- Carole King—A Natural Woman
- Tom Franklin—Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
- Jeanne Darst—Fiction Ruined My Family
- Felicity Kendal—White Cargo
- Jess Walter—Don’t Eat Cat
- Ann Patchett—The Getaway Car
- Buzz Bissinger—After Friday Night Lights
- Tom Franklin—Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
- Megan Abbott—Dare Me
- Stephen Amidon—Something Like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron
- Barbara Trapido—Brother of the More Famous Jack
- Jess Walter—Don’t Eat Cat
How are writers going to make a living in ten, twenty, fifty years’ time? If you’re a writer (or a publisher, or an agent, or a critic, or maybe even a reader), then this question may have occurred to you. Conversations I’ve been having with people recently, people whose job it is to try and make sense of what’s happening out there, are alarming: bookstores are closing all over the place, and even the big chains are unlikely to survive in their current form for much longer; publishers are slashing advances; books by first-time authors that don’t sell in hardback are being offered an extended life in e-book rather than in paperback. Nobody knows how long our current publishing culture will last, but some very clever observers foresee profound change over the next five years, leaving us with very little that any of us, however old we are, will be able to recognize. The work of art that I keep thinking about in relation to all this is the 1951 Ealing Studios comedy The Man in the White Suit, starring Alec Guinness. Guinness plays a man who invents a material that never wears out and never gets dirty, to the horror of both the textile manufacturers and the unions. I haven’t seen the movie for a long time, but I seem to recall that we’re supposed to side with Guinness’s character, the little man who’s invented something for the benefit of humankind, and who has to battle the dark forces of vested interest. It’s hard to see it that way now, though, if you work in books or music or movies or TV. I now support the dark forces of vested interest. Yes, digitization has brought us convenience and portability and access, and saved us billions, because music and TV and films and, one day soon, books, are all free. But even so, I wish we’d at least talked about arresting the people who invented it, and maybe pulling out their tongues and cutting off their hands. I mean, I would have been against it, on balance. But I’d have listened carefully to the arguments from the other side.
When I try to talk about any of this stuff with those who love books, however, the dialogue becomes very frustrating very quickly.
ME: It’s pretty worrying, all this iPad and Kindle stuff.
NICE BOOK LOVER: Why?
ME: It’s not just the physical book that’s under threat. Have you been on a plane or a train recently? Nobody’s reading at all, in any form. They’re all watching screens.
NBL: Oh, I love books.
ME: Yeah, I know, but…
NBL: There’s nothing like the experience of being immersed in fiction.
ME: I agree, but…
NBL: And I could never switch to a Kindle. I love the smell of a new book. The feel of it. I like to know where I am in a book, and…
ME: I know you do, but…
NBL: Plus, I love my local independent bookstore. The people there are so knowledgeable, and they recommend things that they know I’ll—
ME: Yes, but there are only seventy-three of you in the entire country! You’re fifty years old! Your kids don’t even know which way up they should hold a book! The only reason people ever used to read in the first place was because they had nothing else to do, and now they have a million things to do, even in a dentist’s waiting room! Will you shut the fuck up about you?
NBL: I think you should go home now. You’re upsetting the other dinner guests.
It’s like trying to talk about global terrorism to someone who isn’t worried because he knows for a fact that he would never strap a bomb to himself and blow himself up, and neither would any of his friends or family. You’re glad to hear it, but your worries have not been entirely eradicated.
And yet, every now and again something happens that makes me wonder whether everything is going to be as awful and as depressing as I fear it will be. I have wondered this a couple of times before—once in the mid-’80s, and again in the early noughties—and I was disappointed (I’m talking about the entire future here, not just the future of publishing); but there is a possibility that if we are smart, if we engage properly with what’s going on and don’t close our eyes and hope for the best, then it might not all be over. Some of the things listed in my Books Bought column this month are not books at all: Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car, Jess Walter’s Don’t Eat Cat, and Buzz Bissinger’s After Friday Night Lights are all from the interesting-looking online publisher Byliner, do not exist in physical form, and are in any case too short to justify conventional publication. Don’t Eat Cat is a six-thousand-word zombie story with a twist, yours for ninety-nine cents, and, unless your dentist is running very late, it might even fill up the time in the waiting room. And suddenly I had a vision of the future as a happy digital re-creation of the 1930s, where writers were well paid for short stories that appeared in “the slicks,” Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post—Fitzgerald got four thousand dollars a shot for his. The vision didn’t last long, though. The shutters came down, like they did on those public binoculars you used to find at places with a view. After Friday Night Lights became a free Starbucks download, and Amazon hit back by reducing the price to zero, as in nought dollars and nought cents. Byliner, understandably, decided that it didn’t want its authors’ work given away, and withdrew the piece from Amazon. I won’t dare to dream about anything good happening for another couple of decades.
“Maybe it’s always the end of the world,” says the narrator of Don’t Eat Cat, in a brilliant riff on our need to catastrophize that repays your ninety-nine-cent investment at a stroke. “Maybe you’re alive for a while and then you realize you’re going to die, and that’s such an insane thing to comprehend, you look around for answers and the only answer is that the world must die with you.” Yes. Well. In this case, it’s the only possible explanation. The world must die with me.
