what makes a book matter right now?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bestseller alchemy is a mystery.  Publishing houses spend millions of dollars on books that go nowhere.  They reject, repeatedly until a final sighing yes, the books that go onto become book-club institutions and household names.  J.K. Rowling, Rebecca Skloot, and Kathryn Stockett know a little something about this.  Jaimy Gordon (National Book Award winner for Lord of Misrule) and Paul Harding (Pulitzer Prize winning author of Tinkers) would likely confess to not having seen their own fame coming.

My students are reading Vivian Gornick this week, whose The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative is a must-read for memoir writers.  In her concluding pages she offers up an idea about what shapes the future for books.  She offers no formula, of course—that isn't possible.  But I like what she has to say about intersections. 

Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we are in need of at the time that we are reading.  How obvious the thought seems once it has been articulated! As with love, politics, or friendship: readiness is all. When a book of merit is trashed upon publication, or one of passing value praised to the skies, it is not that the book, in either case, is being read by the wrong or the right people, it is that the wrong or the right moment is being intersected with.  This book, good or great thought it may be, sinks like a stone because what it has to say cannot be taken in at the moment; while that book, transparently ephemeral, is well received because what it is addressing is alive—now, right now—in the shared psyche.  


Bee said...

It's all about timing, isn't it? That excerpt speaks such truth.

Lilian Nattel said...

That is a great quote and I think it hits the nail on the head. My observation is that so-so books that become hugely popular usually satisfy a fantasy or play to stereotypes. A great book is a challenge because it either presents new ideas or looks deeply into something. So it makes sense to me that to become popular it has to hit the right moment.

Serena said...

I really like that sentiment about it being a good book in spite of the timing or the willingness of the reader to hear what it has to say.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I'm not sure about what's going on in your creative world right now, Beth (maybe I need to send a personal email!), but these last few posts have been powerful indeed.

Thank you.

Unknown said...

And then there's Moby Dick :)

PS: You are a wonder and an inspiration to me, Beth.


Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

This is fascinating, Beth. Thank you. It all pretty much comes back to the same thing over and over again. Keep Writing. Write what you're passionate about. Because you never know when or where or how things will end up!

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