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Four Writers on the Future of Books

By Gillian Reagan
Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

On Saturday Feb. 12, at Powerhouse Books, the cavernous store and publishing house located under the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, four writers were sitting on a couch, invited to discuss “the future of the novel.” More than 100 guests still wearing their winter coats, crossing their leather boots, waited for an answer. The writers didn’t have much to say.

“Maybe we are a bit silent when you ask what is the future of the novel is because you’re speaking about all novels,” said German-language writer Andrea Grill, who has published two novels, Tränenlachen in 2008 and Zweischritt in 2007, and will release a volume of poems in the coming months. “Most of us, we’re just sitting with our one novel as we’re working on it.”

Peter Weber, another German-language author, argued against pondering the future of an invention of publishing houses — not writers. “A novel is a concept of the editors,” he said. “You’re focused on your own project, not so much focused on trying to figure out how the novel will survive.” And, anyway, who says the novel is on its deathbed? “It’s a puppy,” Weber said.

The event was part of the Festival Neue Literatur, which flies in German-language authors for a series of conversations with American authors.  Even moderator Paul North, a Yale professor who studies Western intellectual history and will publish his first book, The Problem of Distraction, this year, said asking whether the novel has a future is an “annoying” question.

Perhaps the real question is: should we be asking writers to invent the “future of the novel?” Maybe editors, agents, publishers, marketers, researchers, and maybe even Steve Jobs, too, are better equipped, in some ways.

Rivka Galchen, a writer who the New Yorker recently called one of the 20 Writers Under 40 — “young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction” — said trying to force a draft of the next iteration of the novel might be like trying to make fake meat taste like the real thing — somehow bringing together a bunch of artificial taste to make a patty of mashed soy beans seem like a steak.

“I sort of think like if you’re cooking something, you might as well let the tomatoes tell you what to do rather than try and trick them into seeming like something that they’re not,” Galchen said. “If it’s a book, it should be a book. If it’s language, it should be made out of language. It’s not a movie. It’s not sort of like a television show. It’s not a piece of music. You always hope your book will just start writing itself and that the sentences that are already there, instead of like forcing you to come up with sentences, so you’re not in control, and trying to force some bean curd into a bad beef burger.”

Of course, some writers are experimenting with “beef” burgers-good and bad. There are novels composed by text-message, iPad books, video blogs, books that have podcasts, iPhone apps, and soundtracks as package. “I’m sure it’ll mutate, I’m sure it already has,” Galchen said. But inventive writers might be working in a cruel, early Darwinian world — a brutal Stone Age where only the fastest, most clever survive. “The answer is like mutated fish, sometimes the mutations are bad and sometimes they don’t work out,” Galchen said.

Galchen accepts that the novel will never “win” against media forces like movies and the Internet might be its savior. How can the novel possibly “compete”? “I would say, maybe by losing,” she said. “Almost everything I’ve liked in my life has lost.”

“I sort of think like if the novel is crashing,” she said, “it’s like a swan song, I think it would be good for the novel. Maybe not the novelist or anyone who wants to make money, but for the novel itself.”

Grill admitted she’s not even considering how she’ll need to evolve in “our contemporary techno-mediacracy,” as the event literature put it — she is focused on one word at a time. “I don’t compete,” said Grill. “I never think of myself as a writer who is producing something that I’m going to sell. I know what I want to speak about through these pages.” And if those words speak to us, perhaps that’s all we can ask for.

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Zadie Smith on Writing, Reviewing, and Cultivating the Banal

By Gillian Reagan
Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Zadie Smith and editor Gemma Sieff at NYU

“Having an audience does bother me,” said Zadie Smith, the British novelist, on stage at New York University’s Kimmel Center, where more than 300 students, professors, editors and readers had gathered on Feb. 2 for her coming out party as Harper’s Magazine’s new book reviewer. Her editor, Gemma Sieff, editor of the Reviews section, had gathered papers to quote from — Smith’s first filed columns, passages from her favorite books and poems. Writers, readers and editors from the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker were in the audience, scarves still wrapped around their necks. A member of the crowd had asked whether it bothered her that the nature of writing has changed over the decades; they argued that what once was a creative endeavor is now a means to please the public. “I remember first coming to America, I was talking to some of my colleagues and they said they read exclusively to hipsters between 25 and 27, I was like, where are my hipsters?” Smith replied. “It seemed like I had readers aged 15 to 140. That bothered me.” The pressure to appeal a huge audience weighed on her, Smith said. Fans asked when she was going to write stories about their heritage — the Jamaican people or the Irish people. But having a wide audience became a defining limitation. “It matters to me that I can’t ever really write something so dense or so complex or so obscure” that her loyal readers, family and friends, couldn’t understand it, she said. “It’s like a weird class-based constraint”– a welcome boundary.

Smith has written three novels, including her much-lauded, bestselling debut White Teeth and On Beauty, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction. She was recently named a tenured professor at N.Y.U.’s creative writing program. Last fall, Smith was named the New Books columnist for Harper’s, the monthly literary magazine, taking the position from Benjamin Moser, who will continue to write for the magazine as a contributing editor. Her first column will be printed in March.

‘The process of being edited by, I have to say, American magazine editors, has transformed the way I write, I think personally. I don’t know if people will feel that when they read the novel. I don’t completely believe in the American principle that shorter sentences are better. But that’s a kind of religion that comes up.’

At the event last Wednesday night, dressed in jeans and a cropped, tan leather jacket, Smith spoke about what it means to be good a reviewer, what terrifies her about writing, and the first books she wrote about for Harper’s. Among them are Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ Harlem Is Nowhere, a part-biography, part personal memoir of the neighborhood, and While the Women Are Sleeping, a collection of ten stories by Spanish novelist Javiar Marias, spanning his thirty years as a writer who approaches psyche’s labyrintine, dark, strange corners.

“I don’t have enough energy to write about things I hate,” Smith said. “But books that you have a kind of troubling relationship or a complex relationship with, I find interesting. And Marias is like seeing a writer [that] has loads of — for my own sensibilities, feel like — failures, but, when put out in this context, are delivered, are useful, are there for something.”