I met Tom Franklin a few years back, in Oxford, Mississippi. At that time he’d published a much-admired collection of short stories and a terrific novel, Hell at the Breech, and he was teaching creative writing. To be honest, when I picked up Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter in a London bookstore, it didn’t occur to me for a moment that the author was the same Tom Franklin; this new one was the recipient of a British TV crime-writing award, and one of the quotes on the back had been provided by A. N. Wilson, an English novelist who… Let’s just say that he’d probably be happier in our Oxford, the one with the dreaming spires, even though the American Oxford is much nicer and more interesting. And Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a crime thriller—or at least, it’s being very successfully marketed as such—that has been on the New York Times best-seller list. I was delighted to learn that there is only one Tom Franklin, and it’s the one I met, rather than an English impostor.
What’s interesting, I think, is that Franklin hasn’t had to sell out, or to reinvent himself, or to compromise his art, in order to find a large readership. He wasn’t an uncommercial writer when I met him, and he isn’t a commercial writer now. Hell at the Breech was a magnificent, gripping book about a bloody postbellum feud; Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is set in contemporary Mississippi, and its cast of characters (and body count) is smaller, but it is every bit as ambitious, as thoroughly imagined, and as gripping as his earlier work. Genre is in the eye of the beholder, or at least in the eye of the publisher, but we all need the help.
Meanwhile, the brilliant Megan Abbott, who started her career writing steamy noir fiction, has been wandering right to the edge of genre territory and can now shake hands with Franklin without having to stretch. Her last novel, The End of Everything, was a dreamy, haunting novel about teenage sexuality, centered around the disappearance of a pubescent girl; Dare Me, the new book… Well, there are more teenage girls. And there’s more sex. It’s not dreamy, though. It’s set in a high school, and it’s about cheerleading. It’s dark and vicious, and Abbott ventriloquizes a kind of gum-snap young-adult voice quite brilliantly. She gets up so close to these girls that, every now and again, I feel the need to explain to anyone who might be in the vicinity that it’s OK for me to be reading it, because the author is a woman, and she’s serious-minded and gifted, and, you know, teen sexuality is a subject like any other, although obviously more interesting than most, or indeed any. This is the third Megan Abbott novel I have read this year, and I can see that, given the synopses I have provided, my enthusiasm might be open to misinterpretation. I can only repeat, with all the sincerity I can muster, that she’s really good, and is doing something that nobody else I’ve read is attempting. (I am hoping—praying—that Abbott’s work bears some resemblance to my description of it. If her novels are in fact conventional analyses of middle-class, middle-aged marital discord in Connecticut, or imaginative accounts of Henry VIII’s court, then I will give up reading altogether.)
I suspect that you don’t need to be a practicing psychotherapist to understand why I read Stephen Amidon’s Something Like the Gods, a short, interesting, and extremely useful history of sports, immediately after Dare Me. It is difficult to achieve a corpore sano simply through the act of reading, but clearly I was looking for something that might provide some kind of literary cold shower. This, I should hasten to add, is by no means the entire appeal of Amidon’s book. But the access Abbott had provided to the girls’ locker room left some residual awkwardness, and the mere act of reading about the utter nakedness of the young men in the original Greek Olympic games washed it away.
Something Like the Gods is full of information that you want to pass on immediately—I had no idea, for example, that the Greek Olympics had lasted for a thousand years, nor that we have a record of every single winner of the stadion, a 210-yard race, and the first Olympic event ever contested. But Amidon’s political consciousness, his gleeful skewering of sport’s perennial propensity for doing the wrong things at the wrong time, gives him a real head of steam. Here in London, we are planting antiaircraft missiles on residential tower blocks in careful preparation for the Olympics (I’m not even joking), and it’s good to be reminded of the hopeless idiocy of the modern tournament—its tacit endorsement of Nazism in 1936, its reactionary exclusion of women (there was no female fifteen-hundred-meter race until 1972, and no marathon until 1984), its suspension of Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their black-power salute. There are many villains in Something Like the Gods, but if anyone ever made an Olympics movie, John Malkovich would be licking his lips at the meaty roles provided by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, or long-serving IOC president Avery Brundage.
After the brief respite provided by Stephen Amidon, I was ready to return to the eternally interesting subject of young women and their sexual relationships. I’d been meaning to read Barbara Trapido’s much-loved Brother of the More Famous Jack for some time, and a new paperback edition, with an introduction by Rachel Cusk, finally pushed me over the edge. It was the introduction that did it, and I haven’t even read it yet; this kind of public enthusiasm and endorsement, it seems to me, is a very good way of ensuring the survival of our best books, and of our best writers. And Brother of the More Famous Jack is a wonderful novel, as lovable as I Capture the Castle, with as much potential, I’d have thought, to mean a very great deal to the right kind of young woman, even though it was published thirty years ago. It’s not a very high-concept book: Katherine, the heroine, is introduced to a large, bohemian, occasionally exasperating family when she is eighteen, and spends her entire young adulthood escaping from them, and being pulled back to them. But such are Trapido’s warmth and energy and wit that I wanted to return to it every chance I got, as if it were a genre thriller. It’s about a lot of women and places that I know very well, and if you buy it and don’t like it, then I can only presume that you’re not from round here. You can probably find it for ten cents on Amazon. You can probably even get it for free, somewhere. As I was saying: it’s the end of the world, and everything’s turning to shit—unless, I suppose, you like reading wonderful novels and not paying very much for them. If that’s the case, then you might think that the world is really OK.