Media Circus: Giovanni's Rift

When a writer agreed to let a glossy magazine write a story about his plans to break out of the literary-novelist ghetto, he got more than he bargained for.

By Carl Swanson
April 1, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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had the editors and publicists at Viking Penguin actively plotted to infuriate struggling novelists everywhere, it's hard to see how they could have done better than this. Back in February, New York magazine ran a cover story called "How to Make a Best Seller: The Inside Story of One Publishing House's Attempt to Turn a Literary Novelist into a Marketplace Superstar." The subject of the article was novelist Bradford Morrow and his then-unpublished fourth novel, "Giovanni's Gift," a plot-driven literary mystery from a writer not known for page-turners. A writer with some intellectual glamour but not much sales punch, Morrow up until now could be reasonably described as underappreciated. His most recent book, "Trinity Fields," was named one of the 10 best books of 1995 by the Los Angeles Times, but had sold moderately at best. He was the novel-equivalent of a good indie-label band, credible to those in the know, but no Nirvana.

The New York article, written by Eric Konigsberg with the full cooperation of Morrow and his literary handlers, tells a story in which Morrow's agent, his editor and the publicity and marketing apparatus at Viking Press convince him to abandon his arty experimentation and write a thriller that will somehow retain enough of his intangible literary intelligence to sell, well, a lot more copies than his books had been selling.


The opening scene of the article recalled a lunch Morrow had with Viking publisher Barbara Grossman back in 1995. Morrow explained what he was planning to write. Grossman, bored by the explanation, changed the subject, probing like a talk-show pre-interviewer for juicier novel material. She encouraged him to write a different kind of book altogether, the kind the professionals at her house understood would sell well. What resulted was "Giovanni's Gift," a paranormal mystery that turned on revelations about a family's dark secrets. One Penguin sales representative described it to buyers as "Hitchcock meets Hawthorne."

Morrow, responding in a lengthy e-mail to Salon's requests for comment (the full text is printed below), said that Konigsberg's account of the genesis of "Giovanni's Gift," and the lunch scene in particular, had been misinterpreted. Morrow said he had been thinking about writing the book for years, had no contract when he wrote it and did not consult with his publisher about it as he wrote it.

However it was that "Giovanni's Gift" came into being, Viking was behind the book in a big way, launching a $37,000 marketing campaign (including sending out review copies in cigar boxes, a prop from the book) and raising expectations that this would be the book to be proud of that season: smart and commercial at the same time. It certainly wouldn't hurt, Morrow's handlers must have thought, that the book had garnered itself a cover story in New York even before it was published -- you can't buy that kind of publicity.


Perhaps. Three-quarters of the way through the New York article, Konigsberg announced, in a parenthetical remark apropos of nothing in particular, that "it is conceivable that this article could do something to affect the very phenomenon it set out to observe."

Readers of the New York Times Book Review might be forgiven for thinking that this indeed had come to pass. For in a savage piece in the March 9 issue, a month after the New York article ran, Walter Kirn, New York's (now ex-) book critic, eviscerated the book. Kirn -- who alluded to Morrow's earlier novels in respectful terms -- trashed the book as "an unintentionally campy blend of artistic ambition and commercial cynicism ... a case study in the novel as gilded kitsch -- a book that proposes to elevate its readers even as it takes calculated aim at their presumed stupidity ... a thin romantic melodrama insulated in operatic twaddle."

What made Kirn's review stick out was that the Times doesn't normally run reviews filled with this kind of venom. It didn't simply quibble with a few failures, it was completely dismissive. "This sense of a terrible esthetic mismatch -- a hybridization of high and low gone wrong -- informs the whole book and constitutes its only notable mystery," Kirn slices and dices. "Mr. Morrow's earlier novels ... weren't like this ... dressed up in rented adjectives."


Kirn's wife insists there's no link between the New York cover story and Kirn's review (Kirn himself is on assignment and unreachable). But the New York piece certainly invited this kind of reading. Indeed, in the piece itself, Morrow himself raised the possibility. "I can't think of any subject matter more boring than the commodification of a novel," he nervously told Konigsberg. "There's enough pressure on a novelist as it is -- why set myself and my book up?"

If Morrow did indeed make a conscious decision to write a more commercial book, it would be easy enough to understand why. He was suffering through a series of serious health crises, afraid he might die -- and meanwhile, he was being soothingly encouraged by his twentysomething editor, Courtney Hodell ("it has certainly spoiled my taste for much of the fiction which is out there now," she wrote on one set of revisions). The idea of having his swoopily-powerhaired agent, Lynn Nesbit, take him "uptown" with a six-figure deal and CAA offering up the film rights would have an understandable appeal.


It's not clear what effect Kirn's review has had on the book's sales. Reached at her office last week, Hodell said that the Times piece hadn't hurt sales, and that, even though "Giovanni's Gift" hasn't climbed onto the New York Times bestseller list, it had gone into a third printing. But otherwise, she said, "I don't really want to talk about it. The review is out there, it's public domain or whatever. I would really rather people made up their own minds about it." (Ironically, the head of Viking publicity had told Konigsberg, "If there's one review that matters, it's the New York Times.") Hodell continued: "it wasn't just a review of the book, it was a review of the publishing process. I would rather not talk about it." Which begs the question: Any regrets about doing the New York magazine piece?

