James Atlas profiles Dale Peck, a controversial reviewer, novelist and protÃ©gÃ© of critic James Wood, in The Magazine this week. The piece retreads the well-worn ground of The Believer anti-snark manifesto and recent controversies over bad reviews (including the oft-quoted Tibor Fischer attack on Amis’ Yellow Dog). It also delves into Peck’s background, his writing, and his career as a reviewer:
James Wood, the brilliant but intimidating house critic of The New Republic, noticed Peck’s reviews and suggested he write for the magazine. Egged on by Leon Wieseltier, the magazine’s literary editor, Peck produced a spate of diatribes — beginning with one against “Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome,” a sprawling, eloquent novel by Stanley Crouch. “No,” Peck responded to the title, “it doesn’t.”
Although Peck has a new novel coming out, he believes it’s impervious to negative reviews:
“Are you aware of the damage a negative review can do?” I asked, not for the first time. Over the course of several conversations, I had been trying to get an answer out of him.
“It goes with the territory,” Peck replied with a shrug. Given his track record, how did he think his own new book, “What We Lost,” would fare? I offered him a quote I’d remembered from somewhere: “Literature is the only profession where you start out as a prosecutor and end up in the dock.” Peck didn’t seem worried. “I’m going to sound like a jerk,” he warned me. “Maybe I am a jerk, but the books I’ve published are among the best books published in the last 10 years.” As for “What We Lost,” “it’s impossible to review badly.”
Whatever happens, he says, he’s hanging up his gloves. “I’m not going to write any more bad reviews. I’m publishing this book” — “Hatchet Jobs” — “and that’s it.”
Most writers in Canada can’t support themselves on their share of book sales, Caroline Adderson argues (in an article that takes the form of imaginary letters). The numbers are disheartening:
For each book sold, the writer gets the kitten’s share: 10 per cent. In other words, a $32 hardcover novel nets the writer $3.20. Of that $3.20, the writer’s agent (if she is lucky enough to have one) gets 15 per cent. The agent also charges the writer for expenses such as photocopying, postage, stationary and phone calls, none of which the writer begrudges, because, without an agent, she has virtually no hope of selling her book outside Canada.
A writer will need another job if she has to depend on Canadian sales alone. She will have to teach creative writing. In Canada, a country of more than 30 million people, a novel is considered to have sold respectably if three thousand copies leave the shelf. You do the math: 3,000 x $3.20, minus 15 per cent, minus hundreds of dollars in expenses, minus your advance on these royalties, divided by four or five (depending on how many years the book took to write), equals, on a bad day, a fairly deep sense of futility.
(Via Arts Journal.)
After seeing Zoe Trope read, Taylor Clark attempts to puzzle out the appeal of the young author to the public and to major publishers, who were “clawing at one another’s eyes for the right to pay 100 grand for a teenager’s diary.” (Thanks to Ed Page for the link.)
Every time they ask me to write about something, it’s something stupid, and then when I try to make it interesting/political it gets edited. But what was the last straw? Hmmm… Well, there was the time they actually let me ‘help’ come up with the subject I should write about. I scanned the papers and sent a long e-mail with about 7 different ideas. ‘Thanks,’ they said. ‘But can you make it a bit more frivolous?’
Chicha explains why the bibliotherapeutic (or whatever) practice of prescribing books to help depressed readers through “inspiration” or “cheer[ing] them up” doesn’t work for many of us with depressive tendencies who seek out books that reveal something about our state of mind. “When I’m depressed, what comforts me most is the sense of not being alone with my thoughts and experiences,” she says.
In a somewhat related article, from the Guardian, Polly Vernon writes about the reaction of the British public to self-help books:
the self-help publishing phenomenon divides the nation. Either you do, in which case, you really, really do (statistics suggest that even the most standard issue self-help disciple owns an average of 12 help books); or you don’t, in which case you are perpetually backing away from friends who offer up dog-eared copies of Deepak Chopra or M Scott Peck, with feverish glints in their eyes, promising ‘It’ll change your life, like it did mine.’
Borges’ books are up for auction. Darice points me to Neil Gaiman, who says the auction “seems more like a Borgesian metafiction than it has any right to be in real life. I keep wondering whether there are any non-existent books listed.”