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!
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Lauren Kunze’s The Ivy is a book for teenagers about a Harvard freshman’s tumultuous love life. It is the first in a four-book series being published by the Greenwillow imprint of HarperCollins. Kunze was an English major at Harvard; she graduated in 2008 and has spent the past two years moving from city to city every couple of months trying to figure out where she wants to live. She spent this past summer in New York, and as of this writing she’s back in her hometown of Oakland, California, where she has just completed the manuscript for the second book in her series.
With The Ivy, Kunze enters a proud tradition of Ivy League-themed young adult literature — a mini-genre that includes Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl, which is about a fictionalized version of Yale; Robin Hazelwood’s Model Student, about Columbia; and of course, Kaavya Viswanathan’s plagiarism-ridden How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, the story of a high school girl who is forced to become fun in order to appear well-rounded before Harvard’s admissions board.
It was the appearance — and disappearance — of Viswanathan’s book that inspired Kunze to try to write a novel about Harvard, she told THIRTEEN in a phone interview. “I was sitting around talking with Rina, my roommate, and I was like, ‘Huh, all you have to do is write a young adult book that mentions Harvard and it’ll do really well!’ Obviously, her book didn’t do really well — but it was kind of a ‘how hard could it be’ moment.”
Ms. Kunze and her roommate — Rina Onur, now a financier in Turkey — came up with a rough sketch for what would become The Ivy, in which a clumsy California girl named Callie tries to find happiness on a campus full of ambitious, monied jerks after her high school boyfriend breaks up with her via email. In the process, Callie develops multiple crushes on boys, attends exclusive parties at social clubs, and pursues a spot on the staff of a magazine called Fifteen Minutes, the weekend supplement of the Harvard Crimson, which your blogger happened to work on in college and whose depiction he was thus very curious to read.
Below, a condensed and edited Q&A with Kunze about the origins of her book, her love life at Harvard, and the strange realities of the contemporary publishing industry:
Bookish: Did you figure the entire time you were at school that you’d write a book about Harvard?
Lauren Kunze: No. I definitely had a dream about becoming a writer one day and thought that it would be one of the coolest jobs ever. But it’s kind of a fantasy profession so I almost view this book as an experiment to see if I could actually support myself as a writer.
B: How did you find a publisher?
LK: So, senior year, [Michael Pietsch] from Little, Brown, who published Kaavya’s book, came to give a talk in front of all the English majors. It was supposed to be for people who were potentially interested in going into the publishing industry. I think half of the people in there were trying to figure out how they could get published themselves. Someone asked if he accepted unsolicited manuscripts and he said, ‘No, but if someone gets a hold of my personal email and sends me a very interesting letter, I’ll read it.’ So after the talk I went up to him and said, ‘I’m going to need your personal email address, because I’m going to send you a very interesting letter.’ I think he was really surprised but he gave it to me. Then I drafted with Rena this pitch for the novel and sent it in, and he was interested and passed it on to an editor. None of the book had been written at that point, so I then basically tabled my thesis for a week and wrote the first three chapters and sent them in. Several months later I got a rejection letter from the editor’s assistant saying that the book seemed “YA.” And so I figured that was it. But then a few more weeks later — it was spring break at this point — I got another email from an editor at one of their young adult divisions asking to see the chapters. So I sent them and and got no response again. So finally I emailed her and said, you know, “I’m assuming you’re not interested based on the fact that you haven’t responded, but if you have any feedback that’d be great.” So she actually sent me some very thoughtful feedback on the first few chapters. And this was the first thing I’d ever written creatively, so I had no idea what I was doing. But based on her feedback I felt like I could sort of start over and finish it. And then I did. And after that experience, I wanted to go to the more traditional route of finding an agent first and then having her deal with the publishing houses. So in late November, early December, 2008, I signed with an agent and then she sold it in March 2009. I finished it before querying agents, so it was already done then. It required about three times as much editing in terms of time as it did to write it, but there was a completed manuscript when I got an agent.
B: Did you figure the entire time you’d write a book about Harvard?
LK: No. I definitely had a dream about becoming a writer one day and thought that it would be one of the coolest jobs ever. But it’s kind of a fantasy profession so I almost view this book as an experiment to see if I could actually support myself as a writer.
B: How much of the stuff in the book really happened?
LK: Obviously not all of it, thank goodness. I actually lived in Wigglesworth in a four person suite across from four guys, and so the dynamic of the dorm room is pretty authentic. And the last chapter is based on a real Harvard-Yale incident from sophomore year. I was never on the Crimson or Fifteen Minutes, so a lot of the details about the comp process [what happens when you're trying to join an organization at Harvard] were completely fabricated. And just FM in general — it’s a fictional version. I don’t think it’s similar to the real magazine.
