Monday, June 11, 2007

Hard Sell

Random House thought it was a good idea to push literary fiction. In came Daniel Menaker, who was taken on to find all sorts of lovely literary fiction that would boost sales at Random House. Oddly enough, the plan failed.

Mr. Menaker, with a very extensive resume, will go off to write a novel. It will, no doubt, be literary fiction. As for the titles that he picked up for Random House, they will fall into the dark abyss of the back list and fade away.

It was Mr. Menaker who gave the world Absurdistan, a satirical send-up of American consumerism. Author Gary Shteyngart skewered Halliburton, American culture, the whole concept of prosperity, and Daniel Menaker 'fell in love' as the literary agents like to say. At the age of 65, can we presume that Mr. Menaker is a product of the 1960's, free love, make love not war? Can we also suggest that Mr. Menaker, from the old counter culture, thought that Absurdistan was a brilliant bit of fiction? Should we wonder, then, that the novel fell flat?

In New York City, one could see where the satire would find a home. The problem is, a book has to sell in between the coasts, that vast unknown wilderness. Would the average book buyer find the Shteyngart novel amusing, in the vein of Animal Farm, or do the great unwashed that populate the center of the nation prefer things like Animal House?

A friend came to me last year with a dilemma. Her neighbors were insisting on taking up a collection for her, since her husband was posted to Iraq on a tour of duty that pulled him from his managerial position to an intelligence mission in a foreign land. All the soldiers are poor, the neighbors had learned from television and the pages of the New York Times, and they longed to help. To help the poor family that could afford to buy a home for three quarters of a million dollars. To help the poor family that owned two SUVs. Of course they must be poor, the reasoning went, because himself is overseas doing his army reserve duty and the folks who sign up for military service are doing it because they need the money.

"How can I explain to them that we don't need anyone passing the hat?" she asked, but she's a very sweet and polite lady and wouldn't have followed my advice if I had given her my honest opinion. And I did feel badly for her. She's an executive with a very large bank, and she makes a very large salary. Bit of an insult, really, when the neighbors came around thinking she needed financial assistance.

That's the sort of thinking that's behind the publication of Absurdistan. The clueless, in a miasma of utterly misguided good intentions, presume that they know what's what. And then they get out there in the big broad world and things don't fall into place. So an editor in New York thought Absurdistan was brilliant, and the country pointed out that they didn't really care to be insulted by some foreigner. It's not a slap at literary fiction. It's a slap at one editor's good intentions paving a road to hell for any other authors who compose literary fiction that would be well received, except that the clueless can't figure out what's going on in the rest of the book-buying world. Rich kids do indeed sign on to serve their country. And their parents buy books. Or they don't buy what they find offensive or insulting. No need to pass the hat for them.


Anonymous said...

i think absurdistan was actually one of the rare literary successes for random house, 150k copies sold in the first 2 years, huge foreign rights sales, etc. it prob didn't do as well as between the coasts as it did in NY and CA but it made a nice profit for RH. in literary fiction nobody expects to come away with tons of money.

O hAnnrachainn said...

Random House expected to do better than they did, which is why Daniel Menaker got the sack.

Literary fiction can sell, but the publishers are too myopic to pick many winners. They've lost sight of the majority of the book buying public, and it's frustrating when you enjoy reading but there's not enough out there worth reading.

Anonymous said...

i agree completely. publishing is way off base and as a reader i'm frustrated everytime i walk into a store. i'm just saying that I don't think publishers expect better numbers for literary fiction than say what absurdistan brought in (I think the book was especially a big hit among the coastal elites). Over fifty thousand copies sold for literary fiction is considered a big success. I'm guessing that if Menaker's other titles had done as well he'd still be sitting in that big office.

O hAnnrachainn said...

Exactly -- one swallow does not a summer make, as they say.

There's been a bit of a buzz about publishers going with focus groups to see what might fly. As long as the focus group isn't sitting in Starbucks on Fifth Ave....