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Archives: April 2008

Are “Women’s Fiction” Book Jackets Anti-Feminist?

girlsintrucks-bookjacket.jpgLast month, we spotted lots of “women’s fiction” book jackets with cover models who were photographed from behind. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Karen Heller has spotted them, too, and conflates that trend with the “disjointed body parts” cover trend of a few years back to come up with an overarching conspiracy theory:

“The thinking, or so I imagine, is that readers will look at these women’s body parts or backs and identify. ‘Why that’s me!’ or ‘That looks just like my old friend Susie!’ In other words, they think we’re stupid.”

Other than that, her argument pretty much boils down to “I really like Katie Crouch‘s Girls in Trucks, which means it can’t be chick lit, so why does it have a chick lit cover?” Then there’s the curious assertion that “if [publishers] would banish the uniform covers… and realize that women—who buy an awful lot of books—will buy ones without pink or shoes or severed body parts on the cover, they might sell a good deal more copies.” In the meantime, maybe Heller can start a book club with Maureen Dowd and Jane Smiley.

What do you think?

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Margaret “B. Jones” Seltzer’s ‘Love And Consequences” Promo Video

This video, which blogger Harry Allen theorizes was part of the electronic press kit Riverhead sent out to promote Margaret Seltzer‘s recalled and debunked memoir of gang life, is unexpectedly riveting. It’s not just interesting because of the kind of stuff that Seltzer’s saying — “It’s like being a Palestinian suicide bomber. When you’re born into it … it makes perfect, perfect sense” — it’s also just amazing to watch someone lie and lie and lie. You’d think, though, that her total inability to make anything like eye contact with the camera, or maybe the way her weird drawly accent comes and goes, would have tipped someone off to the fact that Seltzer was playing a character — and not particularly well. But of course, everyone was fooled.

Creating an “Antidote” to Our Dystopian Futures

I’m not entirely sure what the uniting theme of Sunday’s Festival of Books panel on “Finding Truth in Imagined Places” was; I thought it had something to do with literary writers who incorporated elements of the fantastic into their work, but panelist Gary Amdahl suggested that his stories were much more documentary than imaginative, and if they did seem fantastic, “it’s the placebo effect from sitting next to these guys.” Then, too, the moderator’s questions wandered all over the map, including some blatant fishing for material for the LA Times book blog, Jacket Copy, which chewed up at least five minutes, so that when there was absolutely no time left for questions from the audience at the end, I think some people were a little disappointed.

(Though not as much as the festival attendee I chatted with earlier in the day, who was appalled that the panel on “critic’s voices” hadn’t included any women—which struck us as odd given that the LA Times Book Review has Susan Salter Reynolds, and local author Carolyn See is a regular contributor to the Washington Post.)

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Once we started hearing about the books that brought these authors to the table, though, James Howard Kunstler (left) told the audience how his new novel, World Made By Hand, extrapolated from the themes of his last nonfiction book, The Long Emergency. When he turned the novel in to his editor, Kunstler recalled, “he behaved as if I had handed him a basket of garlic and crosses,” and then tried to dissuade him with a lowball offer. (That was before he got a new agent, though.) He conceded that, in writing about a world a few years into the future where the depleted oil supply leads to the collapse of our technological infrastructure, “I was very conscious of The Road being out there… I knew what it was about, and I wanted [my book] to be the antidote to that, to suggest that this isn’t the worst thing that could happen.”

Kunstler and I chatted earlier, before the panel began, about the trailer he’d made for his novel, and he told me about a second short film he’d produced, again a series of still images but this time with soliloquies and dialogues rather than voiceovers. It’s interesting—I’m not entirely convinced that the dramatization through still images works consistently, this actually got me thinking about the possibilities of podcasting audio-only adaptations of novels like serial dramas for the radio. Not that I have any idea how to make such a thing commercially viable just yet, but give me time…

Whither Indie Publishing? “I Don’t Know”

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“I think the publishing industry in general has done a poor job of teaching authors how to be proactive about their own books,” Walker publisher George Gibson (left) told the audience at a Saturday afternoon Los Angeles Times Festival of Books panel on the future of indie publishing. “It is essential that publishers figure out the Internet because publishers haven’t done that.” Akashic Books publisher Johnny Temple agreed about the need to come to terms with the technological advances: “I can’t be blind or naive to the fact that culture is constantly evolving,” he said, but he can still take steps to influence that process—instead of complaining that nobody reads anymore, he suggested, publishers can use digital media to “reach out to the communities that are being ignored.”

