Friday, August 30, 2013

Once more into notebooks--but this time Fitzgerald's!

I mentioned the abundance of F. Scott Fitzgerald's notebooks in Wednesday's post, which of course meant that I had to go pull them off the shelf and spend some time with them. Fitzgerald's notebooks differ from Anthony Powell's not only in their extent, but in their substance: in addition to single lines and ideas, they include many more developed thoughts, often running to a paragraph or more of prose. This one is fairly typical:
779 I went on one of those Armistice Day bats and the girl I was with drove my car into a hotel lobby and knocked down a major. He really wasn't hurt but he was shocked and they put me in Leavenworth to see whether he'd die or not. Only a couple of months--the girl's father was a big man in Kansas and they acted very well about it.
I won't quote extensively from Fitzgerald's notebooks the way I did from Powell's on Wednesday; I'll instead simply say that if you enjoy the form, and Fitzgerald, you'll enjoy this volume.

I do, however, want to share three entries that jumped out at me today as being reminiscent of Powell:
627 His old clothes with their faint smell of old clothes.

992 Family explained or damned by its dog.

1491 "Why, she's your wife--I can't imagine touching your wife." Having heard this said to a husband ten minutes before the most passionate attempts to maneuver the wife into bed.
I realize that some of what I'm reading as similarity of thought is simply the nature of the form, but even so, don't those seem like lines Powell would have enjoyed?

All of which leads me to not be able to resist closing with Powell's description of Fitzgerald, whom he met while on his brief, unsatisfactory sojourn there as a screenwriter. It's found in his memoir, To Keep the Ball Rolling:
He was smallish, neat, solidly built, wearing a light grey suit, light-coloured tie, all his tones essentially light. Photographs--seen for the most part years later--do not do justice to him. Possibly he was one of those persons who at once become self-conscious when photographed. Even snapshots tend to give him an air of swagger, a kind of cockiness, which, anyway at that moment, he did not at all possess. On the contrary, one was at once aware of an odd sort of unassuming dignity. There was no hint at all of the cantankerous temper that undoubtedly lurked beneath the surface. His air could be thought a trifle sad, not, as sometimes described in this period, in the least brokendown. When, years later, I came to know Kingsley Amis, his appearance recalled Fitzgerald's too me, a likeness photographs of both confirm.
More amusingly typical of Powell is the following observation, made before he'd managed to meet Fitzgerald:
One could not fail to notice the tone in which people in Hollywood spoke of Fitzgerald. It was as if Lazarus, just risen from the dead, were to be looked on as of some doubtful promise as a screenwriter.
Later, Powell shares a charming note that Fitzgerald sent him in thanks for a copy of From a View to a Death. Noting the manners and courtesy indicated by Fitzgerald's having taken time to send the note, he offers this aside:
I discovered only much later that a lot was happening in his own life which would have excused forgetfulness.
And thus is a Powellian plot built: in life we only learn later, and often at second-hand, what furies were secretly driving our friends and peers to distraction even as we were attempting to outpace the furies on our own tails.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Anthony Powell's notebook

I drew on Anthony Powell's A Writer's Notebook for Monday's post, and today I can't help but go back to it. As my love of writer's letters attests, I'm a sucker for extra-canonical work, the fragments and effluvia of a writing life. Powell's notebook is easily my favorite.

No small part of that, of course, is because Powell is my favorite writer, and the notebooks are full of thoughts about characters and situations that would find their way into A Dance to the Music of Time. But I suspect they'd be fun for anyone who enjoys dry English wit, aphorisms, and disconnected lines of dialogue and character description that suggest a whole world.

Herewith, some examples!
A man sits wrapped in gloom after conversation with a bore.

"As to baths, I shouldn't think he overdid it."

Women have a way of saying "Oh yes," when a man's name is mentioned, indicating that they have slept with him.

Although unintellectual people should not be allowed to be rackety, rackety types have a link with people of the intellect.

I am an only child, accordingly there has always seemed to me something rather sinister about large families.

Different Opinions (Book title).

A man in the Secret Service, who is writing a novel in the style of James Joyce, which is stolen by foreign agents.

"She kept a tame rat." "How typical."

Man Traps for Womanizers (title for a book of short stories).

A woman who memorises phrases from reviews, and brings them out in conversation.

