Monday, April 19, 2010


Today’s New York Times has an article by Motoko Rich called “Mr. Cinderella: From Rejection Notes to the Pulitzer.” It is meant to reinforce a stylized mercantile myth as seductive as a Harlequin novel. It’s meant to convince readers that one similar novel after another is unique and to convince writers that they too can get a book published. The story behind the story is that if these two convictions were to disappear tomorrow, the last moldy old apparatus of book publishing would collapse. Because book publishing’s main purpose is to employ the people in the book publishing business. Readers have long since wandered off to other media or to the used and remainder book markets. Writers no longer make money: they are living on dreams.

Let’s look closely. I’ll admit right up front that I haven’t read this book, but I will argue that it’s of no matter. The content is the last thing that makes a book live or die. If you want to read it, the author is Paul Harding and the name of the book is “Tinkers.” I have no doubt it is pretty well written. He is, after all, a graduate of the elite Iowa Writers’ Workship which is a passport into the inner circle that is normally earned with some solid achievement. And I’m not surprised that this is represented as a “slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book” about a “New England clock repairer with episodes about the dying man’s father.” It has no car chases, which Harding claimed caused some of the publishers to turn it down, which is like turning down Norman Maclean because he has too many trees in his stories. I would be surprised if a graduate of Iowa Writer’s Workshop wrote a book with car chases, unless it were ironic. But it would be interesting to count the deathbed scenes.

Before he went to Iowa, which is a GRADUATE workshop, Harding worked his way through the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, majoring in English and taking six years to get his degree. No shame in that. Terrific connections. He reads Karl Barth (just as John Updike did), physics and 19th century novels which were often preoccupied with the relationship between science and religion, although usually because of evolution rather than particle physics. Right on target for the most trendy subject around just now.

AND it keys in closely with the preoccupations of Marilynne Robinson, his professor and mentor at the Iowa Workshop, whose recent book “Gilead” caused a stir, at least partly because of her beloved book, “Housekeeping.” She has stayed friends with him and supplied blurbs and (probably) connections in case Amherst didn’t. Before being accepted by Iowa Writer’s Workshop he took classes at Skidmore College from Ms. Robinson. After the Workshop he was teaching freshman comp at Harvard, toting his laptop around to coffee shops where he wrote, we are told, “guerilla writing” as well as scribbling on the backs of bookmarks and receipts. Presumably his batteries ran out and no laptop plug-ins were available. We see it all the time, even out here in Montana.

Harding sent his novel to “a handful of agents and editors in New York.” It was rejected. Hey, those people are going broke! There are only six major publishers left and they want sure things. They “package,” and what they package is concepts, not books. But he eventually found a publisher, the Bellevue Literary Press which is housed in the famous Manhattan hospital whose psych ward has been a home-away-from-home for so many writers. From their website: “The mission of Bellevue Literary Press is to bring together medicine, science, and humanism through literature. The unifying theme of the press is the conviction that in sharing what Anatole Broyard termed “the wonder, terror, and exaltation of being on the edge of being” (Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness), physicians and patients might be better informed, able to cope with the demands that illness imposes, and that medical care will be more humane.” I don’t quite get how “Tinkers” fits this, but okay.

His advance was $1,000. This is not an endowed or academic press, they hasten to say. It is funded by individuals and foundations. Piegan Institute in Browning, the Blackfeet academic think tank, has always operated this way because of the greater freedom and, frankly, the greater generosity. Universities are notoriously stingy with their presses.

Then comes the next obligatory scene: the place where the author realizes the structure of his book is faulty and sits up all night with scissors and scotch tape, reorganizing the whole thing. (He had a little sipping whiskey on hand, but we are not told about cigars. He's not a bloodless guy -- he used to be the drummer in a rock band.) It was not reviewed by the New York Times. BUT the director of the Bellevue Literary Press and, more importantly, the sales rep of Consortium, the distributor (an aspect of book publishing that is invisible to many people and passive in many quarters) pushed the book to indie bookstores, which is called “hand selling,” and the clerks in the stores all pushed the book. It sold 7,000 copies. This was considered remarkable.

NPR and The New Yorker noted the book. Next the writer of Bookslut, a well-known influential book blog, raved about it. Then that same woman promoted it to a former editor of the New York Times Book Review who is the chair of this years’ Pulitzer fiction jury when they both attended a New England workshop on book reviewing. Marilynne Robinson is a former winner of a Pulitzer prize. Now that “Tinkers” has won the Pulitzer Prize, we are not told what his sales figures are.

When I buy books in person, which is seldom, I quiz the clerks. They all believe they have the potential to win the Pulitzer if they finish writing their book. They assume this means that they will make enough money and establish enough creds to never have to clerk in a bookstore again. They are BELIEVERS. It’s hard for me to tell whether Motoko Rich was writing with her tongue in her cheek, but those bookstore clerks believe this Cinderella story based on humble merit just as strongly as they believe they will go to heaven when they die.

Which means sometimes "absolutely," and other times they have serious doubts. I doubt that you could find a copy of a Karl Barth book on any bookstore shelf in Montana and it is also doubtful whether Barth would help a bookstore clerk who read it. Unless they went to Amherst or Harvard or some other good place to make connections, like the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

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