follow_me_down_0

“Sometimes what you want is to be somewhere you do not belong.”

Kio Stark’s lyrical Follow Me Down (Red Lemonade) is a densely packed novella that wanders the projects of New York City capturing the lives of the people that live there in glorious detail—photographs melting into still life paintings, fingers smudged from handling wet paint that should have been left to dry. Sometimes you get a little dirty when you dig, and sometimes people need to disappear. Our protagonist, Lucy is unwilling and unable to turn her back on a mysterious letter that has been freed from the dead-letter office by unknown forces—a picture inside lost for twenty years, the echo of her long lost brother murmuring in the empty corners of her apartment. We follow Lucy as she tries to get to the bottom of this mystery. She sees the world for all that it is: dangerous and heartbreaking and kind. The characters of her gritty neighborhood streets—the people she sees on the subway as she commutes to her dull job in an office high up in the metal skyscrapers—they are her muse. These people embody her every waking hope and fear. They are her touchstone and lodestone—her dysfunctional adopted family.

I started and finished Jesus Angel Garcia’s new book, badbadbad, on a flight from Baltimore to California.  In those six hours, I read more sex scenes than I’ve read in the past five years.  It’s one of those books that will keep you from putting on your headphones and watching the lamely re-edited in-flight movie (something I’d never even heard of was playing on this flight).  Music runs through the novel  (go to www.badbadbad.net for the playlist) in a way that makes the book feel like a loud, thrilling, invigorating concert. A concert about sex, religion, music and violence.


JE: Yeah, I plan on reading Freedom, and no, I probably won’t read Jodi Picoult‘s next book, but you know what? She’s totally right about the industry ghettoizing a lot of female fiction.

Exhibit A: Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters. JC, I think you specifically mentioned in your coverage how bad the cover was. Soli writes a gritty, dark, thought-provoking, badass Viet Nam novel that is “literary” by any standard, and St. Martin’s puts some hot chick in a red blouse at the beach on the cover. What the hell? The galley I received had the menacing silhouette of a helicopter on it—what was it the Vietnamese called those copters, whispering death? What happened to that plan? How did we go from whispering death to some MILF on the beach? Who’s the marketing stooge that convinced everybody this change was a good idea? The prevailing wisdom seems to be that women (80% of everybody’s readership) don’t like gritty, they don’t like dark, they can’t handle thought-provoking. Well, who the hell is buying Freedom, or The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, and why don’t they have covers that look like spa brochures?

Exhibit B: Maria Semple’s dark, hilarious, acerbic debut, This One is Mine. Is that a pink bon-bon on the cover? Really? Is that a fucking joke? I read that book twice–where did they get a pink bon-bon? Seriously, marketing people, what’s with the double standard? I know a TON of writers, and almost every female author I know has got a crappy cover design– either it’s wispy, or floral, or it looks like a tampax ad, or there’s a MILF in a red blouse on the beach. Really, how far have we come since the Bronte Sisters?

DH: Yeah, book marketing is primitive. They don’t know their audience and, guess what, they don’t WANT to know their audience. The big houses all want to appeal to the same crowd, the great unwashed masses, no matter what the book is, because that group is BIG. And they want that group to actually exist because that group is easy.

But people aren’t that simple. Novelists know that. Once you really pay attention to readers you realize that they break down into all sorts of diverse types. Indie bookstores already know this.

But I’m in a fighting mood so I have to fight even JE’s assertion that he’s a white guy. Out in the material world, that JR loves to depict in his fiction, yes, that’s true. But in the imaginative soul of the book reader, you can be anybody you want. And that’s one objective of reading: become who you aren’t.

But you have to have the skills to do that. You have to know something about how plots are paced and character presented. You have to own some of the skills of a writer, even as a general reader. The best way to learn to read is to learn to write.

When you work with book clubs, or blogs, you realize that you can encourage my favorite mythical animal, the “general reader” to leave their comfort zones and explore.

