by Pat Holt
Friday, November 15, 2002
ANN PATCHETT LETS THOSE NEUROSURGEONS HAVE IT
I knew it would be fun to interview novelist Ann Patchett onstage, but I couldn't have predicted how humorous she might be, or how ferocious about a long-held conviction she unloaded on her audience Tuesday night at City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco.
Patchett didn't mind a little teasing about the fact that reviewers of her breakthrough novel, the masterly, "Bel Canto," wrote that she had been "toiling in obscurity" as a writer before the book was published.
This was hardly true. Patchett's previous three novels - "The Patron Saint of Liars," "Taft" and "The Magician's Assistant" - had, "you know, won awards," Patchett said with a wan smile, acknowledging that sales had not exactly gone through the roof.
Happily, "Bel Canto" has been such a huge success that it drew attention as well to her other books, which seem to be hitting the big numbers in paperback as readers - book groups especially - discover they can't get enough of Ann Patchett.
The Jane Smiley Theory
I had an ulterior motive for interviewing Ann Patchett, and that was to test something I call The Jane Smiley Theory: This is the notion that while good writers, natural writers and even gifted writers may abound, born writers are very rare and worth studying when you find 'em. Smiley is one; Doris Lessing, Eudora Welty, Iris Murdoch and quite possibly Ann Patchett (we don't know yet) are others.
Patchett fits the profile of the born writer in that she has been writing successfully all her life, beginning at the age of 5, she announced to the City Arts audience. She published her first short story for Paris Review at the age of 19. She put in her dues at graduate courses, writers' colonies and various teaching stints at universities. And she certainly "toiled away" for 9 years as a contributor to Seventeen magazine, where editors apparently ripped her articles to shreds while making Patchett the "workhorse" she is today.
But the reason Ann Patchett could help me test The Jane Smiley Theory was her attitude. Like Smiley and the others, she has a big, big attitude, so I began with this burning question:
"How is it that when you started writing 'Bel Canto,' you, who knew nothing about most of its subjects - opera, South American politics, Japanese business, chess, terrorists, soccer, French cooking, Russian history, Red Cross negotiations, professional translators, even the look and pain of shingles spreading across the face of one of your characters - felt confident that you could write about them all with genuine knowledge and expertise?"
To say a look of kindly patience crossed the face of Ann Patchett would be an understatement. "If I broke every one of these subjects down and told you how very little information one actually has of those things," she said, "it would be shocking.
"Writing teachers always say you should write about what you know. Well, that would be wonderful advice if you're *interested* in what you know. Which I am not. If I had to write about what I knew, all my books would be about my dog. What is interesting to me is what I don't know. It's the opportunity to learn that makes this such a good job."
You see, right there: The certainty of the born writer comes from *not* knowing. Of course she does research about these subjects, Patchett continued, but "I have to be careful. Research is the La Brea Tar Pits for writers. It's where you go when you don't want to work. And you never want to work, so you think, oh, I'll do some more research.
"What I try to do is farm it out as much as possible. My father was a police officer in Los Angeles for 35 years, and there is nothing he cannot find out. All I have to do is dispatch a piece of information, and he'll go and track things down for me. What you also need in your life as a writer is a doctor and maybe a lawyer and a scientist. If you ask people for help, they will give it to you.
"So the extent of how much I don't know about terrorism and South America and opera and all those other things is breathtaking. I guess doing research the way I do is cheating, but more important is the confidence I get from it."
But what if you don't "cheat" enough? What if you get something wrong?
"Well, that's life," she said in a cavalier fashion. "I have a friend who's a cook, and she tells me that if you burn the dinner, you should bring it to the table, stand up straight and say: 'This is the way they make it authentically.'
"That's writing. Do you want to know who the expert is? I'm the expert. Do you want to know how this goes? Here is the way it goes. And they [readers who want to believe the author] just line up like ducks."
