Along Publishers Row

by Campbell Geeslin

Sarah McGrath is executive editor at Riverhead. Last year that publisher had four big bestsellers. McGrath was interviewed by PW, and she described what she looks for when she opens a manuscript:

“I want a book that makes you forget what you are doing. That can be because of the beauty of the sentences, or because of the propulsion of the plot, or the emotional effect it has on you. Hopefully, it’s all three of those things.”

SEASON’S SONG: “Beach books have gotten bigger, thicker and whompier,” wrote Charlie Rubin in the June 1 New York Times Book Review, “no longer such a disposable genre that we’re expected to chuck them in the waves until the day the sea gives up its wretched books. Today we accept that dark and cursed thrillers, even those suffused with the wintriest of premises, are not antithetical to lying on stolen hotel towels and bragging about where you were accepted to college but decided not to attend.” The whole supplement is about books for the beach,

Rubin is a TV writer and producer who teaches at New York University.

OLD POEMS: If you are a poet, how long can you expect your poems to live?

It’s been almost 50 years since a collection titled Contemporary American Poetry (1971) was published. The editor, Alfred Poulin Jr., was a professor at SUNY Brockport. He died in 1996.

Poems by 40 poets are included. A few, like long-lived Richard Wilbur and W. S. Merwin (both over 90), still contribute to The New Yorker. But about a third of the names (and poems) have faded like lilacs in the dooryard. Poulin ended his summary of the condition of poetry with: “Alive with the blood and genes of the immediate and distant tradition of poetry, rebelling against all that is petrified and dead in that heritage, and asserting their fierce personal response to all that is demanded of a human being at this moment in history, contemporary American poets repeatedly affirm, with Louis Simpson, that American poetry:

“Whatever it is . . . must have

A stomach that can digest

Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems. . . .

It must swim for miles through the desert

Uttering cries that are almost human.”

All that may be true of today’s poets as well. Just add cellphones and other technology.

DOGS AGAIN: Ace Collins is the author of 80 books. His latest is Man’s Best Hero: True Stories of Great American Dogs. It’s due out this month.

In the 1990’s, Collins wrote two books about the real-life Lassie. Collins told PW, “I would love to get readers to nominate their own dogs as heroes. Then I would write a book about ten or twelve heroes a year. That would thrill me to death.”

The dogs would be mighty proud too.

A NEW HAMLET: Gillian Flynn, author of the mega-selling Gone Girl, has signed to write a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet story for today’s readers. Anne Tyler is retelling The Taming of the Shrew, Margaret Atwood is doing a new version of The Tempest and Jo Nesbo is taking on Macbeth.

Flynn was quoted by The Guardian as saying that Hamlet had “long been a fascination of mine: murder, betrayal, revenge, deceit, madness—all my favorite things.”

POET vs. NOVELIST: Philip Schultz‘s poems are published in The New Yorker. A book collection entitled Failure won the 2008 Pulitzer. But he claims he always wanted to be a novelist. He wrote novel after novel, only to have them rejected.

In an essay in The New York Times, the 68-year-old Shultz described the decades-long rivalry between his successful poet self and his failed novelist self, which ended in a truce and the publication of The Wherewithall, a Novel in Verse. It took the cooperation of his poetic self to make the novel happen, he writes. His eager novelist “knows that the poet got the book published, and that the lines are broken into stanzas, not paragraphs. . . . Maybe, after all these years, we’re finally learning to cooperate, or at least live like brothers.”

P.S.: In an introduction to Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Jacques de Lacretelle wrote: “Flaubert was the first Frenchman to declare that poetry is something other than the art of writing verse; that the world of reality is permeated through and through with poetry. ‘Let us extract it from no matter what,’ [Flaubert] wrote, ‘for it is latent everywhere in everything. There is not a particle of matter but contains a spark of poetry.’”

SOMETHING NEW: The Norwegian novelist, Karl Ove Knausgaard, will speak on June 6 at the New York Public Library. Pulitzer winner novelist Jeffrey Eugenides will moderate.

My Struggle is the title of Knausgaard’s 3,600-page, six-part autobiographic novel. Liesl Schillinger wrote in The New York Times, “Direct and unguarded in tone, the books combine a micro-focus on the granular detail of daily life (child care, groceries, quarrels with friends) with earnest meditations on art, death, music and ambition.”

Eugenides called those elements “autofiction” and “rumination” and said they are something “nobody’s done before.”

Hari Kunzru, author of My Revolutions (2007), told the Times that Knausgaard “offers the novelist a path: that close attention to life as it actually is lived.”

THE TRICK: Alexander Campion is the author of Murder on the Mediterranean. It is his fifth novel about a French policewoman and her epicurean husband.

PW asked Campion how he kept his characters interesting. He said, “There’s a trick to writing stock figure books. First off, nobody really evolves. Secondly, in each book certain characters must appear and behave the way readers expect them to. That conditions the plot. It’s very difficult to make characters evolve, and that boxes you in. The genius of Agatha Christie is that Miss Marple is always interesting. The mystery market is almost a market of addicts. Readers have certain expectations that you as an author feel obliged to meet.”

EXPO: The annual Book Expo played at the Javits Center in Manhattan last week.

The New York Times predicted, “It will be business as usual, in one sense, with the standard lineup of publishers and distinguished authors promoting books for the fall. It also opened under a cloud of concerns—one about Amazon.com, the giant online bookseller, which is battling over pricing with a leading publisher.”

Malcolm Gladwell, whose book sales were being drastically cut, told the Times, “Authors like James Patterson and J. K. Rowling drive millions and millions of people to the Amazon site, where presumably they buy everything else Amazon is selling, Why would Amazon turn around and bite the hand that feeds them?”

A more intramural issue of concern ahead of time was the eye-popping lineup of 30 white male authors and one cat originally selected for Expo’s first BookCon panel, which triggered an online and Twitter ruckus after the names were released in April. “’There are more cats than people of color,’ tweeted Jeff O’Neal, a co-founder of Book Riot, an online book journal,” the Times reported. A last-minute frenzy of invites were issued to provide some diversity. Grumpy Cat was not dropped.

KEEPING SCORE: David Baldacci has published 27 novels. The Target is the latest. PW gave a rundown on his success: He’s been translated into 45 languages and sold in 80 countries. There are more than 10 million copies of his books in print worldwide.

The Finisher, a fantasy novel for younger readers, has been optioned for a movie by Sony Pictures.

THE BEST: Alan Furst’s most recent spy novel is Midnight in Europe. He was asked in the June 1 New York Times Book Review what he thought was the best spy novel ever written.

Furst said, “For me, that would have to be Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios. The novel, published in 1939, has an anti-fascist antihero, a writer of mystery novels, set amidst gangsters and secret police in an eve-of-the-war setting, moving from Istanbul through the cities of Europe. The book had a powerful, inspiring effect on me as a novelist.”

Ask about the last book that made him cry, Furst said that it was the book he had just written. “No tears,” he said, “but plenty of groans, oaths and imprecations, aimed at myself for being dumb or writing badly. Some of my first draft is truly awful.”

DEATH: Maya Angelou, 86, died May 28 in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and five other memoirs. Her books had millions of readers.

The New York Times called her a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South” and ran a quote from Caged Bird in her obituary: “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.”

The Guardian quoted her: ”There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

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