I know, you’ve got answers for all these questions, corporate publisher. You’ve got your best practices, you’ve got your market research, but you haven’t got any balls.

XOXO,

je

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How are you?

By Mary Hendrie

Letters

Hey John,

Thanks for the note on my wall. Your exuberant “hello” was heartening like good soup on a bad day, which isn’t to say yesterday was bad. It was a good day. I heard from you, after all, and work went pretty well. Aside from the hour I spent looking through photos of friends I no longer speak to, I’d say the overall experience for the day was net positive.

But it’s a funny thing when people write on your wall and want to know, “How are you?” It’s a more sincere question than the passing-in-the-grocery-store variety, but it’s loaded, and it can’t really be answered via wall post.

How am I? Well, I’m alive, but somewhat disillusioned. I miss the slow, easy life of our hometown, but I don’t miss the ignorance of some of the people. I quit smoking since we last spoke, and sometimes I wish I hadn’t.

I live near DC, where the air quality is toxic, and I know because they tell me every day on the radio about the air quality — code orange, which means we should all avoid strenuous outdoor activity. I’d like to lose a little weight, but that’s hard to do with all these codes to follow.

Every day, I drive home and scan the radio for familiar songs to fight off the particular loneliness that breeds in my car, and when Morrisey comes on, I belt out all the words, right or wrong.

I have a good job in a boring city, a great husband, and a normal sex life, I think (but I don’t know what’s normal). Oh, and I wrote a book of sorts, but actually it was my grad school thesis, and I can’t bring myself to look at the thing for editing purposes or to print copies to send to agents, so it’s just sitting on my shelf now. Some of it is pretty good.

To tell the truth, when I look at all our old friends on Facebook, the people who are outrageous and fabulous and those whose lives are quiet and generic, I feel I’ve lost something. I’ve been hollowed out a bit, and I don’t know how it happened or if I am alone. I feel I’ve had limbs severed, but all my parts are here. I wasn’t looking when this phantom part of me died, so I’m not really sure what I’m trying to revive.

I have not yet joined the ranks of lonely folks who teach their pet birds to sing pop songs, but I have lost a couple cats. Anyway, I guess birds do it for some people. Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t like birds much.

The truth is, I keep waiting, John. I keep thinking something amazing will happen, and then I’ll feel right. Like the book I’m meant to write will just spontaneously come into being as a best seller. Then I’ll feel like the person I was always meant to be. Like my ship has come in, right? But until then … until then …

Well, I took a bike ride after work, and I went down to the grocery store just to see if I could do it. I wanted to go inside and buy some squash to cook for dinner, but I didn’t know what to do with my bike while I went inside, so I just turned around and rode back home. It was fun, anyway.

And tonight, we’ll celebrate my husband’s birthday with a few friends at the house. Our house. Did I tell you I own a house now? We’ll eat crabs and drink beer on the back deck. We have a lot of trees, which are pretty, and a nice view of a little creek. After dinner, we’ll watch a movie. It’ll be fun. Maybe before the night is over someone will end up naked, but most of our friends have outgrown that.

I was about to say life ain’t half bad, but maybe it is, John. But even if it is, 50% is better than some presidents get. And the truth is, at least I have people, ya know? At least I love someone and go outside sometimes. Code orange be damned, right?

So, how are you?


Judith Gurewich: One always runs the risk of reverting to platitudes when one talks about one’s publishing vision, and why should I be any different? After all, I am a little greener than most in the business and therefore even more prone to superlatives than my seasoned colleagues. The old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” For publishers, it should be, “You are what you publish.” If so, I’d prefer to jump right into the kitchen and talk about the books. Since I love to cook as much as I love to edit, my authors often move into my house in Cambridge so I can feed them as we talk, fight, and work around the clock. Mind you, they love the food—it helps the editorial medicine go down—and they like the results: great publicity, beautiful covers, lavish ads in the New York Times and strong sales even while the depression rages on. The Glass Room by Simon Mawer is a case in point, with over 40,000 copies in the market place and more than 25,000 of those already avidly read.

But life has not always been so easy. A while back, I published an array of remarkable literary novels in translation, by the likes of Hanna KrallIcchokas MerasAlberto MoraviaErri De Luca, Peter StammGeorge Konrad, and many more. In my view, they all qualify as classics, for they each reveal not only the their authors’ talent but also the mentality, the culture, and the psychology of a different era, often the second part of the twentieth century. I only wish that then was now! We were small at the time, and did not have the incredible Random House sales force to push our books, thanks to whom we have acquired credibility among booksellers, as well as the friendship and support of many. I could easily spend my time touring the country and hanging out with what I have discovered is the secret intelligentsia of our country.