"Like good morals, one likes some people to have them, even though one may not want them oneself."

"His mentor proved a devotee of Bacchus."
I could go on all day. My only complaint about the book is that it is so brief, only 169 small-trim pages, which seems a pittance if, as the flap copy indicates, the notebook was kept up for sixty years. There's none of the abundance of Fitzgerald's notebooks here, sadly. What we do have, however, is a pleasure, and I'm grateful for it. And gratitude, writes Powell, "has some claims to be regarded as the rarest of human virtues."

Monday, August 26, 2013

The humiliations of Widmerpool

Recently while flipping through Anthony Powell's A Writer's Notebook, I happened across an entry that can't believe I hadn't noticed before:
Someone pees on Widmerpool and Fettiplace-Jones, during an army exercise. ?Sunny Farebrother
There are a lot of Dance-related snippets in the notebook, many of them kernels of characters or episodes found in the books, others eventually discarded. But this one seems to me easily the most interesting of the leftovers.

If you know A Dance to the Music of Time, then as soon as you read that entry you can instantly picture how Powell would handle it, and how it would work into the unfolding of Widmerpool's character. The scenes in training camp do a great job of revealing character anyway, as Jenkins encounters both new people and a number of familiar figures from his life who are now thrust into new positions and new relationships. And the training exercises in particular, their complexity and pointlessness guaranteeing they'll be cock-ups, push characters beyond their usual limits. It's during a training exercise that we see Nick, quietly and subtly, come as close to losing it as at any other time in the series. So to imagine a series of mistakes that would lead Sunny Farebrother to pee on Widmerpool isn't difficult. And it would surely have appealed to Powell's love of echo, calling to mind the night that Jimmy Stripling attempted to play a trick on Farebrother with a full chamber pot.

More important, such an incident would also fit with the pattern, observed as early as school, of Widmerpool being physically assaulted in a humiliating fashion . . . and seeming to take masochistic pleasure from it. At school, it's a banana thrown by the cricket captain, an "over-ripe" banana, Stringham says, that "burst all over his face, knocking his spectacles sideways." Stringham continues:
Do you know an absolutely slavish look came into Widmerpool's face. "I don't mind," he said. "I don't mind, Budd. I don't mind in the least." . . . It was as if Widmerpool had experienced some secret and awful pleasure.
A few years later, a similar occurrence at a formal dinner--involving a girl Widmerpool likes pouring a caster of sugar on his head--results in Widmerpool looking
beyond words grotesque. The sugar sparkled on him like hoar-frost, and, when he moved, there was a faint rustle as of snow falling gently from the leaves of a tree in some wintry forest.
Instantly, Nick recalls what Stringham called Widmerpool's "slavish" look:
There could have been no better description of his countenance as he shook off the sugar on to the carpet beneath him. Once again the same situation had arisen; parallel acceptance of public humiliation; almost the identically explicit satisfaction derived from grovelling before someone he admired; for this element seemed to show itself unmistakably--though only for a flash--when he glanced reproachfully towards Barbara: and then looked away. This self-immolation, if, indeed, to be recorded as such, was displayed for so curtailed a second that any substance possessed by that almost immediately shifting mood was to be appreciated only by someone, like myself, cognisant already of the banana incident; so that when Widmerpool pushed his way between the chairs, disappearing a minute later between the doors of the supper-room, he appeared to the world at large, perhaps correctly, to be merely a man in a towering rage.
An additional scene of Widmerpool's physical humiliation--and, presumably, his largely concealed pleasure in it, would seem to fit with Powell's aims. As described in the notebook, it would have the added benefit of enabling us to see Widmerpool's reaction in contrast to that of a minor character. Surely Fettiplace-Jones would have responded with anger, unleavened by any more secret feelings.

But then there's the simple fact that the scene involves urine--and the inextricability of that from sex. Oh, urophiliacs may be few and far between, but nonetheless it would be hard to write a scene in which Widmerpool adopted a "slavish" look in the wake of being peed on without putting the reader in the mind of unusual sexual preferences. I suspect that Powell decided, therefore, that the scene (whose comic potential can't be denied) was a step too far: for while he did eventually want us to realize that Widmerpool's love of humiliation extended to matters sexual (remember Pamela's taunting him about voyeurism in the presence of a painting of Candaules and Gyges), to have made it explicit that early would have risked altering our perception of the arc of Widmerpool's life. Instead we learn of his sexual humiliation at the very moment that his life is crumbling around him, his power revealed to be to some extent a mirage.

