BEA 2012: Richard Russo at ABA

Just hours before Amazon announced that it was gobbling up independent publisher Avalon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author addressed booksellers on how they could help save the industry, reminding them why they mattered while he and his interlocutor Lynn Sheer referenced many New Yorker cartoons. Neither Richard Russo nor his audience had become a mundanely ironic punchline quite yet. But Russo knew that he wouldn’t be standing in front of the audience if independent booksellers hadn’t given his first novel, Mohawk, that essential admixture of faith and attention. Most in the room agreed that Amazon’s threat to independent bookstores was comparable to a bully, perhaps even more insidious than the paperback revolution that had made books affordable for the mass population.

The kernel for Russo’s ABA talk had come from an op-ed for The New York Times published last December. While Amazon had been good to him over the years, what pushed Russo over the edge was when Amazon encouraged its customers to go into a brick-and-mortar store and scan items with a price-check app. All Amazon shoppers had to do was scan a bar code and they would earn a 5% credit on Amazon purchases. “Is it just me,” wrote Russo, “or does it feel as if the Amazon brass decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean and left in charge of the company a computer that’s fallen head over heels in love with its own algorithms?”

Now Russo, dressed in a black shirt, khaki pants, and a dark jacket, was before a crowd of booksellers who were loyal to him as an author and, perhaps more importantly, as a man who had their backs.

Russo’s talk went further than his op-ed piece, suggesting that Amazon was killing off what remained of humane business practice. “What really frosted me about all this,” said Russo, “was how cruel it was. They wanted to fill brick and mortar stores with people. So if you looked out, you’d see all those people out there. And you’d get the sense that commerce was taking place. The cruelty of it was so shocking, so stunning, so cold.”

It was an independent bookseller that had helped Russo garner his early reputation. “At Barbara’s Books, I remember they optimistically set up six or seven chairs,” said Russo of a vital appearance at a now defunct bookstore for Mohawk, which had then been released in a then daring paperback original format. “I got the sense that the employees at Barbara’s Books had read the book and they seemed to like it. Those people who filled those five to seven chairs, they were going to be hand selling that book. They were going to be hand selling that book and my next book and the next book after that. And as disappointed as I was, they weren’t disappointed at all strangely enough.”

This early crowd of adopters had more faith in Russo than he did. Russo pointed out that his daughter, Emily Russo Murtagh, had carried on in this proud tradition by writing a review of a Ron Rash book. Rash viewed this as one of the central tipping points of his career and has only just received his first New York Times Book Review. Russo insisted that there was a whole crop of young fiction writers worthy of recognition and wasn’t sure if a world with only Amazon would permit similar waves of face-to-face enthusiasm to help future generations of authors.

“There have been significant changes as a result of Amazon,” said Russo. “B&N is hanging by a thread. There’s nothing like Walden Bookstores. The Amazon threat is real.” Russo pointed out that Amazon has 75% roughly of the online market for both print and electronic books. “And if the Justice Department wins,” continued Russo, alluding to the recent ebook collusion suit, “Amazon will be able to go back to the practice they had before all this. And they will again be able to sell certain frontlist books for less than it costs them to buy. Because they know that they already have the backlist basically cornered.”

So how could the indie bookstore fight back against this threat? For the independent bookstores that have survived, Russo suggested that “what didn’t kill them made them stronger.” He compared indie bookstores to “curated shows” and suggested that the superstore days of yesteryear were done. “We’ve passed the point now where you’ll find everything.”

But while Russo remained opposed to the word “boutiquey” and wanted bookstores to thrive rather than merely survive, Russo had little more than instinct and accepted wisdom to uphold these views. While he copped to owning an iPad, he confessed that he didn’t really comprehend social networks (“You’re speaking to a dinosaur”) and that his love of physical books was perhaps generational (“The generations do react very differently”), noting that kids today are being trained to sit before a screen for twelve hours.

He didn’t understand why publishers simply accepted the manner in which online booksellers dictated the $9.99 price point when they offered the hardcover for $27. “Why would they have agreed to do that? It was like allowing Netflix to stream The Avengers on the weekend it comes out. Why would they have conceded the most important point?”

He received the greatest applause when he said, “What publishers need to do more than anything else is just find a spine.”

But how can independent booksellers stand up against a force when realtors (Russo’s wife is a realtor) are now encouraged to tell their clients to get rid of their books when they’re selling their homes? Or when Amazon can send an email telling people who have previously bought Richard Russo books and dramatically alter the ranking of the latest Russo volume?

Russo argued that bookstores had physicality and people as hard advantages. “You’re hoping to discover what you never knew existed,” said Russo, expressing a distaste for search engines. “When you go to the customer service desk, you’re not going to the engine.”

Russo remained cautiously optimistic about the future of publishing. But while hope made the crowd feel good, the unity he had inspired in being more explicit about Amazon suggested that these troops needed a hell of a lot more than a pep talk.

(Image: Steve Piacente)

That Old Reading Magic

My review of Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic appears in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. And just to be clear on this, I filed my review weeks before I offered my thoughts on the Newsweek contretemps and before my second interview with the man.

But there’s an additional issue that worries me, one recently voiced by Jennifer Weiner. Like Russo’s latest novel, Weiner’s book, Best Friends Forever, includes a lengthy chapter in Cape Cod — a surprisingly dark and creepy flashback that reveals significant behavioral details — and, like Russo, concerns itself the theme of adults having to come to terms that they are indeed their own parents. Both novels approach the subject from entirely different perspectives. But because Weiner writes from a female-centric perspective, her novel is judged an ersatz beach read and because Russo writes about men, he is “a misogynist.” Such cavalier assessments, which violate John Updike’s first rule of trying to understand what the author wish to do, underscore the more troubling issue. A novelist who writes in a light and straightforward tone about human behavior is often written off by the critical snobs, particularly if the novelist has any commercial success. Weiner and Russo, in other words, are really on the same side.