B: Did you really comp FM?
LK: I didn’t. I would have considered possibly comping the Lampoon or the Advocate – a lot of people have asked me why I didn’t do either of those — but the honest truth is I didn’t even really hear about them till the end of sophomore year. I guess I’m not really a joiner.
B: When I was an editor at FM there was a lot of hand-holding and worrying about whether we were hurting the compers’ feelings. It wasn’t the cutthroat, exclusive club you describe in the book, and there was no mean, powerful monster at its helm.
LK: Yeah. When I said the fictional FM is very different from the real FM, I think that’s sort of what I meant. In the world of The Ivy it was necessary to have the magazine be this powerful, widely read, and revered publication that freshmen would want to join and an evil upperclassman character would sort of run. But that doesn’t align with my experience of FM in reality. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — FM was a magazine I knew existed and saw from time to time.
B: Did you read a lot of Ivy League-themed YA literature when you were preparing to write this book?
LK: No. I had actually never read a book that was classified in the young adult genre before. When the editor’s assistant who sent me that first rejection letter told me the book ‘seemed YA’ he abbreviated it and I didn’t even know what it meant. I don’t think I’ve read any Harvard novels. I read Nick McDonell’s first book and I previewed Expensive Education on my mom’s Kindle but I did not download it. I want to read Simon Rich’s book. When I knew that I was going to try to write a young adult novel, that was when I first started reading what were considered successful young adult novels.
B: What’s the reasoning behind identifying your book with the Harvard brand?
LK: The publishing market is so brutal, and there are so many books, that anything that you can use to distinguish yourself as an author or your work helps. I think Harvard is something the public is curious about and it definitely already has huge name recognition. You’re doing anything you can to grab the public’s attention and get them to pick up the book. It wasn’t like I sat down and said, ‘I’m going to write a Harvard novel,’ or, ‘Here’s this girl exploiting the Harvard brand but she messed it up so here’s my chance to exploit it myself.’ That’s not what happened. It’s a small aspect of it, but it was more like I had a sense that a novel can be successful if it has a combination of these features — if it’s YA, if it has these glamorous parties, if it has multiple love interests. I’m worried that I’m sounding calculating, but the point is, I wasn’t trying to sit down and think, ‘I’m going to write a Harvard novel.’ It was, ‘I want to write a novel and I want it to succeed, so this is the type of novel that I’m going to write.’ And so, yes, it takes place at Harvard, but what’s more interesting is I think representing the college experience in general, because it’s a time period in life that’s considered very difficult to market by the publishing industry. There are almost no books or TV shows or anything that take place in college. It’s sort of this off-the-map area — it’s this uncharted territory. So it is unique in its Harvard setting, but I think overall the experience of a young girl going off the college and going into a vastly new environment and encountering all these different people is very universal.
B: Why is college considered off-limits?
LK: I don’t know why. It just sort of seems like one of those rules of the publishing industry. People reference it all the time. This was actually a big conflict with my book because it was straddling the border. I didn’t have an audience in mind. I was just thinking, ‘I’m writing about college,’ but it definitely could have gone either way — adult or young adult — and it was kind of a big decision. I ended up making it younger and that was a conscious decision — it got to be for a younger audience with every rewrite.
B: What happens now that the first book in the series has been published?
LK: I just finished the second one and there’s two more after that.
B: OK, let’s talk about crushes. When Callie first gets to Harvard it seems like every boy who looks at her takes her breath away. Did you have a lot of crushes freshman year?
No, that was not my experience freshman year. I had two serious boyfriends in high school, and for me it was very important to go the first semester of college without having a boyfriend at all. I know some of those couples who coupled up first week of freshman year and I just didn’t want that to be a priority at the beginning. I think a good deal of the romantic aspects of the book have to do with the genre, and my editor, and what my editor thinks young women are interested in.
B: Did you have a high school boyfriend when you started Harvard?
LK: No, I did not. Definitely not.
B: Any advice on that front for girls who have just arrived at Harvard this fall?
LK: Well… I don’t want to advise the entire freshman class to break up with their boyfriends. But that being said, I think there are a lot of experiences to be had when you start college and you shouldn’t close yourself off to anything you might be interested in trying.
Daniel Kehlmann’s unabashed jones for pithy postmodern jokes is infectious. Fame is one prankish little book, and even if at first you catch yourself wondering if this kind of thing can still be fun, you won’t worry for long.