But for all my talk about telling JE to read like he’s not a white guy, or not even a guy, I have to admit that we are all in our personal orbits either as writers or readers. I won’t read Freedom. I know Franzen is a distinguished artist but I don’t feel inspired to read him. I would read him like it was my duty to literature and I can’t read like that. Another reason not to read a book? Because the writer is on the cover of Time magazine. Read what you like.

Some advice that I haven’t been asked to give to marketers: Treat the “general reader” like they are a special market. There is a whole field in marketing on selling to the affluent, on appealing to what that market is looking for.Well, the general reader is affluent too. But it’s their minds that are affluent, maybe not their pocketbooks. But that’s a more interesting kind of affluence.

JR: The argument JE presents is old news. The lowest common denominator is being marketed to, simple as that. What appeals to the masses? 5 million copies of Lost Symbol went on sale in one day, how do you get into the mainstream? You print 5 million, and you buy the market, like The Passage. Doesn’t matter if the book is good or not, it’s everywhere. Girls? AM Homes, Dana Spiotta, Deborah Willis, Zadie Smith, all enjoyed kick ass covers for their books, look at White TeethMusic for TorchingEat the Document, fuck, those are great covers, and great books, probably some of my favorite ever, (except I think On Beauty is a masterpiece, and it has a gilded flowered look on the cover, but that speaks to the underlying theme of the book). Emily St. John Mandel, both books were great, and had good, not great covers, but she’s at Unbridled, so…Atmospheric Disturbances has a great literary cover, and all of the books I’ve just mentioned, have sold well, in the crowd their meant to sell in, what Philip Roth calls “the literary 85k”, that’s who publishers market to when they sell a literary novel. The rest, the books that are supposed to be movers and shakers and get reviewed in People magazine, well, they’re going to get the Tampax look. Soft, and easy to slide between your legs while you sip that $9 latte.

I don’t give a flying fuck about the mainstream, it’s meaningless. Literary novels is where I sleep, and those books are essentially “mine”, and I own the bragging rights, because in general, they don’t get reviewed. The Imperfectionists and Mr. Peanut, they’re from two great writers, and had weird covers, but shit, Rachman’s book is about the death a newspaper, why wouldn’t it sell? Oh, right, I know it sold, like fucking hot cakes. No one knew about that book, I mean no one, before it went on sale. Franzen has written two great books in my estimation, the sister part in The Corrections is one of the finest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Period. Freedom is about people who suck. If you want to escape, read Jodi Piccoult, she trucks in the masses, she tells stories about sick kids and people with cancer, over coming odds greater than themselves. Rachman talked about the death of a historically vital venue for passing on information and the funny people who made it. Who can identify to that? I didn’t feel sorry for them. I felt like I was there with them in Rome, I don’t sign on to Jodi Piccoult’s books because I’m not looking to get on the fucking sympathy truck and watch someone prevail over the tough shit that life doles out. Boo fucking hoo…tissues are in aisle six, next to the diapers and tampons, just down the aisle from the dump of Jodi Piccoult’s latest mashed potato sandwich.

JC: JE, I was stuck on The Lotus Eaters for a couple weeks before I finally cracked it, and then only because I had said I would. I mean, the book arrives in the mail directly from Tatjana Soli, who is very nice and a brilliant writer, btw, and I think Christ what have I gotten myself into. Back when I was a buyer, if a rep had put that cover in front of me, I would have said things that would have made them blush. So uncreative – like a leftover cover from Polynesian Vacation – … and ultimately, such a betrayal of the book that it represents. I would have liked your galley Jonathan, because the book is a hell of a lot closer to Hemingway (note her WWFIL from this summer) and Tim O’Brien, than towhatever book cover they “modeled” to get this one. It’s a war novel, and a good one. I must have missed the beefcake on the cover of Matterhorn.