Well, this got a huge laugh. It *was* shocking, but I felt everyone in the theater, including me, wanted to say, "Great, sign me up! Transport me to another world as you did with 'Bel Canto' and let me join the other ducks."
So here is what I learned about The Jane Smiley Theory: People who are born writers *start* with the authority they carry onto the page. It doesn't matter what the story is about - they simply fill in the content later. Presentation is everything, like the burned dinner. Most important, their attitude as born writers is so big, so inbred and so full of confidence that they never doubt whether they will convince us of the truth of every detail, inaccurate or not.
What It Takes To Be A Writer
I go into this, too, because what it takes to be a "real" writer was the central question of the evening. Certainly Patchett was born with a unique talent, but she has also put in the hours (by now the decades) that any serious writer needs in learning the craft, and it showed. You could see it when she answered someone from the audience who asked if she could offer advice to young writers.
The fact that "we can all operate a pencil," she said, "doesn't mean we can all write." Yet beginning writers often believe they can "write a story, and work on it, and polish it and polish it and polish it until they send it to the New Yorker. That's really insane."
She hears this kind of thinking at cocktail parties and receptions. "Someone like a neurosurgeon will come up to me and say, 'You know, I've decided to start writing fiction - I'm going to take off Tuesdays from 3 until 6 o'clock to write my first novel.'
"To this I say, 'What an amazing coincidence! On Tuesdays from 3 until 6, I'm planning on practicing neurosurgery. Maybe I could have your office.' "
Whoa. A roar of laughter flooded toward us from the audience, though everyone knew Patchett wasn't kidding. "We need to start thinking of writing as an essential joy, not as a road that will lead us to something but a road that we take pleasure in for its own sake. Second, we need to think of writing as an apprenticeship, as something to study.
"No one who has ever wanted to play the cello has picked up the instrument, drawn the bow across it and said, 'Hey, I don't sound like Yo-Yo Ma! I'm not going to play it any longer.'
"We know you have to study. You have to practice. You have to have passion. I don't think anyone has ever started out thinking, 'I'm picking up this cello because one day I want to be the First Cello in the Vienna Philharmonic.' Playing the cello is about learning; it's about the love of music.
"We need to approach writing in that way. The end result for a writer may be finding a publisher, but publishing is not anywhere near the beginning or the middle of this process. So when we advise young people about writing, it would be best if we could move students away from that kind of thinking and say, 'Write because you're passionate about it. Think of yourself as a glass blower. You don't blow your first glass and take it to Tiffany's. You blow your first glass, and you smash it. You blow it again, and you smash it.'
"I think that writing is about that, especially at the beginning. Stack up the pages. Get a lot done. Then go back, polish it and think about what you want to do. Writing 25 pages with a lot of ideas is much better than writing three perfect sentences when you're in the sixth grade, or frankly at any time."
REMEMBERING CHANDLER B. GRANNIS
Reading about the death at 90 of Chandler B. Grannis, the former editor-in-chief at Publishers Weekly, gave me one of those little tugs you feel when someone you didn't know very well but admired greatly passes away.
Mr. Grannis (I never called him by his first name) had stepped down from his top role to write more independently as a contributing editor by the time I signed on as Western Correspondent for PW in the late 1970s.
He had always been, I felt, a walking encyclopedia on the book industry. Not only did Mr. Grannis know every statistic about publishing that was possible to gather, since in those days he was the one who begged (and kicked) publishers into giving their raw data to PW in the first place; he also viewed books and reading with an Old School respect that was a joy and frankly an honor to witness.
I got to work with Mr. Grannis every once in a while, when various publishing confabs took place in "my" territory (West of the Rockies). But not until I joined him at an annual meeting of scholarly publishers did I realize how wise he could be about changes in publishing that few others saw.
