Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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A Fuller Life

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I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally figured out the subject of my next book, which will be a biography of the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know how much Fuller means to me, and I’m looking forward to giving him the comprehensive portrait that he deserves. (Honestly, that’s putting it mildly. I’ve known for over a week that I’ll have a chance to tackle this project, and I still can’t quite believe that it’s really happening. And I’m especially happy that my current publisher has agreed to give me a shot at it.) At first glance, this might seem like a departure from my previous work, but it presents an opportunity to explore some of the same themes from a different angle, and to explore how they might play out in the real world. The timelines of the two projects largely coincide, with a group of subjects who were affected by the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the social upheavals of the sixties. All of them had highly personal notions about the fate of America, and Fuller used physical artifacts much as Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein employed science fiction—to prepare their readers for survival in an era of perpetual change. Fuller’s wife, Anne, played an unsung role in his career that recalls many of the women in Astounding. Like Campbell, he approached psychology as a category of physics, and he hoped to turn the prediction of future trends into a science in itself. His skepticism of governments led him to conclude that society should be changed through design, not political institutions, and like many science fiction writers, he acted as if all disciplines could be reduced to subsets of engineering. And for most of his life, he insisted that complicated social problems could be solved through technology.

Most of his ideas were expressed through the geodesic dome, the iconic work of structural design that made him famous—and I hope that this book will be as much about the dome as about Fuller himself. It became a universal symbol of the space age, and his reputation as a futurist may have been founded largely on the fact that his most recognizable achievement instantly evoked the landscape of science fiction. From the beginning, the dome was both an elegant architectural conceit and a potent metaphor. The concept of a hemispherical shelter that used triangular elements to enclose the maximum amount of space had been explored by others, but Fuller was the first to see it as a vehicle for social change. With design principles that could be scaled up or down without limitation, it could function as a massive commercial pavilion or as a house for hippies. (Ken Kesey dreamed of building a geodesic dome to hold one of his acid tests.) It could be made out of plywood, steel, or cardboard. A dome could be cheaply assembled by hand by amateur builders, which encouraged experimentation, and its specifications could be laid out in a few pages and shared for free, like the modern blueprints for printable houses. It was a hackable, open-source machine for living that reflected a set of tools that spoke to the same men and women who were teaching themselves how to code. As I noted here recently, a teenager named Jaron Lanier, who was living in a tent with his father on an acre of desert in New Mexico, used nothing but the formulas in Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook to design and build a house that he called “Earth Station Lanier.” Lanier, who became renowned years later as the founder of virtual reality, never got over the experience. He recalled decades later: “I loved the place; dreamt about it while sleeping inside it.”

During his lifetime, Fuller was one of the most famous men in America, and he managed to become an idol to both the establishment and the counterculture. In the three decades since his death, his reputation has faded, but his legacy is visible everywhere. The influence of his geodesic structures can be seen in the Houston Astrodome, at Epcot Center, on thousands of playgrounds, in the dome tents favored by backpackers, and in the emergency shelters used after Hurricane Katrina. Fuller had a lasting impact on environmentalism and design, and his interest in unconventional forms of architecture laid the foundation for the alternative housing movement. His homegrown system of geometry led to insights into the biological structure of viruses and the logic of communications networks, and after he died, he was honored by the discoverers of a revolutionary form of carbon that resembled a geodesic sphere, which became known as fullerene, or the buckyball. And I’m particularly intrigued by his parallels to the later generation of startup founders. During the seventies, he was a hero to the likes of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who later featured him prominently in the first “Think Different” commercial, and he was the prototype of the Silicon Valley types who followed. He was a Harvard dropout who had been passed over by the college’s exclusive social clubs, and despite his lack of formal training, he turned himself into an entrepreneur who believed in changing society through innovative products and environmental design. Fuller wore the same outfit to all his public appearances, and his personal habits amounted to an early form of biohacking. (Fuller slept each day for just a few hours, taking a nap whenever he felt tired, and survived mostly on steak and tea.) His closest equivalent today may well be Elon Musk, which tells us a lot about both men.

