Call me morbid, but it seems appropriate to commence this piece with a list of 1997′s illustrious dead — a roll call of literary souls worth mourning. (In death, even Michener took on Texas-sized stature when the extent of his philanthropy was revealed.) Why? Because if on one level 1997 was the best year in recent memory to be an alert, yea-saying reader — for an abundance of reasons I’ll be getting to — it was also a year in which there were some seismic, queasy-making shifts in the lit world. Some of the old niceties began slipping away (some of them deservedly), a postwar generation of writers started to stumble, and a cold and crackling new economic order swept in under the doorjamb.
Civility, for sure, suffered a few head wounds in 1997. At a panel discussion at the New York Public Library in October, Barnes & Noble CEO Leonard Riggio gave novelist Cynthia Ozick a start when he outed her sales figures, revealing that his continent-girdling chain had sold but a few hundred copies of her Holocaust masterpiece “The Shawl.” In response, Ozick politely murmured something about how she’d like to sell more books — but so would Stephen King. The evening’s topic: “Book Publishing: Dead or Alive?” People left wondering.
Revenge had a bullish year. New novels from such celebrated old goats as Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth were accompanied by frisky tell-all memoirs dictated by aggrieved former lovers. (Behind every great male novelist, it sometimes seemed, there was an extremely pissed-off woman.) Retaliation came into its own as a genre, and these novelists suffered some very ’90s-style indignities. The high-low point in Adele Mailer’s “The Last Party” — which is arguably better-written, and surely less pretentious, than Mailer’s own “The Gospel According to the Son” — may be when young Norman catches Adele in bed with another man (she was avenging his own cheating ways), strides into the room and stubs out a lit cigarette into the man’s naked buttocks. The low-low point is, of course, when Mailer stabs her. In “Handsome Is,” a memoir from Bellow’s former literary agent, Harriet Wasserman, we hear not only about the great writer’s abiding narcissism, but Wasserman also mentions that she would rather lick out a Times Square toilet bowl than say hello to Bellow’s new agent, Andrew Wylie. And in Claire Bloom’s “Leaving a Doll’s House” (a late 1996 title), we learn about her 18 years with Philip Roth — including news that, during their divorce proceedings, Roth charged her $150 an hour for having helped her go over her scripts.
Not all of the year’s aggrieved memoirists charged at writers: Mia Farrow dumped on Woody Allen in her mopey, elegiac “What Falls Away”; Kelly Flinn dumped on the Air Force in “Proud to Be”; and Paula Barbieri unwittingly dumped on herself in “The Other Woman: My Years with O.J.”
Those Mailer, Bellow and Roth novels were kept company by new books from John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon. Readers could be forgiven, in a retro-hellish year, for walking into bookstores and thinking it was 1973 all over again. (Even J.D. Salinger poked his squirrely nostrils out from his hole for a moment, sniffed the wind and apparently decided not to release his story “Hapworth 16, 1924″ as a novel. Next year he’ll get — what else? — depicted in another tell-all memoir, from his former teen lover, Joyce Maynard.) New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani has long ridden herd over this flock, caning the beasties who got too randy. Few were surprised when she bestowed her blessings on Roth’s relatively soft-focus “American Pastoral” while pounding Updike’s sharply lecherous “Toward the End of Time.” At times, however, a few of these aging writers seemed to be caning themselves. I read most of these books, and if you forced me into Entertainment Weekly’s bullpen I would grade them thusly: Mailer: D; Bellow: B-; Roth: B; Updike: A-; Vonnegut: B-. (The Pynchon I couldn’t get through, although unlike Slate’s estimable critic, Walter Kirn, that fact did prevent me from reviewing it.)
