If the economic Tilt-A-Whirl of the past few months has proven anything, it's that this carnival life of ours—writing, publishing, trying to find readers—isn't getting any easier. Booksellers and publishers are in turmoil, with scores of staffers having already lost their jobs to "restructuring," "integration," and all the other corporate euphemisms that are dreamed up to soften the harsh reality: It isn't pretty out there.
While it goes without saying that our problems are nothing compared with those of many industries, one's heart can't help but ache for the literary magazines and publishing houses that won't be around in a year; the unemployed editors, publicists, and marketing people with mortgages to pay; the authors whose first books are being published now, or a month from now, or anytime soon.
But difficult times don't have to be joyless times. As I listened to these four accomplished young book editors talk about what they do, I was reminded of a simple and enduring truth, trite as it may sound: We are all—writers, agents, publishers, booksellers, librarians, and readers—in this together. And there are concrete things we can do to connect with one another more effectively. These editors are full of insight about how to do just that.
It seems appropriate, at such a humbling moment, that we met over pizza and bottled water (okay, maybe not exclusively water) in the glamorously unglamorous offices of Open City, the independent press and literary magazine based in downtown Manhattan. Over the years its editors, Thomas Beller and Joanna Yas, have introduced readers to some of the most distinctive voices of our time, from Meghan Daum to Sam Lipsyte. Here are short biographies of the participants:
LEE BOUDREAUX was an editor at Random House for almost ten years before leaving to become the editorial director of Ecco in 2005. She has worked with Arthur Phillips, Dalia Sofer, and David Wroblewski.
ERIC CHINSKI worked at Oxford University Press and Houghton Mifflin before moving to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where he is vice president and editor in chief. He has edited Chris Adrian, Rivka Galchen, and Alex Ross.
ALEXIS GARGAGLIANO worked at Simon & Schuster and Knopf before moving to Scribner, where she is an editor, in 2002. Her authors include Matt Bondurant, Adam Gollner, and Joanna Smith Rakoff.
RICHARD NASH worked as a performance artist and theater director before taking over Soft Skull Press, now an imprint of Counterpoint, in 2001. His authors include Lydia Millet, Matthew Sharpe, and Lynne Tillman. [UPDATE: Richard Nash has resigned as editorial director of Soft Skull Press and executive editor of Counterpoint, effective March 10, 2009.]
Every reader understands the feeling of falling in love with a book. You guys do that for a living. I'm curious if you've given any thought to the specific things that can trigger that experience.
GARGAGLIANO: I don't know if there's a specific thing, but you know it immediately. The minute I start it I know that it's the book I want to fall in love with. And that's the one I keep reading. I will read a hundred pages of something else, but I won't fall in love with it. You have this immediate sense of texture and place, and you're just inside it from the first sentence. I think the thing that everybody says about first sentences is true. Everyone should try to get that first sentence perfect. I make my authors do that all the time.
NASH: But if you make them do it, they didn't quite do it the first time, did they?
GARGAGLIANO: Well, it might be that you've had them totally rewrite the opening.
CHINSKI: Do you feel like it's different for fiction and nonfiction?
GARGAGLIANO: I do. I always hate that with nonfiction, when you read a proposal, you don't get the writing first. You get the pitch first. I always look to the writing.
CHINSKI: For me, with fiction, there's that funny moment when you feel like you actually want to meet the author. You want to know who the man or woman who's writing it is because there's a real sensibility in the writing. It's not just that the writing is good—there's a kind of intensity of imagination to it. You wonder, "Who is this person who's able to telescope all of these ideas into something that feels accessible?" I think that's one similarity between nonfiction and fiction, even though obviously they're different in many ways: It takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. You sort of recognize something but it allows you access to it in a totally different way. But I can't tell you how many times, thirty pages into a novel, I actually want to write the agent and say, "Who is this person?" You just wonder, "Who's coming up with this?"