“What I’ve loved so far about writing the column is having to make up judgments about the writer’s sensibility, and if I have sympathy for it, even when it runs against your own,” she said.

“Personally, when I’m reading a review or I’m reading non-fiction, I like to see somebody thinking, you know? My favorite kind of criticism is people thinking aloud, so that’s what I’m trying to aim for.”

While writing the columns, her husband, writer Nick Laird, says she “obsessively recreates the atmosphere of college,” complete with last-minute deadlines and few notes to work from, Smith said. As she recently explored in the New York Review of Books, in a review of The Social Network, she is addicted to the Internet, and has to download programs to restrict her Internet use and put her phone in another room to avoid checking it. “It’s pathetic — like a drug addict,” she said. She said her point with the column was not to say the “Internet is bad,” but commiserate with other digital junkies. “It was me, asking, that’s me, is that you too?” she said. “Am I alone? Am I making this up? Is nobody feeling this way? Walking down the street are you checking [your phone] and wondering, ‘Do I have a new one? Do I have a new one? Do I have a new one?’” Zadie, you aren’t the only one.

Smith said she only has a few hours a day to work on her new novel, which is “a very short novel by necessity because that’s what I think having a child does to you. Your time is diffused.” (She gave birth to her daughter, Katherine, in 2009).

“But that’s a good thing for me,” she added. “The process of being edited by, I have to say, American magazine editors, has transformed the way I write, I think personally. I don’t know if people will feel that when they read the novel. I don’t completely believe in the American principle that shorter sentences are better. But that’s a kind of religion that comes up.”

Smith said she experienced the discipline of compression when writing for the New Yorker – she had to cut her own pieces down by a thousand, sometimes 2,000 words. “Learning control and even editing more severely has helped,” she said. “And, also, getting rid of that principle of perfection. I guess knowing that the first graph is never perfect, and with the editing, you need to get it down to a very tight thing, this perfect novel you’re dreaming of will be completely elusive. Now I read so many contemporary novels, it’s easy when you’re reading dead men to assume perfection, and also you give perfection in retrospect.”

“When they’re living, you see all their failures, you see all their weaknesses,” she said. “And that makes me feel good I guess. It’s like a supportive failure, that we all have in common together.”

She recited lines from W.H. Auden’s “The Novelist:” The writer “Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn / How to be plain and awkward, how to be / One after whom none think it worth to turn,” Auden wrote. This is what it means to be a good writer, she tells her students: Give up attempts to prove their brilliance in every line and let their characters be silly, evil, stupid.

“Fiction needs intellect, but it can’t survive on intellect alone,” she said. “It has to arrive at the other embarrassing things, things that seem too banal to talk about in like the appreciation of small details of things that other people leave at home because they’re not worth discussing…Questions that intelligent people would find too dumb to ask like, ‘Am I really alive?’ or ‘What does it mean to be good?’”

“The novelist has to cultivate the filthy, stupidity, awkwardness,” she went on, “that talks about things that seem beneath contempt, like love, the tediousness of love. Novelists are engaged in the business of everyday life. That kind of slowing down to appreciate the simple and the stupid, I think, can be very hard.” Yes, but hard work worth doing, according to Smith. A slow attention: a trait of modern brilliance.

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Can Storyville Bring Short Fiction to the Water Cooler?

Starting a conversation about short stories, one download at a time.
By Gillian Reagan
Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Screenshot of Storyville app for iPad and iPhone

Paul Vidich fell in love with short story writer Mavis Gallant’s work when he was getting his Master’s of Fine Arts at the Rutgers-Newark in New Jersey. In 2006, Vidich left his post as a senior executive at AOL and Time Warner, where he worked for 19 years, negotiating the first major label license agreement with Apple chief executive Steve Jobs for the iTunes Music Store. He left the corporate business development world to pursue a life in literature.

Gallant, a Canadian-born writer who lives in Paris, has had more than 100 stories published in the New Yorker, nearly as many times as John Updike — with most of them printed in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Vidich worries that many of her stories are captured in a “literary gated community,” behind an analog wall that most people would never have access to unless they collected a library of back issues of the magazine. He wants to introduce a new generation to the work of Gallant and other short story writers, by putting it where our hands and eyes always seem to be fixated: our mobile gadgets.

Vidich is the founder of Storyville, an application that he debuted last December with his former AOL-Time Warner colleagues Scott Levine and Atul Sood. iPhone and iPad users can sign up for a six-month subscription to Storyville, for $4.99. They will be delivered one story every week, and have access to an archive of work, searchable by author, date, or title –”a library you can carry with you,” Vidich said. In a year, Storyville subscribers will receive 48 stories, for less than 25 cents apiece. “Read on the bus, in an airport, waiting in line, in bed, or wherever you want to be inspired by great writing,” according to Storyville’s promotional text.

Vidich brokered relationships with publishing houses, more than 30 of them, from Random House to Graywolf Press, offering a flat fee for each story they would publish in the application. Each story has been plucked from printed collections that have already been through a rigorous editing process. “These stories are already the best of what’s out there,” Vidich said. The deal offers publishers a chance to promote new, or forgotten, story collections, while the Storyville team and its users get access to a range of writers, piece by piece.

According to Vidich, Storyville’s mission is simple: offer the “gift of discovery” and elevate the short story into the national conversation.

“If I were to go to Barnes and Noble or even Amazon and say, ‘Okay, point me toward the stuff that’s in the market now,’ I wouldn’t have access to that, because that’s not how the world is organized,” Vidich said. “When you share a short story with someone in a conversation, if the person you’re talking to hasn’t read it, the conversation stops.”

Many readers are only exposed to new short fiction if they are subscribers to literary journals, or the New Yorker, or, with any luck, they read about a collection and buy a book.

“The short story, a truly powerful, creative form, has touched our lives even if we don’t read them,” Vidich said. “Brokeback Mountain is a short story, for example.” But how do you change the fact that most people no longer read short stories — getting their entertainment from TV, movies, the Internet?

