Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

In Search of the lost Chord and the new Atwood

Today after work I made what I hoped would be quick stop at Black Oak Books for Janet Fitch and Margaret Atwood's new books. I handed my bag to the older woman behind the counter and rapidly scanned the hardcover fiction table. Nada.

"You want your bag back?" the lady asked me. I've seen her before. She asked to hold my bag behind the counter, then complained about how heavy it was.

"No. I'm looking for a couple new books."

The store had neither book. Worse, she'd never heard of Fitch and had no idea that Atwood had a new novel out. "Are you sure?" She asked. "She published a lot of books this year."

I insisted. She pulled a copy of the New York Review of Books from under the counter, as if to disprove me. Finally another employee appeared. Yes, there was a new book. He'd ordered ten copies. In tomorrow.

The woman fussed and fretted. She would hold a book, she would order this Janet Fritch person.

"Fitch," I said.

"Oh!" Cried another employee. "White Oleander!"

My question: how in hell can you work in one the United States' premier independent bookstores and NOT know Atwood has a new book out? Never heard of Janet Fitch? These aren't IUniverse wannabes!

The lady kept dithering. I told her I had to leave. Managed to get home alive, though I did witness the aftermath of a child hit by a car. He rode out into the street on his bike and got smacked by a car exiting the 24 freeway. He was on the sidewalk, crying loudly, which in this case was a reassuring thing to see. His bicycle was still under the car.

At this point it was either drink myself stupid or make a nice dinner. This being a weeknight, I opted for the latter. And one very decorous beer. At table Hockeyman noted that Margaret Atwood was looking older.

"Honey," I said. "She's seventy."

Hockeyman blanched. Then he asked what up-and-coming writers would be around to take her place when the terrible time comes.

There aren't any. Not really. No new Joan Didions or Philip Roths. No heirs to the Atwood throne. Not that there aren't good new writers out there. But they're different. Special Topics in Calamity Physics may be a tour-de-force, but how is Pessl going to follow it up? With another novel chockablock with quotes and quirky fake citations? Does this kind of work possess longevity? Foer seems able to keep it up, as does Lethem. But will we return to these works in ten, twenty, thirty years and see them as lasting contributions, or exemplars of a particular era? If not, who will we return to? Zadie Smith is on the hairy edge of this hypertextual style, but her themes have lasting resonance. Jeffrey Eugenides may be with us for the long haul--I certainly hope so. Anybody else under 45 that we see writing book after thoughtful book, each deepening as the writer gains experience? ZZ Packer. Jhumpa Lahiri.

But publishing today is like the music industry--driven by the hit single. The days of buying the new Led Zep (yeah, I'm old and square) without even hearing it, knowing it'll be good because it's Led Zeppelin, for chrissakes, how can it be bad--are long gone. The literary equivalents of Led Zep or Pink Floyd aren't getting nurtured along book by book. Write the hot thing, sell it to Hollywood, appear on Oprah or in People magazine.

Yes, Lahiri got published, Packer got published, Eugenides won the Pulitzer. But they are exceptional, and I would bet the lady in Black Oak hasn't heard of any of them.


Blogger fairest said...

"hairy edge of this hypertextual style" - nice. that's what happens when I have to use newspaper to clot my shaving cuts.

September 21, 2006 9:37 AM  

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