Ed Ward (captward) Fri 11 Dec 09 13:55
Charlie, your author picture cleverly poses you in front of what appears to be a huge magazine rack, but are the enthusiast magazines still doing well, or are they, like the other magazines, dying? Or have many of them been bought up by a Clear Channel-like entity like your Clean Page firm?
Maria Rosales (rosmar) Fri 11 Dec 09 14:02
That reminds me--I thought the "Clean Page" name was brilliant.
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Fri 11 Dec 09 16:47
Thanks, Lisa and Maria. Calling the company Clean Page was a pleasurable moment in the writing. Ed, obviously magazines across the board have been hit hard, but it seems as if the enthusiast titles have been hanging in there better than general-interest ones. (One of my early impulses in writing the book came from noticing that Life and Look left the newsstand and half a dozen magazines about quilting moved in.) If you look at Samir Husni's annual guide to the new magazines launched each year, you'll see the enthusiasts outnumbering everyone else, with ever-greater audience pinpointing. I'm with Lisa on this -- going to the newsstand and thinking, "There's a magazine about souping up one model of car, and it comes out every month!" There has indeed been some conglomerating of enthusiast magazines by companies such as Primedia, which will buy both of the top titles in a given interest -- e.g., Surfer and Surfing -- and make them faux-competitors. The economics of publishing for a concentrated hobbyist readership are naturally easier than those of publishing, say, an extensively reported newsweekly. But there's also something cultural going on here, namely the Balkanization of modern life -- the proliferation of small, intense worlds people get lost in. Cable TV contributed to this, but the Internet has been the ultimate weapon. The hobbyist version of this fragmentation is pretty benign. The political version, not so much. Information age or not, it's really easy now for large numbers of people to spend the bulk of their time communicating with people who believe the same conspiracy theories and urban legends they do, and no time with opposing views. Which leads to problems.
Gail Williams (gail) Sat 12 Dec 09 03:50
> the Balkanization of modern life -- the proliferation of small, intense worlds people get lost in. Well said. It's been going on for a long time, but the internet makes it easier.
Ed Ward (captward) Sat 12 Dec 09 10:10
Hobbyists -- at least extreme hobbyists like the model-maker in the book -- have always been just a bit removed from the rest of society, though, so the magazines likely work in concert with the Internet sites. And I'd worry about the longevity of some of these extremely specific magazines more if I hadn't once talked to someone who worked for one of the bridal magazines and told me there are people who've been subscribers for 20 years -- not people in the trade, but people who are obsessed with weddings, including their own! Getting a bit meta, something I didn't want to forget to mention is the PS section in the book. Man, I *hate* those things, and writing your own like this -- with serious moments like the essay on writing the book ("Does This Novel Make Me Look Fat?"), but the reading group questions ("Who brought the salad?" "Is anyone sitting here?") and the mixtape sort of subverting everything. But speaking of subverting, I found it interesting that this is a paperback original. What's the story on that? Do you think it makes the novel look less serious, or does it make it more accessible to the intended audience?
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Sat 12 Dec 09 12:06
There's a school of thought, which seems to be growing, that trade paperback original (TPO) is a better format in which to debut some books than hardcover. On a first novel such as "The Enthusiast," the thinking is that people are more likely to take a chance on a new author at $14 than at $27 or so. This is especially so if the book is perceived to have a youthful potential audience. (I've had the pleasure of hearing from a lot of young readers that they like the book, but it also seems to have adherents my age and older, so it's not a pure youthquake deal.) The downside, of course, is that the book comes out only once instead of twice, and I think it's still harder to get reviews and publicity for TPOs in some media. One book blogger who liked "The Enthusiast" protested that TPO was a disservice to the book. But I get the sense we'll be seeing more TPOs in the future. (One publishing person said to me, "Eventually, the hardcover will be for the president's memoirs and books about dogs that you give for Christmas.") The TPO successes I hear cited most often: "Bright Lights, Big City," "The Sprotswriter," and "Man Gone Down." One definite upside: with a TPO, you'll never get a phone call from your agent saying, "Okay, look, uh, here's where we are -- they've decided not to do the paperback." Too late! They already have!