And this project is personally significant to me. I first encountered Fuller through The Whole Earth Catalog, which opened its first edition with two pages dedicated to his work, preceded by a statement from editor Stewart Brand: “The insights of Buckminster Fuller initiated this catalog.” I was three years old when he died, and I grew up in the shadow of his influence in the Bay Area. The week before my freshman year in high school, I bought a used copy of his book Critical Path, and I tried unsuccessfully to plow through Synergetics. (At the time, this all felt kind of normal, and it’s only when I look back that it seems strange—which tells you a lot about me, too.) Above all else, I was drawn to his reputation as the ultimate generalist, which reflected my idea of what my life should be, and I’m hugely excited by the prospect of returning to him now. Fuller has been the subject of countless other works, but never a truly authoritative biography, which is a project that meets both Susan Sontag’s admonition that a writer should try to be useful and the test that I stole from Lin-Manuel Miranda: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” Best of all, the process looks to be tremendously interesting for its own sake—I think it’s going to rewire my brain. It also requires an unbelievable amount of research. To apply the same balanced, fully sourced, narrative approach to his life that I tried to take for Campbell, I’ll need to work through all of Fuller’s published work, a mountain of primary sources, and what might literally be the largest single archive for any private individual in history. I know from experience that I can’t do it alone, and I’m looking forward to seeking help from the same kind of brain trust that I was lucky to have for Astounding. Those of you who have stuck with this blog should be prepared to hear a lot more about Fuller over the next three years, but I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t think that you might find it interesting. And who knows? He might change your life, too.

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Typewritten manuscripts, which take up more pages than printed texts, deceive the author by creating an illusion of great distance between things that are so close to one another that they repeat themselves crassly; they tend in general to shift the proportions in favor of the author’s comfort. For a writer capable of self-reflection, print becomes a critique of his writing: it creates a path from the external to the internal. For this reason publishers should be advised to be tolerant of authors’ corrections.

Theodor W. Adorno, Notes to Literature

Written by nevalalee

November 9, 2018 at 7:30 am

Beyond the golden age

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On August 13, 2015, I sat down to write an email to my agent. I was going through a challenging period in my career—I had just finished a difficult suspense novel that ended up never being sold—and I wasn’t exactly sure what would come next. As I weighed my options, I found myself thinking about turning to nonfiction, which was a prospect that I had occasionally contemplated. One possible subject had caught my attention, and that morning, for the first time ever, I put it into words. I wrote:

I’ve been thinking about a book on John W. Campbell, Jr., the pulp author and editor who ran Astounding Science Fiction, later known as Analog, for more than three decades. Campbell’s fingerprints are on everything from I, Robot to Dune to Star Trek—Isaac Asimov called him “the most powerful force in science fiction ever”—and his influence on global culture is incalculable. Late in his life, he became increasingly erratic and conservative, embraced a range of crackpot theories, and played an important role in the early history of dianetics and Scientology. There’s a tremendous amount of fascinating material available in his published letters, in his editorials, in his own fiction—he wrote the original story that became the basis for The Thing—and in the reminiscences of nearly every major science fiction writer from the first half of this century. Yet there’s never been a proper biography of Campbell or consideration of his legacy. And I’m starting to think that I might just be the guy to write it.

And I concluded: “It’s a big topic, but if properly handled, I think it shows real promise. I’d love to discuss further today, if possible.”

That was the beginning of the long road that led to Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which is finally being released today. But there were times when I feared that it would never get past the daydream stage. Based on the ensuing email exchange, it sounds like my agent and I spoke about it over the phone that afternoon, and while I don’t recall much about our discussion, I remember that he was encouraging, although he sounded a few cautionary notes. Writing a big mainstream biography would mean a considerable shift in my career trajectory—up until that point, I had only published novels, short fiction, and essays—and it would take a lot of convincing to persuade a publisher that I was ready to take on this kind of project. At first, all of my energy was devoted to putting together a convincing proposal, which took about four months of work, during which I did much of the preliminary research and went through several rounds of feedback and rewrites. It wound up being about seventy pages long, and it was focused entirely on Campbell. We went out to a handful of publishers toward the end of the following January, and we got indications of interest from two editors. One was Julia Cheiffetz at Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, who suggested that we “reframe” the book to bring in a few other famous writers, since Campbell wasn’t as well known in the mainstream. (She pointed specifically to Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu as one possible model.) I responded that I could expand the book to include Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, and the notion was agreeable enough that I was able to announce the project on this blog on February 26, 2016.

