Leslie Jamison’s collection of literary essays about the nature of pain and the feelings humans have for the pain of others, The Empathy Exams, is hitting a nerve in more ways than one.
The Graywolf Press release, which pubbed on April 1, has made its debut on the New York Times bestseller list at #11 in the paperback nonfiction category, and at #14 on the ABA’s indie bestseller list. Not only was The Empathy Exams included in PW’s list of the top 10 essay collections of spring 2014, but the New Yorker named it one of this season’s “books to watch out for,” and NPR singled it out as one of “the best books coming out this week.” PW and Booklist both gave it starred reviews, and the New York Times reviewer described it as “extraordinary.” The Empathy Exams has already received glowing reviews in the country’s leading newspapers and magazines, like the San Francisco Chronicle, Entertainment Weekly, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and is scheduled to be reviewed in many more, including People magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe.
The Empathy Exams has already gone through five print runs, and a sixth print run of 10,000 copies has been scheduled, bringing the total number of copies in print to 25,500.
Graywolf, the small literary press in Minneapolis that published The Empathy Exams, is no stranger to media attention, having published books that have won National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. While the publisher expected that the collection, which won the 2011 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize on the basis of a partial manuscript, would receive positive media attention, it is still a bit taken aback at the degree of acclaim. The buzz began months ago, when the key independent booksellers who received early galleys started talking it up on social media and recommending it to their colleagues. The bookseller chatter picked up steam at Winter Institute, which Jamison attended. It has continued through this past month, when Jamison launched her book tour at Yale University in New Haven, where she is pursuing a Ph.D in literature, followed by a more formal launch at Common Good Books in St. Paul, Minn. She has been speaking before standing-room-only crowds at indies around the country since then.
"It's been one of those perfect storms where everything has fallen into place at exactly the right time—the marvelous editing, the big reviews, the events, the essay placements, the indie bookseller buzz,” publicity manager Erin Kottke explained, noting that the last time Graywolf experienced such a huge media blitz when a book pubbed was with Out Stealing Horses in 2007, when author Per Petterson won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. “I also think that empathy, pain, and how we react to pain are all topics that encourage conversation and debate; people [are] drawn to that.”