Ed Ward (captward) Sat 12 Dec 09 12:53
It's also a good format, I think, for a novel that's basically light-hearted, no matter how serious its look at various issues it portrays. It's consumer-friendly, as I think you've already discovered. But it's also a fairly revolutionary novel for this age of American fiction, since it doesn't seem to be a product of a Creative Writing department at some university. This, I think, has been the death of the American novel, and has driven a lot of us who like to read into the arms of genre fiction, where a lot more happens and where there can be some good insight into this and that along with the formula. My take on The Enthusiast, although I'm on thin ice here, is that it's what Graham Greene called an "entertainment," a word he used to, uh, misdirect people from the possibility that it might have serious themes, as several of his did.
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Sat 12 Dec 09 13:11
Thanks very much for saying that. "An entertainment" (with serious themes) is precisely what I hoped the book would be when I was writing it.
Ed Ward (captward) Sat 12 Dec 09 13:20
We need more entertainments and less lidderacher if fiction's going to survive. That's a big difference I notice between the States and England: they Just Do It, and as a result people read. After reading The Enthusiast, I had Hilary Mantel's Booker-winner Wolf Hall out of the library, and it blew me away: very serious themes, virtuoso technical effects, rather obscure subject (Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's right hand man), but extremely readable -- and it's selling like crazy. I've got a friend named Lewis Shiner <http://lewisshiner.com/>, who started out in kind of cyberpunk sci-fi, but abandoned it early on. His "entertainments" are all worth reading (well, except for the skateboard/divorce novel, which I think is out of print anyway), and every time I read one of his, I think "This is what we need more of." What we get, though, is either Creative Writing or novels by rich kids from the younger generation of writers. It puts people off. Okay, I'll get off the soapbox now.
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Sat 12 Dec 09 14:03
Not to get into a round robin of book recommendation, but I recently read Colson Whitehead's "John Henry Days" and enjoyed it greatly -- a fine example of an entertainment with serious things on its mind.
Ed Ward (captward) Sat 12 Dec 09 15:51
Yup, another good one. Not wild about his other novel, though.
Ed Ward (captward) Sun 13 Dec 09 09:49
And again, any of you reading this who aren't on the Well, if you have a comment or question for this conversation, you can e-mail it to me if you have my e-mail, or to <email@example.com> and we'll whip it right up.
Strangest I Could Find (miltloomis) Sun 13 Dec 09 10:25
You mentioned Joe Brainard's work with various poets ... graphic novels are a big deal these days, any thought of doing The Enthusiast as a graphic novel? Thanks ...
David Gans (tnf) Sun 13 Dec 09 10:47
(Steve Silberman popsted a link to this hilarious essay, and I think everyone here should also read it: OLDEST LIVING DROSOPHILA TELLS ALL: <http://www.harpercollins.com/author/microsite/readingguide.aspx?authorID=34826 &displayType=essay&articleId=7737> There are more on that page, and all the ones I've read so far are spectacular.)
David Gans (tnf) Sun 13 Dec 09 10:47
(Here's an easier link to that piece: <http://tinyurl.com/ya23hrm> )
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Sun 13 Dec 09 10:50
A graphic novel! I would love it if someone wanted to draw and publish such a thing. Meanwhile, the people at "Unshelved," the comic strip about libraries, chose the book for their Sunday Book Club a little while back, so there's a one-panel comic version already: http://bit.ly/gaBww David, thanks for that link to the fruit fly piece. The inspiring news item is quite real, by the way.
Ed Ward (captward) Sun 13 Dec 09 10:58
You'd be better off finding a graphic artist you liked and collaborating with him or her on a graphic novel. The thing that surprises me about them the most is the degree to which the art can say things and the dialog can interact with the art. You'd be good with my favorite, Jean-Claud Denis, who is able to evoke some astonishing stuff in those frames. If you read French, you can see a bit of his work here: <http://www.bdparadisio.com/intervw/jcdenis/jcdenispl.htm>
David Gans (tnf) Sun 13 Dec 09 11:01
That piece had "Shouts and Murmurs" all over it! The "New York Street" piece is also great.