BOUDREAUX: I think there's always a moment of surprise and delight. It comes in the form of a word. You get to the end of a sentence and go, "Wow, I didn't see that coming. That was perfect." The language just goes click and the whole thing has gone up a notch and you know at that point that you're committed to...a hundred pages? Two hundred? Or you're going the distance with it. The gears just click into place and you realize you're reading something that is an order of magnitude different than the seventy-five other things that have crossed your desk lately, many of which were perfectly good and perfectly competent.
CHINSKI: And doesn't it feel like it's not even just talent? It's the sensibility of the writer. I think about a writer whom I don't work with but whom I admire, Aleksandar Hemon. He does that funny thing where he doesn't use words in an ordinary way, and yet they work and they suggest a whole worldview. Or look at Chris Adrian, whom I do work with and adore. I mean, his writing is really difficult. It's about dying and suffering children—you can't imagine a more difficult subject. But again, there's a kind of intensity of imagination and a way of articulating things that goes beyond good writing. There is a force and energy to the writing. I think that's the hardest thing to find in fiction, at least for me, and that's what I find myself responding to again and again.
NASH: For me it's also when a work of fiction has the force of society behind it on some level. Which is not necessarily to say that it has to be political—I do far less political fiction than people think—but I do want to feel that the writer has access to something larger than himself. To me, the energy you're talking about is something that possesses social force and a concatenation of relationships and responses to the world lived in a certain kind of way. I try to forbid myself from using the word authenticity because I don't actually know what the hell it is, but that's one way of talking about it.
CHINSKI: I have a related question. What do you all think of the word voice? It's one of those words that we all overuse, but do we actually know what it is? I always find myself reaching for it when I want to describe why I like something and why I don't like other things that are perfectly well written. But when I really try to figure out exactly what I mean by it, I come back to what I was saying before. Is sensibility the same thing as a writer having a voice?
GARGAGLIANO: If it comes alive for you, and you can hear it in your head, and it sort of lives inside you, that's when I feel like a writer has a voice. That's when I'll keep going back to something again and again. One of my favorite writers when I was falling in love with literature was Jeanette Winterson. It was just about her voice. I kept loving her books even when the stories themselves started to fall apart. I just wanted to hear that voice in my head. For me, with her, it stopped being about the storytelling, which is unusual. I love story. I want plots in my books.
CHINSKI: And you can think about writers who don't actually tell stories. The Europeans, for example. We always have one: Thomas Bernhard; Sebald; now Bolaño. It feels like there's always one of these writers who isn't writing plot-driven fiction. The voice is so strong that that's what people are responding to. With Bolaño, I find it kind of amazing that you have this nine-hundred-page novel by a dead Spanish-language writer...I mean, I can't honestly believe that everybody who's buying it is reading the whole thing. But it goes back to what you were saying, Richard, about the voice having the force of history and almost being haunted by these bigger issues.
NASH: Haunted is totally the word. Beckett had it too, obviously.
CHINSKI: Or look at Philip Roth. Even in his lesser novels, you can always recognize that kind of force in his writing.
NASH: What you just said reminds me of an artist named Bruce Nauman. I went to see a retrospective of his before I was in publishing. There was this sense, as you went from room to room, that the guy just had access to something that he wasn't going to lose access to. You know what I mean? There was a certain frequency of the world to which he was tuned in. It could express itself in different ways, but he wasn't going to lose his capacity to listen to it, as a result of which the work was always going to be operating on a certain level. He might vary between, I don't know, brilliant and mind-blowing, but he wasn't going to fuck up. Those voices, and those Europeans you were mentioning, are probably at the very upper level.
CHINSKI: That's right. They always seem to have a certain set of questions that they're asking. Even if they're writing very different novels from book to book, they're haunted by one or two or three questions, and no matter what they write, they seem to circle around them. That may have something to do with the voice they bring to a book. I mean, even Sasha Hemon, who's only written three books—you can tell what his obsessions are. That's another thing: I like writers who are obsessed. Chris Adrian is obsessed too. That's what's exciting about reading certain fiction writers.
Aside from what's on the page, and somebody's skill as a writer or voice or obsessions, what other things influence your thinking and decision-making?