Susan Weinberg of PublicAffairs talked about her company’s recent success rushing an e-book by George Soros to “print,” and then offered some practical marketing advice for authors. “If you can develop a sizable e-mail list of people who have a serious affinity for what you’re saying,” she proposed, “the effect is like an appearance on NPR.” And James Atlas found himself wishing that Robert Miller, who’d been spotted around the UCLA campus, was here to join in the discussion—in the meantime, he said that when he talks to people outside of publishing, “the idea that this is an industry is just laughable.” (As in, you have to pay retailers to get your products featured in their stores, and you have to let them return the unsold products and refund their money?) Reflecting on the panel’s title (“Where do we go from here?”), “the answer I came up with… was ‘I don’t know,’” Atlas admitted. “After 12 years, I really feel like a novice still.”

“And So Live Ever—Or Else Swoon to Death”

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As I was getting breakfast in the Festival of Books green room Sunday morning, I spotted Los Angeles Times Book Prize-winning poet Stanley Plumly at an adjacent table, so I went over to offer my congratulations and ask him about his new book, Posthumous Keats, and what attracted him to Keats as a subject. “The poignancy of his life and the power of his death,” Plumly replied readily:

“It’s not sudden or abrupt, the way Shelley died,” he elaborated. “In a way, it’s the inevitability of it, once the process starts, and you can see the markers of decline… [Also,] this grandest of all literary poets thought he had failed, and the irony is that he succeeded so beautifully.”

Instead of a straightforward biography, Plumly circles around some of the key moments in Keats’s life—”never far from Rome and those last days”—with a steady eye on how his status as one of the all-time greats emerged. Reputation, he reflected, is always transient, and the way we perceive our literary icons depends as much on the responses of other readers as it does on the work itself. “You can say in hindsight that it’s inevitable his work would be remembered forever,” Plumly observed, “but there’s no guarantee.”

Bookstore-Hoaxing Gang Impersonates Mark Sarvas and Nick Hornby!

claudia.jpgToday in weird: Recently, there’s been an outbreak of would-be hoaxers calling up California bookstores pretending to be authors who are booked for reading events — then hitting up the friendly booksellers for small amounts of cash. Petty crime or pomo art project? It’s hard to say! One recent caller pretended to be debut novelist and litblogger Mark Sarvas, whose new book is all about a dude who gets himself in sticky situations by spinning elaborate and unnecessary falsehoods. “So even though I think it’s a little weird that he’s asking me to help him get his car out of impound, I’m also thinking, ‘Well, it’s Saturday night, maybe he couldn’t reach anybody, and you know, I’m going to see him on Tuesday. . . .’ And he didn’t say anything about money for a really long time,” Skylight Books’ Kelly Slattery told the LAT. Slattery didn’t ultimately fall for the ruse.

Book Soup’s Tosh Berman, who dealt with a hoaxer pretending to be Nick Hornby, speculates that there’s a ‘gang’ on the loose that “has several members — one black man, one English guy, one woman — to make impersonation easier. ‘It’s like the Mod Squad or something.’” This is a dastardly gang indeed. Like booksellers don’t have enough problems!

Silver’s Lining

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Former Houhgton Publisher Janet Silver, downsized during the Harcourt merger, is now taking her authors to Nan A. Talese. According to the Observer, “Silver has formally moved three of her authors to her new list at Doubleday: Monique Truong, Peter Ho Davies and John Pipkin. That leaves about a dozen more, all of whom, according to Ms. Silver, could still end up following her to Doubleday,” including Philip Roth and Jonathan Safran Foer. However, according to Publishers Lunch,

HMH trade and reference president Gary Gentel says that “with distinguished publisher Becky Saletan and a staff of a dozen editors and the smarts of the combined Houghton and Harcourt publicity, sales and marketing departments in place…Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has a bigger presence than ever in the industry and is geared up to publish Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer and an ever-expanding list of award-winning and bestselling authors for many years to come.”

