by Campbell Geeslin
There once was a certain kind of novel that guaranteed controversy, critical upheaval and big sales. In a June Vanity Fair article, this genre was called “Young Women on Life’s Threshold.”
The first, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe, was published in 1748. That novel was described by VF as “an anti-romance with a prowling sexual engine. Clarissa sent a reverberation through the culture—to this day novels about women that become social signifiers tend to be just as raw.”
One novel about young women that registered as notably shocking for its time was The Group, published in 1963. The female characters were recent college graduates, and Vanity Fair called Mary McCarthy’s account “Vassar Unzipped.”
Other famously bestselling Clarissa offspring include Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (1973), Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner (1975), Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann (1966) and The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe—which appeared in 1958.
What we don’t need now is yet another book about a fictional female with “a prowling sexual engine.” Bookstore shelves today are crowded with thousands of shades of gray novels.
P.S.: Sunday, June 16 was Bloomsday. James Joyce’s Ulysses offers us perhaps the most famous fictional fantasy female of all. Here’s a quote from Molly Bloom: “of course a woman wants to be embraced 20 times a day almost to make her look young no matter by who . . . and yes I said yes I will Yes.”INSIDER: Caleb Crain’s first novel, Necessary Errors, will be published August 6. He’s written book reviews, criticism and essays for The New Yorker and other publications. His first book, American Symphony (2001) was nonfiction.
Crain was asked by PW if he was anxious about the reviews his novel might get. He said, “Well, you know, live by the sword, die by the sword. I think I have the normal anxieties that any novelist has. I guess I have the consolation of knowing that reviewers are merely human, so whether it’s good or bad, I sort of know how it happens.”
PATTERNS: “The bloodlines of genre fiction tend to be cleaner than those of the more self-consciously literary kind,” Adam Gopnik wrote in the June 17 New Yorker. “There’s always a measure of uncertainty, in the glossier precincts, about who owes what to whom; among the three big literary Johns, who can say exactly what Updike owes to Cheever, or what either owes to O’Hara?”
But the California noir-thriller line—Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and James Ellroy—said Gopnik, ran ”like the dharma transmission passed from one Zen master to the next.”
Tracing the pattern of crime writers in Florida, the point of The New Yorker essay, is much messier. “When you have two characters together in a Florida book you really have three: a man, a woman, and the weather,” Gopnik wrote.
MONEY EXPERT: Ian Hamilton lives in Burlington, Ontario. His years spent as a diplomat and in traveling the world on business provide background for his novels about Ava Lee, a tiny Chinese forensic accountant.
Citing the fallout from the Bernie Madoff case, Hamilton said he believes that the effect of an economic theft can be “far more devastating than any physical crime.”
The fourth and latest Ava Lee novel is The Wild Beasts of Wuhan. The author told PW, “The forensic accountant’s ability to find money that has strayed is amazing. The central theme of each book is one economic crime or another, and I enjoy putting Ava onto the money trail.”
ONE IS BEST: Nelson DeMille, bestselling mystery writer, told his peers at a salon sponsored by Pen, Paper and Palate in a Manhattan bar: “My old editor once said to me—a good piece of advice—when you’re writing, one murder is a tragedy. Multiple murders are a sanitation problem.” Quote comes from Gregory Cowles’s column in The New York Times Book Review.
WHY WRITE?: John Butman is the author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas. He is the founder of a content development firm called Idea Platforms, Inc. He has helped the authors of 25 books, several of which have been bestsellers.
In an essay in PW, Butman described the importance of the reasons why authors write books and concluded: “you need not offer the perfect reason, or even the ‘real’ one. But just trying to answer the question—with an anecdote, a how-to, or a cosmic link—will draw readers in.”
SAD TALE: “There is a fellow who wrote a fine book,” Ernest Hemingway said, “and then a stinking book about a prep school, and then he just blew himself up.” The quote is from an excerpt (in the Times Sunday Magazine) from David Margolick’s new book Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns. Burns was the subject of Hemingway's "stinking book" quote.
Burns’ "fine" novel was The Gallery. It made him famous—but then he became an obnoxious drunk whose next books were universally condemned.
The article ended by describing a gesture from Hemingway about Burns that “was weary and sad . . . one that seemed to ask ‘How do you explain such a thing?’”
PROCESS: The late Raymond Carver was a polisher of prose. He was famous for doing 20 or 30 drafts of a story. He wrote, “It’s something I like to do, putting words in and taking words out.”
BAD PAST: Will Blythe is the author of To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever. In an essay in the June 16 New York Times Book Review, he wrote: “Bad historical novels—which is to say, most historical novels—are bad in exactly the same way: stuffed with the usual rogues’ gallery of historically certified villains, they’re banal costume dramas, predestined in their epiphanies and as insufferable in their virtue as a teenage vegan. The past is mere stage set for a morality play with a foregone conclusion. . . .Readers are made to feel superior to their ancestors. They think: We wouldn’t have been Confederates, Nazis, Pharisees, Canaanites, Phalangists, Visigoths and so on. And we certainly wouldn’t have pranced about in a codpiece.”
THE DETAILS: Barbara Freethy’s Don’t Say a Word appeared on the week’s bestseller fiction lists. Freethy writes contemporary romances and women’s fiction and is now self-published. Of her 34 books, 14 have been bestsellers. She has sold more than 3 million e-books.
Freethy lives in California and has explained that she became a writer because she grew up in an all-boy neighborhood. Her playtime was spent reading her mother’s books. A lot of those were romance novels.
On her blog, Freethy wrote, “Life is in the details, and books are the same. Thoughtful decisions about the little things always add color and depth to any story, so I persevere. Then when I get to the big scenes that I can’t wait to write, I have a lot more to work with.”
STATS: E-book sales of romance novels have been climbing as print sales have declined. In 2012, Bowker Market Research reported a three-way tie in the genre, with e-books, trade paperbacks and mass-market paperbacks each claiming 27% of sales.
Amazon was the largest outlet for romance titles with 25% of the whole market.
MORE STATS: Who buys romance books? Women who are 30 to 44 years old are the biggest fans.
In tough economic times readers want more romance novels. Anna Mickelsen of the Springfield, Mass., public library told PW, “Romance novels do better than any other genre. Romance paperbacks circulate more than eight times, while items in other genres circulate fewer than six.” Romance titles result “in a better return overall on the library’s investment.”
DREAM GUYS: While we are on this hot subject, what is the No. 1 fantasy for women who love romance fiction?
Firemen, says PW.
As in, Smokin’ Hot Firemen, a new story collection edited by Delilah Devlin that “will be heating up the libraries next,” according to one of multiple online overheated promotional blurbs. The book's promo webpage, which sports a gold-medal male torso many degrees hotter than the actual book jacket, promises that "Devlin delivers tales of these courageous men sliding down their big poles to steal readers’ hearts!"
LETTER MAN: Jonathan Franzen wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times. He was identified with: “The writer is the novelist.” If he were less famous, would the tag have been “The writer is a novelist”? Franzen also writes essays and letters to the editor. How about “The writer is a writer”?
EDITOR: Ralph Graves, 88, died June 10 in Manhattan. He worked at Time Inc. for 35 years, including a stint as top editor at LIFE. He was the author of 11 books including Share of Honor, The Lost Eagles, August People, and two co-written non-fiction books: Life: The First Decade and Martha’s Vineyard: An Affectionate Memoir.