We met each morning at the conference to decide which of us would cover the many panel discussions and lectures that seemed to go on all day and into the evening. Always the gentleman, Mr. Grannis deferred to me in these decisions, knowing that I would avoid the dry-as-dust technical, academic and business meetings that he loved.
On the second day, I remember commenting that a new organization, WISP (Women in Scholarly Publishing), was going to hold a lengthy series of meetings, and this would be my first choice for covering the day's proceedings.
Mr. Grannis tapped his pen on the program and looked up at me through thick, smeary eyeglasses. "You can do that," he said slowly, "but I think something important is going to come out of this one." He pointed to a workshop that looked like the usual boilerplate stuff to me. Its title was something like "The Future Economics of Journals and Scholarly Monographs."
Mr. Grannis gave me a little nudge. "They're beginning to worry about this, you see, and I don't blame them. It's a part of the animal that could throw the whole body crooked, if you know what I mean."
I hadn't a clue what he meant. "Why don't we both attend?" he murmured. "You can go on to those WISPy women afterward" - Mr. Grannis always liked his little joke - "and I'll probably stop the presses with this one." He referred to a two-hour panel with a title that said something like "Taking Stock: Scholarly Book Design vs. the Quality of Paper and Glue Since 1950."
I sensed that Mr. Grannis was handing me something valuable as we trudged off to the Journals and Scholarly Monographs panel. Halfway through the meeting I felt my jaw dropping to the floor.
The speakers were saying that up to this time, many university and scholarly presses received enough subsidies to allow them to afford publications about esoteric academic subjects. Some of the journals had a subscription base of only a few hundred readers; some of the monographs sold to even fewer.
The readers of these publications were scholars who resided in the high aerie of the academy - nuclear physicists and tissue-regeneration specialists and computer imagists and professors who taught post-post-post-graduate seminars on the arcana of 17th century Chinese poetry and pre-pre-preRaphaelite philosophy. The journals and monographs they read were expensive, and justifiably so, the publishers felt: unit costs were atrocious.
But now, all was in jeopardy, they said. Subsidies were shrinking for scholarly publishers; journal subscriptions and the prices of monographs were considered too high even for the most devoted readers; and, worst of all, something called "electronic mail" was beginning to surface that could undermine the entire function of scholarly publishing.
From the standpoint of scholars who wrote for these publications, especially those in the hard sciences, there was no reason to endure the slow and torturous process of getting their articles submitted, edited, sent back for questions and revisions, then printed much later and distributed to a few hundred colleagues.
As scientists they were already using computers in labs, offices, libraries - even in the field - and could discuss in electronic messages the same information it might take months to publish with scholarly presses. Besides, many of them - not all - hated working with editors they called "sticklers" at scholarly publications who insisted on fact-checking, clarity, good grammar, supporting evidence and formal argument. Sending a note to a pal about the gist of the thing was much, much easier.
"Bypassing the editorial process through informal electronic conversation could make scholarly journals and monographs appear to be obsolete," panelists suggested. At this, Mr. Grannis delivered one of his not-so-subtle nudges in my direction. "Listen *past* their complaints," he whispered, and the gates began to open.
Much more was at stake here than it seemed. Scholarly publishers, after all, upheld standards of communication that would be lost if scientists and academics stopped using journals and monographs as the anchor of scholarly exchange. More important, these publishers were the great caretakers of scholarly literature; they determined whether a piece of information was worthy of record; they kept and organized the archives.
I nodded to Mr. Grannis as a sign that I got it, but his eyebrows stretched to the top of his balding head. Of course, I realized as the panel continued, there was more: We weren't just seeing a shift in the way scholarly publications would be written and published in the future. We were witnessing the dawn of a revolution.
If this technology were available to intellectuals in the scholarly community today, there was every reason to believe it would open up to people in business, people in the professions and people at home tomorrow.
If writers everywhere decided they, too, wouldn't mess with the "sticklers" so they could bypass the editorial process and speak directly to their readers, why, "the consequences in every field will be disastrous," a scholarly publisher was saying. "Direct communication may seem more democratic, but the result of all these unedited voices careening around electronic space is going to be pure chaos."
