In January the media and publishing world was, in its endearingly self-absorbed way, abuzz over the firing of Ann Godoff as head of the Random House Trade Group—a story that The New York Times decided warranted not one, not two, but ten articles. The real reasons for the dismissal of Godoff, who is widely regarded as a highbrow publisher of prestigious books (if not entirely justifiably—last year she spent $3 million for the second book by the authors of The Nanny Diaries), are complex and ultimately unascertainable. But the literary community seized on the event as an occasion to further bewail the decline of what it calls “serious” publishing. Verlyn Klinkenborg’s hysteria on the Times editorial page—”Publishing is now driven wholly by the search for blockbuster books and blockbuster profits”—was seconded by the hyperbole of Samuel Freedman, the associate dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism: “When a decades-long career like Godoff’s can be terminated … the chill runs through the corridors of all large publishing houses and into the home offices of thousands of serious writers.” Well, that chill didn’t extend to “all” publishers—Godoff soon accepted Penguin Putnam’s offer to become the president and publisher of a new imprint created for her, specializing in “serious” (that word again) nonfiction.
More important, though, it is simply untrue that the number of worthwhile titles published has diminished with the consolidation of publishing houses, the popularity of the Oprah and Today Show Book Clubs, and the proliferation of such chain bookstores as Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million. As the editor of this section, I spend several days every month combing through thousands of titles; I’m astonished that so much literary fiction and what can only be described as decidedly noncommercial nonfiction issues from an industry supposedly obsessed with the bottom line—and that publishing houses pay such large advances for so many of these books. Indeed, although the Authors Guild, the Authors Guild Foundation, and the Open Society Institute commissioned a report that seemed designed to expose the supposed crisis in “midlist” publishing (the book-business term for literary fiction and serious nonfiction), the report in fact concluded in 2000 that midlist sales continue to grow (although not quite as fast as best-seller sales). “More midlist titles than ever before are available,” it found, “from both large commercial publishers and small presses. More and more shelf space is devoted to selling them.” This is of course obvious to anyone who browses in those loathed chain bookstores—which devote far more shelf and display space to literary than to pulp fiction, and which make special efforts to promote obscure titles and unknown authors. And don’t forget that the distinction between “best-selling” and “midlist” is fluid. In the last two years, for example, two of the biggest fiction best sellers were Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Ian McEwan’s Atonement, both indisputably literary. Surely publishers should not be faulted because of the good taste of the reading public.
Some who perceive a dumbing-down in publishing concede the superabundance of literary titles available but assert that for a variety of reasons readers’ attention is diverted from midlist titles toward blockbusters. Certainly, a commercial publisher will more widely advertise a novel by John Grisham (or Michael Chabon or Zadie Smith or John Updike or Alice McDermott) than, say, a debut novel translated from German. But a more worrisome problem is how easily attention can be diverted to a small number of those books that are heralded as “serious.” Just as a certain type of person will unthinkingly buy a book anointed by Good Morning America, so, too, many self-described thinking readers will unthinkingly choose a title sanctified by The New York Times (and just as not all best sellers are bad, not all “serious” books are good—in fact, most aren’t).
To illustrate this, let’s take a look at one of Godoff’s acclaimed titles from last year—David Rockefeller’s Memoirs. Anyone in the book business would know that this title would receive a lot of critical attention—and anyone with a brain would know that it’s not worth reading. Rockefeller, a man of conventional and cautious opinions, mediocre intellect, and exceedingly modest writerly ability, may be an important subject for a book, but he’s obviously not the one to write it. His autobiography is, predictably, completely unrevealing. Yet the Times, predictably, ran two reviews and an excerpt. Its coverage undoubtedly helped to propel this soporific and self-important book onto the best-seller list (as such coverage almost certainly did another Godoff title, Paris 1919, a book that’s bland, bloated, and—thanks also to a foreword by that darling of the Charlie Rose crowd, Richard Holbrooke—overrated).
Book snobs decried the literary clout of Oprah Winfrey—but why aren’t they lamenting the influence of the Times, which, while spotlighting the execrable Memoirs, overlooked two recent, far more worthy nonfiction titles, Nicholas Orme’s Medieval Children and Mark A. Noll’s America’s God (a history of American Protestantism), which were in turn ignored by the cultural elite that bemoans the sorry state of serious book publishing? (The United States may be the most religious country in the West, but the cultural tastemakers pay scant attention to books on religion—with the exception of titles on nearly every aspect of Judaism and on some of the unsavory aspects of Catholicism.) Rather than cast stones at publishers, who are releasing more serious titles than ever before, the literary doomsayers should ask themselves why they are failing to read these books.