Vidich is interested in “periodicity” — how the very act of putting fiction in front of readers on a regular basis in a seamless flow might bring short story fiction beyond a niche, literary audience and into the pop culture conversation. “This kind of frequency of literary journals that come out once a year or every six months, you might forget about it,” he said. “If you can set an expectation in the behavior of the consumer, there might be a way to change that. Not every story is going to be read and liked. I don’t like every story in the New Yorker, but I read them.”

According to Vidich, give people an easy, convenient, cheap way to participate in new short fiction and, “you would have a lot more conversations.”

The gamble is whether restricting access to short stories on Apple’s iPhones and iPads might just create another “literary walled garden,” as Vidich calls it — comprised only of a small audience that can afford these expensive devices.

“We are in a mobile-access, web world and it’s only going to get more that way,” Vidich said. “To put fiction on this device that people are going to have with them all the time, as we get more subscribers, I think it’s going to provoke a series of conversations.”

Vidich will not disclose how many users Storyville has at the moment, but he is hoping that they will have 2,000 of them by the end of this year. The application has delivered stories from Charles Baxter, Ben Greenman, Kate Bernheimer, Shannan Rouss and more.

Vidich is currently toying with some cross-section marketing strategies to help promote the work. “We can bring greater visibility to the short story form by associating them with someone who is not a writer but may have been touched by a short story,” he said. “For example, the lead singer of the Pogues is a writer of lyrics and has likely been inspired by literature. He could say, here’s a story that we really touched me,’” Vidich said, referring to Shane McGowan, an Irish musician in a punk-folk band. “It does two things: lends some different type of creditability to that individual, expressing that this person is not just a singer, but a reader, and it opens up to people who are not the traditional audience,” he said. “That’s part of this larger cross-media conversation that you can have with this kind of technology.”

Works from Patrick Somerville, Belle Boggs, Anthony Doerr, Janice Shapiro and, one of Vidich’s favorites, Mavis Gallant, are on the way. “When you read something you love — you read it, you like it — you’re almost indebted to that person to share it with other people,” Vidich said. That’s exactly what he plans to do.

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Editor, Agent and Author Betsy Lerner on What’s Wrong with Writers

By Gillian Reagan
Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Betsy Lerner

Sovereign book editor and star literary agent Betsy Lerner was “burning with rage.” She was sitting in the Booth Theatre this past Sunday after a production of Next to Normal, the Pulitzer-Prize winning musical about a manic depressive mother and her troubled family, surrounded by sniffling theater-goers, some with tears streaking their cheeks. “I didn’t think that it was true, what I felt from it,” she said. “But people really loved it. And, well, that’s what makes horseracing. Why do people love something that makes them cry? Is it because it was well-written or because it’s manipulative?”

Lerner was dressed in a black blazer and jeans, sitting in the corner cafe at McNally Jackson Books on Price Street Monday evening, discussing prose, the publishing industry, and “what’s wrong with writers?” “I don’t want to read something unless it evokes an emotional response in me, but how they evoke that emotional response in me is about being really, really, really true,” she said. “Sometimes, and I really wonder if you feel this way, that you write a scene that is so sad and you know everybody is going to cry and you finish it and you think, ‘Yeah, fuckers!’ You know you nailed it. You know you nailed your scene and you care more about that than the fact that you just wrote about your suicide attempt or whatever. Because that’s what you want, you want to know that you nailed your scenes.”

In other words, the craft of writing, creating a world for the reader, should take priority over the feelings of the writer, according to Lerner. “I do believe that everybody has feelings but writers as artists are supposed to put them in some kind of form for us that is beautiful or arresting,” she said.

Lerner knows what beautiful writing looks like by now. She was an editor for 16 years at marquee publishing houses — including Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin and Doubleday — before eventually becoming a literary agent at her own firm, Dunow, Carlson and Lerner. She was the recipient of the Tony Godwin Publishing Prize and received an MFA from Columbia University. In 2003, she published a memoir, Food & Loathing: A Lament, and in 2001 she published The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. A revised and updated version of the book was released in October.

The Forest for the Trees is based on the premise that there are no bad writers, only writers without editors to help them navigate the wilds of the publishing industry. Maybe some of them are prisoners of their own neurosis or “lazy bastards,” as Lerner put it.

She said finding the right writers is like dating. “It’s almost like going to a bar and hitting on somebody,” she said. “You just feel it, who you’re attracted to.”

“I read it, and I wake up more than I fall asleep, do you know what I mean? Like, if something is good, I awaken. I want to start reading more and maybe my hands get a little clammy and I’m excited. It’s stimulation… It’s a very basic, almost physical reaction to the work. Then if I do want to work on it, I have to be more critical and ask certain questions. Like, well, is it really a book? And can I, actually, do I think I can sell it? What does it need and how can I convey this to the author?”

“Sometimes it’s as simple as, can I pitch it? Can I hear myself pitch this and what would it be? I’ve actually sold two books in my life [with the] pitch, ‘this is probably not sellable,’ and that’s always a good one.”

But reverse psychology doesn’t always work, even for pros like Lerner. “If people don’t buy them, I never think I made a mistake. I always think, ‘The bastards!’ And I’ll find somebody to take it on.”

So what else is wrong with modern writers, besides, perhaps, getting too involved in their own feelings? A lack of patience.

“Jonathan Franzen didn’t come out of the womb with The Corrections in his hand,” Lerner said. “He published two books previously and couldn’t sell bubkes… Everybody wants to be Franzen, and it’s crazy and unrealistic.”

Also: egos.

“I’m fascinated by the question of the author’s ego because it’s both the thing you most need and often most can hurt you,” Lerner said. “You have to have a healthy ego to be writing, I think. Well, maybe not writing but trying to be getting published.”

“People just get in so much trouble when their out-sized egos alienate everybody or make it difficult for them to hear criticisms or revisions,” she continued. “Some of our greatest writers seem to have tiny egos and some have Norman Mailer-sized egos, all across the board. And whether the size of that has a relation to the quality of the work? These are questions I am obsessed with. When I meet a writer, that’s part of what I see.”