Mr. Grannis was now nodding and writing so furiously I thought I could detect steam shooting out of his ears. He launched a final nudge that nearly knocked me off my chair, and no wonder. This was the kind of story an industry journalist lives for - a tiny flame that portends the huge conflagration to come. And he had invited me to share it.
I've thought of Mr. Grannis many times upon opening email to find that of 222 messages, 219 offer discounted viagra, webcam-conscious girls taking showers and "exclusive" investment deals from exiled West African dignitaries. But that's just stuff to throw out quickly, like junk mail.
More to the point in today's electronic experience is that endless search on the Internet for voices one can trust; it's the knowledge that the World Wide Web has become as junked up as a universe crowded with dead satellites; it's the sense that a from-the-bedroom column like Holt Uncensored might cut through the chaos of millions speaking at once - or it might be just another stick in the fire.
Thanks to Mr. Grannis, I get to think about all this "past my own complaints," as it were. Whatever is happening in our own electronic era, it's best viewed with the kind of humility and respect that journalists from the Old School brought to their era. That's a small thing, perhaps, but as Chandler B. Grannis demonstrated, it's a way of life, too.
THE SURPRISING POWER OF ROMANCE FICTION
I had no idea while researching the story about Wal-Mart's censorship of a romance novel called "Contact" (see #348) that many of the problems affecting the mainstream book industry have hit the romance genre, too, though sometimes in surprisingly different ways.
Reading romance columnist Laurie Gold's "At the Back Fence" articles about everything from novels with "DIK (Desert Isle Keeper) Status" to "Book Signing Horror Stories" [at All About Romance - http://www.likesbooks.com], I realized what experts like Gold have known for decades: Romance novels sell in huge numbers and contribute mightily to overall book industry statistics.
In 2001, for example, romance novels generated $1.52 *billion* in sales. Overall they comprise a whopping 18% of all books sold (excluding children's books), according to statistics at Romance Writers of America at http://www.rwanational.org.
Yet for some reason I made the dumb mistake of misinterpreting news from Stacey's Bookstore in San Francisco a few years ago that Oprah Winfrey's Book Club selections were sending many readers away from the Romance shelves and over to the midlist fiction shelves.
This did not mean, as I had thought, that romance readers' devotion to the genre was flagging. Quite the opposite. The genre itself has shifted in terms of editorial content to reflect fact that women characters are stronger and more confident, and hold more professional jobs than they used to. So there hasn't been a change in sales patterns - romances sell just as well as ever, if not better.
At the same time, changes in the retail landscape - the emergence of chain bookstores in shopping malls, online bookselling, superstore chains, etc. - have affected the romance genre in intriguing ways. Romance fiction, I find, is still the most interdependent field in the business: Readers, booksellers, authors and publishers of romance novels seem to have intimate conversations about the direction of various series and the future of trends as though they are all part of a single joyous family.
Along with parallels to the mainstream industry, there are some snazzy surprises. Who would have thought, for example, that independent booksellers specializing in romance have considered Amazon.com as a - gad, I can barely get the word out - partner.
So I asked Laurie Gold to fill us in on the parallels of the romance fiction field to the rest of the book industry. Here's her thought on the matter:
"Romance readers have long been accustomed to being treated like the ugly step-sister in the world of fiction. As a result, they've developed strategies to adapt to the difficulties in finding the books they want to buy.
"It used to be that romance readers could visit their local supermarket, Target, KMart or other general stores featuring mass-market paperbacks and find every romance series title out for the month, along with most historical and contemporary romance single title releases.
"This is no longer the case. To buy many romance titles these days, you have to know (in advance) what you're looking for, and you have to go to a book-specific retailer to find it.