The Darts of Cupid and Other Stories
by Edith Templeton
We let our readers down with this one. I missed this collection when it was published, last year, and read it only when considering it for a book prize in January. It and Ali Smith’s Hotel Worldare the best works of fiction published in 2002. The aristocratic, Prague-born Templeton, now in her mid-eighties, has lived in England, India (her second husband, an eminent cardiologist, was the physician to the king of Nepal), and various parts of Europe (her home is now on the Italian Riviera); and her arch, cosmopolitan, and century-spanning fiction resembles that of another aristocratic Central European, Anglophone, neglected writer’s writer: Sybille Bedford. Both authors are gimlet-eyed observers of manners, class distinctions, and relationships among women, but Templeton is also disconcertingly—frighteningly—cold-eyed in her depiction of erotic love. With sharpness and precision the tales here—especially the title story, famously the most explicit work of fiction to have appeared in The New Yorker when it was published, in 1968—probe the tangled relationship between love and lust, the violent aspects of desire, and the self-obliterating nature of sexual attachment (which she describes as “both cradle and grave”). Always elegant, usually brittle, jaded but often elegiac (see especially “Equality Cake”), Templeton is an unnerving but utterly commanding writer.
The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and Selected Stories
by James M. Cain, introduction by Robert Polito
Sharing his “thoughts on writing,” in his recent, flaccid book on the subject, the ever grandiose Norman Mailer declares that “writers must fashion a new peace with the past every day they attempt to write.” Okay. Such a sentence makes one wish, again, that Mailer had followed the advice Tom Wolfe gave him decades ago: “Just sit down and relax and read some James M. Cain and learn how to write a novel.” Although not exactly neglected, Cain remains overshadowed by that other noir writer, Raymond Chandler. But whereas Chandler’s convoluted plots meander and sag, Cain’s, written in the cleanest and sparest prose, accelerate, propelled by nothing more complex than those fathomless sins, lust and avarice. The Postman Always Rings Twice (tried for obscenity in, of course, Boston) and Double Indemnity (made into one of the masterpieces of American film) are almost unbearably taut, but the third novel collected here, Mildred Pierce, is uncharacteristically rich. An exploration of the heedlessness of maternal devotion (which, Cain unforgettably shows, can lead to a mother’s sickening realization of her “guilty, leaping joy” that her one child died rather than her other), it’s also the best novel of Los Angeles, a city that Cain, almost alone among writers of his time, depicted in both fiction and nonfiction with ambivalent, discerning admiration. Mildred Pierce‘s cumulative detail re-creates the intricate, ordinary lives of the small entrepreneurs, real-estate agents, waitresses, and next-door neighbors who made up petit-bourgeois, Middle American Los Angeles. With his inclusion in the Everyman’s Library, Cain is, at last, anointed.
by Niall Ferguson
by P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins
The history of Britain’s empire is in fashion: Simon Schama’s volume The Fate of Empire, based on his British television documentary series, enjoyed commercial and critical success last year; now comes Ferguson’s book, another serious history aimed at the general reader, and another offshoot of a British television documentary. Ferguson, age thirty-eight, is the most gifted and prolific (too prolific) British historian of his generation (and probably the best connected and most entrepreneurial, which largely accounts for the journalistic attention devoted to his work). Even when I think he’s wrong—as he was in his The Pity of War (see “Was the Great War Necessary?,” May 1999 Atlantic)—his writing and insights sparkle. His latest, rather conventional book, which seems somewhat hastily assembled but is enlivened by the author’s intelligent defense of the empire’s legacy and morality, is a serviceable single-volume chronicle. But discerning readers won’t bother with Schama or Ferguson, because they now have easy access to the most scintillating and sophisticated work of British imperial history of the past thirty years. A masterpiece of political economy, Cain and Hopkins’s book reassesses more than 300 years of British politics, economics, and social life. Whereas the previous major interpretations of the empire emphasize the Industrial Revolution as a driving force, British Imperialism looks instead to the formation of a class of “gentlemanly capitalists,” which from the late seventeenth century determined social norms and held the levers of power in the City of London, the Bank of England, and Whitehall, engendering a complex of social, economic, and political influences even more powerful and dynamic than the forces created by industrialization. Cain and Hopkins argue persuasively that state policy—in particular Britain’s overseas expansion—was geared toward developing and buttressing finance and commerce, not manufacturing. A precise yet wide-ranging dissection of the British establishment, a rich and seminal reinterpretation of the international economy and of the wellsprings of British economic power (the authors show that Britain’s strength in financial services preceded the Industrial Revolution and persisted long after the country’s manufacturing industries had gone into decline), and a magisterial account of the domestic impulses drawing the British overseas, British Imperialism, first published in 1993, was available only in two very expensive paperback volumes (the first volume alone cost $50). Last year, however, the publishers combined the volumes into a second edition for only $25. The authors have added a lengthy, detailed, and incisive response to their critics; a section carrying their chronicle up to 2000; and a comparative and theoretical chapter appraising the relationship between empires and contemporary globalization. British imperial history has been thoroughly infected by the faddish jargon, flabby thinking, and flimsy hypotheses of “colonial discourse theory”; Cain and Hopkins instead make material forces the base of their study (as would good, old-fashioned Marxists), and link those to social and political developments. Eschewing the academically trendy, they have written a brilliant, bold, and imaginative work, to be placed on the shelf beside Correlli Barnett’s The Collapse of British Power and Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher’sAfrica and the Victorians.
