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"If I had to choose between literary reputation and contemptible popularity, I think I might take the bestseller."
on September 28, 2007
(4.5 stars) Casting a satiric eye on the publishing business, author Elise Blackwell shows the agonies and excitements of several young authors as each tries to find the magic formula for getting a book published, publicized, and sold to the public. Most have been successful with a first novel--at least to the extent that it has been published--and all now have second novels which they are trying to "place" with a publisher. Trying to support themselves with contributions to small literary journals while looking for the "right" connection for their next novel, they must negotiate literary minefields filled with agents, editors, publicists, manuscript "fixers," and influential bookstore chains, all of which affect their sense of mission and, ultimately, their self-worth.
Following Jackson Miller, Eddie Renfros and his wife Amanda, and Henry Baffler, all long-time friends, the novel also includes their lovers--writers all, though some of them write secretly. As they share their successes and failures, the writers' attitudes toward writing and their craft become obvious. Jackson has decided on the "commercial" route, stating that "If I had it in me, I'd write the trashiest of trashy novels...I'd sign my name proudly." Eddie Renfros wants to be true to his craft, having written a "literary" novel in which "there's a plane crash, death, adultery, bribery, surgery on a child's ear, a world premiere, a drunken cellist, and a beautiful shameless slut of a violin player."
Eddie's wife Amanda, tired of supporting her husband, soon begins to write secretly herself--under two names. "Clarice Aames" is the author of popular short stories which quickly find an audience in journals, while "Amanda Yule" (her maiden name) is working on a pop novel, "not too weird, historical, pretty, and--this was key--full of sexual possibility." Henry Baffler, a believer in the New Realism, which he has not completely defined, has written a plotless book. "If it's a book you really want to write," he asks, "does it matter if anyone wants to read it?"
As the reader becomes engaged in following the various characters and the wonderful cast of supporting characters, Blackwell vibrantly (and mordantly) depicts the inherent conflicts between artistic success and commercial viability. Her characters are not fully developed, since her intention is to show them primarily as writers, and her depiction of their lives shows the artistic commitment of some, the naivete of others, and the crass commercialism of still others.
Though Blackwell has based this novel on George Gissing's 1891 novel New Grub Street, her lively prose, contemporary characters, and modern conflicts show how little life has changed for the writer. Delightful, thought-provoking, and full of rapier-sharp insights into the tenuous connections between writing and publishing, the novel is assured, perceptive, and often hilarious. The glimpses Blackwell provides of the strange, literary world she inhabits are unforgettable. n Mary Whipple