So in the end, Powell left the scene out, and in fact kept Widmerpool out of the training camp section entirely. It isn't until later that Nick is assigned to his staff, where he discovers that Widmerpool's ruthlessness and eye for power are perfectly suited to the military structure, with its need to deny men their individuality even as it needs some of them to retain enough of it to facilitate the denial of the rest. (As Powell wrote in his notebook, "The Army is at once the best and the worst place in the world of egotism," and elsewhere, "The Army is of necessity the world of the will; if the will is weak, the Army is weak.") Sunny Farebrother is there, too, and it turns out that he's Widmerpool's bureaucratic foe--but while there is pissing, it's metaphorical, and the person who gets the worse soaking is, sadly, Sunny.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Javier Marias

Javier Marias's new novel, The Infatuations, opens like this:
The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time that his wife, Luisa, saw him, which seemed strange, perhaps unfair, given that she was his wife, while I, on the other hand, was a person he had never met, a woman with whom he had never exchanged so much as a single word. I didn't even know his name, or only when it was too late, only when I saw a photo in the newspaper, showing him after he had been stabbed several times, with his shirt half off, and about to become a dead man, if he wasn't dead already in his own absent consciousness, a consciousness that never returned: his last thought must have been that the person stabbing him was doing so by mistake and for no reason, that is, unremittingly, with the intention of erasing him from the world and expelling him from the earth without further delay, right there and then. But why do I say "too late," I wonder, too late for what? I have no idea, to be honest. It's just that when someone dies, we always think it's too late for anything, or indeed everything--certainly too late to go on waiting for him--and we write him off as another casualty.
And on and on it goes: the first paragraph takes up more than a page.

I first encountered Marias via his collection of opinionated, amused mini-biographies of writers, Written Lives, which I'd recommend to any fan of the brief life. In the years since that collection was published in English, Marias's reputation has only grown: his trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, adventurous and dramatic and rich in ideas, is one of the great achievements of our era. A new Marias novel has become a reason to rush to my local bookstore.

What I'm looking forward to, more than anything, is those sentences, to sinking into their extravagance. No other writer writes like that; no one else is so profligate with commas, so unashamed about repetition, so interested in offering slightly different perspectives on every thought, like a fly's eye turned into prose. It's a stylized representation of thought, to be sure, but it's an effective one once you surrender to it: at times reading a Marias novel feels almost like reading a single, inconceivably long sentence from a mind whose turnings we can't help but recognize. Marias spins out thoughts like no one else, giving them the space, obsessive and repetitive, that we accord them in our own minds, and the effect is hypnotic.

Fortunately for new readers, if the passage above tempts you, there's an easy way into Marias's work: pick up Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, a 57-page New Directions Pearl that I think is among the best things Marias has written. It presents the themes and questions that animate all of Marias's books: questions of action and responsibility, fate and death, the unknowability of the future and the mutability of the past, and the power of narrative to control, rearrange, and change our idea of what just happened--especially when that narrative is deliberately used to deny, explain away, or shift culpability. And, as Marias is one of those rare non-genre writers who has characters appear in different roles in multiple books, Bad Nature offers the bonus of featuring a character who appears in other books, including The Infatuations.

Marias is a gem, folks. Give him a try.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kingsley, Martin, and fuck off!

One other thing I admire about Martin Amis's Experience, which I wrote about on Monday, is its clear-eyed assessment of Kingsley's fiction. Martin is a fan, claiming (not unreasonably) that his father was the best postwar comic novelist (to say nothing of his position as "the poet laureate of the hangover"). While he acknowledges that not all of Kingsley's novels are wholly successful (and that many of the failures are deeply misogynistic), he finds something to admire in nearly all of them, and what's more, he's convincing in his argument, deftly illustrating points (in the fiction and the life) with well-chosen examples that make you want to read the novels in question. (Fortunately for all of us, the New York Review of Books is in the process of republishing a number of them, starting of course with Lucky Jim and the bitter but admirable and hilarious Old Devils and moving on from there. Gods, of all stripes, bless the NYRB Classics.)