"Un-uh," she said, adding quietly, "It's getting the book talked about, isn't it? Otherwise, it would just be another literary novel."
March 31, 1997

Carl Swanson writes regularly for the New York Observer.


on the making of
"Giovanni's Gift"

the reason I agreed to sit for the New York Magazine article was because the original idea for the story, as I understood it, was that it would address the problem of how to bridge a "literary novel" to a wider readership. Having spent 15 years editing the literary journal Conjunctions, devoted to publishing innovative fiction, poetry and plays, and having written four novels myself, I was naturally concerned about this problem of how to reach readers -- a problem faced not only by myself, but the whole literary community. Originally, I did resist participating in the article, because I was afraid it might draw attention away from the novel itself. But -- blame it on hopefulness, hubris, idealism, even stupidity if you must -- I met with Eric Konigsberg of New York Magazine, and he seemed genuinely interested both in the novel itself, as a work of literature, and this problem all novelists face, of finding an audience to share in that experience of bringing a narrative to life through the vivid act of reading. I went ahead with it.


Now, journalism is an inexact science. There were details in the New York Magazine piece that were incorrect, and others that have been subject to misinterpretation. Konigsberg and I know what we talked about. We spent -- as he would attest, I'm sure -- many months discussing literature, discussing fiction and poetry and the other arts. He saw how I lead my life, which is essentially quietly, and devoted to writing.

What is important to stress is that "Giovanni's Gift" was not and never could have been assembled out of autobiographical tidbits mentioned at a luncheon with my editor. A few people seem to have read Konigsberg's description of the meeting this way. That anyone could think this is a possible methodology for a literary writer to conceive a book saddens and amazes me. It simply didn't happen that way.

The summer before last, I sat down to discuss with my editor, Barbara Grossman, two novels that I was at work on. One was "Ariel," the other was "Giovanni's Gift" (which was then titled "Roman's Box"). Although I had written 100 pages of "Ariel," I sensed I needed to understand Ariel better before pushing forward into her narrative.

I had been talking about writing "Roman's Box" for years. All my patient friends had listened to me carry on about the story of my visit to my aunt and uncle's isolated ranch, where grotesque harassments had been carried out against them in the middle of the night, and without explanation, for some time. I visited my aunt and uncle, much like the narrator Grant does in the novel itself. It was when my aunt gave me the very cigar box reproduced on the cover of the book that this novel was born. These were the elements of the proposed novel I explained to my editor at that meeting at Cent' Anni. Grossman was very enthusiastic about "Roman's Box" (this is so bad?). I began writing in earnest.


I had no contract with Viking for the book when I wrote it. I had no assurances that the book would be published by Viking or anybody else. I did not consult with them about its plot or composition. They didn't even see the novel until I had finished it, although it is a fairly common practice to consult with and show a work-in-progress to one's editor. This has never been my way: For better or worse I don't want outside ideas to influence the magic process that IS composing a novel. I wrote "Giovanni's Gift" quite quickly because of all the years I'd spent thinking about it, and making notes, and because it came to me that way. It is also worth mentioning that I worked hard because I was facing a fifth surgery, following a disastrous and surreally pain-filled struggle with peritonitis -- and, facing that fifth procedure made me terribly aware of my very real mortality, which gave me cause to believe that this might be my last novel. Nothing but nothing in "Giovanni's Gift" had (or has) anything to do with hype, or the concerns of New York Magazine or the New York Times. It was the novel I had to write then. And I did.

I'm pleased that when the manuscript was finished Lynn Nesbit, my agent, liked it. And pleased, too, that Viking liked the novel and arranged to publish it. One thing that was mentioned in Konigsberg's article that some people seem too easily to forget is that I was advised by my agency that we could take the novel to auction for potentially more money. I stayed with Viking because I wanted continuity, a home for my work. They had stuck by me through "Trinity Fields" and through all my illness. I decided I would stand by them, too. And above all, they truly loved the work itself.

How Viking wanted to set about promoting the novel was their business. As Kenneth Rexroth once wrote, "An entomologist is not a bug." In this case, a bug is not an entomologist. Marketing is not my bailiwick. I wrote the novel I wanted, and most people who have read the book seem to get it. Far from being a deliberately commercial book, it is the most postmodern and playful yet narrative-powered work I have yet managed to make. The title alone, if one spends any time pondering it, is a vortex of etymological possibilities (the narrator's name is, after all, Grant, isn't it? What's the root meaning of "Pandora"? [It's "all-giving."] What do Eve and Pandora share in common? What gives us our humanity if not these trangressive figures who refuse to listen to domineering gods who have commanded them not to open that box, not to bite into that apple?). Which brings me to Swanson's last question, about Walter Kirn's piece in the New York Times.

If I understand the question -- that Kirn in his New York Times "review" was responding to the New York Magazine article, to "the process as depicted in the piece, the how-the-book-came-to-be-written, rather than just the book itself," then I suppose one might fairly ask if the New York Times Book Review is the appropriate forum for his concerns? To my knowledge, every other newspaper in the country, everywhere outside of Manhattan, to date, has reviewed "Giovanni's Gift" itself, the novel I wrote, and in every case thoughtfully, for the most part favorably. And where individual reviewers had criticisms to offer, these were framed within the context and spirit of true literary criticism. Everybody gets bad reviews from time to time, and this is perfectly fair. If you are correct in your assumption that Kirn was reviewing, in a way, the New York Magazine piece, then that's another matter.


None of this can finally influence my work. It is "Giovanni's Gift" that matters to me, and my next book, "The Prague Sonatas," and "Ariel," which will follow that one (finally!). I'm a novelist for better or worse, finding my way forward through the thorn forest, writing the novels I want to, as my imagination leads me, as best I can.

Carl Swanson

Carl Swanson writes regularly for the New York Observer.

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