By August 23, 2007 6 Comments Read More →

Tear down that wall!

Could this be the year that the Literary Establishment tries to understand Bestselling Authors?

First, USA Today (OK, not highbrow, but bear with me) documents the book-writing machine that is James Patterson ™.

Next, the Guardian profiles Jodi Picoult, calling her “one of those authors of whom literary editors have never heard, and readers can’t get enough.”

Then, this summer, the Atlantic shadows Harlan Coben (“Paperback Writer,” by Eric Konigsberg). The premise:

Harlan Coben’s work ethic, gift for plot twists, obsession with sales numbers, and careful brand management have made him a blockbuster novelist who earns millions of dollars per book. What it takes to succeed as a thriller writer – even when the literary establishment doesn’t acknowledge your existence

While Gawker took a shot at this piece, taking the angle that Konigsberg is envious of Coben’s success — I found it fascinating. It explores the realities of publishing success and raises some worthwhile discussion points for members of the Literary Establishment and Regular Old Book Reviewers, too.

First let me say that I disagree with Gawker about Konigsberg’s tone. I thought he came across as funny and self-deprecating, maybe a bit envious of Coben’s success but respectful of the hard work it took to achieve it.

Yes, he does paint Coben as a guy working with a wrench (as the illustrator, Richard Thompson, does literally), not listening for the muse — but that’s a fair assessment and one Coben isn’t likely to disagree with. He writes about the childlike simplicity with which bestselling authors are branded. He shows Coben as a guy who is possibly as interested in the marketing as the writing. He even appears to catch him (a la Patterson) drawing a blank about one of his own books:

A few days after I would finish one Coben book – and I continued to find them eminently readable – I couldn’t recall much about the story, or about the men and women who’d populated it.

When we sat down for lunch in the coffee shop of the Luxor, I began to wonder whether even Coben didn’t sometimes find his characters forgettable. I had offered the recollection that Olivia, one of the protagonists of The Innocent, had spent some time in Nevada – a component of her past on which the plot hinges – and he drew a blank. "Really?" he said.

Olivia, I said. From his last book.

"Oh, right. I thought maybe you were talking about somebody you knew."

Well, unlike Patterson, no one says that Coben doesn’t write his own books. And I’m sure even Philip Roth has spaced out on occasion. If Coben had written only one book, such a moment would carry more weight.

And there’s a priceless moment when Coben ruminates on the difference between himself and Dennis Lehane:

"No," Coben said slowly. "I’ve toured with Dennis, and we know each other well. But Dennis and I don’t do the same thing. He’s somebody who comes out with a book every two years or so."

But financially successful writers aren’t simply artists. They’re businessmen, too. That’s largely what the article is about. And there is a big difference in the creation of genre fiction vs. literary fiction — not least of which is the punishing timetable — just as there is a big difference in the way both are received.

Do the literary reviews marginalize and ignore genre fiction? Yes. Are they hypocrites for writing about literary novels that sell in four- and five-digit numbers while ignoring popular works that sell in six and seven digits? Not necessarily.

Fans of bestselling thrillers tend to take umbrage with critics who say the books are poorly written. Often they say something like, “You’re just jealous,” or “How dare you criticize a bestselling author when you aren’t a bestselling author yourself,” or “Neener neener neener.”

But (in addition to the fact that many of the world’s best critics are people who don’t write books, make movies, or design skyscrapers) people who end up getting paid to write about books usually study literature in college. They read classics, literary criticism, experimental fiction, and literary fiction. They even read poetry. They are trained to parse, critique, analyze, and theorize. In other words, it’s not a lot of reading for fun. When they get down to the job of reviewing and criticizing, they apply the same focus they did in school. And David Foster Wallace (who, presumably followed a similar course of study) is likely to fare a lot better than Harlan Coben (who did go to the same college as Wallace, but who presumably liked reading the footnotes less).

Elitist? Maybe. But space is limited, and a lot of these writers are interested in what art says about society. They’re looking for art that reflects and predicts cultural shifts, and works that will prove influential to other writers even if they don’t sell a lot. And you can’t argue that Harlan Coben isn’t finding his audience, even if he isn’t reviewed in the New York Times Book Review.

(On a related note, Booklist sometimes doesn’t review bestselling authors. Is it because we’re snobs? Not really. Publishers of some really big books don’t even send us review galleys. Either their feelings have been hurt by having been ignored by other journals, or they’re telling us that they don’t need us. [Also see chicken and egg, The.] But we do our best to review all high-demand books, even when we have to buy them at the bookstore.) 

I think it’s great when a writer like Konigsberg investigates the phenomenon of a hard-working, bestselling, roll-up-the-sleeves author like Coben. It may sound snobbish for him to admit that, before the article, he hadn’t read Coben — and indeed had barely heard of him — but I think he gets points for curiosity. There are a lot of books out there, and we all have big gaps in our reading knowledge. Konigsberg probably prefers to read books like those he prefers to write (see Blood Relation, 2005).

Full disclosure: I, too, sometimes walk by the bestseller racks and sometimes find myself saying, “Who?” My reading universe is often circumscribed by what is assigned to me, but my personal tastes are offbeat, too. No one in the book biz can cover all of the book biz — a lot of us nod and try to look knowledgeable when we should probably shrug our shoulders.

In a conversation about the bestselling authors cited by Konigsberg — Janet Evanovich, Michael Connelly, Daniel Silva, David Baldacci, Vince Flynn, Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen, Brad Meltzer, and Lee Child — I’ll be standing in the corner where the crickets are chirping. And I consider myself a fan of both literary and genre fiction, too (although I think the labels should be abolished, especially now that Cormac McCarthy is writing SF and Michael Chabon is writing crime fiction).

I’ve never thought of myself as a member of the Literary Establishment, but I do work at one of the country’s premier prepub review journals, so maybe I am a member despite myself. So, in the spirit of inquiry, and breaking down the great wall of snobbery, I hereby acknowledge the existence of Harlan Coben and vow to read one of his novels, whether he notices or not.

I’ll keep you posted.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

6 Comments on "Tear down that wall!"

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  1. tedbell1@mac.com' Ted Bell says:

    I’m probably another thriller writer you’ve never read but I really enjoyed this piece on Coben and would love your take on the Alex Hawke series (HAWKE, ASSASSIN, PIRATE, AND SPY just out in paperback and on the Times list this week.
    Best,
    Ted Bell

  2. Keir says:

    Ted, my time for unassigned reading is extremely limited, so I can’t make any promises. Fortunately for you, however, Booklist has already had this to say about Hawke: “Hawke is the kind of character somebody really should put in a movie: he is smart, resourceful, attractive–everything we want in an action hero.” Not bad!

  3. tedbell1@mac.com' Ted Bell says:

    I”ll take that. Thanks. If you get around to it. I’ve got 2 coming out next year. NICK OF TIME, a WWII story with pirates and Nazis, YA, from St. Martins and TSAR, Hawke meets Putin. What a biz.

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