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Archives: April 2005

17-Year Old Becomes Big-Time Writer

Via the NY Sun (sub req’d), breaking news on lit by just-hatched chicks:

Kaavya Viswanathan is set on becoming an investment banker when she graduates from Harvard University in 2008, but a phone call that the 17-year-old freshman received from a literary agent might just cause a change in her plans.

The agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh of the William Morris Agency, told the Franklin Hills, N.J.-born Ms. Viswanathan that Little Brown & Company … agreed to a two-book deal with the teenager. The sum approached $500,000, a staggering amount for an unpublished writer, let alone someone who’d barely left home for college.

…Ms. Viswanathan said she’s already written more than 150 pages, or more than a third of the manuscript. [Ed's Note -- 150 pages for half a mil = about $3,000 per page.]

“It’s a little tough to do this writing and also juggle classes and the homework,” she said. “This is a big-time commitment. It’s not like writing an essay for a class.”

You Don’t Have to Write White Teeth to Get Them


The Return of, before it closed shop*, might not always have been fair, but at least it dispensed its (purportedly) unfair attacks democratically:

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Cordle said that while the unveiling of his identity was the immediate cause of his decision to close the Foetry site, he had been planning to do so “for about a month” because of frequent requests from his wife.

She, it turns out, is a poet – Kathleen Halme, who in September 1994 won a poetry contest managed by the University of Georgia Press, the Contemporary Poetry Series, one of the contests that Mr. Cordle has railed against as corrupt.

*Update: Seems the NY Times article, quoted above, got it wrong. Or, wanted to prove the article wrong, because — according to the site’s homepage — Foetry’s already jumped back inside the ring:

Foetry! We missed you. Why did you come back? It’s the biased and poorly researched article in the New York Times declaring a surrender. Reminds me of the Wicked Witch of the West flying through the sky, “Surrender Foetry.” You can thank Foets, Janet Holmes who has threatened me with legal action, and Jorie Graham, who said that I lied. Well, Foets, the site’s back up and I stand behind the information here. — Alan Cordle

“The Most Unheralded Job in Publishing”

This week, Adam Langer devotes his Book Standard column to “the most unheralded job in publishing,” that of the copyeditor. Here’s some highlights:

AL: Do you feel that your job is too anonymous?* Should you get more credit?

SL: The anonymity is appropriate. It’s akin to a referee or umpire in a sports contest: If you become aware of his presence, chances are, something’s wrong.

CD: I once had a colleague who complained that text and book-jacket designers are credited, so editors should be too, but I don’t feel a need to be credited. I usually receive thanks from authors in e-mails or phone calls, and that means a lot to me, especially since my job is to be an annoying gadfly and question every little decision they made. Sometimes, frankly, I would not want credit, particularly when an author insists on atypical or inconsistent style choices, errors, anachronisms or offensive wording.


AL: What if you have to copyedit a book that you hate? Can you distance yourself?

SL: You have to. It’s like a mechanic who hates Volkswagens: He still has to do a good job fixing whatever’s wrong, no matter his personal dislike of Jettas.

JZB: I work in fits and starts, bitch and moan to others in the business, toy with the idea of leaving everything just as it is, walk around the block when I find myself sarcastically reading passages aloud to myself. When the deadline looms close enough, I sit down and do what I’m being paid to do. You just do your best and wonder why you didn’t make a career of grooming poodles or putting wheels on toy trains when you had the chance. And why you didn’t have the business sense to whip out a piece of trash and sell it to a publisher for a huge advance.

*In this case, anonymity would only be the result of my laziness. So, though it takes extra typing, here’s the names the above initials refer to: JZB = Judit Z. Bodnar (favorite projects: Thursday’s Universe, by Marcia Bartusiak, and Wakefield, by Andrei Codrescu); SL = Steve Lamont (favorite projects: David Sedaris’s books and The Ice Queen, by Alice Hoffman); and CD = Courtney Denney (favorite projects: How to Survive a Robot Uprising, by Daniel H. Wilson and Candyfreak, by Steve Almond).


efoot.jpgTo those who keep emailing me links to JSF’s fake homepage: if I were to rank effective impersonations of JSF in terms of Elvis fakes, I’d say Tom Scocca might look like this, and JSF’s new “homepage,” probably something as unfortunate as this or <a this.

Number Theory

Reading the latest Book Babes column at, I came across this surprising — or, actually, unfathomable — statistic:

Alas, the fans of serious–i.e., challenging–fiction are a group that figuratively fits in the palm of your hand. John O’Brien, of the Center for Book Culture, told me he thought this band may include no more than 35,000 people nationwide, and they’re concentrated largely around universities. Maybe, on a good day, up to a few hundred thousand.