GARGAGLIANO: One of the things can be when a book taps into something that's happening in the moment. I'm editing a book right now that's set after World War II in a psychiatric hospital, and it's really a book about what happens to soldiers when they come back from war. I find myself obsessed with the news and weeping when I watch Channel Thirteen because I've been inside of this story for so long and I understand the psychology of these men coming back. I'm hoping that there will be a resonance when we publish it. You're always trying to process things in the world, and when you read a really good piece of fiction, it helps you process things.
CHINSKI: The word necessary always comes to mind for me. Beyond a good story, beyond good writing, does the novel feel necessary? A lot of good books are written, and I'm not saying that they shouldn't be published, but as an editor you can't work on everything, and the ones I tend to be drawn to are the ones that either feel personally necessary or globally necessary in some vague way that's hard to define. And that should be at the sentence level, too. People who can write really well sometimes get carried away by their own writing and forget what's actually necessary on the page. I would also raise the question of believability. A book can be surreal and fantastical and all that, so it's not believable in any straight sense, but it has to be believable in the sense that the author believes in what he or she is doing. Sometimes you feel like an author is just writing for the sake of writing, and that is a big turnoff. It's got to feel necessary at every level.
BOUDREAUX: As an editor, you know how difficult the in-house process is going to be—the process of getting a book out there. The necessary quotient comes up when you ask yourself, "Is this something that really fires me up? What's going to happen when I give it to these two reps to read? Are they going to have the same reaction to some pretty significant extent and feel the need to convey their enthusiasm down the line?" Because I think word of mouth remains the best thing we can ever do for a book. So is there that necessary thing? Is there that urgency? Is it in some significant way different from any number of other novels that purport to talk about the same topic? It's almost like an electrical pulse traveling down a wire. It starts with the author, then the agent, then the editor, and then there are a lot of telephone poles it's got to go through from there. If it's lacking in any way, you know that the electricity is going to peter out. Sometimes you can almost see it happen. You can watch it happen between one sales rep and another sales rep. You're like, "Oh, that just petered out between those two telephone poles." And the book is only going to do so much.
When a lot of us were starting out I think we may have felt like, "Oh, it's a little book, but it's my job to make it work, and I'm going to." I feel less like that now. Because you can't work on everything, and you can't do everything for every book. Even when you do do everything you can think of, so many good books get ignored. So many good books go by the wayside. You've got to be able to figure out if each one is necessary enough that you can really do something with it. Because it's not that rewarding as the editor, or as the author, to just have a book sit there—when it dies a quiet death and nobody even hears it sink. "We tried! We'll do better with the paperback!" The number of times you hear that! You know you're lying and they know you're lying and everyone's just going to pretend it will be totally different a year from now.
It's got to have enough juice in it to go somewhere. I feel like that juice can take any number of forms. It's an ineffable quality, but you kind of know it when you've got it in front of you. Everyone is not going to agree on fiction, either. I do pretty much all fiction. When I want to buy something, in most cases nobody else is going to read the whole thing. They're going to believe me when I say it's good all the way to the end. They just like the voice and then we run with it. You're never going to get a whole roomful of people to agree on fiction the way you sometimes can with nonfiction: "Is this the right book at the right time by the right person with the right platform to write the book on whatever?" With fiction it's all sort of amorphous, and you've just got to feel like you're picking the ones that are potent enough to go the distance.
NASH: We're all just proxies for the reader. But we're going to have different ideas about who the reader is and how we connect to that reader. Do we have commonality with this imaginary reader? But I certainly find that I am powerfully animated by the sense of having a duty to connect the writer with the reader. Is this a book that's going to get one person to tell another person that they've got to read it? Which is the closest thing, I think, at least in the land of fiction, that's going to pass for figuring out what the hell is meant by the word commercial. As you said, your own energy can always get one other person to read the book. But is that one other person going to get the next person to read the book?
Are there any other things, besides what's on the page, that you're looking at when a book is submitted?