Obviously, a lot has happened since then, both in my life and in everyone else’s. I couldn’t be happier with how the book turned out, but what strikes me the most now about the whole process is one line from that original email: “I’m starting to think that I might just be the guy to write it.” Looking back, I can’t for the life of me recall what inspired me to write that sentence, which in retrospect seems full of unwarranted confidence. About halfway through this book, I realized that there was a good reason why no biography of Campbell had ever been written. It’s just an incredibly complicated project, and working on it for nearly three years to the exclusion of everything else was barely enough to do it justice. When I look at the result, I’m very proud, but I also feel that it could easily have been much longer. (In fact, the first draft was twice as long as what ended up in print, and it wasn’t because I was padding it.) I didn’t have all the critical tools or the background that I needed when I started, and much of my recent life has been devoted to turning myself into the kind of person that it seemed to require. What I had in mind, basically, was a book that looked a certain way. It was sort of like Hajdu’s book, but also like a prestige literary biography along the lines of Adam Begley’s Updike, which is the kind of thing that I personally enjoy reading. This imposed certain expectations when it came to tone, size, and scholarship, and my ultimate goal was to end up something that wouldn’t look out of place on the same shelf—apart, perhaps, from the exploding space station on the cover. Along the way, I did the best impersonation that I could of the kind of person who could write such a book, and toward the end, I like to think that I more or less grew into the role. At every turn, I tried to ask myself: “What would a real biographer do?” And while I’m clearly the last person in the world who can be objective about this, I feel that the finished product reflects those standards.

Anyway, it’s out in the world now, and not surprisingly, I’ve been wondering endlessly about how it will be received—although it isn’t all that I have on my mind. This is still a terrible time, and there are moments when I can barely work up enough enthusiasm to care deeply about anything but what I see in the headlines. (When my publisher decided to push the release date back from August to October, part of me found it hard to believe that people would have the bandwidth to read about anything except the midterms, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong.) But I’m going to close this post with a direct appeal, and I promise that it’s the only time that I’ll ever say something like this, at least for this particular book. If you’ve enjoyed this blog or my writing in general, I’d encourage you to consider buying a copy of Astounding. I was lucky to have the chance to work on almost nothing else for the last three years, and I’d very much like to do it again. Whether or not that happens will hinge in large part on how well this book does. The more I think about Astounding, in fact, the more I feel that that it couldn’t have happened in any other way. It needed all the time and commitment that I was able to give it, and it also benefited from being released through a commercial publishing house, which subjected it to important pressures that obliged it to be more focused than it might have been if I had gone through an academic imprint. And it’s the better for it. Very few critical works on science fiction have been produced under such circumstances, but I also suspect, deep down, that this is how a book like this ought to be written. At least it’s the only way that I’ll ever be able to write one. If I’m ever going to do it again, enough people have to agree with me to the extent of paying for a copy. That’s only sales pitch that I have—except to say that if you’ve read this far, you’ll probably enjoy this book. And I’m grateful beyond words that I had the chance to do it even once.

Written by nevalalee

October 23, 2018 at 8:12 am

The object of desire

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Yesterday, I began to hear rumors that something was out in the world. My first clue was a congratulatory note from my agent in New York, who sent me an email with the subject line: “It’s a book!” The message itself was blank, except for a picture of his desk, on which he had propped up the hardcover of Astounding. A few hours later, I saw an editor for a pop culture site post the image of a stack of new books on Twitter, with mine prominently displayed about a third of the way from the bottom. In the meantime, there wasn’t any sign on it on my end—I hadn’t even seen the finished version yet. (I signed off on the last set of proofs months ago, and I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the cover art, but that isn’t quite the same as holding the real thing in your hands.) When the mail came that afternoon, there was nothing, so I figured that it would take another day or two for any shipment from my publisher’s warehouse to make it out to Chicago. In the evening, I headed out to the city, where I was meeting a few writers for dinner before our event at Volumes Bookcafe. When one of my friends arrived at the restaurant, he announced that he had heard a thud on his doorstep earlier that day, and he proudly pulled out his personal copy of the hardcover, from which he had prudently removed the dust jacket. At this point, I was starting to suspect that everybody in America would get it before I did, and when I arrived at the bookstore, I was genuinely shocked to see a table covered with copies of the book, which doesn’t officially come out until October 23. And although I should have been preparing for my reading, I took a minute to carry one into a quiet corner so that I could study it for myself.

