Thursday, March 24, 2011

Soup and Salad: Book Club Flyers, Amanda Hocking's Shocking Deal, Tom-All-Alone's, The "Viscerably Horrible" and "Perfect" Lolita, Dan Chaon and Jonathan Evison Sit Around Talking, Margaret Atwood on the Future of Books

On today's menu:

1.  Here's something that's going to cause an instant chemical reaction, flooding most readers with spontaneous nostalgia: flyers from the Weekly Reader and the Scholastic and Troll Book Clubs.  Can't you just smell the tang of white paste and taste the wax of Crayolas when I say those words?  No?  Then you're probably too young to remember the excitement of the day the teacher would hand out the newsprint flyers--mini four-page catalogs for budding bibliophiles (known as "bookaine" in some circles)--and we would all take our stubby little pencils in our thick childhood fingers and start X'ing the books we hoped to convince our parents to buy for us.  These flyers were the breeding grounds for fans of Pippi Longstocking, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Homer Price and his donuts, The Babysitters Club, and of course Dynamite magazine.  I don't know about you, but I always checked far more boxes on the back-page order form than my parents were willing to pay for (though, in hindsight: Really, Dad?  You couldn't scrounge a spare 45 cents from the lint in your pocket?).  Those first two links take you to a page with flyers from the 1980s; my memories were closer to these pages from the Lucky Book Club.  And I'm not even going to start talking about the book fairs at our school.  I'll get all verklempt.

2.  Five months ago, few of us had heard of Amanda Hocking.  Maybe you still don't know who she is (hint: she self-published several books, worked hard, and earned some impressive sales figures).  But soon, she'll be unavoidable.  She just signed a four-book deal with St. Martin's Press.  For more than $2 million.  That's right, a 2 with six fat zeroes trailing behind it.  I don't mean to be ugly, and certainly I wish the 26-year-old Hocking all the success she deserves....but, really, these kind of publishing economics turn my stomach.  When will the big publishing houses wise up and start spreading the wealth more equitably among a wider field of authors?  The day we stop oohing and aahing over headlines like Hocking's, I suppose.

3.  In other deal news, my interest was sparked by this item in a recent Publishers Lunch email: a two-book deal for "Lynn Shepherd's TOM-ALL-ALONE'S, in which young detective Charles Maddox is entangled in a sinister investigation that runs parallel to and in the 'space between' two masterpieces of mid-Victorian fiction: Bleak House and The Woman in White...for publication in Spring/Summer 2012."  Tom-All-Alone's is, of course, Charles Dickens' original title for Bleak House.  This is one novel I'll be keeping an eye on.

4.  "Even if you’re not a mad pervert genius, for my money there’s no better refuge."  That's Lydia Kiesling talking about Lolita in a terrific appreciation of the novel posted at The Millions.  Parts of the novel are "viscerally horrible," Kiesling writes,
And yet this book, with its veritable panoply of horrors, is maybe the most bracing and perfect work of art I know.  Nabokov said “for me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss.”  By that arresting measure, Lolita is a triumph, the ne plus ultra of the novel form.

For me, this is yet another instance of critical arm-twisting.  Will 2011 finally be the year I break down and actually read the damned thing, instead of gazing doe-eyed at it from afar?  Bookies are currently taking bets.

