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Hoover: What's up with literary malaise?

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Torpid, slack, dreary" was how critic Stephen Hunter described the new Jen-Ben film, in the process stealing my comments about another American big business, books.

There's been a stale smell to the operation lately. It appears that a sameness began sprouting in publishing after the terrorist attacks and continues to grow like mold in our damp basements.

Since then, as in most businesses, profits have dropped, company buyouts went awry, respected executives were fired and hand-wringing was epidemic. Nevertheless, books continued to be published.

The picture is little different today. It's still easier to find information on earnings and office shakeups than it is on the books themselves.

In fact, the best-read writing of the season is a July 20 New York Times Magazine article about business barbarian Peter Olson, boss of Random House.

Heavy on the usual gossip, anonymous sources and book-party chatter, the story by Lynn Hirschberg reached the telegraphed conclusion that Olson, who collects Steiff animals, threatens to drive the few literary types still left from the publishing giant and replace them with accountants.

Hirschberg included a rumor from that old reliable, Anonymous, that Olson wanted to fire Sonny Mehta, the respected Knopf editor, nicknamed "the Prince of Publishing." Olson denied it.

Instead, in January he fired Ann Godoff, whose literary reputation was close to Mehta's, because her Random House operation wasn't bringing in enough money. The axing rekindled that old commerce-vs.-art argument, which Hirschberg fanned vigorously.

Godoff, who moved to Penguin taking 30 former Random House authors with her, was not quoted in the article.

What the article also lacked was the answer to the obvious question: What does Olson's emphasis on the bottom line portend for books down the road?

Despite the mist-shrouded legend that there was a golden age of publishing when gentlemen in striped ties paid authors because they were great writers, not best sellers, the goal has always been to make money.

Sure, the profit margin was smaller in the days of the independent New York houses, but the owners still had to pay the rent and the writers. Selling books mattered as much then as it does now.

Fortunately, as Olson and his conglomerate counterparts squeeze more pennies, there continues to be a group of strong, small publishers with small profit margins that could take up the role of producing important books.

For me, the bigger issues in the book business surround the need to make books and reading vital in the 21st century. Even Olson knows that the same tired formulas and authors -- my apologies to Mary Higgins Clark, Danielle Steele and Robert Ludlum (and he's dead) -- won't continue to attract authors and build the business.

The need for "research and development" is a pressing one in publishing today if it wants to grow. A J.K. Rowling comes along once a century, but what do we do in the meantime?

Despite a big May jump in adult hardcovers, sales of new books including paperbacks this year is down from 2002. "Harry Potter" is selling in the millions, but overall, sales of children's titles are trailing last year's.

These are "torpid, slack, dreary" numbers, but enough of business. The key question is, what is inside those titles that is making them stick to bookstore shelves?

A few weeks ago, I listed some upcoming fall books to support my point that the American novel still had signs of life. Admittedly, these offerings were not about to plow new ground in literature, but they seemed solid enough until I ran into a serious reader in the produce department recently.

"Whew," he gasped, "that was a pretty sad list of books in your column to look forward to."

My fingernails dug into a cantaloupe I was inspecting, but on second look at the lineup, I was tempted to agree with him.

Larry McMurtry, Ivan Doig and Jonathan Raban are not writers with powerful literary talents.

Pete Dexter, Walter Mosley and David Guterson hang close to the surface of life, while Chuck Palahniuk and Jonathan Lethem can be acquired tastes.

Stewart O'Nan is always solid, but his next book, a novel about ghosts, seems more like Alice Sebold than Henry James.

Only Toni Morrison's "Love" appeared to hold the possibility of real greatness, yet the advance copy is far shorter than her wonderful earlier work.

Granted, I have not seen a list of all the novels scheduled for fall publication, so my conclusions are tentative.

As for the books that have been published this year, there's nothing that compares to Sebold's "Lovely Bones" of last year.

Mark Haddon's "The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time" has created a mild stir, but the fuss comes from the gimmicky nature of the slight novel in which a neurologically hampered teen investigates the death of a poodle.

Fiction's best seller this season is Dale Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," a thriller with more complications than most.

Right now, there is a stack of new books next to my easy chair awaiting examination. Let's hope at least one of them blows away the "torpid, slack, dreary" malaise hanging in the air, and we can return to hailing good writing rather than analyzing quarterly financial statements.

Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.

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