It’s a novel-in-stories, maybe the native literary form of the internet age, in which every plotline we’re aware of or have thoughts about is one we have pieced together from multiple blog posts, articles, and other types of “content” absorbed online. The narrative of Fame takes shape gradually, too: Instead of a linear storyline, we get a fragmented view of a universe inhabited by an ensemble cast of characters who are circumstantially central to each other’s lives.
Kehlmann — a young German writer whose best known work, a blockbuster in Europe, is 2006′s Measuring the World — uses that structure to weave an intricately mapped arrangement of metatextual jokes. There’s one chapter in which a character who has resolved to commit suicide instead of battling her just-diagnosed cancer is seen begging her author to spare her life and just rewrite the plot of his story so that she lives. She talks to him, he talks back — that’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with here.
Like Jennifer Egan’s recent novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Kehlmann really works the “novel-in-stories” format to its fullest. One of the best things about this book is the delight he takes in pivoting from one perspective to the next chapter to chapter, how reliably he manages to surprise you at the beginning of each of his nine stories. I liked Egan’s book for how much fun it was to see what part of the universe the chapter you were about to start reading would center around, what improbable perspective she’d take. With Kehlmann it’s the same: There’s a thrill in this kind of brain activity, and he really knows how to provoke it in his readers. Fame is appealing in the same way complicated toys are.
In the opening story, “Voices,” we meet a fellow named Ebling whose phone won’t stop ringing with calls from people who have apparently dialed the wrong number looking for someone named Rolf. It is Ebling’s first cell phone, and he is made very uncomfortable by it. The fact that all these people are calling and asking him questions causes him to go mad, until he is impersonating this Rolf — a man he knows nothing about — to people who apparently know him intimately. His own life starts seeming foreign, and he eventually forgets who he is. Pretending to be Rolf and going along with whatever glitch has caused the situation makes him feel like he was always meant to be Rolf, that he was living as the wrong person his whole life.
A little while later we meet actual Rolf, a world famous actor who has his own identity problems, and toward the end we meet the numbskull from the telecommunications company whose fault it was that Ebling got assigned his phone number.
These kinds of maneuvers are irresistible to a certain kind of person, for whom there is nothing more pleasurable than admiring the architecture of a meticulously designed plot, than following the wiring that connects the nine stories and figuring out how it’s held together. It’s like Kehlman has a really fragile model of a house made of popsicle sticks in his hands and he’s trying to pass it off to you, and you’re trying to take it from him without letting it fall to pieces.
It’s also like a skateboarding video where guys perform stunts using a seemingly organic system of ramps and rails, following advanced choreography but improvising unpredictably. In Fame you’re watching a whole universe, too, while Kehlmann goes around doing tricks. You never know what the next one’s going to be or how he’s going to use a pipe or a curb but you’re happily confident that it’s going to be rad.
There’s one part where Kehlmann does something unbecoming of a showman. It comes early in the book, in a chapter about Rolf the famous actor somehow transforming into an anonymous, shabby impersonator of himself. Rolf is with a woman who has just told him that maybe he should try impersonating someone else — that he’s not really a natural fit for Rolf.
Then: “His eyes slid to the mirror. There she was, and there he was, and suddenly he didn’t know anymore which side the originals were on and which side the reflections.”
My fellow Thirteen.org blogger Nick Sylvester wrote something about Young Jeezy a couple of years ago that has stuck with me. The post was about a song called “Bury Me a G,” in which Jeezy gets shot outside of a club, and in which you can hear — about three quarters into the song, as an interlude — the voice of a female newscaster describing the scene and saying in a stern, sad voice, that so far it is “unclear” whether Jeezy “was the suspect or the victim.”
Nick was really bothered by the line because:
It’s like, the suspect/victim thing is the only reason anything remotely morally difficult in rap is compelling at all to me. It’s just too big — too big and banal and clumsy a thing to just say, “It’s unclear whether he was the suspect or the victim.” I mean really now.
When Rolf looks in the mirror and has that thought about not knowing whether he’s the real thing or the reflection, Kehlmann is being artless the same way Jeezy was on “Bury Me a G.” Kehlmann’s subject in this book, his main preoccupation, is the difference between fiction and reality, and this line is an aberration from his otherwise funny and suggestive treatment of it.
It kind of ruined “Bury Me a G” for Nick, but it doesn’t ruin Fame, not by any means. If you like Donald Barthelme and you always favored the more advanced varieties of Legos, read it.
If you like Back to the Future, you’ll love Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. No, there’s no actual time travel in the book, but the stories in it are told out of chronological order, so as far as the reader is concerned there might as well be. Adult characters you meet early on reappear in later chapters as children, and vice versa. Sasha, who is a 35-year-old assistant at a record label in the book’s opening, is shown later as a student at N.Y.U., and then again as an 18-year-old girl who has run away from home and gone backpacking in Europe. Because each section is told from a different perspective you find out different facts about her each time she reappears, and the math you do in your head as you’re putting it together produces a relentlessly titillating effect.