“I have an author who believes that he is worth a seven-figure contract. And I don’t think he’ll get that because of his sales record. And I, in the past, I would have said that’s unrealistic. But when you have a writer with a huge ego, and you tell him that, they could fire you, right? They could say, ‘You don’t believe in me. Why should I be with you?’ So now I’m going to say to that person, you are worth that, and we’re going to take it out and see what the market says. And the market and the critics have this great way of telling somebody something about their ego, and their expectations.”

As for how she deals with rejection, and picks up crumpled writers who received a beating in the reviews, she repeats a mantra from movie director Spike Lee. He was attacked by critics for Jungle Fever, and told the press: “That’s the price of getting in the game.”

“I took that as my own mantra. I’m going to put a book out there, maybe people are going to hate it, maybe, worse, nobody is going to care. But that’s the price. I want to get in the game. I’m not going to be scared anymore,” Lerner said. “If you really are a writer, you’ll write again. You cannot snuff it out.”

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6 Under 40: New Yorker’s Favorite Young Authors Read in Tribeca

Rivka Galchen, Karen Russell, Wells Tower, Gary Shteyngart, David Bezmozgis and Nell Freudenberger read their work
By Gillian Reagan
Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

It was one of the first blustery winter nights outside the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca when six of the fiction writers who made the New Yorker’s much-discussed 20 Under 40 list, read short passages from their work in the main low-lit lounge, then took questions from a crowd. Several of the young writers who the New Yorker claimed “capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction” were in attendance: Rivka Galchen, Karen Russell, Wells Tower, Gary Shteyngart, David Bezmozgis and Nell Freudenberger. They sat on stage — microphones in hands — with Deborah Treisman, the New Yorker’s fiction editor and lead list-maker, MC-ing in a corner. Admiration — and seething jealousy — radiated from the beer-sipping audience.

The first question from the audience asked for tips on how they could write well enough to get on a list such as the New Yorker list. The next question was whether there were negative aspects to being on that list. Many of the subsequent questions were variations on these queries.

Did they notice the debate about the list online? “I stopped looking at any of that,” said Towers, who has chided the Internet for its shallowness and distraction in previous interviews. “Was there a lot of player hating?” he asked looking around at his fellow list-makers. They blinked in silence.

“There was outspoken hatred for the New Yorker,” Treisman said. How could the New Yorker be so arrogant to make a list such as this?, she explained.

The list was released this summer and it prompted parodies (a 400 under 1 list, for example), alternative suggestionsexistential essays, and even New York Times responses.

Tower explained that digging into those kinds of discussions can be a “destructive thing.” It’s best to do what they do: write. And ignore the hating.

In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Tower explained his decision to move from Brooklyn to a house without an internet connection in North Carolina: “The Internet is destructive to my attention span,” he said, “and it’s the opposite and enemy of the literary head-space.”

At the 92nd Street Y Tribeca, the writers were celebrating the release of their writing collected in a book, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in November. When an audience member asked for writing tips, Russell, 29, suggested “writing every day.”

When another audience member asked whether rejection had ever influenced their work, Russell explained that everyone who had made the 20 Under 40 list had been rejected by a publisher in the past. But that shouldn’t change your work, and if you’re doing what you love, it likely shouldn’t change what you do.

Writers need to understand that it’s a “peculiar thing that you’re doing and other people don’t get rejected as often.”

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A Christmas Carol, New York-Style

A marathon reading at Housing Works Bookstore boasted 30 big-name writers and actors, but how did they stack up against Boz himself?
By Gillian Reagan
Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Scott Adsit of "30 Rock" reads from "A Christmas Carrol" at Housing Works Bookstore. (Photo by Mollie Chen)

Sam Lipsyte, the novelist whose literary satire has been celebrated for making misery hilarious, was the first to channel Scrooge. “Bah, humbug,” he said in a low, throat-vibrating bark. On Sunday, Dec. 19, he was standing on the balcony of Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street dressed in a modest black sweatshirt and weekend jeans, with one hand in his pocket. Starting a little after 1pm, Lipsyte and 29 other writers and actors including Jonathan Ames, Francine Prose, and Mary Gaitskill, took turns reading passages from A Christmas Carol, one of Charles Dickens’ most popular and celebrated works. In the passage lottery, Lipsyte got one of the best lines: Scrooge’s nephew Fred describes Christmas as “the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Dec. 19 was the 167-year anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol, the story that Dickens wrote when his finances and his reputation had dipped to an all-time low. In 1843, parlour gossips whispered that “Boz [Dickens’ pen name] is going down,” while Christmas’ traditional celebrations in England were in danger of “decaying,” according to poet Thomas Hood. But within six weeks, Dickens wrote about a curmudgeonly old man who learned about the meaning of Christmas from a trio of ghostly visitors, and convinced his reluctant publisher to take a profit-sharing deal to print the first edition. The first 6,000 copies were sold out by Christmas Eve.

Dickens was once again a sensation. In December 1867, when he shipped to New York for a series of A Christmas Carol readings, Dickens was greeted with eager fans who waited for tickets overnight in the cold, wrapped in blankets and huddled around bonfires to keep warm. The cops were called in for crowd control. On the first night of his New York tour, a sold-out audience of more than 2,000 literary socialites and powerful businessmen gathered in the grand Steinway Hall by Central Park. They cried, laughed, and interrupted with applause during Dickens’ reading.

His voice was described as ‘husky’ and ‘not penetrating,’ by the Times. There was ‘a slight approach to a lisp.’ But when he introduced characters in the dialogue, Dickens ‘showed a remarkable and peculiar power.’ ‘Old Scrooge seemed present.’

The crowd at the Housing Works Bookstore was, let’s say, less enraptured. During the three hours of the reading, many patrons milled about the stacks, tapped their iPhones and thumbed through coffee table books during the reading. The cafe’s coffee machine sputtered in the corner. Tourists in hiking sneakers crinkled subway maps at one table, while a group of college-age girls glared into Macbooks at another. A bespectacled boy not older than five played games on an iPhone for a while, then he read aloud from a book titled The Twelve Bots of Christmas.

