Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd atMonday's Buzz Panel, six editors made their pitches about the books they think, and hope, will edge out the competition this fall. While the offerings felt a little heavy on the women’s fiction side—Birds of Paradise, Running the Rift, The Underside of Joy, and The Night Circus all seem primed for that book club sweet spot—the editors proffered new and older writers as well as a mix of ballyhooed titles.
One of the books that ignited the crowd the most, and that many attendees buzzed about afterwards, was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown, the only male editor on the panel, sang the praises of the debut novel, which started something of a bidding war when he nabbed the title in February 2010. Harbach is one of the founders of the literary magazine N+1 and received an advance rumored to be more than $600,000. Apparently people have not stopped talking about the book—Pietsch boasted blurbs from authors ranging from Jonathan Franzen to James Patterson—and Pietsch said the work, about a baseball prodigy at a Michigan liberal arts college whose life and game fall apart after an errant toss in practice one day, is about “perfection, striving, youth... figuring out who you are and who you might become.” Adding that the book has it all—“two love stories, a death, and a championship season”—Pietsch noted that reading the work made him think about what John Updike said of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, and how the author had loved them more than God did; Harbach, Pietsch said, seemed to have the same compassion and love for his characters.
The other big advance book on the panel, and the last presented, was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. Acquired by Alison Callahan at Doubleday for a rumored $1 million, the book has already brought in money for Random House, having sold in more than 20 countries abroad and with a possible film deal in the works at Summit Entertainment (which produced the Twilight series). The novel, also a debut, is something Callahan said she read in one five-hour sitting in the Random House cafeteria and decided the work was something “I had to have.” Set in a magical circus called Le Cirque des Reves, which crops up around the world without warning or advance notice, and consisting of otherworldly attractions, the book is a sweeping love story: the two young magicians, Celia and Marco, whose endless dueling creates the circus, wind up falling madly in love. Calling the novel “a feast for the senses in every way,” Callahan noted that the book’s imagery is so powerful and engulfing that reading it is “like reading in 3-D.”
Elaine Mason at Norton came to the panel with an author she’s been editing for nearly 20 years—Diana Abu-Jabar. Touting Birds of Paradise as Abu-Jabar’s breakout hit, Mason said the work, which follows the inner turmoil of a Miami clan named the Muirs whose daughter has run away, cuts at the core of what it means to be in a family. “It’s a story of how members of a family who are lost to another can find each other again,” she said, adding that the novel hits on three topics all readers love: family, food, and real estate.
Denise Roy at Dutton pulled from personal experience when she discussed Sere Prince Halverson’s The Underside of Joy. About a widow who must grapple with the sudden arrival of her children’s biological mother, Roy said the book was rescued from the slush pile and became a sensation in Europe. When it landed on her desk, on the one-year anniversary of the death of her own husband, it offered what any great book can—a sense of catharsis and escape.
In describing Justin Torres’s debut, We the Animals, Jenna Johnson at HMH said the novel is one with both “scope and brevity.” Told from the point of view of one of the sons of a Brooklyn family anchored by the volatile and intense relationship between Puerto Rican mother and white father, the semiautobiographical book shows, Johnson said, how the “madness in all of us is both caused, and alleviated, by our families.” Noting that the in-house enthusiasm for the book is like nothing she’s ever seen before—Torres’s varied background includes work as a farmhand, a stint in a mental hospital, and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers Workshop—Johnson said that “everyone who reads [this book] finds some personal reality in its pages.”
Kathy Pories from Algonquin was on hand to talk up Naomi Benaron’s Running the Rift, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction. (The Bellwether is an award given by Barbara Kingsolver to an unpublished manuscript that speaks to issues of social justice.) Benaron worked with African refugees in Arizona before she started making regular trips to Rwanda. After falling in love with the country, she started putting together the novel, about a Tutsi runner with his sights set on the Olympics, who attempts to remain apolitical in a country besieged by genocide. The novel, which Pories said gets across both the beauty of Rwanda as well as the way the seeds of genocide grew there, reminded her of one of her favorite novels, A Fine Balance.