5.  A few decades ago, a play called A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking made its debut.  I never saw that comedy, but I do know one thing: if someone were to produce a show called A Coupla White Guys Sitting Around Talking and it starred Dan Chaon and Jonathan Evison, I'd pay good money to see it.  The Algonquin Books Blog recently featured a conversation between the two writers and both Chaon (Await Your Reply) and Evison (West of Here) had lots to say about writing, publishing and what Chaon calls TAGTLAY.  Here's just one small eavesdrop:
Dan: I do have mixed feelings about the public side of things. I mean, on the one hand I’m really grateful that the books have done reasonably well, and I understand the need for the kind of “profile” that seems to be a big part of being a writer in the current media world. But it doesn’t come naturally to me because I’m kind of shy and socially inept, and also paranoid. I’m suspicious of compliments, and easily hurt by criticism. So for me, the comments sections of Amazon or GoodReads are just pure torture. When someone gives me a one-star ranking, it’s not that I disagree with them–I suspect that they are right–but I just feel humiliated and exposed. It’s like someone intercepted a private letter meant for someone else, and I wish I could break into their houses and steal my book back and somehow erase all memory from their brain of ever having read it. I also find literary blogs absolutely terrifying–there’s one in particular that’s full of really cool, smirky, hipster-type people, and reading it makes me feel like I’m back in high school. I think of that scene in Brian DePalma’s movie of Carrie, where right before the prom the mother warns Carrie: “They’re all going to LAUGH at you!” (This is such a frequent thought for me that I’ve acronym-ed it to TAGTLAY.) And it’s funny, because none of those things occur to me when I’m actually writing–I usually have a pretty great time with it, even when the stuff is “depressing” or “dark” or whatever. It’s not until I actually send the book out into the world that it occurs to me to think: “My God! What have I done? Why did I think it was a good idea to show that stuff to strangers? TAGTLAY!”  But what about you? You seem to have gotten a handle on it–maybe because you were a performer in your early years? And you’re also part of the Three Guys One Book blog, so you’re working on both sides, in some ways–both cat and mouse. Anything you’ve learned as a part of the Media? Or is that a completely separate compartment from your “writer self?”

Jonathan: Now I wanna hug you. How sweet is it that one of the great writers of his generation takes his Goodreads reviews so personally? (And I DO think you’re that good of a writer.) I also have thin skin, though those 500 form rejections and a few really bad reviews have helped toughen me up a little. It’s a very personal thing to put the best you’ve got on the page and set it free in the world, which is not always kind to it–it’s a lot like being a parent. What I’m coming to realize is that it’s all about the conversation, that it really doesn’t matter whether they love it or they hate it, as long as they talk about it. That’s the real service we provide as writers. We start cultural conversations. I think I’ve been lucky in the sense that I’m the baby of five kids, and always been a bit of a performer. It comes in handy. Oddly, the public part of writing, and the writing part of writing, aren’t that different for me. It’s all a collaboration. It’s all a give and take. That said, the thing I value the most is the time I spend writing in my underwear, all by myself. The higher the profile gets, though, the more I long for that underwear time. [Read more....]

6.  In this interview from The Globe and Mail, Margaret Atwood also has some very smart things to say about the seeming chaos and turbulence of publishing, e-books, and self-publishing (see #2 above).  I could fill this space with quotable quotes, but I'll just limit it to this one:
The author communicates with the book; the book communicates with the reader, and e-books are another connection between them. Whether the technology is printing a text on a Xerox machine or reading it in a book or writing it on a wall, there is always a triangle: writer, text, reader.


  1. Dynamite Magazine! You just rocketed me back. And yeah, I do believe those Scholastic fliers were some kind of serious gateway drug to the folks we are now.

  2. I was really pleased to see Weekly Reader mentioned. I worked as a writer/editor on the 3rd and 4th grade Weekly Reader, Read magazine (for middle school), and several other publications from about 1975 through 1993. I also chose books and edited material for two or three of the Weekly Reader books clubs during that time period.I am glad to see that my book club selections stimulated some young people to read. You might remember that R.L. Stein,who originated the Goosebumps series for Scholastic, was a writer and editor on Dynamite.
    Lewis Parker

  3. Lewis,
    Speaking on behalf of an entire generation of readers who suckled nourishment from Weekly Reader, Dynamite, et al, during their most formative and malleable years: THANK YOU. You, sir, were one of many who made a difference in our lives.
    David, Lisa, and an Entire Army of Readers

  4. Oh my, I, too, was that geeky kid who brought home the rough newsprint Scholastic order form and spent a dinner hour convincing my parents that every single selection was CRUCIAL. And the day the books actually arrived???? Better than Christmas. Definitely entry level drug to my current state of reading reviews (including your blog) and hand automatically moving to the phone to order or save a new list of books from my favorite booksellers. It's so great to be reminded of the beginnings of it all.

  5. I was the Mom who checked off dozens of books for my kids every time Weekly reader and Scholastic came home in their backpacks. I was more excited about the books than they were! They got nervous when the book fair was about to open at school, because I'd be there before their class was and would have an armload of books waiting for them. Thanks for bringing back some great memories...oh how I loved reading R.L. Stein, Babysitter club, Little Critters and so many classics to my son and daughter!