A few listened dutifully — their heavy coats hanging over crossed arms, knit scarves still wrapped around their necks. A few snapped photos when Scott Adsit, the actor who plays Pete Hornberger on NBC’s “30 Rock,” approached the microphone between the “Foreign Language” and “Pets” stacks on the balcony. He was dressed like a theater stagehand, in all black, holding his papers in one hand and gesturing with the other — curling and unfurling his fingers, as if conducting the characters’ voices. His croaky Scrooge asked, “Who are you?” when he saw the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley. “Ask me who I was,” hissed Adsit’s Marley.

Mr. Ames, creator of HBO’s “Bored to Death,” was up next, dressed for an Aspen afternoon in a robin blue knit cap and a camel-colored sweater with brown leather patches on the elbows. Unshaven and casual, Ames read in an even tone. He didn’t play with the characters’ voices — not as much as Irish novelist Colum McCann, Skateboards Will Be Free author Said Sayrafiezadeh, and actress Jill Hennessy, best known as Claire Kincaid on mid-’90s-era “Law & Order” and Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh, the sassy forensic pathologist on “Crossing Jordan.”

Charles Dickens reading his work.

Dickens’ imitations of his characters received mixed reviews. In 1867, it had been more than 20 years since Dickens visited America, where he was greeted like a 19th-century Beatle (girls begged him for locks of his hair). He was older, a graying 55, and his thin hair was brushed in a forward comb-over. Still, all 13 of his Steinway Hall performances were sold out. According to a New York Times description of a Dec. 9, 1867 performance at Steinway Hall, he walked on the stage with a “rapid step,” to a roaring applause and bowed several times before the crowd settled. He had a red flower in his breast pocket. Lit by hundreds of gaslights, Dickens read mostly by memory.

His voice was described as “husky” and “not penetrating,” by the Times. There was “a slight approach to a lisp.” But when he introduced characters in the dialogue, Dickens “showed a remarkable and peculiar power.” “Old Scrooge seemed present.” His Bob Cratchit lisped out “timid, trembling tones,” and “the audience caught sight at once of the little, round-faced, deferential, simple-hearted clerk as if he had entered bodily.” He imitated the mashing of potatoes and the stirring of gravy. He winked at the audience during a particularly funny scene. Several passages moved them to tears, according to the Times.

A Mark Twain report of one reading was less fawning. In fact, he bombed it. Dickens was a “bad reader,” he was “rather monotonous,” and “his pathos is only the beautiful pathos of his language — there is no heart, no feeling in it — it is glittering frostwork.”

Biting commentary was printed elsewhere. The New York Herald: Dickens “descended to a little claptrap for stage effect, as some of our Irish comedians or minstrels are apt to do before less cultivated audiences.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper: “Away with such fawning, boot-licking spirit! Charles Dickens is a man like unto other men; his books are powerfully written and very interesting; but do not warrant the erection of a demi-god from the simple author in a country composed of sovereigns.” Still, Dickens’ words were enough to entertain some of the most elite listeners in New York.

Today, A Christmas Carol performers have even tougher job of entertaining during readings. There are the countless theater productions and Hollywood renderings, from the good (Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 near-horror movie) to the bad (“A Flintstones Christmas Carol”), clouding imaginations. Not to mention those hypnotic iPhones.

On Sunday, some readers made an effort. Novelist and New Yorker regular Ms. Gaitskill, dressed in black under a simple brown coat, read with dramatic pauses as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come lead Scrooge through a depressing vision. She smoked imaginary cigarettes and rubbed her belly during imitations of fat businessmen discussing his funeral. The audience gave a few whoops in praise when she was finished.

Mike Albo, the performer and novelist who wrote The Underminer: The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life, gave female characters shrill, cackling laughs as they disparaged a dead Scrooge.

Kurt Anderson, the author, Spy co-founder, WNYC Studio 360 host, and former New York editor, twirled a single finger into the air for emphasis as he read.

By the final passages, Thomas Beller, novelist and co-founder of Open City Magazine, was leaning against the railing and grasping the microphone. The writers had been reading for about three hours, and by this time, the crowd had turned over a few times. There was only about a half-dozen faces, out of a hundred or so, who had stayed for the entire reading. Most of the readers had also ducked out onto Crosby Street before the last passage was read.

According to the Times, they never had a chance of comparing to Dickens. “We have had, and still have, in New-York very many sources of intellectual and artistic amusement and delight,” according to the 1867 report. “[But] we never had, and we venture to say we never shall have, any entertainments more charming in themselves, or more full of genuine, legitimate and elevating pleasure than these readings of Mr. Dickens.”

Lede image courtesy of Mollie Chen.

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Introducing Our New Bookish Blogger: Gillian Reagan

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Gillian Reagan

Today, we’re excited to announce that original Bookish blogger and superstar reporter, Leon Neyfakh, has accepted an offer to become the Boston Globe’s new Ideas reporter. We hate to see Leon go, but our loss (and The Observer’s for that matter) is the Globe’s big gain. It’s the perfect gig for a genuinely great reporter. Congrats, Leon!

We’re also equally excited to announce that the amazing Gillian Reagan will be taking over the Bookish column from Leon starting next week. Gillian is an editor at Capital New York.  She was previously a reporter for The New York Observer and an editor at the Business Insider. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, among other publications. We’re lucky to have her.

Gillian will offer original reporting and insights on all things books — from author interviews to publishing news — every Tuesday. Look for her first post next week!

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Words & Money: A (Not So) New Publishing Model from the Old World

By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, November 29th, 2010

According to the new book by Andre Schiffrin, founder of the not-for-profit indie publisher The New Press, the survival of the American book business as we know it will require the generosity of wealthy individuals and intervention from the government. Schiffrin argues that neither book publishers who seek to publish important or difficult works nor news outlets that aim to produce significant reportage can “continue to rely on the traditional forms of profit-centered ownership” and must find ways to attract funding from alternative sources. Without it, he writes, there’s no reason to expect that editors at the biggest houses in the United States, all owned by international media conglomerates, will be able to withstand the professional pressure to produce only books “with the highest sales potential,” and thus ignore difficult or esoteric but nonetheless crucial titles.

