Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade
The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs. The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness. Most did not meet his standards. Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share. If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.
Five memoirs are on my recommended list: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying). It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).
But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here. When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines. More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages. And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying. Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.
Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader. Confusion has its costs!” Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told? Sigh… Well, I guess some people do.
Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography. These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for! If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers. Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.
The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S. If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves. I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.
So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong. When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order. And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.