The following passage, from The Old Devils is probably my favorite that Martin cites. Charlie, the protagonist, is rescued from a tortuous public dedication of a statue by his friend Alun with his car. As they drive off, Alun pokes his head out of the window and tells Pugh, the Welsh-loving American who has made the dedication such a stultifying experience, to fuck off. Then:
"They do say fuck off in America, don't they?" asked Alun anxiously.

"I'm sure they understand it."

. . . Alun laughed quietly for a short time, shaking his head in indulgent self-reproach. . . . He lowered his voice and went on, "Hey--timing really was important for that. I got badly caught in Kilburn once telling a Bulgarian short-story writer . . . to fuck off for two or three minutes while the chap driving the open car I was sitting in turned round in the cul-de-sac I hadn't noticed we were at the end of. Amazing how quickly the bloom fades on fuck off, you know. Say it a couple of times running and you've got out of it nearly all you're going to get."

"And there's not a lot you can go on to later," said Charlie.

"Well exactly."
Profanity aside, that last exchange could almost be between Bertie and Jeeves. And what comic joy there is in the phrase "Amazing how quickly the bloom fades on fuck off, you know." It feels wholly like an of-the-moment thought, something that presents itself in the moment as an actual revelation, while also being utterly ridiculous.

And now I'm going to have to read more Kingsley.

{Side note: I was surprised to learn that both Kingsley and Martin admired Iris Murdoch and thought her the best female novelist of her generation. I think I had known at one point, but forgotten, Kingsley's admiration, but I was surprised to be reminded--I would have thought her melodrama and muddles too much for him. But of course there are plenty of people who've accused Murdoch of misogyny, too . . . }

Monday, August 19, 2013

Martin and Kingsley Amis

Reading Martin Amis's memoir, Experience (2000), in the United States thirteen years after its publication is a strange experience. If you were to chart its primary concerns, two of the top five--the UK tabloid fascination with Amis's personal life, wealth, and success; and his teeth--are likely to be of little interest, to the point at times of near bewilderment, to current Stateside readers. Amis is a name here, of course, but his fame is nothing like what it is in the UK, and neither is our media's attentiveness to writers, period. Jonathan Franzen's Oprah diss was the stuff of news (and, irritatingly, remains so), but if he were to change agents and secure a giant book deal, then get all his teeth replaced, would that be news? Seems unlikely.

Add Amis's reflections on the murder of his cousin Lucy Partington at the hands of a notorious serial killer, meditations that, for all Amis's seemingly honest emotion, can't help but feel out of place, and you've got a strange book.

But then there are those sentences. Amis is a devotee of Nabokov and Bellow, and it shows in nearly every line. And then there is the entertainingly fractured, footnoted structure. And the near-constant self-deprecation, which nicely balances the name-dropping. And Kingsley. So much Kingsley.

No Kingsley fan should skip Martin's book: the portrait of Kingsley in its pages is memorable, and while not seeming sugar-coated, much more likable than the usual picture of a pathologically promiscuous drunk. Martin's Kingsley is, no doubt, a pathologically promiscuous drunk, and an ever-increasingly reactionary one at that, but he is also a father, and in his back and forth with his son, as well as the occasional glimpses of genuine vulnerability that Martin captures, he seems less a monster than a suffering misanthrope.

You get all of that, and a wonderful display of Martin's way with a sentence, in a passage from late in Kingsley's life about the struggle to get him across the street after a long and liquid lunch. First, Martin sets the scene:
When I was young my father gave me a tip about lunchtime drinking and the shadow it cast over dinnertime drinking. Take everything you had at lunch (he said), double it, and imagine you swallowed it in one at 5:55 pm.
In such a state, "an exponential alcoholic kick-in of trouncing efficiency," Martin and Kingsley set off:
On a traffic island in the middle of the Edgeware Road (that eternally disreputable thoroughfare, with its northwestward trek from mammonic Marble Arch, past the pubs and offices and slot-arcades beneath the Westway, past Little Venice, until it subsides into Maida Vale, where we lived in a house with Philip and Jane, thirty years ago), Kingsley fell over. And this was no brisk trip or tumble. It was a work of colossal administration. First came a kind of slow-leak effect, giving me the immediate worry that Kingsley, when fully deflated, would spread out into the street on both sides of the island, where there were cars, trucks, sneezing buses. Next, as I grabbed and tugged, he felt like a great ship settling on its side: would it right itself, or go under? Then came an impression of overall dissolution and the loss of basic physical coherence. I groped around him, looking for places to shore him up, but every bit of him was falling, dropping, seeking the lowest level, like a mudslide.