Well, it definitely exists, and it’s just as beautiful as I had hoped. As a writer, I don’t have any control over the visual side, but the artist Tavis Coburn and the designers Ploy Siripant and Renata De Oliveira did a fantastic job—I’m obviously biased, but I don’t think any book about science fiction has ever come in a nicer package. The fact that I managed to get the hardcover version out into the world before physical books disappeared entirely is a source of real pride, and I look forward to seeing copies of it in thrift stores and cutout bins for years to come. And while I can’t speak to the contents, at first glance, they seemed perfectly fine, too. After the reading, which went well, I made my first sale of Astounding ever in a bookstore, and as I signed all the remaining copies that the store had on hand, I was sorely tempted to buy one for myself. I sent a picture of the stack on the display table to my wife, who texted back immediately: “Your copies came! One big box and one small one.” An hour or so later, I was back home, where I sliced open the first carton, then the second, to reveal my twenty-five author’s copies. (I’ll keep three for myself and gradually start to send the rest to various deserving recipients.) Now it’s the following morning, and the book is inexorably starting to assume the status of a familiar object. It’s lying at my elbow as I type this, and I can already feel myself taking it for granted. I suppose that was inevitable. But I’ll always treasure the memory of the day in which everyone I knew seemed to have it except for me.

Written by nevalalee

October 12, 2018 at 8:33 am

The audio file

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When you spend most of your working life typing in silence, it can be disorienting to hear your own words spoken out loud. Writers are often advised to read their writing aloud to check the rhythm, but I’ve never gotten into the habit, and I tend to be more obsessed with how the result looks on the page. As a result, whenever I encounter an audio version of something I’ve written, it feels disorienting, like hearing my own voice on tape. I vividly remember listening to StarShipSofa’s version of “The Boneless One,” narrated by Josh Roseman, while holding my newborn daughter in the hospital, and if everything goes as planned, another publisher will release an audio anthology that includes my novella “The Proving Ground”—which was recently named a notable story in the upcoming edition of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy—within the next couple of months. And the most memorable project of all was “Retention,” my episode of the science fiction audio series The Outer Reach, which was performed by Aparna Nancherla and Echo Kellum. I’ve never forgotten the result, but listening to it was such an emotionally charged experience that I’ve only managed to play it once. (Hearing the finished product was gratifying, but the process also cured me of any desire to write words for actors. It’s exciting when it happens, but also requires a degree of detachment that I don’t currently possess.)

I mention all this now because an excerpt of the audiobook version of Astounding has just been posted on SoundCloud. It’s about five minutes long, and it includes the opening section of the first chapter, which recounts a rather strange incident—involving drugs, mirrors, and hypnosis—from the partnership of John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard in the early days of dianetics. The narrator is Sean Runnette, who certainly knows the territory, with previous credits that include Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast and the novel that was the basis for The Meg. He does a great job, and although I haven’t heard the rest, which comes to more than thirteen hours, I suspect that I’m going to end up playing all of it. One of the hardest parts of writing anything is putting enough distance between yourself and your work so that you can review it objectively. For a short story, I’ve found that a few weeks is long enough, but in the case of a novel, it can take months, or even longer. And I’m not remotely close to that point yet with this book. Listening to this audio sample, however, I finally felt as if it had been written by somebody else, as if the translation from one medium into another had yielded the same effect that I normally get from distance in time. (Which may be the real reason why reading your work out loud might be a good idea.) I’m glad that this audio version exists for a lot of reasons, but I’m especially grateful for the new perspective that it offers on this book, which I wrote largely because it was something that I wanted to read. And so far, I actually like it.

The index fund

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When the time comes to prepare the index for a nonfiction book, there are basically two schools of thought on how to proceed. One is that the author is the only person qualified to perform this particular task. You see this view expressed at its most eloquent by Douglas R. Hofstadter, who reveals in a long endnote in Le Ton Beau de Marot that completing the index for that book required him to work fifteen hours a day for an entire month. He explains:

My feeling is that only the author (and certainly not a computer program) can do this job well. Only the author, looking at a given page, sees all the way to the bottom of the pool of ideas of which the words are the mere surface, and only the author can answer the question, “What am I really talking about here, in this paragraph, this page, this section, this chapter?” To answer those questions takes total understanding of the book.

