This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

October 21, 2002 — Coming soon to one of the few remaining book pages near you: articles about a trendy "backlash" against the new crop of trendy "literary" artists.

I recently got wind of just such a story coming from the New York Times — set for the paper's Sunday Style section, where they run the society column, fashion reportage, and wedding announcements. The story, I heard, was about a "backlash" against hipster writers such as Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, and Dave Eggers.

Seeing as how all those writers are gazillionaire bestsellers, you might wonder what, exactly, the "backlash" is?

Well, noting that all of those writers were highly touted in the Times itself early in their careers, one might conclude that the "backlash" is the kind of reporting going on about those writers in other papers, but notably absent in the Times.

For example, there's the recent story in the New York Post about the awarding of a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts award to Franzen. As a series of Post articles by Ian Spiegelman revealed, Franzen applied for and accepted the money even though he's already a millionaire and the award is supposed to support writers in need. What's more, sitting on the judging panel that handed out the money was Franzen's close personal friend Rick Moody.

Earlier, the Post had reported that Moody himself, the scion of a wealthy banking family, had similarly applied for and won a $35,000 Guggenheim Fellowship, another award supposedly for needy writers.

Such documented chicanery resonates with vaguer but rising concerns about Dave Eggers amongst his fans. Lately, for example, Eggers has been getting considerable press for his self–published novel, "You Shall Know Our Velocity." He's getting considerable credit, too, for taking the risk of self–publishing, and has gone on the record saying he fears it could go "horribly, horribly wrong."

Maybe not. The first printing of of the book was for 50,000 copies. Do you think Dave Eggers will have any trouble selling 50,000 copies of this, his follow–up to his mega–selling "Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." That book sold hundreds of thousands of copies in hardcover alone, and the paperback, too, made bestseller lists.

Plus, Eggers is selling the first 10,000 copies of the book in a "specially marked" edition on his website (the site does not explain how it will be specially marked). While many have reported on the self–publishing effort, not one single source has made the crucial observation that, by selling the book on his own website, Eggers has cut out the middle men. The major chains take as much as 60 percent of a book's cover price. Distributors take up to a third of what's left. Allowing only for overhead and production, Eggers could be making as much as 60 percent or more of the $22 cover price, say anywhere from $12 to $15 per copy. In a great deal, he would have made about $3 a copy if he'd signed with one of the big houses. Thus, Eggers could make as much as $150,000 — and that's just for the first 10,000 copies.

The remaining 40,000 copies go exclusively to the "McSweeney's 100," a group of Eggers' favorite independent booksellers. Independent booksellers, it should be noted, take a smaller cut of the cover price than the chains do. But Eggers has not precluded that he will sell more "specially marked" editions at his site in the future, either. Nor has Eggers precluded the likelihood of eventually selling it in chains anyway.

Then there's the fact that he's already sold the European paperback rights to the book, thanks to his new agent Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie. That's on the record. Off the record, New York is abuzz with the rumor that he's already sold American paperback rights to Vintage, for a reputed seven figures.

So what, exactly, is it that can go "horribly, horribly wrong" for Eggers — is it that he may only make a zillion dollars, as opposed to a skillion?

Dave Eggers is to be admired for his marketing genius, and for his creative alliance of independent booksellers. But comparing multimillionaire Dave to the typical small, independent publishers who are really risking everything they've got is an insult to those publishers as well as to readers everywhere.

And it gives you an idea of why some sort of "backlash" may be under way. (And given the unreported details of the Eggers story, at least, is there any wonder why some of that "backlash" may be against the literary press?)

But that's just business reporting. The stuff about Franzen and Moody, perhaps, falls under the category of "cult of personality" reporting, which both have rather cravenly sought out. Adages that come to mind: Live by the sword, die by the sword.

But the gossipy nature of the stories as they appear in the press may mask a murkier rumination going on amongst readers — is there a literary component to the "backlash"?

Well, consider some minor details from the early days of these writers — for example, Franzen's 1996 essay in Harper's decrying the lack of "serious" writing in the mainstream; many saw it as an advertisement for his own next novel.

It seemed to work — Franzen's subsequent novel, "The Corrections," far outsold the contemporaneous novel by one of the not–so–serious leading novelists of the generation Franzen criticized, Philip Roth. At last count, "The Corrections" has sold over a million copies in hardcover, while, according to the last report I heard, Roth's "The Human Stain" sold only 80,000.

But does anyone really think Franzen, no matter what he says of himself, is a novelist who ranks with Roth?

Or take the smaller digs against literature that are so trendy nowadays — in the opening pages of "Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," Eggers proudly equates being outside the mainstream with being so ill–read that he didn't know George Eliot was a woman.

Or take the subscription plea I just got from the ultra–hip literary magazine Granta, which tells me I should subscribe "because Granta is edited by people who don't like Literature."

All of which is to say that the "backlash" being forecast is against a group of writers who to some extent started by exploiting a "backlash" of their own devising.

      Also, that what goes around comes around.

Last Week’s Column: HISTORY LESSONS Historical fiction is seeming more and more accurately named, says guest columnist Alex Good — it's fictional history, in more ways than one.


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