I could be missing something, but in my recollection it’s been rare — and this is strange, given the media’s propensity to cover itself — that long-form journalists chronicle the publishing industry.
Is the fiction business so opaque or uninteresting? We see daily reports about the e-reader and the death of print, etc., but nothing about the guts of the book biz, how it works, no profiles of the modern-day Maxwell Perkins — who is the modern-day Perkins? — or adventure tales of swashbuckling authors treating their pasty editors to fishing trips in the keys, no deep-dives into the particulars of those whiskey-fueled, all-night cutting sessions that shaped The Novel That Would Change the Face of Literature.
I wonder if it’s because people really are reading less fiction, or that writers are producing less good fiction. After all, Time magazine stuck J. Franzen’s mug on its cover last year as if Freedom were War and Peace (the novel whose plot Franzen co-opted for Freedom), and a few months later it named Jennifer Egan one of the 100 greatest people in the land for her her work on A Visit from the Goon Squad. Very good novels, both, but come on. As recently as the late 80’s, Time featured a young first-time novelist named David Foster Wallace, then barely out of college. Today they could hardly be troubled to devote a blurb to David Mitchell, let alone Adam Foulds or Patrick deWitt.
Perhaps what’s been missing for journalists is the very stuff of writing, a good story.
So how about this: A nobody toils in obscurity for ten years, working on what he insists is a novel about baseball while his friends encourage him to move on from writing. A hungry young agent plucks said baseball manuscript from the slush pile, reads it in a weekend, and decides that his life depends on representing this author. There follows some unnecessary lunches at overpriced midtown restaurants. Editors are given a peak. Buzz is created. The bidding begins at $100K. Viking then Knopf then Norton then Scribner then Harper Collins then Holt. Little Brown comes in at $600K. The bidding editor at Little Brown? Michael Pietsch, of David Foster Wallace fame. The hungry young agent calls for best bids. Scribner tops at $750K. The author and his agent decide to leave $85,000 on the table for the honor of working with Pietsch.
Who could write the 8,000 word Vanity Fair story about this book sale and what it says about the state of publishing? Why one of the author’s best buddies, of course, himself once a promising first-time novelist who also happened to be one of the people who believed that Chad Harbach’s 10-year project, The Art of Fielding, wasn’t going anywhere.
NOTE: VF has not yet posted Keith Gessen’s excellent story from the September issue, but they have made available an excerpt from Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.