Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Best of the Backlist 13 - 16

Here are four more books from my library -- again all written by women -- that have given me great pleasure and would definitely be carried by my ideal bookstore. I still call them "the best of the backlist" even though I realize that "backlist" is an industry term which no one outside publishing recognizes or cares about. It refers to published books that have become established in the marketplace and thus continue to sell steadily beyond the period of their initial release. For a reader browsing the featured trade paperback tables in a bookstore's power aisle, there is no distinction to be made between backlist and frontlist (newly published titles making their way in the marketplace for the first time) -- after all, every book is new if you haven't read it before.

Backlist is bread and butter for publishers, because the sale of a backlist book is a more profitable sale than that of a new book -- the publisher's upfront costs have been amortized and there is little further expenditure on marketing. Sales are predictable, returns are low, so inventory is easy to manage, which leads to greater efficiency, better cash flow, and a steady source of revenue which allows a publisher to take risks on new titles. Or at least that's the way it should work. Unfortunately, most publishers ignore their backlist entirely, leaving it to fend for itself in an environment in which the latest release -- no matter how foolish or hackneyed -- gets all the attention. No money is spent on marketing or selling the backlist. As in so many other areas of our common life, the
new crowds out the old. Instead of a vital backlist, we have an inert mass of in-print titles that keeps expanding to the point where those responsible for its care and feeding no longer know what it consists of.

One of the singular idiocies of our age is this continual seeking out of the "hot new thing" -- promoting it, writing about it, featuring it, spending money on it -- while neglecting worthy books that were published even just a few years ago, which now lie collecting dust in warehouse bins somewhere. It is so depressing to scan all the year-end "Best of" and "Top Ten" lists, realizing full well that you've never gotten to even a small percentage of last year's "Best of" list, or the year's before that, or before that, retrogressing until you reach
The Bible, Gilgamesh, or Homer. We seem to absorb the written products of today's culture much the same way we absorb roadside signs -- as just another distraction to divert attention from the fact that we're hurtling along at seventy-five miles an hour toward oblivion. Who knows? Perhaps the art of forgetting is bliss.

It is only now, in the last ten months, having been laid off after thirty continuous years in the bookselling and publishing rackets, that I've been able to return to real reading: that is, sitting down with a book and wholly giving myself over to it, stopping to savor a passage, or make a note, or argue with the author, immersing myself in a text with the kind of concentrated attention I hadn't experienced since youth. Such reading is a heady experience. It can make you giddy, lost to the outer world of appearances. And it can satisfy the deepest cravings of your imagination's need to inhabit new worlds and adopt different identities.

I think these four books are worth reading this way. Here they are:

History by Elsa Morante. One of the great novels of World War Two, the literary equivalent of those monumental Italian neo-realist films, Rossellini's Rome, Open City and DeSica's The Bicycle Thief. How war -- the violent, powerful, unpredictable force of history -- weighs upon ordinary people, the poor, the powerless, the children, even the dogs. Without a trace of sentimentality, almost journalistic, yet featuring five of the most memorable characters in 20th Century fiction, Ida and her sons, Useppe and Nino, their friend Davide, and their dog, Bella. One of the most effective (and affecting) portrayals of the emotional and physical texture of daily life among civilians during wartime I've ever come across.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. I was delighted to see Hilary Mantel's latest novel, Wolf Hall, win this year's Man Booker Prize. She is a writer who brings historical personages to propulsive life through her uncanny ability to imagine their inner lives in convincing psychological detail and depth, within the context of their age, presented in brilliantly constructed narrative arcs. Long before tackling Henry's Cromwell, she gave us this living, breathing saga of the French Revolution, of Danton, Robespierre and the all the rest, their rise, their fall, the tragic fulfillment of their nation's destiny, as well as their own. I think this terrific novel and Citizens -- Simon Schama's magisterial history -- are the two essential works on the French Revolution written in our time.

Exit Into History by Eva Hoffman. A beautifully reported and faithfully rendered portrait of the countries of Eastern Europe in the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism. Intellectually alert, the author brings her own brand of Polish irony and curiosity to the study of how these once-rigid societies were cast adrift, and how citizens who had internalized the paranoia and self-deception of Soviet system began to adjust to the new life of supposed freedom. When I visited Poland in 2006, I found much of what Hoffman described -- the attitudes, the anxiety, the self-questioning and cynicism, the awkward embrace of Western democratic values -- to still hold true.

The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams. Some reviewers have tagged Williams' spiky, episodic journey through the Arizona wasteland surreal. I think they're wrong. I think it's Arizona -- the apotheosis of the burnt-out American dream -- that is surreal and her three adolescent protagonists are just encountering it as they find it. Imagine these smart girls trying to make sense of modern life in the desert, with its crazy human inhabitants, its oddball stuff, its oh-so-tenuous hold on reality. Neither satire, nor tragedy, though comic and often pathetic, this novel still shakes me up -- how the west was lost, and how lost we are. Williams has got this insider reputation as a kind of female DeLillo, but I think her mojo is more powerful than his.

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