“I’ve read more non-Random House books in the last few months than I have in the last few years,” Daniel Menaker says as we chat about his new gig as the host of Titlepage.TV, a new online talk show about books and writers that debuted early this morning. “I’m too busy, but it’s amazing how much time I have now that I don’t have meetings all the time.” (In addition to preparing the final four shows in the show’s trial six-episode run, Menaker is also writing a book about the art of conversation—A Good Talk—for Twelve, an alignment of projects he swears was not premeditated. Plus he’s writing reviews for Barnes & Noble‘s new online journal, and he’s teaching a class on narrative nonfiction at CUNY. Oh, and he’s still working with a handful of authors, like Simon Rich and Emily Chenoweth, continuing to shepherd their books to publication.)
“I was hoping that as I left Random House, people might come to me with one thing or another,” he reflects, and while a number of literary agencies approached him about the possibility of joining their ranks, he ultimately decided to work with Titlepage executive producers Odile Isralson and Lina Matta—who offered him the hosting position after he’d done some initial consulting on the show’s development—because “I didn’t know anything about doing this and I wanted to find out what it was like.” And the enthusiasm with which he describes even the smallest details of working on the set, like “putting the bug in my ear,” is readily apparent.
When Titlepage was first announced, I wrote:
“I’m dying to know what the Titlepage site will offer besides those taped conversations—how do Menaker and the producers intend to turn viewers into active, engaged participants? Because ‘[letting] people listen in on a conversation they might like to have themselves’ can only take you so far; one of the most powerful aspects of online media is that it allows you to move beyond talking at your audience and start talking with them.”
As I begin to touch upon that issue during our conversation, Menaker concedes the broad point, informing me that in addition to the core offering of the hour-long show, the website will offer discussion boards and a blog to which he’ll be contributing, but only occasionally. “I look forward to [the forums],” he says, “but it takes a long time to be ready to talk about these books, even though the final conversations are very short.” He holds up a copy of one of the novels from the first show, flipping through the pages to show me his handwritten notes, for emphasis. (I would find out later that the show also has a Facebook group, created by executive producer Lina Matta.)
So it’s too early to judge those online elements, because people haven’t really started to show up to comment yet, but how’s the show? The conversation was as solid and smart as promised, though I confess that, after the introductory remarks, I listened to it more than I watched, flipping over to the browser window with the streaming video only when Menaker started asking questions of a new guest, or if the group discussion in the back half of the show sounded especially interesting. So what I did see of the visual style was for the most part appropriately simple and unobtrusive given the subject matter, but the show seems like it could work just as effectively as an audio podcast, and it is available in that format on iTunes. (There’s also a video podcast; I wonder how the show looks on Apple TV—if any of you decide to watch it that way, let me know!)
The lineup for the first episode of Titlepage included debut novelist Charles Bock, and since this news was unveiled the same week that Bock was the subject of a lengthy profile in the New York Times Magazine, my anonymous tipline immediately began buzzing with resentful insinuations that Menaker had used his influence with Times reporter Charles McGrath to promote a Random House author. As I tentatively raise the subject, Menaker moves swiftly to shoot that conspiracy theory down.
“I should have whoever said that on a fiction show, because it’s simply not true,” he says. “I read a small part of Beautiful Children [while still at Random House] and I was all for it.” Then, when he and online editor John Williams met with Isralson and Matta to pick guests for the early episodes, they chose the novel based on their group perception of its merits. “But I didn’t know, when I booked him on the show, that he was going to be on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. I didn’t know that Chip was going to do a piece on him.” (In fact, he recalls a little later, he didn’t even find out about the magazine article until McGrath told him he was going to Las Vegas for a story.)
Ultimately, Menaker says, “I have to make sure to keep the guest selections as intrinsic as possible,” to maintain a “simon-pure” focus on books and authors that truly deserve such close attention, without falling prey to buzz. “Talent ultimately surfaces,” he observes. “We have on who we want.” As he plans out the lineups for the episodes yet unproduced, he finds that having one author in place, like David Hajdu or Elizabeth Strout, helps to get other writers interested—and, he adds, book publishers have so few general media outlets where fiction writers can talk about their craft that “people want to be on the show simply because it exists.”