Those tell-all memoirs aside, the book world in 1997 did occasionally feel like a tug-of-war between the sexes. Oprah Winfrey solidified her clout, sending a number of titles (Mary McGarry Morris’ “Songs in Ordinary Time,” Earnest Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying,” two novels by Kaye Gibbons) soaring onto bestseller lists and onto the counter of your local Starbucks. So pervasive was Oprah’s influence that the New York Times published a long, fretful piece about the potential “feminization” of literature. Because so many of Oprah’s viewers (and so many fiction buyers) are women, the Times reasoned, publishers might start to skew their lists toward books that are by and about women.
Sounds plausible — until you take into account one of the year’s other significant publishing trends, the rise of manly-men-against-the-elements narratives. Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and Sebastian Junger’s “The Perfect Storm” both lingered on bestseller lists for months, and they seemed to provide a cultural antidote to wispy, so-introspective-it-hurts memoirs like Kathryn Harrison’s “The Kiss” (alternate title: “Hop on Pop”), a book about her long-running adult affair with her father. Harrison’s book was published in February, and the reaction to it was loopily fascinating. “The Kiss” prompted dozens of furrowed-brow panels on “The Rise of Memoir,” a brutal review by James Wolcott in the New Republic (Wolcott accused Harrison of, among other things, being a lousy mother by not waiting to publish her tome) and prompted Harvard child psychotherapist Robert Coles — in what must be a first — to withdraw his jacket blurb for the book.
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The memoir glut showed no signs of slowing down (among the year’s best were J.M. Coetzee’s “Scenes From a Provincial Life,” James Salter’s “Burning the Days,” Thomas Lynch’s “The Undertaking” and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), but memoir as a cultural obsession and weekly Charlie Rose topic seems over, played out, kaput.
Other writers popped up in new and often surprising formats. Tom Wolfe released a discarded chunk of his new novel, “Chocolate City,” which is due next year, on audiotape only. Titled “Ambush at Fort Bragg” and read by actor and fellow Yalie Edward Norton, it was a brisk and dazzling slice of media criticism and surely the best fiction that came out of my (rental) car stereo this year. Updike popped up on Amazon.com, delivering the first and last sentences of a collaborative murder mystery, co-written with Amazon customers. Updike’s Kakutani-friendly opener: “Miss Tasso Polk at ten-ten alighted from the elevator onto the olive tiles of the nineteenth floor only lightly nagged by a sense of something wrong.” Amazon had a hit on its hands.
Stephen King’s silkiest move this year happened off the page. King fled Viking, his longtime publisher, and set out after someone willing to pay him a Jim Carrey-esque $17 million advance for each of his next three books. He wound up at Simon & Schuster with a deal that many in the publishing world will be watching closely — it guarantees him a $2 million advance per book and an unprecedented 50 percent share of the profits. Perhaps he’d been perusing Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Comeback.”
The King deal, with its repercussions, is merely one more reason for publishers to fret. Book sales have been off by as much as 5 percent for each of the last several years, and some began to panic this year. In June, shortly after posting a $7 million loss for the quarter, HarperCollins shocked many observers (and certainly some of its writers) when it tried to staunch the flow of red ink by abruptly canceling more than 100 titles.
Spookier still was the news that many publishers have begun to turn to book chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders (which is among Salon’s sponsors) for advice about what books to publish and how. The New York Times noted that Grove Press abandoned plans to publish a memoir titled “Love Potion No. 9″ by songwriter Jerry Leiber after Barnes & Noble responded coolly to it and ordered a mere 1,200 copies. Similarly, when Random House was unhappy with the dust jacket for Mario Puzo’s “The Last Don,” it turned to a Barnes & Noble buyer for advice. (The cover changed from black to crimson, and was stamped with more eye-grabbing typography.)
The splashiest behind-the-scenes news this fall was Harold Evans’ departure from Random House after seven years as the publishing house’s scene-making president and publisher. Did Harry jump or was he pushed? Most seemed to agree it was a mixture of both. At the time of Evans’ exit, Random House was in a slump — out of the 30 titles on the New York Times bestseller list that week, only three were RH titles: John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” Arundhati Roy’s surprise-bestseller “The God of Small Things” and a book by Monty Roberts called “The Man Who Listens to Horses.” Worse for Evans was the fact that, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out, each of those titles was acquired by editor in chief Ann Godoff, Evans’ replacement.