That’s the thing about covers. Cliches aside, everyone is affected by a good bookcover. I’ll wager everyone reading this could list at least a handful of books they purchased exclusively for the cover, not knowing a thing about it. I’ll bet even marketers do that! So why would you publish a book that you are supposedly proud of, that is a unique product, that you want to find its audience and give it a cover that already dots the shelves, or that doesn’t reflect that story’s unique proposition. If you think it’s just like a thousand other books out there already, then why bother? You can probably be as inspired designing and marketing cereal boxes or baked beans.

Women authors, a lot of them anyway, do get pigeonholed. The success of chick lit has ghettoized them into genre books. Pretty soon they’ll have their own section in the stores, like mysteries, sci fi, etc. The question is, do you want your books there or fiction? What if the books in chick lit sell better? Does that change the equation?

The thing is – it won’t break my heart if the NYT doesn’t review and front cover Franzen and Chabon’s every book – and I like those guys. I’m perfectly happy to have those books replaced by novels by women. There are lots of books worthy of marketing and publicity. I’d be pissed if they were replaced by Jodi Picoult.


JC: Yesterday, 3G1B posted JR’s review of Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s book Mad Men Unbuttoned, which, along with her fantastic blog (seriously…check out the supercool archive on The Footnotes of Mad Men), details the characters, themes, and societal shifts as depicted in the series. JR recently had the opportunity to ask her a few questions.

Jason Rice: So. Mad Men. It covers an incredibly fertile period, not only advertising but of human evolution. Right? Not to mention the microscope it puts over fashion, human habits, good and bad, never mind advertising.  Do these men make the times they live in, or does time shape them?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: Ooo, you almost tricked me into using the word ‘symbiotic’ but I’ll resist! I think there is something eternal in watching men push against the established margins when the right historical moment presents itself (Hello, Russia!). Though this is a precise moment when culture, commerce, sex, power, money all converge in a uniquely American way and these guys really took the moment by the balls.

JR: This is a great looking book, Mad Men Unbuttoned.  Can you tell me what got you interested in bringing this out into the world?

NVC: It’s like, someone made a TV show about your favorite band and you know or want to know the story behind the songs. That’s what it was like when I saw Mad Men. But the band was called, ‘MIDCENTURY AMERCAN HISTORY’ Each reference was like a note I couldn’t get out of my head. People were also really excited to talk about the show and so I was like, HEY! Let’s dance!

JR: I love how your voice isn’t just a tour guide through the advertising campaigns used on the show, but has a kind of therapist’s tone, especially when Betty Draper uses “lesbian”, you try to understand her upbringing, and where she went to school, and how it wasn’t a mistake by the show’s creators to introduce that term in her vernacular.  Striking this tone must have been hard, how much did you pull back, push, and massage this book into its current state?

NVC: I aim to be engaging! I did make it a point to never be flip or condescending towards a topic. I cut anything I felt neutral about, it was either transcribe the thoughtfulness and intensity of the show on to paper or don’t bother.

JR: You break this book into nine parts, and eviscerate each detail of the show as they are reflected by the ads and the time the show is set. When you wrestle a period piece like Mad Men, is it possible to look around at certain things, like sex, or drugs, even the hippies of the 60’s and wonder how do I figure out what to talk about? Draper and Co, are about to drift into that time period, drugs sex, and free love, and all that comes with it. JFK is already in the pine box, so to speak, what’s next for them to experience? And how far can the show really go? I’d watch it until 1980.

NVC:1968 is going to dropkick these guys! Nevertheless, it’s not the aesthetics that hook people or necessarily the era (though they help) but the richness of the characters and all their muted dramas. I think they’ve shown in the first two episodes of the new season that the culture is moving too fast for these guys to keep up with. Only the young like Pete and Peggy could stay afloat and even they will face a reckoning. I’d imagine they’re going to stay in the decade because it’s such a fundamental time in our development as country. It’s the starting point for our modern ethos and culture, it’s when we became full-time consumers!

JR: Could a Mad Men-like show exist now? What advertising campaigns would you pick, say, if you made a show set in Seattle, Washington, right now? Would the Draper role be played by a woman? How would you handle Internet marketing, Twitter, Facebook, cell phones, downloads of music, is it impossible to cover everything now?