I got him home in the end. He found some balance, some elevation; I wedged my shoulder in his armpit, and slowly hauled. The incident never stopped being about 3 percent comic. Even with his face at knee height, and his eyes stark with apprehension, like a man disappearing into a swamp, he never lost that glimmer of astonished amusement at what was happening to him--at the weight he carried, at the greed of gravity, at the wheel of years. Dad, you're too old for this shit, I might have said to him. But why bother? Do you think he didn't know?
There's an element of this that is certainly far from comic. At the same time, it's hard to imagine Kingsley, observing such a situation involving another, not instantly grasping its much more than 3% comic potential, which Martin's metaphors (particularly "like a man disappearing into a swamp") hint at. Good god, may none of us ever be in that situation--but should we be, let's be ready to laugh at ourselves.

Friday, August 16, 2013

One last time, A Naked Singularity

From A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava:
--noise background,

My getting out or what?!
That's how the novel opens, page 1 of 688. It's daring, but also engaging--how can you not keep reading after that?

It's been a while since I've written about A Naked Singularity here, assuming you probably didn't want to hear any more about it. But this week brought it back up, and in case you aren't monitoring US book news elsewhere, I want to make sure to share this: on Wednesday, A Naked Singularity won the $25,000 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award as the best debut novel of 2012. The New York Times can give you all the details; the Wall Street Journal offers a good quote from Sergio (alongside a relatively bland one from me):
Mr. De La Pava, reached on his way to a speaking engagement at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Scotland, said he intends to continue his legal case-load but was grateful to be recognized by an organization with a human-rights agenda. "What I do on a daily basis is very important to me," he said. "[PEN] has a social-justice mission, so it's even more meaningful."
I've been telling this to friends and colleagues all week, but it seems like something I should say publicly: I'm so, so happy for Sergio. He's a pleasure to work with and talk to, and, more important, he is seriously committed to both writing and his job as a public defender--and, above that, to the idea of justice, as his electrifying lecture last month at PS1 MoMA shows.

And the sense I have always gotten is that Sergio is much, much more interested in writing than in being a writer. In Experience, Martin Amis writes about the temporally dislocating aspect of book tours:
It was the late spring of 1995 and I had just returned from a three-week book tour of North America. On such tours, Ian McEwan once said, you feel like ‘the employee of a former self,’ because the book is now out there to be championed and squired, while you have moved on.”
It was three years after he wrote the book that he got an e-mail from the University of Chicago Press sniffing around the idea of publishing the novel; four years after he wrote it that we published it; five years after he wrote it that it won this major award. And yet when I asked him to do something--to talk to a journalist, to answer some questions, to make an appearance--he assented, readily.

The week has also been fun for me, of course. The life of a publicist involves always being careful to walk the line between seeming confident and actually promising anything. As a publicist, you have influence over a lot of aspects of a book's reception, but control over almost none. I suspect most publicists never get to have the experience I have enjoyed over the past year: when you sit an author down and lay out what you think you and your press can do for the book and what will happen--a plan that you saw, clear as day and positively vibrating with possibility, from the first fifty pages you read of his book--and then watching every single thing you talked about, and more, come to pass. To see it happen for a book you believe in this much, and an author you like this much, is, for a publicist, as good as it gets.

So now that you've read A Naked Singularity, what next? (Wait--you haven't read it? I'll wait. . . . Okay, now it's a week later, and you called in sick today to finish it. Worth it, no?) Well, in October the University of Chicago Press will be publishing De La Pava's intense and compelling second novel, Personae--but if you can't wait that long, you should check out his amazing essay in Triple Canopy from last year on boxing and Virginia Woolf.

For now, if I may: a toast to Sergio De La Pava and his wonderful book--and to all of you among my friends who had to listen to me yammer about it in the early days. Here's to many, many, many more books from his pen.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An addendum to Monday's book pricing post, or, Who knows what book buyers want?

