Dennis Haritou: Answer: The Publishers Are! Where have all the debut novels gone please? And why, when I scan pub catalogs, is every third or fourth book a memoir? Our friend James Frey, who supported us by twice promising to give us an interview, has thus far failed to do so. But I suspect the reason for this procrastination is he too busy writing another memoir. (Actually, I wish he would write another memoir but that’s another story.)
The memoir has largely supplanted the first novel in publishers’ affections as a drop dead money maker. Despite Oprah’s outrage over perceived misstatements in Mr. Frey’s book, the truth is that the general public loves the memoir. The casual reader wants a “true story” so they can snoop on the author who goes through hell but then reassures them by surviving to tell the tale. It’s like: the memoir is a train wreck that I want to watch. Tell the same story as fiction and the public cools. Many first novels are autobiographical anyway. Maybe copy for debuts should include the phrase “based on a true story” to spur sales.
Why do I love first novels? Because writing one is like trying to rebirth our take on life. And the next best thing to writing a first novel is to be able to read one. A restoring vision, and for the technically inclined, a re-imagining of the art of writing…trying to find a fresh approach to storytelling. For all the creative ingenuity of a good memoir, the novel, especially a debut, is like alchemy, a transformation of what could be. Our realism would rot away unless it was repeatedly invented: like God is said in medieval theology to be creating the world, not all at once in a big bang, but continually.
…For although in a certain sense and for light-minded persons non-existent things can be more easily and irresponsibly represented in words than existing things, for the serious and conscientious historian it is just the reverse. Nothing is harder, yet nothing more necessary, than to speak of certain things whose existence is neither demonstrable nor probable. The very fact that serious and conscientious men treat them as existing things brings them a step closer to existence and to the possibility of being born.
from MAGISTER LUDI
So Jasons, what kind of debut fiction would you like to see? Can you define the perfect debut novel?
Jason Rice: The reason people liked James Frey’s memoir, and I mean a lot of people liked it, mostly because they want to be entertained, and remain comfortable in their place in life where they knew there was someone out there worse off than them, they wanted to be entertained, close the book and walk back into their safe lives. In recent years the novel, debut or otherwise has nearly vanished or at least been pushed to the margins. The three guys know this to be true because we see every single catalog from every single publisher three times a year. Dennis you’re right, it’s all memoirs or event non-fiction, or reportage non-fiction about the wobbly society we live in or how fucking insanely banal this world has become, or to put it politely, mediocre. Publishers have even admitted that fiction sales have dipped because the small faction of people who do read literary novels know where to find them, and know exactly what they like. Publishers know this, but bonuses have to go to someone, pay checks delivered, and a novel by a newcomer ain’t gonna do that, no often enough anyway. People traditionally look to books for advice on stock market strategies, or climate predictions, or fast food tidbits, or even a tell-all from a Washington insider about a sitting President, no matter how poorly written. Again, reading about something that doesn’t involve them, those who read.
That aside, novels find their way into my hands 20-30 times a year, because that’s all I read. I know it’s narrow minded, but I know what I like, and life is short. I told Dennis and Jason about this a long time ago, even other co-workers of ours who recognize my narrow focus, and don’t seem to mind. The perfect novel…debut or otherwise? I think I’ve read four; Incandescence by Craig Nova, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz. Now I can safely say the reason I love these books is because they’re written by men I admire and see a little of myself in the portraits they’ve chiseled out. I was floored by the detailed family dynamic in Franzen’s book, his separately described but completely luminescent sibling rivalry culminating with the sister and her talents as a chef. The book dipped dangerously into obsessive tones with metallurgical exposition, culinary fascinations and Eastern European flavor that kept me interested and riveted. Nova wrote Incandescence when he was a young man, his hero, or my hero as it were, came in shades of brown and grey, simple but smart, and head over heels in love with a Greek woman who couldn’t shake her father. He’d invented a way to beat the race track and ran an apartment rental scam that was so right on it was maniacal. Fight Club hit me at the right time of my life. 1996 I was just starting out at Random House and through this book I realized what it really meant to be a late twenty something and know that the company you work for is just not in it for the same reasons you are. Plus the writing was so fresh and new, vibrant and filled with beautiful one liners that I could barely contain my glee as I read it. Toltz and his masterful story of the Dean brothers reminded me of Guy Ritchie and his funny heist movies, weird predilections and wild anger driven by the desire to stay alive. It took me by surprise, I never saw it coming, and don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it, or will again.
Good novels, ones I like to read, I know within five sentences. Bad books, and there are many, I know in two. It’s just something that’s come my way through years of reading just fiction. I should say that there are two women novelists who’ve written what I can call perfect books. Zadie Smith with On Beauty, a novel filled with such brilliance, wit and intelligence that I’m ashamed to say I ever tried to write a novel. It’s subtle and filled with people who are too fucking smart for their own good, highly educated upper class-men who don’t have any friends. It handles race, sex and art with equal measures of grace and subtly. Even the art is delivered as a sharpened spear, only to maim, never to entertain. Then of course AM Homes who is really the only other female writer tough enough to hold my attention. She writes about the suburbs like she was a student of both Richard Yates and John Cheever while she probably was brought up to be a nice young lady. I watch her beating down her characters, really giving them a hard time, shaving their heads, pushing them to burn their own houses down, get drunk, and generally make Rick Moody look like a push over with his rickety take on the American suburban life.
I guess it’s equal parts good writing, people I don’t like, with a little bit of battery acid smeared in the open wound. Perfect novels don’t exist until you’ve read them. Good books don’t jump off the shelf, you have to find them. Perfect debuts? I named a few, but so few have come my way lately that I wonder who is even writing them. I compare the perfect novel to Paul Thomas Anderson’s perfect movie, Magnolia. The reason that movie worked on so many levels is mostly due to the fact that I didn’t identify with the regular joes he had written, I just believed they were real. I forgot about everything else.
Jason Chambers: Honestly, as a buyer I pay attention to debut novels, simply because I know that the vast majority of them will not sell very well, with the exception of the rare book that gets the right review attention and marketing (Edgar Sawtelle, anyone?); so any purchase must be well-considered. As a reader, however, I don’t concern myself much with it. That is, until I read it for awhile and say to myself “who the hell
is this guy?” I start a lot of books, and I put a lot of them down in 80-100 pages or so, feeling like I know what I need to know about the book already, and not really caring much about the rest of it. As JR notes, some books simply make you say “holy crap!” and plow onward. I agree that Fraction of the Whole was one of those books. And it seems like you have found a real gem when that book is a first novel, because you wonder whether the author is a one-trick pony or whether you have a lot of great books to look forward to. Finding an author whose work you look forward to is great; as we get older, so much of the childish pleasure of anticipation escapes us. What do I look for? An interesting premise, and a good first couple of pages. What else do you have to go on? Marketing plans? Covers? Blurbs? Christ, everyone has a good blurb now. Every third book is pimped by Palahniuk, Pat Conroy, Michael Connolly or Jesus himself. I can assure you they aren’t all that good. Good first novels of the recent past : Bright Shiny Morning – Like we said at the time, flawed but relentless interesting; Fraction of the Whole – probably the best book I’ve read this year; Special Topics in Calamity Physics – amusing hyper-intellectual drama (similar to the Toltz in this regard); Mudbound – interesting Tobacco Road wannabe; Little Book – time-shifting historical fiction; or, if we include genre fare, Chicago Way – the first in a promising line of crime novels.Of course, for every good one you find, you read – or start to read – tons of others, and reject even more without even serious consideration.