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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Powers’

When a Literary Event Hits A Bit Too Close

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Photo credit: Leslie Shipman, the National Book Foundation

If you were in the audience at the Morgan Library yesterday evening and noticed an almost unshakable, unstoppable gale of laughter, well, that was me. I knew that any event featuring National Book Award winner Richard Powers (above, with your humble GalleyCat correspondent) and literary critic John Leonard would be amazing stuff, and the informal conversation comprising the second half of the evening was chock full of observations about the state of criticism, blogging’s place in the literary world, cognitive dissonance, Kurt Vonnegut‘s death, the need for endings and narrative and when the questions went to the audience, why Powers’s piece on using voice recognition software to write his novels has garnered him the most responses of anything he’s written.

But it was the first half, featuring the New York premiere of a new piece by Powers (the world premiere, so to speak, happened late last month at Penn State) that caught my attention immediately and held the audience pretty much in thrall the rest of the way. “The Moving Finger” recounts the curious adventures of a Powers-like narrator as he stumbles across the seemingly anonymous blog Speculum Mundi, whose Latin-named proprietor rants in “Camille Paglia meets NOVA” style about neuroscience, the relevance of literature and other topics to make it “12 percent more accurate than the leading literary blogs.” Slowly, Powers takes his narrator through startling cognitive changes that have him converge and diverge with the blogger in startling ways.

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Pulitzer Prize Winners

The Pulitzer Prize has announced its winners in a variety of categories, and while our Fishbowl siblings will be dissecting the journalism winners, we’ll look at the book-related winners:

FICTION: Cormac McCarthy, THE ROAD (Knopf)

  • Also nominated as finalists in this category were: AFTER THIS by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and THE ECHO MAKER by Richard Powers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • HISTORY: Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, THE RACE BEAT (Knopf)

  • Also nominated as finalists in this category were: “Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005″ by James T. Campbell (The Penguin Press), and “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking).
  • BIOGRAPHY: Debby Applegate, THE MOST FAMOUS MAN IN AMERICA (Doubleday)

  • Also nominated as finalists in this category were: “John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty” by Arthur H. Cash (Yale University Press), and “Andrew Carnegie” by David Nasaw (The Penguin Press).
  • GENERAL NONFICTION: Lawrence Wright, THE LOOMING TOWER (Knopf)

  • Also nominated as finalists in this category were: “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness” by Pete Earley (Putnam), and “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq” by Thomas E. Ricks (The Penguin Press).
  • POETRY: Natasha Trethewey, NATIVE GUARD (Houghton Mifflin)

  • Also nominated as finalists in this category were: “The Republic of Poetry” by Martin Espada (W.W. Norton), and “Interrogation Palace: New & Selected Poems 1982-2004″ by David Wojahn (University of Pittsburgh Press).
  • The upshot is that some of the smaller university presses should be proud, the big winners were Knopf, FSG and the Penguin Press – and about the only prize Cormac McCarthy hasn’t earned is beatification, but who knows, that may follow in due course…

    What Works There Doesn’t Here, and Vice Versa

    Finally, the Bookseller addresses one of my all-time favorite pet issues of the publishing world: how is it that one book can be a phenomenal success in one country but tank elsewhere – or never get published at all? Think of, say, Richard Powers selling almost 300,000 copies of THE TIME OF OUR SINGING in Germany when before his National Book Award win he was selling in staunchly midlist literary fiction numbers. Or Martina Cole being the top-selling novelist in the UK for years on end, but she hadn’t been able to get a book deal in America until only very recently. Many of these disparities have to do with lack of global appeal (Cole was thought to be a tough sell based on her very Essex-centric voice) or foreign rights agents not being pumped up enough to sell certain properties over others, or the commensurate buying foreign houses not enthusiastic enough to buy. I could go on.

    Katherine Rushton focuses her piece specifically on Diane Setterfield‘s THE THIRTEENTH TALE, a big success in the US (staying on the NYT list for weeks on end) but faring far less well in the UK. 14,000 copies sold is fine for a debut novel – but not one that Orion shelled out 800,000 pounds for. So what happened? Well, the Sesalee Hensley touch helped, as did Atria‘s non-stop marketing plan (it worked to earn out the $1 million-plus advance) and the jacket cover worked gangbusters in the US but didn’t go over in the UK, but the true key may be this: publishers point to the book’s romanticized portrayal of England as the key to its raging success in the US, and say that is also precisely what let it down in the UK.

    “It encapsulated England in the way that only Americans think of England. Americans love that quintessential English writing, but it is quite mannered in a way,” says the publishing director of one major house. Chatto & Windus publisher Alison Samuel liked the manuscript but thought it was out of touch with real-life England. “There are two incidences towards the end where they drink cocoa. I haven’t drunk cocoa since I was a child. That picture of cocoa-drinking England only appeals outside England.” Or as another rival publisher put it: “It was pretty terrible. There was one review which was very fair and called it a ‘gothic stew’.”

    Further down the piece really contrasts UK and American approaches, and prognosticates on the fortunes of Jonathan Littell‘s LES BIENVILLANTES, which will be out in 2008 from Chatto (UK) and HarperCollins (US): “It will do very well,” says one rival publisher. “Nazis sell.” But she predicts less of a take-up in the US. “The American [publishers] saw it as much smaller than we do because they thought it was too European, and it probably wouldn’t appeal to their Jewish audience.” Yeah, no wonder she wanted to be anonymous on that quote…