Evans’ departure may mean the end of the Big Dick management style, at least at Random House. Evans liked Big Books by Big Names, and he threw for them the kind of parties that regularly landed him (along with his wife, New Yorker editor Tina Brown) in Page Six and other gossip columns. Among his successes were Colin Powell’s “My American Journey” and Anonymous/Joe Klein’s “Primary Colors.” Among his notable miscues were the $5 million he paid to Marlon Brando for an autobiography that tanked and $2.5 million to ex-Clinton advisor and foot-fetishizer Dick Morris. (Cynthia Ozick can take solace in the fact that Evans once admitted, famously, that the 29 Random House books that made the New York Times “notable books” of 1993 list collectively lost $600,000.)
Evans grooved on (self-spun) controversy, and 1997 had its fair share of it. Esquire’s literary editor, Will Blythe, quit in protest after then-editor Ed Kosner killed a David Leavitt short story because advertisers objected to its homosexual content. Romance novelist Janet Dailey admitted that three of her books included passages plagiarized from competitor Nora Roberts, the romance industry’s hottest writer (no wonder you thought all that stuff sounded the same). And Salman Rushdie and John le Carri pounded the crud out of each other in the letters section of London’s Guardian newspaper. (Rushdie to le Carri: “illiterate, pompous ass.” Le Carri to Rushdie: “self-canonizing, arrogant colonialist.”)
The Rushdie-le Carri feud started when le Carri published a Guardian piece in which he defended himself against allegations that his most recent novel, “The Tailor of Panama,” was anti-Semitic. The essay enraged Rushdie, who dashed off a letter saying he’d be more sympathetic to le Carri if “he had not been so ready to join an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer.” According to Rushdie, when he became the subject of an Iranian fatwa, or death order, in 1989, le Carri “eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants. It would be gracious if he were to admit that he understands the nature of the Thought Police a little better now.”
The letters went ping-ponging back and forth for a week or so, giving U.K. newspaper editors a respite from the post-Diana doldrums. Le Carri responded: “Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. I never joined his assailants. Nor did I take the easy path of proclaiming Rushdie to be a shining innocent. My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions may be insulted with impunity.” Rushdie got off what sounded like the last word: “Every time he opens his mouth, he digs himself into a deeper hole.”
This year, like every year, there were books by well-regarded writers that didn’t seem up to their usual standards, either critically or commercially. Among them in 1997: E. Annie Proulx’s “Accordion Crimes,” Paul Auster’s “Hand to Mouth,” Allan Gurganus’ “Plays Well With Others” and Carol Shield’s “Larry’s Party.” But they seemed like aberrations.
In general, 1997 offered myriad reasons to believe. Fine first novels by Charles Frazier (“Cold Mountain”) and Arundhati Roy (“The God of Small Things”) won the National Book Award and Booker Prize, respectively. Among the other writers who made impressive debuts were Arthur Golden (“Memoirs of a Geisha”), Alex Garland (“The Beach”), Kirsten Bakis (“The Lives of the Monster Dogs”) and Steve Lattimore (“Circumnavigations”).
A slew of old favorites returned with work that ranked with their best. Those books included Robert Stone’s “Bear and His Daughter,” Don DeLillo’s “Underworld,” Diane Johnson’s “Le Divorce,” Edna O’Brien’s “Down By the River,” John Banville’s “The Untouchable,” Muriel Spark’s “Reality and Dreams” and Richard Russo’s “Straight Man.” And happily, small presses seemed stronger than ever: If you missed Ellen Ullman’s “Close to the Machine” (City Lights), Eileen Whitfield’s “Pickford,” David Haynes’ “All-American Dream Dolls” (Milkweed) or Barbara Gowdy’s “Mister Sandman” (Steerforth), to name just three, it’s not too late to pick them up for Christmas.