Readers, is this true? Or, is it the result of an overly strict definition of “serious”?

Source Code

spumante.jpgHow do you take The Da Vinci Code‘s mass appeal, and reduce it to the smallest possible — and least profitable — audience? Push its premise to the meta-, and then select, as your target readership, the only segment of the population that expects to get your book for free.

In other words, write The Asti Spumante Code, summarized by its author, Toby Clements, as a book industry parody, one which goes like this:

…The secret of the great blockbuster novel … has been passed down through the ages from great author to great author. These authors, I surmised, more of them women than one might expect and all of them directly related, pooled their knowledge in the hope that one day a descendant of theirs would write the perfect novel.

A sinister cabal of publishers hopes to steal the secret and turn it into a bestseller that would occupy the number one slot for ever and so destroy all competition. The two drippy heroes must solve a string of preposterous clues to rescue the secret from the dark forces.

Because “the secret of the great blockbuster novel” should never, God Forbid, result in a blockbuster novel. Is The Da Vinci Code also so confusing?

“The Rashomon Moment”

Reading Margo Hammond’s thoughts on the selection of the NBCC’s fiction award in 1998 (quoted earlier today), I kept thinking back to John Sutherland’s description of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace as the “quietest (most boring, some would say) Booker for some years,” a sentiment his fellow judges from 1999 were quick to disparage. I wondered if Margo’s fellow judges had similar disagreements with her characterization of The Blue Flower as a passion-less choice, but there was no way to know — until Publishers Lunch linked to House of Mirth, critic James Marcus’s blog.

James writes,

Now, I served on the jury that year along with Margo (who I know very slightly). It’s true that The Blue Flower was a dark horse, especially in the year of Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. To make my own preferences clear at the outset, I admire The Blue Flower more than DeLillo’s loose-and-baggy monster, and would certainly put it on par with the Roth (which alternates sublime passages with particle-board contrivance). But I’m not bitching because everybody doesn’t agree with me. What offended me was the suggestion that we threw some old bag the prize because we were rent asunder by Phil and Don. As I recall it (and here comes the Rashomon moment), many board members felt almost obligated to genuflect at the DeLillian altar: it was a big fat book by a major (the epithet is mine) author, he hadn’t gotten his share of prizes, etc etc. But once it became clear that Underworld was not a given, the jurors started bolting. Some voted for Roth, some for Fitzgerald. Some may have felt that The Blue Flower was a merely acceptable compromise. If so, they voted for the right book for the wrong reasons. It’s a masterpiece, and deserved the prize as richly as any novel in the organization’s history.

Almond (Kill)Joy

911lit.jpgThe CS Monitor‘s obligatory “9/11 Lit Survey” hits the press 1-2 months after other publications’ surveys, but its timing pairs it off with one of the most interesting discussions of 9/11 Lit yet to arrive: Steve Almond’s provocative (and, very likely, unfair) evisceration of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as “unsophisticated” “melodrama,” “a wish fantasy borne of the sorrows of 9/11″ that “peddles the seductive notion that our best response to those attacks need be no more mature than a childish wish that evil be banished from our magic kingdom.”

Read more

The Prize is Right, or Not

I just got around to reading the Washington Post‘s long piece on “literary prizes, and the near-impossible task of picking,” which asks — disingenuously, one hopes — why “different prize boards rarely crown the same title” when prizes are supposedly issued to “the best of the best.”

And, Yawn of Yawns: the eventual conclusion goes like this: The real problem in evaluating literature by committee, though, lies not in any particular process but in the inherently subjective nature of literary judgment. [Blah Blah Blah...] As much as people diss literary theory, one thimble’s worth of Derrida could inoculate book sections — for months to come — against the misguided presentation of “subjectivity” as a revelation.

To its credit, though, the article does have a couple interesting pieces of information: book critic John Freeman notes that all past winners of the NBCC award in fiction are still in print; and Margo Hammond cites Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower as an example of a “default win”:

“It happens all the time in prize committees,” says Freeman, “where two books that have a lot of supporters split the vote, and a third book comes in from behind.” One such upset occurred in 1998, according to the NBCC’s Hammond. “There was a huge contest” between Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Roth’s American Pastoral. The winner? The Blue Flower, by British author Penelope Fitzgerald. “We can say it, now that she’s died,” says Hammond. “It wasn’t the book that people felt passionate about.”