As the fall season approaches, the book world is still searching for this year’s great American novel.
“Looking across the landscape, there were supposed to be some literary novels that blew everybody away. But for various reasons they didn’t quite perform,” says Jonathan Burnham, vice president and publisher of HarperCollins, which released last year’s National Book Award winner, Lily Tuck’s “The News From Paraguay.”
“I think everyone is still waiting for the book that everyone greets as the big literary book,” says John Sterling, president and publisher of Henry Holt. “People thought it would be a strong year for fiction, but it hasn’t turned out that way.”
With the presidential election over, Sterling and others had expected fiction to reclaim the attention given to topical books. But anticipated novels such as Michael Cunningham’s “Specimen Days” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” received mixed reviews at best and the fall doesn’t look a lot better.
Publishers and booksellers struggled to think of a book that was likely to receive awards nominations, one with the kind of word of mouth that built for Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. One hope is E.L. Doctorow’s “The March,” a novel based on Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s bloody advance through the South during the Civil War.
“Doctorow’s book is possible,” Sterling said of the Random House release. “I’m hearing very good advance word on that one. It would be great to see something break through.”
But Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble, Inc., says, “Nothing’s going to be ‘Gilead’ this year.”
More entertainment than enrichmentWith the public still edgy from war and an uncertain economy, fiction continues to serve more as entertainment than enrichment. The big books have been escapist thrillers such as “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Historian,” and the fantasy blockbuster “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Not only have established literary authors disappointed critics, no major new literary voices have emerged.
“I think a lot of editors will tell you that 2004 and 2005 haven’t been very good for fiction acquisitions. There weren’t a lot of huge auctions or books that publishers got really excited about,” says Geoff Shandler, editor in chief of Little, Brown and Co.
“I’m afraid I must agree with that,” says HarperCollins’ Burnham, who adds that the number of “standout literary debuts have been disappointing.” Notes Sterling: “There were no dazzling debuts.”
Plenty of fiction should at least sell well, including works from Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, Jennifer Weiner and Candace Bushnell. Courtroom master Scott Turow looks back to World War II in “Ordinary Heroes.” A uranium-enrichment plant provides the setting for Bobbie Ann Mason’s “An Atomic Romance.”
Robert Hicks’ “The Widow of the South,” a Civil War novel, could become the year’s big fiction debut. Anne Rice’s “Christ the Lord” may be the most controversial release, a story about Jesus from an author known for more pagan narratives. The oddest could be the late Marlon Brando’s “Fan-Tan,” a pirate adventure the actor worked on in the 1970s.
Other fiction includes Salman Rushdie’s “Shalamar the Clown,” Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty,” Myla Goldberg’s “Wickett’s Remedy” and a trio of works from Nobel laureates: J.M. Coetzee’s “Slow Man,” Nadine Gordimer’s “Get a Life” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” which came out in Spanish last year.
Nonfiction newsIn nonfiction, Al Franken’s back on the attack with “The Truth (With Jokes),” but otherwise political books will focus more on policy than on personalities. Jonathan Kozol’s “Shame of the Nation” denounces racism in public education, while Barbara Ehrenreich endures the job market in “Bait and Switch.”
As the war in Iraq continues for a third year, books will try to define a story with no apparent ending. George Packer’s “The Assassin’s Gate,” Anthony Shadid’s “Night Draws Near” and Zaki Chehab’s “Inside the Resistance” are the among releases, along with several works by soldiers, including Colby Buzzell’s “My War” and Nathaniel Fick’s “One Bullet Away.”
“The situation is so complex, and books allow reporters and analysts and participants to go deeper, to provide an edification that’s difficult for other media to do,” says John Sterling of Henry Holt, which is releasing Shadid’s book.
Memoirs will arrive from the famous and the nearly famous. Billy Crystal, a big hit at last summer’s booksellers convention, has completed “700 Sundays,” based on his one-man Broadway show about his father. Journalist J.R. Moehringer is far less known, but that could change with “The Tender Bar,” a childhood memoir that booksellers expect to catch on this fall.
“Dean and Me” is Jerry Lewis’ loving portrait of his old partner, Dean Martin. Joan Didion writes about the death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, in “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Historian and civil rights advocate John Hope Franklin, who turned 90 earlier this year, tells his story in “Mirror to America.” Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man” completes the trilogy of memoirs he started a decade ago with the million-selling “Angela’s Ashes.”
Julie Powell’s “Julie & Julia” is the season’s most unusual memoir — a writer’s efforts to master the recipes of Julia Child — and a possible breakthrough for bloggers. Based on postings from Powell’s blog, the book will be published by Little Brown and stores expect strong interest. Other bloggers with recent deals include Stephanie Klein, who calls her very personal blog, “Greek Tragedy,” and Dana Vachon, an investment banker known as “d-nasty.”
“The criteria signing ‘Julie and Julia’ were very similar to what we would use for any book proposal: There was a strong voice, there was a freshness, and a novelty to what she was doing,” says Little Brown’s Shandler.
“This isn’t just a blog that has been printed out into a book. People aren’t interested in that because they read blogs every day. They need to see if the blog can be transformed. You could say that a great blogger is like an excellent guitar player, but the book is like playing piano. Bloggers have a head start because they know music, but they still have to make the adjustment.”
Other notable nonfiction includes Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” one of several Abraham Lincoln books expected; Garry Wills’ “Henry Adams and the Making of America,” Ron Powers’ “Mark Twain” and Charles Bracelen Flood’s “Grant and Sherman.” Calvin and Hobbes fans can have the whole cartoon works under one cover, while New Yorker obsessives will likely snap up “The Complete New Yorker,” which captures the magazine’s 80-year history, even the advertisements, on eight DVD discs.
Edmund Morris, an occasional New Yorker contributor, has held off completing his trilogy of Theodore Roosevelt books to write a biography of Beethoven, out this fall. “The Bob Dylan Scrapbook” includes pictures, memorabilia and a 60-minute CD. Peter Guralnick’s “Dream Boogie” should provide the most thorough account yet of singer Sam Cooke.
But the musician of the moment is John Lennon, who was shot dead 25 years ago this December and is the inspiration for a Broadway musical, “Lennon.” He is featured in several upcoming books, covering everything from his time in India with the Beatles (Lewis Lapham’s “With the Beatles”) to his years as a solo artist in New York (Bob Gruen’s “John Lennon”).
Lennon’s wives will also have their say. Yoko Ono looks back with “Memories of John Lennon,” while a rougher ride is likely from first wife Cynthia Lennon. She took him on years ago in “A Twist of Lennon” and this fall has another go with “John,” which includes a foreword by son Julian Lennon.
“There’s still so much interest in the Beatles and John and still so much mythology,” says Beatles biographer Bob Spitz, whose upcoming book is based on hundreds of interviews.
“Over the years, the Beatles themselves have incorporated so much fantasy into their own stories that it’s hard to know what really happened. There’s still so much to know.”