Hofstadter adds that going through the book one last time awakened him to deeper themes and concepts that he hadn’t known were there, including “conflation,” “colliding cultures,” and “Chopin.” He concludes: “Once the index was essentially done…I found it interesting to flip through it and, by comparing the sheer sizes of various entries, to get new perceptions of what my book is most centrally about.” At a point at which a writer might be expected to have looked at a manuscript from every angle, an index can be a fund of new insights.

Another vote in favor of the author comes from Isaac Asimov. For his first nonfiction book, the textbook Biochemistry and Human Metabolism, he unquestioningly prepared the index himself, despite having only “a vague idea of how it should be done.” He enjoyed the job—which consisted mostly of preparing a mountain of index cards, alphabetizing them, and typing up the result—and was annoyed by what he saw as a “more cavalier attitude toward indexing” among his collaborators. For the rest of the career, he aways insisted on doing his own indexes, and when A Short History of Biology was indexed without his knowledge, he wasn’t pleased:

I looked over the index, which had, presumably, been professionally prepared, to see if I could learn lessons in technique. I quickly found that the only lesson I could learn would be on the method of preparing a thoroughly inadequate index. Half the names in the book were not included. A number of subjects were not mentioned.

Asimov concluded that the index was “insupportable,” and after that, he was careful to make his preferences known to his editors: “It added just one more time-wasting task to the list. I had to see it that no publisher, either through ignorance or through forgetfulness, ever allowed a “professional” to prepare my indexes.”

Of course, there’s also a strong case to be made for the opposite point of view, which Asimov recalled hearing from Dick DeHaan, one of his editors at Basic Books: “I tried to explain that I liked indexing, but he kept saying that no writer could approach his own book with sufficient detachment to do a good index.” Asimov eventually acquiesced for The New Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, and the outcome left him predictably outraged:

It was dreadful; simply dreadful. It left out a great variety of things that should have been put in. It was the slapdash job of someone working for money instead of for his own book, and never again was I fooled by any talk of expertise in indexing. When I later discovered that I had been charged five hundred dollars against royalties for the privilege of having that rotten index made, I was ready to choke DeHaan.

Yet you could also argue that this detachment is necessary, a perspective most famously expressed by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle, which includes a chapter titled “Never Index Your Own Book.” It features a former professional indexer who informs the narrator that “indexing was a thing that only the most amateurish author undertook to do for his own book.” She continues: “I’m always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work…It’s a revealing thing, an author’s index of his own work. It’s a shameless exhibition—to the trained eye.”

Speaking from a position of minimal experience, I’d suggest that the best approach is to split the difference, and to have an outside indexer make the first pass, after which the author is given the chance to make modest additions and corrections. I’m currently in the process of doing this for Astounding, and it certainly satisfies me. (I once planned to do it all on my own, like Asimov, but I decided to let somebody else handle it, despite the fact that the cost would be taken out of my advance. This was partially because I liked the idea of a third party going through the book with an objective eye, and also because nobody at my publisher seemed to have even considered the possibility that I would want to do it myself.) The index that they’ve provided is a nice piece of work, and although I’ve caught a few errors and omissions, I’m glad that I left it to a professional. This is the last major task that remains in the writing of a book that has taken up three years of my life, and seeing it through the eyes of an ideally attentive reader—which is what an indexer should be—allows me to engage for hours on end in what Hofstadter calls “a very curious activity, and perhaps overly introspective in some people’s eyes, but irresistible for at least a little while.” It’s as close as I’ll ever get to reading this book for the first time, and although my engagement with this index wasn’t as intensive or prolonged as his was, I can only echo Hofstadter’s conclusion: “Doing this index, painful though it was, afforded me one last pass back through the text, tying things together for a final time, saying goodbye to a work created out of love, and with love, for words, ideas, people.”

The purity test

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Earlier this week, The New York Times Magazine published a profile by Taffy Brodesser-Akner of the novelist Jonathan Franzen. It’s full of fascinating moments, including a remarkable one that seems to have happened entirely by accident—the reporter was in the room when Frazen received a pair of phone calls, including one from Daniel Craig, to inform him that production had halted on the television adaptation of his novel Purity. Brodesser-Akner writes: “Franzen sat down and blinked a few times.” That sounds about right to me. And the paragraph that follows gets at something crucial about the writing life, in which the necessity of solitary work clashes with the pressure to put its fruits at the mercy of the market:

He should have known. He should have known that the bigger the production—the more people you involve, the more hands the thing goes through—the more likely that it will never see the light of day resembling the thing you set out to make in the first place. That’s the real problem with adaptation, even once you decide you’re all in. It just involves too many people. When he writes a book, he makes sure it’s intact from his original vision of it. He sends it to his editor, and he either makes the changes that are suggested or he doesn’t. The thing that we then see on shelves is exactly the thing he set out to make. That might be the only way to do this. Yes, writing a novel—you alone in a room with your own thoughts—might be the only way to get a maximal kind of satisfaction from your creative efforts. All the other ways can break your heart.

