Monday, January 12, 2009

The New You Project and The Speed of the Machine

Lauren Cerand is a publicist who works in the book world. She writes The Smart Set, a weekly rundown of cultural happenings in New York, for Maud Newton, and she has her own blog, Lux Lotus, where she writes about art, culture, and politics.

I follow Lauren on Twitter, where her posts run the gamut from work-related happenings in the book world to travel plans to style tips. A little after the new year, she posted a link to something called The New You Project. In short, the New You Project is a creative effort to bring some attention and love to Jonathan Baumbach's novel You or The Invention of Memory. Baumbach, known to you movie fans out there as the father of filmmaker Noah Baumbach (He had a cameo in The Squid and the Whale), was one of the founders of Fiction Collective (not to be confused with Animal Collective) in the 1970s.

You
came out last January, received one review, and then saw its publishing company close shop, taking whatever marketing budget existed with it. Lauren met with Jonathan a few months ago, and decided to try something with the book:
And we met and hit it off instantly, and I read the book, and started, quite uncharacteristically, marking it up and bending down corners and reading passages to friends over the phone and so I said that if he was willing to take a risk, well then, so was I. Hence, “The New You Project.” The afore-mentioned review ran in The Los Angeles Times last January and YOU or The Invention of Memory promptly slid off the map. Or did it? Here’s how it works: email me (correspondence at laurencerand dot com) between now and February 14 to request a free copy of the book (limited to the first 365 requests) and I will send it to you in the mail. Free. You can read it. You can give it away. You can sell it to the Strand or Powell’s, depending on your coast. Whatever. The point is, this is a book that I believe in. I believe it belongs in the world. I believe it belongs with you.

I thought it was an interesting idea, a last-ditch effort to save a book before it fell into the abyss that, frankly, 90% of all the books published fall into, that dead space of silence where there are no readers. But as I've thought about the idea, the more I think it has the potential to be something even bigger than that.

Last February, you may remember a conversation between myself, Mark Sarvas, and John Freeman about the NBCC Good Reads list of recommended reads. I had made the point that the list of recommended books, which included Tree of Smoke, was too obvious, too easy, and that the same titles showed up over and over again. He had countered with the idea that a book like Tree of Smoke, which took a decade to write, deserved more than its one month status as "the hot book."
I'm not terribly worried, though, about giving very good books another shot at reaching readers. I'm more worried about the speed with which we're supposed to metabolize books now. Johnson's novel was out in September, won an award in November, and I feel by December we're all supposed to have moved on because it's had 'success.' It's a big book, which took him a decade or more to write, and raises some very serious issues -- I think reviews have just scratched the surface. I don't think readers who wander into the store are on that speeded up schedule and the critical world (and publishing world) does them a disservice by our restlessness.

I suppose you could say that there are a lot of other books waiting for their turn, and I agree. There are far too many books being published now than a culture can possibly devour (and we're not even very good at translating books!). It's good to spread the wealth. But I also believe that the discussion about books shouldn't be driven by a desire to help out small presses or new authors -- worthy as those impulses are -- but simply to find the best, even if it is obvious choice, while keeping an eye on the institutional or structural impediments against getting books which are very good (like say Geoffrey O'Brien's poems, Sleeping and Waking, or Dinaw Mengestu's novel Children of the Revolution) their fair due.
Freeman was right. Tree of Smoke did deserve more time. It needed time to be read, discussed, debated, digested, and appreciated. So, too, does You need more time than the one week it was given.

In short, books need time. They simply can't be forced into the same hyper-fast time frame of hype that surrounds film and music releases. Yet many major publishing houses try to do just that. This point was made eloquently by Eric Obenauf, of Two Dollar Radio, on the New You Project blog:
The large houses direct the industry by sheer size. By flooding the market with books that have the shelf-life of a bruised tomato, mainstream publishers impact how all books are received and treated by booksellers (or, at least, chain bookstores).

You, or The Invention of Memory
was published in hardcover, which probably didn’t allow the book much time to find an audience. Being somewhat familiar with Jonathan Baumbach’s work, I feel comfortable attesting to his startlingly original vision and style. I’m fairly certain that this is not something that a sales representative would like to hear and would more than likely never repeat aloud.
This past month has brought on an onslaught of lists and articles about what the best book of the year was and what the ten best books were and then, quickly, what we're all looking forward to for next year. These are well and good. It's fun to look back at the year, and the internet, we all know, was invented for lists. But maybe the machine needs to be slowed down. A lot. Looking at the staggering number of books that appeared on people's best-of lists, I'm struck by how many of the books I haven't gotten around to yet. And it's my job to get around to them. That's one of the reasons I love the way The Millions handles its annual Year in Reading series. It's the best book you read in 2008, not the best book published in 2008. As a reader, I sometimes feel that I'm constantly under attack by a relentless stream of new books, new books, new books.

Newness is great, newness is fun, newness is necessary. But let's slow down for a second. The New You project could help us all do that. A copy of Baumbach's novel is on its way to me. I'm going to read it, hype machine be damned.

You can follow the progress of the New You Project and share your thoughts about You or The Invention of Memory here.

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