However, The Observer isn’t quite as optimistic as Gentel

The fact that Houghton Mifflin, once a beloved, ambitious literary house, has been all but dismantled as a result of the Harcourt merger, suggests that authors will be even more eager to jump ship now…

Hyperion Reorg Includes A New “Digital Marketing” Department

New Hyperion president Ellen Archer is refining her strategy in the wake of founder and longtime president Bob Miller‘s departure: She has promoted relatively new hire Will Balliet, who had been Editorial Director, to Editor in Chief and Executive Director, and she’s imported Mindy Stockfield, who had been a VP of Digital Media at Disney-ABC television — Disney also owns Hyperion — to oversee a new “Digital Marketing” department. Stockfield had been responsible for production and operations of DisneyChannel.com, PlayhouseDisney.com, ToonDisney.com, RadioDisney.com, Jetix.tv and ABCKids.com. This means that Hyperion’s website will probably stop being so sad, and it’s also another clear indicator that the relationship between Hyperion and ABC-Disney is getting cozier.

Cocktails at Tiffany’s

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Last night’s soiree for James Patterson and his latest novel Sundays at Tiffany’s was the first book celebration at Tiffany & Co. since the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote in 1968.
Hosted by Mike Kowalski, Tiffany and Co’s Chairman and CEO, there was a mix of media and fashion folks noshing on pigs in blankets (couchon en douvet?) and drinking the vino including Tiffany’s creative director John Loring, New York Post’s gossip gal Liz Smith, agent Bob Barnett, CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver, Hachette Book Group CEO David Young, Little, Brown Publisher Michael Pietsch, President of Random House films Peter Gethers, and Publishers Weekly’s Sara Nelson. The highbrow event even made the NYC Social Diary
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Tiffany’s created two window displays at their 5th ave store featuring the book along with their Celebration Ring which is mentioned in Paterson’s return to the romance novel. In his speech, Patterson mentioned that one of his most well-received books was a love story (Suzanne’s Diaries for Nicholas) and that many fans named their children Nicholas after reading it.
I wonder how many people out there are named Alex Cross? I know of at least one cat…

Note to self: title next book after famous and very expensive store.

Sunday, Bloody Sunday: Wieseltier Goes on the Offensive

martin-amis-secondplane.jpgYou might remember that two weeks ago, Jim Sleeper defended Martin Amis against what he perceived as the worst excesses of Michiko Kakutani‘s assault on The Second Plane, Amis’s collection of essays and stories on 9/11. So when Leon Wieseltier stomped all over Amis in the NY Times Book Review last Sunday, Sleeper was ready to weigh in, saying that Wieseltier’s scorn for “‘fine’ writers who stray into public intellection” was entirely predictable. “What is surprising,” he adds, is that Wieseltier’s review is itself so preening and melodramatic,” to which a regular reader of the Review might well respond, “This surprises you how, exactly?” I especially love how Wieseltier goes out of his way to slam Nicholson Baker again at the end, four years after Checkpoint.

Sleeper actually agrees with Wieseltier that “Amis is too often grandiloquent and preening, his virtuosity sometimes outrunning reason and even reporting,” but he finds the long string of insults Wieseltier unleashes odd, and indulges in a bit of psychobiography to explain how his “gravitas for hire” writing style emerged, as well as discussing Wieseltier’s status as a fellow traveler with the neoconservatives who foisted the invasion of Iraq on us. “Wieseltier cannot condemn Amis honestly without condemning himself,” Sleeper argues. “So he condemns him dishonestly. And his writing assumes the flat, vacant intensity he imputes to Amis.”

(Mind you, Sleeper’s argument with Wieseltier has long roots.)

Of course, it wouldn’t do the Review much good if Sleeper were the only person talking about the article—one might well consider the possibility that Wieseltier is invited back to the Review over and over again because he creates controversy. And, lo, Leon Neyfakh rounds up some reactions from the likes of Tony Judt, Mark Lilla, and Ian Buruma, which allows Wieseltier an opportunity to get in another cheap shot: “If Buruma believes that one should write stylishly about important things, then he should begin to do so.”

(photo of Amis: David Levene/Guardian)

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