The “novel-in-stories” has been a fashionable play in book publishing lately — Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists are two other recent examples — but that doesn’t make the tangle of relationships that connects all the characters in Goon Squad any less impressive or convincing. Characters who are peripheral in one chapter are revisited later and placed at the center of the action. Backstory is deployed deliberately, every reveal timed for maximum punch.
It really did remind me of Back to the Future: Call me crazy, but is there anything better than seeing Marty McFly and Jennifer Parker as a middle aged married couple in part two, after you’ve known them as seventeen year olds forever? Or how about seeing Marty’s mom in the first one, all puffy and pallid at the beginning of the movie, as a radiant high school student in 1955? It’s thrilling the first time you see it, and it never stops being thrilling.
There are lots of moments like that in Goon Squad, which follows an ensemble cast that includes musicians, producers, executives, publicists, and journalists as they try to a greater or lesser extent to hold onto their personalities while growing older and increasingly locked into lives they can’t control. Finding out little by little what roles each of them has played in the others’ lives scratches a very particular itch.
It’s not gimmicky, if that’s what you’re thinking. Though I mainly never forgot that Egan was presiding over the show the whole time, controlling what I saw when, it was also plain that she put surgical care into the arrangement, that she hadn’t just broken apart an ordinary, left-to-right storyline and shuffled it for funsies. It’s not a trivial maneuver undertaken for attention: There’s an inimitable flavor of ache Egan manages to conjure by showing us Sasha as a teenager only after we find out what’s going to happen to her when she’s a grown-up — how her priorities will change, how the range of emotions she feels will totally shift.
As I read the first half of the novel, I kept worrying that Egan was trying to say all the connections between her characters were evidence of something like fate. It was most acute in the fourth chapter, about a family’s trip to Africa, in which she describes a record producer’s teenage daughter dancing provocatively in front of a young local warrior who earns money entertaining American tourists. Egan wastes no time taking a big gulp of air and going through the guy’s entire future history:
“Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He’ll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security.”
This felt cheap to me, this dramatic fast-forwarding, in a way the rest of the book didn’t. It’s a montage, basically, and the way Egan delivers it, it’s like she’s trying to say that what happens during a person’s life is all predetermined — that you can look at a teenager and see his future in his eyes. I still don’t know if that’s the point of A Visit From the Goon Squad —if all these disappointed individuals who populate the book are all doomed from the start.
For what it’s worth: At the end of Back to the Future III, when Doc Brown and his beloved Clara arrive in 1985 in a time traveling train, Doc joyously tells Marty, who is worried about his destiny, that the future hasn’t been written yet — that his life is whatever he makes of it.
Goon Squad does not end so cheerfully. The bleak last chapter, which takes place in the all-too-near future, describes a dystopian society of doomed computer addicts whose consciousness and individuality is expressed primarily through the product endorsements they post to social networking sites. Whether or not there are flying cars is not addressed.
Hate: A Romance is told from the perspective of a journalist named Elizabeth who spends the best years of her life writing pieces for magazines in Paris. This is how she describes it early in the book:
“I covered ‘culture,’ that is, everything and nothing. I had my little supplement. I went out, I kept up with the scene. Television was my first beat. It’s how everyone starts out. I’d go hear shows, indie rock shows, to compensate for the shit I watched on TV. I did trend pieces, I wrote up the latest thing. It leaves a funny taste in your mouth. You smell death in the life all around you, and all the while you keep waiting for something new. I did ‘fashion,’ too, naturally, and ‘books’ every now and then. If we were sitting across a dinner table and you asked me, I could tell you what people were talking about; I couldn’t tell you how much else, but I knew what was current.”
Holy moly. At the end of the chapter she drops this:
“In this world some people are distinct individuals while others are no more than paths of transmission. At my age, the signs are unmistakable: I belong in category two. I have my work cut out for me.”
Hate: A Romance, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing in translation this fall, is by Tristan Garcia, but you’re meant to regard it as having been written by Elizabeth. That’s the frame: Elizabeth has written a historical account of what was happening in Paris during the 1990s and early 2000s and that is the book we’re reading. It’s to Garcia’s credit that one barely thinks about him — or the translators, for that matter — while reading it.
The book is Elizabeth’s memoir, sort of, except that it’s not really about her, but three of her friends— the dangerously charming punk William Miller, the conservative intellectual Jean-Michel Liebowitz, and the AIDS prevention activist Dominique Rossi — and how they destroyed each other’s lives. These three guys, in Elizabeth’s telling, are historical figures: separately and together, they were responsible for shaping their era. They captured people’s attention. People cared what they thought.