Right after I wrote Monday's post about book pricing, I read Helen MacInnes's spy novel Above Suspicion (1941), recently reissued with a number of her other books by Titan. It's about as cozy and British as a spy novel gets: whereas Eric Ambler would take an innocent and thrust him into intrigue unexpectedly, MacInnes starts her story by having an old friend stop by the flat of an Oxford don and, over sherry, casually recruit him and his wife to go look into a suddenly leaky European spy network.

Right before the offer is made, the wife of the couple is wandering home and passes a bookshop:
[S]he halted at a bookseller's window. Richard's new book on English lyric poetry was well displayed. It was selling, too, which had been a pleasant surprise. (The bookseller had explained that away rather harshly: people were buying strange books now, it sort of soothed their minds.) She smiled to herself in the window at her totally unpoetic thoughts. A selling book would be a help towards another summer among the mountains.
Oh, for the days when a book on English lyric poetry might make a noticeable contribution towards an Alpine holiday!

And is it possible not to love the bookseller's befuddled honesty? As someone who spends far more of his time than he ought thinking about why people buy the books they buy, I can tell you it's not a science. "People are buying strange books now"? Right. Seems as good an answer as any.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Delving into book pricing, or, This is probably mostly of interest to people who work in publishing, but y'all buy books, too, right? So maybe you'll find something here worth your time?

As someone who works in the marketing department of a publisher, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about book prices. (Oddly, as a consumer, I spend almost zero time thinking about them: if I did, I wouldn't have ponied up $#%#@&@&# for the absolutely glorious Thomas Hardy Remembered a few years back, would I? Either you need a book or you don't, I figures.) And recently I've encountered a handful of pricing decisions that I think are unusual enough that they may be of interest even to the non-professionals among you.

1 First up is Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, which came out in June as a hardcover at $20. What's interesting about that is:

a $20 is very cheap these days for a 288-page hardcover. I would have expected a price more like $25 or $26.
b Gran's first Claire DeWitt novel, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, was published in hardcover in 2011 at $24.00.
3 They're both really good, stylized and deliberately fractured mystery novels. (And the latter makes a nice pairing with David Gordon's new Mystery Girl. They're very different books--Gordon's is funny and allusive where Gran's is cryptic and louche, even decadent--but they both approach the crime novel pleasantly aslant, with rewarding results.)

Gran's first novel sold just okay in hardcover, and from what I can tell really started to build a following only after it became a paperback. So I think it's reasonable to assume that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, not wanting to abandon the idea of publishing Gran first in hardcover, decided to drop the price--and cut into their margin--in hopes of bringing price-sensitive readers on board earlier. Are you a price-sensitive reader? It's only $20--that's like 2 lattes these days, folks! Buy a Sara Gran novel!

2 Next we turn to the opposite end of the spectrum: Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I dither about Gaiman: I admire him as a literary presence, as someone who seems almost wholly determined to do good within the world of books. And I'm impressed by his inventiveness . . . yet time and again I find myself thinking that his actual books feel a tad undercooked. That's unfair, I realize: I have no idea how much time and effort Gaiman puts into his writing. But aside from the wonderful Graveyard Book, which is creative enough to honor its inspiration, Kipling, I often find that Gaiman's ideas are more compelling than their execution--that, intentionally or not, he slides by a bit on shared tastes.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane may have made me a believer. A story of childhood and ancient magic, it calls to mind classics of the genre like Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series in its creativity and its convincing fidelity to a conception of a world rife with powers that are older and stranger than we can understand. It's taut and creepy and melancholy and, in a wonderful way, aged. It feels more personal, more important, than anything I've read from Gaiman before.

And, at 192 pages, it's priced at $25.99. Given how many copies William Morrow and Co. could be confident of selling, there's no question that they could have priced it at $19 or $20 and covered their costs. Instead, they seem to have looked around, noted Gaiman's absolutely rabid fan base, and said, essentially, "Fuck it: we can charge whatever we want, and these folks will buy it." I'm not really judging, mind you: I'm someone with a day-to-day stake in the survival of the publishing enterprise, and their decision seems entirely rational to me. But $6 more than Sarah Gran's book, for a novel that's nearly 100 pages shorter and that will sell ten times what hers will sell? It's impressive.

