If there's one thing that just about everybody in the book business can agree on these days, it's that fiction, especially so-called "serious" fiction, is either dead or dying, at least sales-wise. At lunch after lunch, at event after event after meeting, you hear editors lament: nobody's reading anymore, or if they are, they're reading self-help, chick lit, romance and maybe, occasionally, history and politics. Yes, John Updike's Terrorist is on most bestseller lists and has been doing better than any frontlist title of his in years; but it's interesting that it succeeds in spite of relatively poor reviews (excepting ours). Could it be that its "topicality" matters more to the masses than its merits ? As I noted in my July 17 column, the most surprising and successful fiction of the summer has been a paperback reprint, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which has struck a chord with the book group crowd. But fall is approaching, and with it the highly anticipated returning authors and buzzed-about debuts. I'm thinking Ford and Frazier and a first novel from Viking that pushed the season and appeared this week: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. The reviews of this last suggest that, after all, there might be some life in the old fiction form yet. And then, too, there's the annual fall festival hosted by the NewYorker, a longtime Friend of Fiction.
The magazine hasn't yet released the names of the authors who will lecture/read/be interviewed at the three-day event, October 6—8, but I got some advance word of the lineup, which is, as always, impressive: Monica Ali, Alexander Hemon, Antonya Nelson, Tom McGuane, Edwidge Danticat, Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore and Zadie Smith, to list just a few. But if those names are familiar—most have written several books and their work has appeared more than once in the tony magazine—there are also some newcomers: the Chinese author Yiyun Li and the Nigerian Uwem Akpan, for example. While I'd love to see some more relative unknowns on the list—why not get somebody lively and engaging and talented like the cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto to talk about her forthcoming graphic novel, Cancer Vixen?—I'm probably not being realistic: the festival, like all events connected to magazines, even fancypants ones, is about selling tickets and furthering the "brand," and you're surely going to get more people to pony up for T.C. Boyle than for some first-time novelist only three New Yorker editors have heard of.
On the other hand, I doubt anybody expects the coffers of the New Yorkeror its parent company, Condé Nast, to be seriously affected by the proceeds from $25 tickets to writerly events—and we all know that a two-second mention on TheToday Show does more for a book and author than an SRO crowd in New York. Like serious literary publishers, the New Yorker can't be doing it for the money.
Which leaves only one possibility: they're doing it for love, just as are the many readers who have been waiting for the return of Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe or Charles Frazier's second effort or for the publication of the late F.X. Toole's boxing novel. Literary fiction, after all, has never been about commerce. And readers' hopes for it spring eternal: just as all of us wish and believe that fall—and its weather—will get here soon.
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