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October 7, 2002

Eavesdropping at Bookstores and Other Authorial Hazards


"Could you recommend some books to take with me on my two-week Caribbean cruise? I'm a lover of good reading."

The questioner was a man whose locker stood next to mine at a health club. I saw him naked as often as his wife did; occasionally we exchanged manly observations about teams, politics and fitness. Now literature was having its turn. I recommended several books, adding shyly, "And you could read one of mine, a novel or nonfiction, depending on. . . ."

He shook his head sternly. "Sorry, but I'm a very busy dermatologist. I only have time to keep up with well-validated books on the best-seller list."

I was sympathetic with his problem. After all, he wouldn't prescribe a pimple remedy that didn't have a large successful trial.

Once, on a happier occasion, I was lurking in a bookstore during a successful run of publication when I spotted an elderly couple picking up my book. I was about to see an actual person, not my mother, actually choosing my novel. They examined it, turned it over, scanned the jacket copy, studied the photo of me as a somewhat more presentable person than I am in real life. "Have we read this one?" the woman asked her spouse. He answered, "I think so, maybe," and they replaced the book on the table.

Every writer hopes the work is memorable. The bibliophilic couple almost remembered mine. I told myself that a book club computer must have shipped it to them unasked on some sort of automatic basis because they had neglected to reject it in advance. Experience in the truth-'n'-beauty jungle out there teaches writers to be skilled injustice collectors. I was determined to be different, just as I was determined to ignore the paranoids beaming their radio signals into the fillings of my teeth.

Alas and alack, life is filled with hurt. A relative in Cleveland telephoned to say that she really loved the beginning of my latest novel. Only the beginning? Well, she was reading it in the bathtub and dropped it, and all the pages got stuck together; a wet, stuck-together text is really icky. My voice turned a bit shrill and piping as I suggested picking up another copy.

Her silence expressed pity. My book had had its chance and muffed it. Of course I could have shipped her one of my own copies, purchased at the wholesale rate from the publisher, but there is something contrary short of paranoid in my nature.

Most writers have acquaintances who eat only in classy restaurants, drink only classy wines, sighing and suggesting that books are so expensive, so would you . . . ? My preferred procedure is to write a check on the spot so that the literary gourmet can buy a copy. Since I have a high-I.Q. brand of acquaintance, they usually suspect sarcasm in the gesture as I whip out my checkbook. They look puzzled. They thought the seeker of truth-'n'-beauty (see above) would be past such paltriness.

So I tell them the story of publication of my first novel, back in ancient times, when Richard Laukhoff, a distinguished bookseller in Cleveland who had once employed Hart Crane as a clerk, pulled me to the door of his shop and said: "See that hofbrau? See that Blue Boar cafeteria? If people had lunch in that nice cafeteria instead of that German restaurant, they could afford to buy one of your books every day."

Good idea! I thought. Every single day. But judging from the sales history of most novelists, people really prefer their hofbrau cuisine with all the fine mustards and relishes.

Relatives do it, cuisine-loving lunchers do it, even fellow writers do it. A colleague asked with great sincerity for my honest appraisal of his forthcoming novel. He wanted help; there was time for last revisions. I passed along the suggestions that occurred to me.

Surely shrewd students of human nature will predict the tenor of his reply, but probably you haven't anticipated its elegance. "Well," he said, "your last book didn't send me into empyrean heights of divine bliss, either."

Probably the most stringent denunciation I've ever received was from a well-known novelist of my former acquaintance (name upon request, with payment of my usual fee) who wrote to me that I was a fascist and wrote to the chairman of the English department at the University of California at Berkeley, where I was then teaching, that I should be driven from campus as a corrupter of the young, and also to suggest that he was available to fill my position. He wrote to my publishers that they would withdraw the book if they had any integrity at all. He wrote to potential reviewers and book review editors to warn them against giving my novel favorable notice.

I enjoyed his campaign (he was moved! he was stirred!) and suggested to my publishers that they use his letters in advertisements. But what do publishers understand about useful publicity?

My most dire experience along the line of serious organic criticism and here I challenge fellow writers to compete with me an the Indoor Derogation Olympics came when I picked up one of my books and, seeking to impress the charming young person with whom I was browsing in the bookshop, proposed to buy it for her. (The price was marked down. This appealed to the instinct to save money for my old age or my summer vacation, whichever came first.) But as I carried it to the cash register I noticed how to explain this with dignity? that the book gave off an alley reek. I asked the proprietor, What happened?

"Oh, it's nothing personal," he said. "It wasn't a human being or a critic who did that. It was my cat."

I accepted his consolation in the spirit with which it was offered, but sniffed at the book still suspicious. A pungency, a rancidness. O.K., but I would take his word.

So now, dear readers, you can understand why I prefer either human beings or literary critics to the kind of cat that thinks it can make summary judgments on my soul's fulfillments, my life's work.

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