These booksellers did not need to read more than one page of the galley of The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope to realize that this Spanish novel, translated by the award-winning John Cullen, is the kind of literature that only comes by once in a blue moon. Written like a dream with resonances of Borges, Proust, and Baudelaire, and just enough dark wit to give it spice, The Wrong Blood shows us the Spanish Civil War as seen from the perspective of two women who share a secret that will give you the shivers. It isn’t far-fetched to say that I am always searching for a “classic” feel, even in the most contemporary and avant-garde literature I publish. It is no coincidence that Charles Elton, whose Mr. Toppit, a huge bestseller in England that really captures the pulse of our celebrity-obsessed era, read the early novels of Joan Didion and Philip Roth over and over again in order to shape his writing style and his story line. Learning to Lose by the celebrated Spanish author David Trueba also fits the bill, though it falls into the entirely different genre of “cool.” Here we find the joys and woes of soccer and young love under the sun of modern Madrid.

Occasionally I relax a little and publish stories that are simply terrific page-turners. Even with these, I look to go beyond superficial entertainments, because a good book, even when not a literary masterpiece, must affect your soul, and leave you with something you did not have before—whether knowledge, emotional charge, or some particular insights. This is the case with Mitchell Kaplan’s By Fire, By Water, a novel that effortlessly introduces us to the world of conversos during the Spanish inquisition, filled with intrigues, love affairs, and real history. Similarly, The Debba by Avner Mandelman is both my first foray into thriller-land and an insider’s look at the incredibly complex texture of Israeli society from 1947 to 1972. The reader leaves the book totally exhausted, having taken a roller coaster ride while acquiring a very different perspective on the Middle East conflict.

As far as non-fiction is concerned, I am proud to have published the much-lauded memoirHurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg. It seems everyone has heard of this brilliant memoir but few connect it to Other Press. Hurry Down Sunshine was also my first international success, having been sold to eighteen countries and becoming a big best seller in Spain, Italy and Sweden.

This October, Montaigne comes to America in the form of an amazing biography by Sarah Bakewell called How to Live. It is my pride and joy of the season. I think you already know this because I saw the tweet on your blog.

My goal is to get Montaigne on the Colbert Report – it would do Steven and America a lot of good to finally learn “How To Live.” In a nutshell, Sarah’s wonderful book epitomizes what I want people to associate with my publishing house: it is at once immensely instructive, entertaining, intelligent, and beautifully written. And it puts you in a good mood!

—Judith Gurewich


DH: The Guys are launching a new guest post series featuring our friends the indie presses. It’s called Why We Love What We Do. It features publishers and editors talking about what gives their house its own special spin.

We’re aiming for the pubs history, approach to publishing, title selection philosophy, plans for new projects and celebrations of favorite books published.

We’re also hoping that the publishers and editors that are at the frontiers of the indie market will tell us something about themselves as book lovers and as a community of INDEPENDENT minds. How does the terrain of the indie book wilderness scope out from the lookout point of their offices?

The Guys want to give our worldwide audience of influential readers (meaning you) a clear and distinct idea of what each indie press is all about so that they will look forward to their offerings past, present and future. Three Guys One Book wants our readers to “follow the house”, not just follow individual writers.

If you’re a publisher or editor at an indie press and want to participate in Why We Love What We Do just knock on our door. Don’t wait for an invitation, although you might get one anyway.

Check back tomorrow for the first installment from our friends at Other Press.


The most potent ghosts in Doug Dorst’s debut novel Alive in Necropolis are the spectres of regret that haunt protagonist Mike Mercer. Mercer is that kind of pushing-thirtysomething whom we’ve all known―or been―grinding through wage-slave temp work, shuttling from periods of unintentional celibacy to codependent non-relationships, and drifting listlessly away from friends who’ve found their niches in the adult world of mortgages, 401ks, and families.

The rain came unexpectedly, after nearly three years of drought. In those days, Youssef still lived with his mother in a whitewashed house that huddled with others like it along a narrow dirt road. The house had one room with no windows, and a roof made of corrugated tin held down by rocks. The yard, where his mother did the cooking and the washing, was open to the sky. It was in the yard that she cleaned the sheep hides she took in on the day of Eid, and there Youssef received the rare friends who came to visit. The front door was painted blue, but over the years rust had eaten its edges, turning them reddish brown, so that holes had begun to appear at each of the four corners.

My memoir, BAROLO, about my illegal work in the Piemontese Italian food and wine industry was recently released.  Check it out!

BAROLO is now in stock and available here:

The perennial debate on the technological threat to the institution of the novel rages on flatmancrooked.com (and elsewhere)-see Shya Scanlon’s excellent Faster Times piece here, and Mike Shatzkin’s note on ebooks-but there’s not much on this on TNB, as far as I can see…

So, in the interests of stimulating debate, I include an email exchange between TNB contributors Kip Tobin, Megan Power, and myself which took place off the blog last month.