3 Finally, we turn to the recent trade paperback reissues of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels by Random House. I should say up front that I'm grateful to Random House for these: in recent decades they've only been available, spottily, as mass market paperbacks, and the only authors I can bear to read in mass market are Rex Stout (It's easier to make shelf space for 70+ mass markets than for that many trade paperbacks) and Joseph Conrad (Good god, those old Anchor editions with cover illustrations by Edward Gorey!). I've re-read the first ten now, for the first time since high school, and while they're dated in many of the ways I expected (primarily in their gender politics, as I've discussed before), they're also still well worth a crime fiction fan's time. On the plane returning from vacation Saturday I read the ninth, Pale Gray for Guilt, and I barely noticed the nintey-minute delay before we took off.

Random House has priced them at $16.00. The McGee books tend to be 240-300 pages, a size of book that in this genre these days would tend to carry a price of $13–$15 or so--but what Random House seems to have thought is:

a Right now sales of crime novels tend to run 40-70% e-books.
b Therefore, and especially for a reprint/revival series like this, people who are buying the print edition are really committed to buying the print edition.
c So we can charge essentially whatever we want.

That "essentiall" means that they risk coming up against market-based sticker shock around $16 or so, but nonetheless: that's an addition $2–$3 per book, over the course of a twenty-book series. Even so, it's worth it for a reader--seriously, if you enjoy MacDonald, will you ever think later about that extra dollar or two you spent? That's the thing about book pricing: it can be a barrier initially, but any good book will erase the memory of its price within an hour of your cracking its spine.

And that concludes today's publishing seminar. Tune in Wednesday when we discuss binding inks, or matte finishes, or how to write an e-mail to a disappointed author in the face of one of those absolutely gutting English reviews . . .

Monday, August 05, 2013

If there were a gentleman's gentleman in my employ, he would right now be packing my case.

Vacation beckons, and there is packing to be done. Books first, of course, and then some clothes, for padding. So I'll simply share a couple of short passages from P. G. Wodehouse's Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974). First, a pleasant surprise, which comes when Bertie is confronted by the angry father of a girl who's just eloped:
"Pfui," I said. It is an expression I don't often use, but Nero Wolfe is always saying it with excellent results, and it seemed to fit in rather well here.
It's obvious to any reader of Rex Stout's novels that he was a fan of Wodehouse, but I hadn't known that the admiration was reciprocated.

Then there's this exchange, which occurs on the last page of the novel--the last novel Wodehouse would complete:
"Jeeves," I said, my philosophical mood now buzzing along on all twelve cylinders. "Do you ever brood on life?"

"Occasionally, sir, when at leisure."

"What do you make of it? Pretty odd in spots, don't you think?"

"It might be so described, sir."

"This business of such-and-such seeming to be so-and-so, when it really isn't so-and-so at all. You follow me?"

"Not entirely, sir."
But eventually Bertie makes him understand. Jeeves always understands.

Spotty posting ahead, but things should be roughly back to normal by mid-August. Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 02, 2013

From the more cryptic letters of Thomas Hardy

I've been flipping through Volume Two of Thomas Hardy's letters, which covers the years 1893 to 1901, and there are many pleasures to be found within, particularly Hardy's flirtatious letters to Florence Henniker--which, were it an era when women were wearing pants, you'd be hard pressed not to read as a sustained effort to get into hers. Ahem.

That's a good note on which to lead into the first of the two letters I want to highlight today. Both are short, almost to the point of being cryptic, and both are amusing. The first, to Havelock Ellis, was sent on July 29, 1895:
Dear Mr Ellis
Pamphlet received. Shall read it with interest.
Yours very truly,
Thomas Hardy
Ellis, you probably know, was a pioneering sexologist, and the pamphlet? Editors Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate helpfully note that it was likely Sexual Inversion in Women. If a famous sexologist sends you, unsolicited, that pamphlet, in that less open era, what other response is possible? (And presumably he kept it hidden from his wife?)

The second letter is from May 4, 1895, and it reads:
Dear Sir,
I am in receipt of your note. I will if possible call on you about 5 this afternoon.
Faithfully yrs,
Thomas Hardy
What makes this one of interest is that it is to an unknown recipient. Oh, sure, it's probably innocuous. But what if it's not? Couldn't that be the response to a blackmail demand? To a note from a private detective who has some information that he's sure will be of interest to the eminent Mr. Hardy?

Could May 4, 1895 have been the day Thomas Hardy met Sherlock Holmes!