GARGAGLIANO: This was one of the hardest lessons for me. Unlike what Eric was saying earlier, when I used to read fiction before I was in publishing, I never wanted to know who the author was. I didn't want to look at their pictures. I just wanted to exist in the worlds that they had created. That was it. When I got into the industry, I quickly learned that that was not acceptable. The first thing I get asked at our editorial meeting is, "Where have they published?" You want to know that somebody has been publishing their short stories, even if a total of a hundred people have read them. It's always the first question.
CHINSKI: One thing I'm looking for is experience in the world. I keep coming back to Chris Adrian, not for any particular reason. But he's somebody who has an MFA, he's a practicing doctor specializing in pediatric oncology, he's in divinity school, and you can feel all of that in his writing. There's an urgency, a sense of questioning, and an obsession. You can tell that all of that experience is getting distilled into his writing. He wants to understand something about loss and our relationship to transcendence. I feel like with the best writers, you recognize that in their work. It's exciting to me to feel like it's being drawn not just out of the desire to write an interesting story and find readers. It's a different form of necessity that they feel they need to wrestle with because of their own life experience.
BOUDREAUX: I've never been able to say what my books have in common. I'll make an argument for escapism. I want to be transported. I don't care where you take me, but I want to have that moment that we all had when we were reading as kids, when the real world ceases to exist and your mother tells you to come have dinner and it's like resurfacing from the bottom of a swimming pool. "Where am I? What am I doing?" That's what I want. I'm not looking for any particular kind of book, I'm just looking for the intensity of that experience. It doesn't matter what agent it comes from. It doesn't matter if it's long or short. It doesn't matter if it's a young voice or something that's more mature. I just feel like you sit there as a proxy for the reader, open to having a new experience. And if they can give it to you, great. I don't even need it to happen in the first sentence. I'll give it three or four pages sometimes. [Laughter.] I'm seven months pregnant so I'm feeling patient and maternal toward the world—I'll give them four or five pages to say something that I find interesting.
On the flip side of that, give me some things that you find beginning writers doing wrong.
NASH: Not listening. Not listening to the world around them.
GARGAGLIANO: Trying to sell stories that aren't really a book. They're not a cohesive whole. There's no vision to the whole thing that makes me feel like this person has a reason for writing a story collection other than that they had twelve stories.
NASH: Assuming that having an attitude equals...anything.
CHINSKI: Or assuming that good writing is enough. I'm sure we all see a lot of stuff where the writing is really good. It's well crafted and you can tell that the writer has talent. But, again, you don't really feel like the writer necessarily believes in his or her ability to open it up into a novel. I know the old adage "write what you know." I'd kind of rather somebody write what they don't know. And figure out, beyond their own personal experience, why what they're doing should matter to the reader.
BOUDREAUX: I've always wanted to give people that advice too. "Do you have to write what you know? If you know it, I might know it. Which means I've already read it. Which means that your book is the nineteenth novel about a mother-daughter relationship. And I. Don't. Care." The crudest way to put it is the "Who cares?" factor. Why, why, why do I need to read four hundred pages about this? The necessary thing, and the authentic thing, and the voice thing are all much better ways of saying it than the "Who cares?" factor, but it's basically the same thing. "What is the necessity of reading this? What are you doing that is different?"
CHINSKI: I'd rather somebody be ambitious and fail a little bit than read a perfectly crafted, tame novel.
NASH: I have published novels, especially first novels, that I knew failed on some level because of what they were trying to do. I felt that that was okay.
CHINSKI: That's more exciting.
NASH: But what would be the version of that that actually answered your question?
CHINSKI: "Have courage"?
NASH: Don't try to be perfect. Don't be boring.
CHINSKI: That's really what it is 99.9 percent of the time—good writing, but boring. And it's the hardest thing to turn down because you think, "This is good. But it doesn't do anything for me."
BOUDREAUX: That's the thing. You're like, "There's nothing wrong with this. I've got nothing to tell you to do to fix it. It's just...there."
CHINSKI: And that's a hard rejection letter to write, too. Because it's not like you can point to this, that, and the other thing that are wrong with it. It just doesn't move you in any way. It doesn't feel necessary.