"The 'Superstore' Bandwagon
"The reason for this downsizing of inventory is much the same in the romance field as it is for the rest of the book industry. Look what superstore chains have done to their own mall stores, for example: One of the benefits to going to a B Dalton used to be their semi-monthly romance newsletter. If you can find a B Dalton or Waldenbooks, you still might get terrific romance service, but in many cities large and small, these smaller chains have given way to the far larger Barnes and Noble and Borders.
"To some, the "superstore" bandwagon is less and less about the selling of books and more and more about mass merchandising. With all the "stuff" on sale, and those comfy couches and scones, you might not immediately notice fewer genre books for sale.
"Unfortunately, as many have come to realize, some of these superstores do not special-order books easily, while for readers of romance novels, special-ordering has become necessary more and more often. Superstores sell many different types of books, but the depth within individual genres varies greatly. At some, for instance, you may not find series romance titles at all, or much variety in terms of mid-list romance offerings. If you happen to get there after they've sold the one or two copies of a mid-list romance book, you may be out of luck.
"At the same time, many of us who shop widely have noticed that the reason fewer (if any) series romances and/or Regency romances are available at supermarkets and at places like Target any longer is that more shelf space is being given over to massive quantities of books by a few best-selling authors of fiction, romance, children's books and mystery/thrillers.
" 'Romance Friendly' Independents and Some Chains
"Many of today's romance readers believe that the smaller the store, the more likely it is that we will encounter a sales staff who read romances. 'Romance friendly' independents, as well as some individual stores in certain chains, still stock most every romance title released each month, and provide services impossible to find elsewhere.
"There are really two different types of independent bookstores - ones that cater to literary fiction and/or policy-related non-fiction books, and ones that cater to various genre fiction such as mysteries and romance.
"Romance-friendly" independents often sell a combination of new and used books and will happily special order any book in print on a regular basis, provide individual cubby holes for customers who request more than a few books a month, host author signings and "hand-sell" books they like. Rather than the "staff recommendations" at larger stores that can be meaningless, hand-selling at a small bookstore where your taste is known is definitely a perk.
"But, contrary to the belief that all chain stores are impersonal and unfriendly to romance, it often boils down to the management of an individual store, and those who staff it. A romance reader may feel dissed at an indie that sells primarily literary fiction but may feel at home at a chain store with a sales clerk who reads and knows romance.
"The fact that many romance-friendly bookstores sell both new and used books is an important bonus for romance readers as so many authors have extensive backlists. It's much more likely, for instance, that a romance reader will buy a book mid-way through a series if she knows she'll be able to find the books that came before. Unfortunately, these stores are often in small communities or shopping centers that don't get much foot traffic, and since profit margins on books are slim, it's hard to predict how they will manage to stay open year after year.
"Romance Novels on the Internet
"The emergence of on-line booksellers is drastically changing how books are sold. Many romance-friendly booksellers work in concert with stores such as Amazon; for these stores Amazon is less a threat than a partner. Amazon and other online bookstores are becoming more important to romance readers as large brick-and-mortar concerns stock fewer romance titles, and, in particular, fewer series romance titles - and for shorter periods of time. It used to be that if you did not buy a series title the month it was released, you couldn't find it new at all. At online outlets like Amazon.com, you can generally buy that several-months-old series title new without a problem.
"The organic nature of discussion on the Internet has also had an impact, albeit indirectly, the sale of books. Via message boards and discussion lists, readers are communicating in masses online about romances. When Anne Gracie's 'Tallie's Knight' became available in the U.S. in 2001, word of mouth spread like wildfire. This unknown Australian author writing in the little-read Regency Romance sub-genre, was suddenly *the* author to read.
"The buzz surrounding Anne Gracie was not generated by Harlequin's P.R. machinery, which may be why she became so well known so quickly. When buzz is created artificially online, it can backfire.