Schiffrin’s view is that book publishing should be no different from culture, theater, or dance — all cultural realms whose health is widely understood to depend on public programs and not-for-profit operation. “The traditional market, I argue, has not shown us how to preserve the kind of diverse and independent culture that we know we need,” Schiffrin writes. “Now we are faced with a group of other media — book publishing and its distribution infrastructure, newspapers and other newsgathering organizations — whose profits are no longer high enough to satisfy the private sector but for which no other sources of support yet exist.”

One’s ability to hit the sweet spot between commercial and critical success is the measure of his or her worth as an editor or publisher; the people who can do it regularly are the ones who are most respected and admired by their peers.

Most of Schiffrin’s short book, entitled Words & Money and issued earlier this month by Verso, is spent describing how small publishers and independent bookstores in Europe, particularly in France and Norway, have managed to benefit from public money, particularly in the form of regional and local aid. He admits that while “many of the solutions described in this book may seem utopian to American and English readers, they are mostly policies that have been in place for years and have proven that they can work.” In France, for example, the Centre National du Livre, had a budget of 37 million euros in 2008, and gives thousands of grants to publishers, bookstores, and libraries every year. A million euros of the CNL’s budget is spent annually subsidizing scientific and scholarly publications, according to Schiffrin, and 375,000 was spent on poetry and drama. In 2008 1.6 million euros were spent on translating 330 foreign books into French — the National Endowment for the Arts, meanwhile, “the closest thing to a ministry of culture in the U.S.,” spent $200,000 to translate 13 books into English.

As I read Words & Money, I wondered what some of the editors and agents I got to know while covering the book publishing industry for The New York Observer would think of Schiffrin’s proposals — whether they’d be into the idea of taking government subsidies to pay for projects that they can’t financially justify to their superiors or whether it would make their skin crawl. Most of the people I talked to as a beat reporter worked at the major houses — Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Penguin, Macmillan, and HarperCollins — and most of them had what one might call literary ambitions: Whether they were working on fiction or non-fiction, they wanted it to be uncompromising and serious. They also wanted it to make money. This was not a secret — and while there are those publishing people who take pride in being “all about the books,” most of them openly take pride in turning books they consider great into bestsellers. One’s ability to hit the sweet spot between commercial and critical success is the measure of his or her worth as an editor or publisher; the people who can do it regularly are the ones who are most respected and admired by their peers.

The sustained tension that resulted from the collision of market pressures and literary ambition is what made the publishing industry so much fun to follow — there’s a reason why I mainly avoided stories about independent presses, even though a lot of them were constantly publishing great works. Probably it is deeply misguided to feel an instinctual resistance to a proposal that seeks to cut that tension — wasn’t it just two weeks ago that I wrote glowingly here about Esopus, the superlative art journal that is funded entirely by foundations and individual donors? — but nonetheless I suspect there is something productive about it, that something would be lost if suddenly publishers didn’t have to worry anymore whether anyone bought their books.

I did a story at the end of 2008 where I talked to a bunch of young publishing people and asked them if they understood why corporations like News Corp and Viacom had decided to get into the book business. Though, for some reason, I didn’t acknowledge it in the piece, it was a question spurred by Andre Schiffrin’s 1990 book, The Business of Books, in which he described the corporate takeover of publishing that resulted in the landscape we have today. Most of the people I talked to said they really couldn’t make heads or tails of it — that book publishing wasn’t the kind of growth business that corporations are generally interested in. At the end of the piece, I quoted a woman named Lindy Hess, who for the past 22 years has taught the famous Columbia Publishing Course, a summer program that has produced some of the industry’s current leaders. “I don’t think people in my course think about Maxwell Perkins and the good old days,” Hess told me. “Graduates of the course come into the industry with a real knowledge of the marketplace as it is. I feel my job is to temper their idealism with real-world business knowledge, and not to kill it. This is a business.”

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Esopus: Not Another Art Mag

Editor Tod Lippy on ad-free publishing, the role of art jargon, and why avant garde often equals boring
By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, November 15th, 2010

Esopus, No. 13

I met Tod Lippy last winter, right as I was starting to report on the art beat for the New York Observer. An artist I’d met recently put me in touch with him because she saw I was trying to figure out how the art world worked, and thought Lippy, a magazine editor who knew the art world but deliberately avoided participating in it directly, would be able to help. Lippy’s magazine was Esopus, an impossibly beautiful thing that had been coming out twice a year since 2003 and was full, every time, of interviews with artists and filmmakers and musicians, archival materials from the Museum of Modern Art, and consistently arresting artwork by people I’d never heard of. The issue I bought in anticipation of meeting Lippy, number thirteen, included, among other things, a portfolio of work by a severely autistic 22-year-old, a series of marked up manuscript pages from a memoir by poet Jennifer Moxley, an essay by the rare book librarian Marjorie Wynne, and a short piece by a guard from the New Museum about Urs Fischer. The magazine was about 150 pages long; there were little booklets to pull out, posters printed in gorgeous inks and special paper, and a compilation CD attached to the inside back cover featuring songs by bands like Frightened Rabbit and Savoir Adore. According to a piece in the New York Times from when Esopus first launched, Lippy was responsible for every aspect of the magazine’s production.

I don’t believe for a second that contemporary art really should only be seen or discussed or appreciated by people with master’s degrees in art history or gallerists — it just doesn’t make any sense to me.

The most recent issue of Esopus, number fifteen, is themed around television. Lippy published it last month, printing about 10,000 copies. Inside you’ll find a hilarious and pleasingly technical interview with the long-serving director of the soap opera “Love of Life,” one with Lisa Kudrow about her HBO show The Comeback, and an essay on the significance and connotations of sofas in sitcoms that is accompanied by a full-color poster featuring 64 of them. In the back of the issue there’s a feature called “What Would You Like to See on Television?” consisting of about two dozen responses from the likes of Devendra Banhart, Louis Menand, Nathaniel Rich, Charles Renfro, Liam Gillick, and David Carr. The CD that comes with the issue includes new songs — all TV-related — by musicians like Stephen Merritt, Cloud Nothings, and Andrew Cedermark.

