A Moment of Jen
THE NEXT BEST THING — In Stores July 3rd!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008
posted by Jen at 2/12/2008 10:02:00 AM

I was sorry to hear that Frank Wilson, longtime editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s book coverage, has left the paper.

Frank was a lovely guy, a sharp dresser with a courtly manner and a wry sense of humor who presided with equanimity over all manner of upheaval and dismantlement, cutbacks and buyouts, and personnel changes at the paper (once upon a time, the Inquirer had a freestanding book section. Those were the days…).

I had the pleasure of writing the occasional book review for him when I was a reporter at the Inquirer. As a novelist, I was lucky enough to be the recipient of his generosity toward Philadelphia authors, who could depend on the Inky for regular, rigorous reviews.

Under Frank’s leadership, the Inquirer covered a broad range of books, from mysteries and memoir to poetry and YA. The paper would weigh in on the big books, but never seemed to suffer under the notion that if they didn’t review the latest by Philip Roth or Michael Chabon at the exact same moment, and in precisely the same way, as the rest of the critical establishment, they’d be taken outside and beaten.

Frank was generous to authors, but even more so to book bloggers, many of whom found their first in-print home on the Inquirer’s pages. That’s notable, given how many editors persist in peering down from their crumbling perches and dumping boiling oil on the barbarians at the gates.

I hope he’ll enjoy great success at whatever he turns his talents to next…and I look forward to keeping up with his adventures on his blog.

In other news, along with everyone else in lit-land, I’m enjoying the orgy of coverage – and the subsequent orgy of analysis of the orgy of coverage – that Charles Bock is receiving.

Bock, and his debut novel BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN, have been the subject of much attention from the New York Times – a breathless profile, a Valentine on the front of page of the NYT Book Review, followed by a much-less-impressed review in the daily paper – all of which has bitter, envious writers (which is to say, all of us) spinning ever-wilder conspiracy theories (his editor’s wife’s cousin once co-wrote a proposal for a cookbook with the Times’ editor’s first wife, and that’s why he’s getting so much press!)

I’m not convinced there’s a conspiracy here. Bock is the same writer the Times always falls for. Sometimes his name is Jonathan, and sometimes his name is Benjamin, or Gary, but he’s basically the same guy: white, male East Coast wunderkind poised to write the Next Big Book.

In fact, Bock sounds like a composite of the Times’ previous boycrushes: there’s a whiff of James Frey’s tattooed bad-assery leavened with Jonathan Safran Foer’s disarming boyishness; a bit of Jonathan Franzen’s relationship-wrecking obsessiveness, tempered by the Tom Perrotta-style revelation of a semi-shameful ghostwriting gig (Perrotta did R.L. Stine; Bock ghost-wrote Shaquille O’Neal’s autobiography).

However, there’s a difference between Bock and the paper’s other loves: namely, early evidence of greatness.

With Frey and Franzen, you had the big boast, backed up by big advances, film and foreign sales, and bookseller’s excitement (and, eventually, the Oprah endorsement). With Safran Foer and Perrotta, you had the glowing reviews, book-to-film adaptations, and strong sales of earlier work.

Bock’s advance was relatively modest, the pre-publication and early reviews were mixed, and the profile didn't mention film or foreign sales. As evidence of Bock's book's bigness, the Times offers that his editor's really excited, that his publisher put foil on its cover, that Bock has befriended many other important New York writers, and that he worked really, really hard for a really long time on Beautiful Children, which strikes me as an argument best advanced by well-meaning grandmas, not the paper of record.

Every writer who didn’t complete his or her book in college, grad school, or while on some cushy fellowship, wrote it while holding down a day job and managing relationships with relatives and loved ones. Which means that every writer has some version of the worked-so-hard-and-sacrificed-so-much story.

Personally, I’m more impressed by the mothers of young children who write their first novels books without agents, MFAs, fellowships, grants, and the encouragement of the assembled NYC literati than I am by a writer who had all of those things at his disposal. Getting up at four in the morning to write before getting the kids up and fed and dressed is more compelling than skipping date night at the Half King to stay home and slave over your opus.

I’m trying to put aside the hype and just enjoy the book, but it’s not easy. Once the effort it took to write the book becomes an intrinsic part of the narrative then every page, every paragraph, every sentence begs the question: Was it worth it? Did it pay off? Can I smell eleven years’ worth of sweat in every adverb and each adjective?

It’s like going to a restaurant and ordering a hundred dollar steak. With every bite, you’ll be asking: Is it good? Really good? Really really good? A hundred dollars’ worth of good? Is it exponentially better than the steak I normally get at the place around the corner? Can I taste the pesticide-free grass and filtered spring water the cow was enjoying in every morsel?

We’ll see…but so far I’m worried. There’s an awful lot of graphic sex which has me thinking things like, Five labial piercings? That seems a little excessive. I wonder if there were only four in the Year Seven draft. Or, Oh, wow, a fat person being compared to Jabba the Hutt. That hasn’t been fresh since India Knight did it in MY LIFE ON A PLATE.

But, like I said, trying to read with an open mind. Trying! Trying really really hard!

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