"While Bantam was successful in launching Josie Litton last year (she had previously written as Maura Seger), Ballantine has been less successful creating positive buzz for the upcoming Suzanne Brockmann release, 'Into the Night.' Brockmann is one of the hottest authors of romance/romantic suspense writing today; in a genre published mostly in paperback, it's significant that Ballantine will be taking her to hardcover next year. 'Into the Night' is fourth in a series of single-title romances and has been keenly anticipated by readers.
"Many more advance copies were sent out to 'regular readers'; unfortunately, rather than talking up the book on discussion lists and message boards, most panned it. Given that discussion began fully two months before the book's release - two months before most people would have the opportunity to read the book - there's quite a negative vibe against this book, which hasn't yet gone on sale!
"Does it seem to be getting more and more difficult to find romance novels? Only if the reader is not well-informed up-front; the casual romance reader probably hasn't a clue what she isn't reading from what's not available for her to buy.
"It would be nice to be able to do one-stop shopping for romance novels, but with the consolidation of publishers, distributors, and sellers, that's no longer the case, as focus is more on bestsellers, with less emphasis on the mid-list. And with the coming of 'category management' in the world of bookselling, look for more of the same, in more ways than one."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your story about Canadian author Rohinton Mistry terminating his book tour because of the humiliating treatment to which he and his wife were being subjected by airport security personnel:I thought you might like to see the note that my friend Betsy Burton wrote to her customers and community when Rohinton Mistry cancelled his stop at her store (The King's English) due to the treatment he had received at American airports. Her comments where quoted in The Toronto Star the following day and in her Salt Lake newspapers as well.
Thanks for your great columns. Alway enjoy reading them.
"The King's English Bookshop is desolated to announce that Rohinton Mistry, three-time Booker Prize short-listed author of 'A Fine Balance' and of the new novel 'Family Matters' is canceling his appearance in Salt Lake City, which was to have occurred on Monday, November 4, 7:00 p.m. at the Rowland Hall Middle School. Mr. Mistry, halfway through his national tour, has been so badly treated in U. S. airports that he has flown home to Canada. His publicist said, 'As a person of color he was stopped repeatedly and rudely at each airport along the way - to the point where the humiliation to him and his wife (with whom he has been traveling) has become unbearable.'
Mr. Mistry is one of the great novelists at work in the world today, and the fact that he has been treated this way in a country predicated on individual liberty is shocking, to say the least. On behalf of all those who believe in freedom and in basic human decency, we wish to extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Mistry and to his wife for the barbaric treatment they have suffered. We will continue to read and sell his wonderful books with the same fervor as always.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About the query by an independent publisher about whether booksellers order POD (print-on-demand) books: I have ordered, for general store stock, several POD titles from Ingram. In general I am happy with the overall quality and pricing of these books. The discounts however are still about half the normal trade book discount I get from Ingram. I stock them as they are obscure but popular books that my customers want.
In a big surprise, I ordered several Clyde Edgerton backlist titles form Ballantine (Random House) a few weeks ago for an author appearance. At the time I placed my order I was told that two of his books were now POD Titles (I was not aware that Random was doing this.) Those books arrived about a week after the rest of the order and the quality was comparable, but the books "looked" a bit different. The discount was the standard Random House discount, but for one title the price had jumped to $ 19.00 (the rest of his Trade Paperbacks are in the $ 12.95 to $ 14.95 range.) I was also told AFTER the order was delivered that the books were Non-Returnable. I wish I had known that as I placed the order.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
As an independent English-language bookstore here in the Netherlands, we have been able to make quite a few of our customers very happy with previously unavailable titles (newly released) from Ingram's POD arm, Lightning Source. They were usually surprised about the quality of the print, hardly distinguishable from the original! Printing on Demand means an additional service to the customer, very well appreciated.
Customers usually are willing to pay more for this service. Unfortunately, these titles still fall under short-discount regimes; otherwise this market could probably grow faster.
Jeroen van Emmerik
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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