I interviewed Lippy last year in his office near N.Y.U., next door to an exhibition space he opened there last fall and where he has been mounting shows and hosting screenings, performances, and lectures that always seem to draw a loyal group of Esopus subscribers. In the interview, which has been edited and condensed, Lippy talks about his intentions for Esopus, his reasons for trying to reach an audience beyond the art world, and the role jargon plays in keeping contemporary art at the relative margins of mainstream culture.

Bookish: What did you do before you started Esopus?

Tod Lippy: I had worked on a number of magazines in the 90s — I did a zine [called Publicsfear], I worked at Print magazine, and I cofounded this magazine called Scenario, which was kind of a literary magazine for screenwriting. I left Scenario in the mid-90s and decided I would try to make films. I made a couple of shorts that did pretty well at festivals, and I tried very hard to make a feature but didn’t have much luck doing so, and then I did a book about New York filmmaking for Faber & Faber. And in the midst of all that I realized that the thing I really loved about magazines was having this immediate feedback from your audience — you know, you do it once a month or once every quarter, and you’re almost immediately in the hands of people who will get something out of it and hopefully respond to you in some way. I missed it. What I didn’t miss was the advertising model that you have to deal with, and dealing with publicists and agents and handlers and all that kind of stuff. So I decided I would do a magazine but I would only do it on my own terms — I’d have no advertising at all and no dealing with anyone other than the actual contributors. And I’d be selling it for less than it would cost to produce, so it could reach a wider audience instead of being another ghettoized art magazine.

B: And you wanted to do it all by yourself, right?

TL: The idea in the early years and to a certain extent now is that I kind of wanted to do everything, yeah, rather than have a staff of art directors and editors and production people. I just wanted to be the person who was dealing with everything from soliciting content, to designing it, to editing it, to producing it, to printing it, and to  promoting it. It seemed like the most direct way to keep to the whole mission of making it this very unfiltered, unmediated thing.

B: What did you want the magazine to be publishing?

TL: I wanted to put out not another art magazine, not another film magazine, and not another music magazine, but something that was very purposefully eclectic. And the goal behind that was to bring a much wider audience to all these various disciplines. If you have a CD of fairly well known alternative musicians, you bring in an audience that wants to hear, you know, the latest Mountain Goats song, but they don’t know anything about Jenny Holzer or Richard Tuttle or Ed Ruscha and they’ll be exposed to that work as well. That was the basic strategy. The one thing I didn’t anticipate which I should have is that if you create something that doesn’t fit comfortably into a niche, you suffer — with distribution, with coverage of the magazine because no one quite knows how to do it. I would go into Barnes & Noble and find it in the automotive section or the gardening section.

B: How and why did you intend to distinguish Esopus from other art magazines?

TL: I think art magazines are necessary and wonderful tools for people who are involved in the art world, but I find often that they tend to be off-putting, jargon-wise. I don’t think many people who know nothing about art go into a store and pick up a critically oriented art journal and feel welcomed to read on. I think if you present a conceptually driven art project and there’s no explanation for it, some people might be a little confused, but people are often really up to the challenge of accessing contemporary art on their own terms.

B: Is that why you don’t offer much in the way of explanation or context when you present the work of an artist in Esopus?

TL: Yeah. You can always explain why an artist is using, you know, a razor blade to slice things into their skin to protest the objectification of whatever — there are a million ways to talk about it. But sometimes the more you talk about it, the more you take people away from its visceral impact. And I’m not so sure it’s all explainable anyway. With a lot of conceptual art, you do need to talk about it and the artist needs to articulate what it’s about, but I think a lot of times you just talk it out of having any kind of effect, you know? I also really don’t want there to be an editorial voice to the magazine. And that goes for design, too: I definitely think it’s easy to see that something is an issue of Esopus rather than another publication, but when I design, I don’t design to make all of the content look the same, so that there’s always 10.5 pica text and this kind of body font and this many columns on each page. It’s much better to let each piece do its own thing, design-wise.  I also generally avoid doing editor’s notes because I find them horrible to write and often tedious to read. There’s not a worldview that we’re presenting with every issue.

B: I’d say you do have a preoccupation with process, though — you’re always showing sort of behind the scenes work that normally is invisible.

TL: Yeah, every issue is process-themed, in a way. Because it’s about drafts and work books and notes and marked-up manuscripts — all that is fascinating to me. It’s a way to bring people into the world of an artist and the mind of an artist without telling them what their art is about. Because I think it’s a glimpse into a process that is mysterious and maybe even kind of impossible to imagine for most people. Also I think it makes you vulnerable as an artist — and when people make themselves vulnerable or make a gesture that suggests they’re vulnerable, I’m immediately drawn to them. So it seems like a no-brainer — if artists are willing to do that, why wouldn’t you do it?

B: Speaking of process, how do you pay for the magazine?

TL: A third of our income comes directly from sales and earned revenue, and the rest is a combination of grants and donations. For the most part that’s places like the Andy Warhol Foundation and the NEA and NYSCA [New York State Council on the Arts], and, you know, the Greenwall Foundation, et cetera. I have a wonderful assistant who has taken over a lot of the work of researching new grant sources. I was a little naive, I thought it’d be so great not to deal with advertisers and have to pitch to advertisers all the time, and of course now I’m pitching to [donors.] Every foundation has its agenda and you have to kind of figure out what that agenda is and then tailor your pitch to it.

B: Was there ever a time when there were more people consuming art than there are today?

Yeah, I think probably it was more popularly consumed when it was more obviously consumable — when people were doing, you know, realist paintings and beautiful black and white photography. It was hard not to look at that and not say, at least, ‘That’s pretty,’ or ‘That’s nice,’ or ‘I understand what that’s about.’ But I think art post-Duchamp has become more and more ‘difficult.’ And my hunch is some of its difficulty — or the fact of its being perceived as difficult — relates to the discourse that surrounds it.

B: My understanding of the PR side of running a gallery is that one of the reasons they write that kind of stuff — in press releases or in wall copy or catalogues — is it makes the collectors they’re trying to sell the work to feel more secure about buying it.

TL: Exactly. It’s a jargon that fulfills its function on several different levels. You could really have a great time reading gallery press releases for the rest of your life — they’re often hilarious! I mean, some of them are great — now that I have to write them I’m much more sympathetic. But really, sometimes, it’s like, what are they talking about? It makes absolutely no sense! But it’s sufficiently oblique — it’s very much about maintaining this sort of rigorous front.