William is the magical genius in Elizabeth’s universe, her favorite by far. They meet when they’re about 20 years old because she wants to do a story on him. At this early stage, he is an inarticulate, shy gutter punk who wanders around muttering about all the projects he is planning. Elizabeth befriends him and stands by his side as he transforms — unconsciously, of course — into an icon worshipped by “somewhat marginal people.” William turns himself into a careening spectacle: a glamorous, inscrutable figure who rails against AIDS prevention activists for trying to talk him and all other young men into giving up their freedom, a.k.a. using condoms. When William, a master bullshit artist, writes a book and achieves a new level of fame, “Technikart and most of the magazines and ‘avant-garde’ fanzines hailed the emergence of a new voice.”
Dominique is one of Elizabeth’s colleagues early in life — the two of them covered nightlife together and interviewed famous people. At the beginning of the book, she introduces him to William, thus setting off the pair’s five year turn as an “old-fashioned couple.” During this time, more and more people start dying of AIDS, and Dominique, who is HIV positive, gradually trades in his glamorous, old life as a club kid for a consuming role as a community organizer who promotes safe sex. After he and William break up, they become bitter enemies, both obsessed with making sure the other one and everything he stands for is forgotten by history.
There is a third friend, Jean-Michel Liebowitz, whom Elizabeth dates on and off for about a decade while William and Dominique carry on their war. Liebowitz is a professor of strong convictions who begins his life on the left but finds himself, as he gets older, taking unmistakably conservative positions. He rails against cultural relativism, pop music, promiscuity, and what he perceives as the left’s knee-jerk affection for any and all minorities. He is a public intellectual; he writes books for the popular press and appears on television. But he considers himself a philosopher, and as we learn early on, he has contempt for Elizabeth’s line of work. “He was always going on about the unfashionable, the ‘nonmodern,’ the old days,” Elizabeth recalls. She stands for the opposite of all those things, she knows: “each new fad supplanting the last.” Liebowitz makes fun of her sometimes, saying that when finally his books became fashionable, she’ll have no choice but to embrace his views because it’s all she is “programmed” to do.
Elizabeth has her own disdain for journalists. At one point she makes fun of the credulity with which feature writers and critics respond to William’s unserious, self-promotional book. Elsewhere she laments not being able to talk to Liebowitz because she is “not an intellectual.” Still, you never get the sense that she ever takes any of that stuff much to heart. She knows from the beginning how Liebowitz feels about her work, but it doesn’t make her want to do it any less. This is significant insofar as her book — again, we are pretending Hate is her book — amounts to a long, expertly paced magazine piece, one written by an attentive, well-sourced journalist who has great affection for her subjects. Though there’s plenty of first person in the book, it’s essentially a reported history, complete with interviews and scenes and props and anecdotes — killer devices, all, which come from a playbook that you don’t often see being used in novels. Tristan Garcia has applied the storytelling techniques native to fun, middlebrow journalism and used them to tell a fictional story. The framing device — ”this is a book written by a journalist” — is not just an excuse; it actually informs the book’s style.
In the introduction, Elizabeth says she has written the book for William — to rescue him from obscurity and to correct the conventional wisdom that he was never anything but a vapid, reckless buffoon who deliberately gave people AIDS in order to get attention. But William’s memory is not the only thing being rescued in Hate. The other is journalism: Elizabeth, for all her cynicism about the profession, has written an immersive and deeply felt piece of magazine writing. It is a story about ideas told through the people who had them, and the emotions, grudges, and ambitions that informed the things they believed and wrote. Typical gossip for intellectuals, in other words. Also, a decisive defense of the form.
The book is about death, too, and what happens to people who spend their lives trying to be influential when they’re no longer able to make noise — how their mark on the world is registered, remembered, and above all forgotten. William cuts right to the heart of it when his book of nonsense is published to rave reviews and Elizabeth says to him, “Not bad, Will, you’re a writer now.” “No, Liz,” Will answers. “You don’t get it at all. I’m a motherfucking text.”
Elizabeth does get it though, and she knows what she’s doing when, barely 30 pages into the book, she quotes an aging Dominique looking back on the “joie-de-vivre” of gay life before AIDS. “When you’re defining your own era, you’re not aware of it, you think you’re building a future,” Dominique says. “Then one day you realize that this future you’re building is just something that people will look back on one day as the past, as something past and gone. That’s what it means to live out an era, a time, a moment. All of a sudden — yes — it ends.”