David Gans (tnf) Sun 13 Dec 09 11:01
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Sun 13 Dec 09 11:07
David, thanks so much for the kind words about the essays. I used to do a lot of short humor for magazines... then I started doing some for Facebook friends, and they've migrated to my Harper web page (www.harpercollins.com/charliehaas -- see "Essays" on the lower right). Ed, about JC Denis -- wow, nice art, with that storyboard feeling. Thanks.
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 14 Dec 09 08:09
You've managed to get in the heads of your enthusiasts in the novel pretty well, but it's kind of hard to see you doing any X-treme sports. You must have enthusiasms of your own, though. Want to tell us about a couple?
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Mon 14 Dec 09 10:29
X-treme sports, no. But moderate sports, for sure. Bicycling, running, indoor rowing -- I do all of these as an excuse to read the pertinent magazines. In the indoor rowing department, I've added the fillip of rowing across America, armed with a road map and tape measure. Occasionally I'll go online to read about the town I'm passing through on the map... a virtual kind of getting out and looking around. This manages to be athletic and nerdy at the same time, an excellent enthusiast nexus. Like many other writers (but, sadly, fewer in the computer age), I'm kind of a fetishist about my longhand writing implements: Clairefontaines and other good notebooks, schoolkid fountain pens, Pentel Sliccis, and very dark pencils. (I'm one of those people who almost couldn't go on when the Eberhard Faber Blackwing went out of production, but the California Republic Palomino has enabled me to rally.) Henry's enthusiasm for collecting those towns he calls Claytons is mine as well. And music, of course, but I think that's pretty universal for people my age. "Why can't I be judged by my record collection?" -- a generation's anguished cry.
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 14 Dec 09 10:51
One of your characters -- I don't think it's Henry, but I'm too lazy to check -- even says something like "At least I had the good sense never to work for a music magazine," which caused me to stand up and cheer. If I had it to do all over again... I'm also with you on the writing implement thing, and you've just reminded me to go looking for a few more spiral-bound (at the top) pocket-sized reporter's notebooks next time I'm in the States. The Clayton thing...well, I have to confess I'm confused. You said you started with the ending, and the ending to me felt like the story had imperceptibly slid into a kind of elegaic, utopian, soft-focus thing. I don't dislike the ending, nor could I (or would I) presume to offer an alternative, but my take on it was that you knew you had to end somehow, and this was a happy ending you could live with. (There, I think I managed not to drop any spoilers there).
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Mon 14 Dec 09 11:57
Ah, the reporter's notebook! 4" x 6", the perfect size to fit in one hand so you can write while walking, which I've been known to do all day. Case in point: the scene in the book when Henry visits New York for the first time. To write the descriptions, I flew to NY and reproduced his walk (Grand Central to Chelsea, back up to the Plaza, etc.), writing in a reporter's notebook the whole time. I wasn't recording my impressions (native New Yorker) but Henry's (first-time visitor). The results, with the writing cleaned up, are pretty much what you get in the book. Method writing, I guess. Those notebooks are still being made -- I get mine from Portage Newspaper Supply in Akron, Ohio. Strongly recommended for restless writers. About the ending: Some readers like it a lot, others don't. I never felt that it had to be happy. It is heartfelt. I woke up one day, a year or so into writing, and thought, "I know where he is at the end," and felt sure about it. I think what we're dealing with here is probably the autobiographical impulse (As Oscar Wilde is alleged to have said, "In every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust.") Henry's state of mind at the end of the book is something like mine: happy with his town, his work, his marriage, and his friends, but always aware of the losses he's taken. I think of it as happiness with an asterisk, and I felt I was reporting from that state. By my age, if not Henry's, some losses are inevitable. I'm always interested by the different perspectives people bring to a novel, and by writing one I've gotten a closer look. You say "utopian," and I know what you mean. On the other hand, nosing around online, I've seen a few young readers say they like the book but find it "oddly sad." Right -- at their age, the sadness, the asterisk, is odd. At my age, it's assumed.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Mon 14 Dec 09 13:25
I love those notebooks too.
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