06 March 2008

Wisest Thing I've Read Today

From an essay by Steve Almond on the opinion page of today's Boston Globe:

It's not enough anymore simply to offer besieged publishers a nuanced work of imagination. They need an inspirational figure the marketing people can dangle as interview bait. They need a pitch dramatic enough to resonate within the frantic metabolism of our perpetual news cycle.

If these fake memoirs feel "ripped from the headlines" it's precisely because they're calibrated to feed the same media machine that habitually markets "real life" trauma as a narrative trope. It's all there: the innocence lost, the tried and true villains, the cinematic victimhood.

I'd be willing to bet that if [Margaret] Seltzer (like [James] Frey) had shopped her book as fiction, editors would have taken a pass. They might have even complained that the plot twists felt clichéd or unrealistic. But presented as a work of nonfiction, her editors knew they'd struck gold. They wanted to believe her story, so they did.

And the critics and culture editors - who often take more interest these days in the authorial persona than the work - went right along.
Of course, authors have made their writing seem more respectable and marketable since Ossian and before, but such hoaxes seem especially prevalent in today's publishing world, for precisely the reason Almond describes: it's easier to market a book based on an author's story than on an author's style.

That phenomenon also affects fiction publishing. The search for an "authentic" literary voice dovetails with the search for a marketable author. Dan James would have a much harder time submitting Famous All Over Town as "Danny Santiago" today than he did in the early 1980s; the Marketing Department now wants a lot more from a new novelist that a filled-out questionnaire. Kaavya Viswanathan, on the other hand, got a book contract and a boatload of deadline pressure because her life seemed to parallel that of the heroine in the novel she'd outlined--even though that outline was a fairly standard "chick lit" makeover story. Viswanathan seemed to be a familiar, reassuring story come to life.

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