I can’t speak for anyone else, but if I get one more phone call from Kate Atkinson asking me to add "just one more comment" and quote-unquote "stir the pot," I’m going to have to say, Kate, please: If you value our friendship, you will not ask me again.
I'm joking, of course. I'm happy to help Kate in any way I can. I’m joking again! Kate and I are not even acquainted. In fact, if you believed any of this, please gather your things and don't disturb the others on your way out.
On to other, non-Kate-related, topics. Following is a follow-up to my first post a couple months back, on the theme of how to find books "struggling to be noticed."
Ander Monson’s debut novel, Other Electricities, got a lot of press this past month, with positive mentions on blogs like Bookslut and Conversational Reading, and in major media outlets like National Public Radio and the New York Times. This would be pretty unusual for any first novel. Or any experimental novel. Or any novel from a small press located in, say, a state in the southern US known more for thoroughbreds and sour-mash whiskey than for its contributions to American letters. Other Electricities, published by little Sarabande Books, happens to be all three.
I read Monson’s book a couple days after it came out, fell in love with it immediately, and was one of the earliest to recommend it. How did I find this book out of the hundreds that came out in May? I’d like to say I saw Donna Seaman’s early, glowing account in Booklist. Nope. Or, even better, that I paid attention to the uncommonly astute Chuck Stebelton when he booked Monson for an appearance at Chicago’s Myopic Bookstore way back in December. But I missed that too.
In fact, I found Monson’s book while browsing one night at a local branch of one of the big chain bookstores.
Ordinarily I'd visit one of our better independents, look at their intelligently chosen new-books tables and pester the staff for recommendations. But I'd just gotten back into town from a trip, it was 9:30 at night, and none of the independents were open. I would have waited til the following day except, this time, I just wanted a book now. Maybe you can relate.
I should confess that, before I got mixed up (as we say) with the LBC, "new" or "little known" were rarely among my criteria for selecting a book. To adapt from Auden, I don't want to read more "good" books or more "new" books; I want to read more books that I like. But, you know, it is kind of fun to walk into a big bookstore and think: I want to find a new book I really like, from an author few people know about.
Only: how? On entering the bookstore, you first encounter the many "just released" and "we recommend" displays by which publishing’s Prosperos try to keep us from the rest of the island. Just between you and me and the New York Times, these are often not the books you want to read, but rather, books someone else wants you to read. This is an easy one: as the poet says, cast a cold eye, and pass by.
Now you’re in Literature & Fiction. Here it gets more complicated. You could pick up every book and examine it, but that would take several hours. So you start narrowing down. As their CEOs never tire of telling us, chain bookstores are driven by the profit motive and don’t typically "load up" on titles by authors no one's ever heard of. Which is quite convenient, at least for our present purposes: in your search for "new and struggling to be noticed," any book with more than a two or three copies on the shelf can be safely ignored.
The standard spines for Penguin Classics and similar series will also aid your search—for the purposes of finding unknown authors, you can eliminate those as well. It's also helpful that books in certain popular genres often adopt similar cover designs or colors. So unless you're looking for something new in the popular "Chick-Lit" genre, for example, you can pretty much eliminate anything with a pink cover. And so on.
But even with these measures, you're left with quite a lot of books to peruse. Taking into account the extra time I require for involuntary spells of wonderment and gratitude when encountering a new title from Dalkey Archive Press, it was clear I needed another, further, filter.
Here's what I settled on: Ignore all hardcovers. If you think about it, unknown authors are much more likely to have their books "TPO’d"—that is, published as "trade paperback originals"—than are their better-known peers.
As soon as I had this little brainstorm, my eyes fell upon the Monson.
You might argue that Monson would have crossed my path anyway, given the notice he's subsequently received. But what if, like so many other worthy authors, he hadn’t gotten that attention? A better argument contra is that the increasing appeal of the TPO format for publishers of all kinds may soon render my little shortcut obsolete. (Doug Seibold, President of Agate Publishing, tells us why this is happening in a recent column for the Book Standard.) Still, for the time being, and particularly if your book-buying options are limited to the nearest big chain store, I say: check out those TPOs.