Jonathan Edwards: A Life
by George M. Marsden
Jonathan Edwards is America’s most penetrating, rigorous, and subtle theologian, as well as its most literarily accomplished and influential. Marsden, the author of Fundamentalism and American Culture, one of the most significant works of cultural history in the past twenty-five years, has now crafted the finest biography of this towering figure. His narrative illuminates Edwards’s beliefs and complex intellectual development (this rural Puritan was engrossed in the works of Locke, Newton, and Addison and Steele), his apprehensions and failings, and the anxious frontier where he lived much of his life (two of his cousins were killed in the Deerfield massacre). Whether explicating the doctrinal premises and uses of imagery in Edwards’s great sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” or depicting the sophisticated multinational atmosphere of 1720s Manhattan, the Great Awakening that swept through the Connecticut Valley, or the dull terror that gripped Stockbridge as it awaited Indian attack, Marsden guides readers through Edwards’s profoundly alien world with authority and fluidity. Such scholarly yet accessible books as this have made Yale the most important and exciting university-press publisher of humanities titles today.
The Fall of France
by Julian Jackson
France’s sudden and shocking defeat in the spring of 1940 was one of the great calamities in the history of Western democracy. It signaled the end of European autonomy in international politics—thenceforth the Continent’s fate would be decided by the superpowers—and it resulted not merely in military ruin but in a political breakdown and a societal collapse, followed by the ignominy of Vichy. For more than sixty years the French assessment of the disaster has consistently engendered political—and moral—recrimination and has occasionally provoked rigorous, even masochistic, self-examination. Jackson’s clear and level-headed, if somewhat pedestrian, analysis assesses the social and political, and also the diplomatic, intelligence, and military, context of the catastrophe. (Surprisingly, the author, who wrote a superb, sociologically nuanced account of occupied France, is more penetrating on the latter aspects of his story than he is on the former.) Although Jackson fairly explains all the positions in the scholarly debate surrounding this contentious subject (which makes his book the best introduction to it), he embraces the revisionist argument that France’s fall should be attributed not to the systemic weaknesses of the Third Republic’s decadent political culture but, rather, to discrete intelligence failures and to the army’s somewhat inflexible mindset. In doing so, though, he too neatly separates the French military from the state and society in which it was embedded. Still, Jackson has written an admirably accessible analytical history of a complex and fraught event.
by Mary Beard
Wry and imaginative, this gem of a book deconstructs the most famous building in Western history. Beard elucidates (as well as she can) the history of the ancient building, the functions—church, mosque, sanctuary, ammunition dump—it has served since antiquity, and the place it has held in the European imagination in the modern era. With éclat she dashes most of what we think we know about the ancient Greeks’ building: the iconic image of the Parthenon held today is a product of a terribly inaccurate reconstruction in the 1920s, a reconstruction now being painstakingly undone; the building was far more a monument to Athenian imperialism than to Athenian democracy; this austere and classically restrained structure was in antiquity more renowned for the (by modern standards) vulgar, giant gold-and-ivory-covered wooden statue of Athena it contained, which cost more than the temple itself. In so doing, Beard reveals just how alien, and in many ways repulsive, the classical Greeks are to us, and just how little we know about them. Scholars aren’t even sure of the Parthenon’s original purpose: should it be regarded as a temple, or more as a treasury, stuffed as it was with gaudy bric-a-brac? This slim work wears its erudition lightly as it discloses what Beard calls “those tantalizing processes of investigation, deduction, empathy, reconstruction and sheer guesswork that must be the hallmarks of any study of classics and the classical past.”