B: It’s funny to think that those press releases, which do confound and bewilder, are in fact designed to calm and reassure the people who are reading them that the work they’re looking at is very serious and complex.

TL: Do you think that’s true? I think that’s certainly one outcome of the whole thing.

B: Well they just make a person think, ‘OK, even if I don’t get this, it would appear that there’s something to it.’

Right — because somebody knows — some expert. This gallerist, this critic, this museum curator, this magazine editor — they all think its valuable, ergo it’s valuable — and I’m going to make it valuable by buying it. That’s right. To bring it back to Esopus, maybe it’s interesting to not guarantee that our authority is such that the market value for a particular person is necessarily a sure thing.

B: One thing I’ve been trying to figure out is whether there is an identifiable — or self-identifying- – avant garde in art. Like, are there people who are considered to be doing things that are more “out there” than the everybody else?

TL: Good luck! Let me know when you figure it out. It’s so messy now — in 1915, yeah, obviously there was an avant garde, it was very clear. But everything has become so institutionalized that, you know, what’s ‘out there’? Nothing is out there! It’s all just ‘in here’ now. If you’re doing something to shock or épater le bourgeois, forget it, it’s over. Britney Spears is shocking now when she shaves her hair — that’s an avant garde gesture to me, because it provokes people who are not used to being provoked that way. If you’re in the art world you’re sort of jaded — you’re like, ‘Oh, he murdered six people as part of his installation. So tacky, so boring!’

B: It’s very hard to point to someone who is not embraced by the art world because they’re too weird, or not embraced because they’re too difficult or too experimental.

I think the point is also, can an avant garde gesture exist without being completely and immediately commodified or institutionalized or turned into the underpinnings of the next Calvin Klein campaign? That’s nothing new — but I think maybe while the gestures may still be very interesting and provocative and out there and edgy and valuable, they just get immediately subsumed into this suck-hole, this commercial suck-hole. I’m trying to get around to better explaining why it’s important to me not to have ads and not to fit into this whole world, and maybe the point is if you can resist that happening — if you can prevent that from happening to content that you’re presenting, at least as far as getting it to the newsstand, then maybe that’s a valuable thing to offer to people, and to artists too.

B: Why is it so important to you that Esopus reaches an audience beyond the art world?

TL: Because I think contemporary art has enormous potential to make people think about the complexity of existence and to question things and find nuance in life. And it just doesn’t reach that audience very often… I don’t think a lot of the general public are heading over to Chelsea on Saturday to check out the latest show at Mary Boone or whatever. If there are all these amazing artworks being made that really either make you laugh or make you confused about something in a productive way, why shouldn’t they reach more than just the people who go to galleries or museums or read Artforum, for that matter? I don’t believe for a second that contemporary art really should only be seen or discussed or appreciated by people with master’s degrees in art history or gallerists — it just doesn’t make any sense to me. So it may be specialized, but I think a lot of that comes from it being very carefully guarded and sequestered by people whose livelihoods and reputations come from keeping it that way. Any magazine that’s speaking to a particular audience about a particular discipline is going to adopt a certain kind of jargon that works for the professionals in that field. It can be highfalutin academic discourse or it can be technical language, but I think with art magazines in particular– I just can’t imagine being me at 14 and opening October and saying, ‘Ohhh, this is really interesting, it’s really inviting, I want to learn more about Ros Krauss!’ There’s a place for all those kinds of magazines– they’re very important, they keep the discipline vital and active and interesting, and they also, frankly, maintain markets for various kinds of creative output. A lot of artists and critics and curators and directors and writers read Esopus, and that’s great, and it’s always a thrill to recognize a name when a new subscription comes in. But it would be a failure if they were the only ones who read the magazine.

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Philip Roth Doesn’t Feel Like Telling Nemesis

By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, October 4th, 2010

Philip Roth NemesisJust as his new book is getting ready to end, Philip Roth provides the following description of its main character:

“He was largely a humorless person, articulate enough but with barely a trace of wit, who never in his life had spoken satirically or with irony, who rarely cracked a joke or spoke in jest.”

Quite a reveal! If only he’d come out with it a little earlier, we could have all saved some time. Were it not so on the money: judging from his depiction in Nemesis, the latest in a series of once-a-year trifles by Philip Roth, Bucky Cantor is a tiresome dullard whose mind seems incapable of producing amusing thoughts. Evidently his creator knew that, which makes you wonder why he decided to put him at the center of this novel.

It’s a shame, because Nemesis has a totally compelling plot surrounding the 1944 Polio epidemic in Newark. When the epidemic hits, Bucky is a 23-year-old kid who has taken a summer job as a playground director after getting rejected from the army for his poor eyesight. Over the course of the book, he suffers for his inability to do anything to protect the boys under his jurisdiction from infection, and watches them drop like flies as fear grips his neighborhood.

But the book is written in a style that is so wooden and so unmotivated — just like last year’s The Humbling and 2008′s Indignation – that it sounds like you’re listening to a story being told by someone who doesn’t really feel like telling it.

Here’s the conversation Bucky Cantor has with his grandmother after she calls him with the news of his best friend’s death.

“How? How?”
“In action in France.”
“I don’t believe it. He was indestructible. He was a brick wall. He was six feet three inches tall and two hundred and fifteen pounds. He was a powerhouse. He can’t be dead!”

Most of the book is like this: melodramatic and earnest to the point of not having a pulse. At one point Bucky is described eating a peach in the most disgusting way possible: “He bit into a delicious peach, a big and beautiful peach … he took his time eating it, savoring every sweet mouthful right down to the pit.” That’s what passes for attention to detail in Nemesis, in which descriptions of objects, feelings, and people are almost all vague and out-of-focus. When Bucky Cantor decides he hates God, it “[confuses] his emotions” and makes him “feel very strange.”

A sense of urgency is conjured during one 20-page stretch about three quarters into the book but it’s too little, too late. Philip Roth has become the Weezer of American literature.

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