To be fair, Franzen’s status is an unusual one, and even successful novelists aren’t always in the position of taking for granted the publication of “exactly the thing he set out to make.” (In practice, it’s close to all or nothing. In my experience, the novel that you see on store shelves mostly reflects what the writer wanted, while the ones in which the vision clashes with those of other stakeholders in the process generally doesn’t get published at all.) And I don’t think I’m alone when I say that some of the most interesting details that Brodesser-Akner provides are financial. A certain decorum still surrounds the reporting of sales figures in the literary world, so there’s a certain frisson in seeing them laid out like this:

And, well, sales of his novels have decreased since The Corrections was published in 2001. That book, about a Midwestern family enduring personal crises, has sold 1.6 million copies to date. Freedom, which was called a “masterpiece” in the first paragraph of its New York Times review, has sold 1.15 million since it was published in 2010. And 2015’s Purity, his novel about a young woman’s search for her father and the story of that father and the people he knew, has sold only 255,476.

For most writers, selling a quarter of a million copies of any book would exceed their wildest dreams. Having written one of the greatest outliers of the last twenty years, Franzen simply reverting to a very exalted mean. But there’s still a lot to unpack here.

For one thing, while Purity was a commercial disappointment, it doesn’t seem to have been an unambiguous disaster. According to Publisher’s Weekly, its first printing—which is where you can see a publisher calibrating its expectations—came to around 350,000 copies, which wasn’t even the largest print run for that month. (That honor went to David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which had half a million copies, while a new novel by the likes of John Grisham can run to over a million.) I don’t know what Franzen was paid in advance, but the loss must have fallen well short of a book like Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, for which he received $7 million and sold 62,000 copies, meaning that his publisher paid over a hundred dollars for every copy that someone actually bought. And any financial hit would have been modest compared to the prestige of keeping a major novelist on one’s list, which is unquantifiable, but no less real. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about publishing over the last decade, it’s that it’s a lot like the movie industry, in which apparently inexplicable commercial and marketing decisions are easier to understand when you consider their true audience. In many cases, when they buy or pass on a book, editors aren’t making decisions for readers, but for other editors, and they’re very conscious of what everyone in their imprint thinks. A readership is an abstraction, except when quantified in sales, but editors have their everyday judgement calls reflected back on them by the people they see every day. Giving up a writer like Franzen might make financial sense, but it would be devastating to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to say nothing of the relationship that can grow between an editor and a prized author over time.

You find much the same dynamic in Hollywood, in which some decisions are utterly inexplicable until you see them as a manifestation of office politics. In theory, a film is made for moviegoers, but the reactions of the producer down the hall are far more concrete. The difference between publishing and the movies is that the latter publish their box office returns, often in real time, while book sales remain opaque even at the highest level. And it’s interesting to wonder how both industries might differ if their approaches were more similar. After years of work, the success of a movie can be determined by the Saturday morning after its release, while a book usually has a little more time. (The exception is when a highly anticipated title doesn’t make it onto the New York Times bestseller list, or falls off it with alarming speed. The list doesn’t disclose any sales figures, which means that success is relative, not absolute—and which may be a small part of the reason why writers seldom wish one another well.) In the absence of hard sales, writers establish the pecking order with awards, reviews, and the other signifiers that have allowed Franzen to assume what Brodesser-Akner calls the mantle of “the White Male Great American Literary Novelist.” But the real takeaway is how narrow a slice of the world this reflects. Even if we place the most generous interpretation imaginable onto Franzen’s numbers, it’s likely that well under one percent of the American population has bought or read any of his books. You’ll find roughly the same number on any given weeknight playing HQ Trivia. If we acknowledged this more widely, it might free writers to return to their proper cultural position, in which the difference between a bestseller and a disappointment fades rightly into irrelevance. Who knows? They might even be happier.

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2018 at 7:49 am

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