NVC: Mad Men would be really boring if Don Draper was played by a woman! Women can’t go around finger banging ladies in restaurants then telling their wives they look like a whore in a bikini! Part of Mad Men’s appeal is that it’s pre-sexual revolution, the gender roles are oppressive, sure, but they are also sharply defined. It’s such unapologetic masculinity that gives the show such vitality. It also could not take place today because the stakes are not nearly as high seeing as how fractionalized consumer markets are, additionally, no product brand or outlet has the authority that these guys did 40 years ago.

JR: I love the shape and design of this book.  It’s images and colors are carved with great care.  I feel like nothing is over looked, from the Marlboro Man advertisement campaign to the paintings on Bert Cooper’s walls. The creator Rubicon called Mad Men “John Cheever on television”. Is that accurate?

NVC: I buy that! It’s certainly a visual novel. No question that Mad Men is high-art –and it’s accessible. Also, it seems so obvious now, but of course, 12 part serialized dramas seem like a perfect way to delve into characters and tease out all the pathos – why didn’t we do this before the Sopranos?! Mad Men fulfills the full potential of the medium.

JR: There seem to be a million times more distractions for the average person today. Where do people get their ideas to buy things? Amazon.com? TMZ? What their starlets wear to the gym? What kind of special Yoga classes Brad Pitt takes when he’s on location? How do trends form today? From where? Or, where do you think they come from?

NVC: If I knew why people bought things I would not be in the publishing industry. But I do think consumers get a bad name! American consumers are a most sophisticated and savvy lot.  Empires do have the benefit of breeding discerning shoppers.

JR: I love this book. I take it with me everywhere. It helps that I love the show. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of Mad Men?

NVC: My favorite part of the show is watching Don Draper try to navigate through all the moral morass. The self-indulgence and consequent emotional wreckage he creates for himself and the people close to him. I think the compulsion to assert individuality against history, family, work is compelling. My least favorite part is that I know that the writers are pulling all the right levers and presenting us with this very attractive package called Don Draper but that he has a rotted core. When you identify with Don, which I find myself doing often, you’re identifying with a monster so that’s (exquisite) torture!

JR: Thank you Natasha.

NVC: My pleasure!

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In the summer of 2007, I was doing research while at the University of Virginia for a seminar under Syed Rizwan Zamir for his class, Islam in the Modern Age: Tradition, Fundamentalism, and Reform. Before I picked up reading fiction as an undergraduate, most all of what I read dealt with political science, the author I read the most by being the famed linguist and political dissident, Noam Chomsky. For my final project, I decided I would contact Chomsky for an interview to see what he’d have to say on the subject matter.

Screw it, it’s worth a shot I figured — even if deep down I knew there was no way he’d respond.




The next day I opened my e-mail, and saw it: Noam Chomsky to jwp5u.

After reading Chomsky’s response, the short answer being, “No, I don’t have the time,” I called home to my parents. Despite the rejection, I was so excited I could nearly urinate my pants and I think I even felt a little dribble at one point.

“Go up to my room,” I told my mom over the phone.

“Why?” she responded.

“Make like Nike and just do it. Look on my bookshelf. Do you see a guy named Noam Chomsky?”

She walked upstairs. I could hear her open my creaky bedroom door.

“Yes, he’s all over the place.”

“He just e-mailed me,” I said to her. “I asked him for an interview and he said he couldn’t do it. Isn’t that awesome?”

“That he said, ‘No.'”

“No, that he responded to my e-mail. Noam Chomsky wrote me an e-mail. Isn’t that awesome? NOAM AVRAM FREAKING CHOMSKY!”

“That’s wonderful,” my mom said to me in a sort of I-can’t-believe-you’re-this-excited-about-an-email voice.

And so ends one of the single greatest moments in my life.

Noam Avram Freaking Chomsky . . . man!