And here’s Weiner in her blog post:

After the fifth or sixth time this happened, I pulled Fran aside and explained that I doubted that Mrs. Russo was endorsing my book, so she needed to quit pimping Richard Russo’s work. Which I still haven’t read, but probably should.

But Weiner, as it turns out, was wrong. At the end of my interview with Russo, I asked him if he had read Jennifer Weiner. He said that he hadn’t, but that he had read and enjoyed Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada. But he assured me that he would read Weiner at the earliest opportunity.

It was very heartening to learn that Russo was committed to reading “high” and “low,” far and wide, and literary and commercial. Reading isn’t about confirming your preferences or your perspectives. If it were, how could anybody be passionate about books?

The Bat Segundo Show: Richard Russo II

Richard Russo recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #301.

Richard Russo is most recently the author of That Old Cape Magic. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #152.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Shoving Cape Cod mackerel down his throat.

Author: Richard Russo

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming, but lots in the latter half of the show about the Newsweek piece and the perceptive problems with close third-person.]


Books RICHARD RUSSOCorrespondent: Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” Why “Living on a Prayer” over “You Give Love a Bad Name?”

Russo: (laughs)

Correspondent: Was “Living on a Prayer” the tune that was more applicable to weddings here?

Russo: Ed, Ed, you’re trying to make me feel regret now, aren’t you? Because that would have been perfect as well.

Correspondent: Was it more about living than love? With the emphasis in the book.

Russo: It was the result of my wife and I having gone recently to a number of weddings and being absolutely fascinated by the way young people my daugghters’ age react to the song. Because it is so much before their time. And for a lot of young people — 28, 29, 30 — it is a kind of anthem And the way they not only know the words, they have a kind of routine worked out on the dance floor. Those in the know have this routine on the dance floor that involves the fist-pumping, which they do in unison. Sometimes forty or fifty of them, young people out on the dance floor, to a song that is just so much before their time. But they’ve adopted it. So it was a wonderful way to show a bridge between those generations. And Laura, who does such a kind act in that redeems her father, at least temporarily. It just fit that slot so nicely. It also suggests that when Griffin begins this novel, he’s had a tiff with his wife. But it’s really just a tiff. I mean, he has a kind of tenure in his job. He loves his life. He loves his wife. He loves his daughter. Everything is right. And yet by the end of the first half of this book, he’s living on a prayer. And he knows it. Whereas he didn’t in the beginning.

Correspondent: But it’s interesting. Because your timing is absolutely perfect! Recently, on YouTube, there’s this video that’s been going around, that 18 million people have seen, of this elaborate dance at a wedding all set to music.

Russo: Oh really? I hadn’t seen it.

Correspondent: Well, I know. I don’t think you’re much of an online guy.

Russo: (laughs)

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about the notion of the home in this book. There’s a sentiment that is expressed: “You aren’t a real adult until you have a mortgage you can’t afford.”

Russo: Right.

Correspondent: Griffin is pressured into home ownership. And he and his wife often sift through the real estate catalogs, splitting up properties into Cannot Afford It and Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift.

Russo: Right.

Correspondent: And then also, 13-year-old Sunny Kim says, “You have a lovely home,” later on in the book. Home though is not necessarily where the heart is in this. This is a couple that is united by home as a piece of property, as opposed to a place where one can establish a family. This is a couple that settles on The Great Truro Accord and actually figures that this prearranged stratagem will aid them in deflecting every curveball of life thrown their way. So I wanted to just ask you why the home, of all things — or even just property in general — would be the central place for this couple’s failure to (1) deal with life and (2) come to the real terms that they are their parents and that they share a lot of family qualities. That’s a lot of points. I’ll stop there.

Russo: No, no, that’s — yes, I’m overwhelmed by the question. The other conflict, of course, is that Griffin’s parents, of course, are confirmed renters. So their notion of a home is something which recedes before them. Like the Cape itself. I mean, home for them is a place that you can only visit. And so, for Griffin, home is something that he is really reluctant to go to. Joy loves her parents’ home. She loves the vacation home. The same home that they rent every year. For her, home is a central place, as you said. It is the place where love resides most powerfully. And I think I would also expand that to say that home, like marriage, is not just a private thing. Just as marriage institutionalizes love in some way, home institutionalizes family. So when Sunny Kim — the outsider — comes in and says, “You have a lovely home.” He’s saying, “You have a lovely daughter with whom I’m in love. You have a lovely marriage to which I aspire. You have a lovely home that I would like to live in one day and you have a lovely nation that is now my adopted home.”

So just as your question is big, my answer is kind of big. In the sense that the notion of home, by the time we get to the end of this book — especially that final Sunny Kim scene — that notion of home has gone from something at the beginning — it was two people separating real estate property on a place they can’t afford into those two categories — Can’t Afford It and Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift. And by the time we get to the end of the novel, it’s almost something that you would expect to be taken over at some point by Department of Homeland Security. (laughs)

BSS #301: Richard Russo II (Download MP3)

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An Open Letter to Newsweek’s Richard Smith and Jon Meacham

Dear Messrs. Smith and Meacham:

It was bad enough when you obliterated nearly all of your arts editors and senior cultural critics with the March 2008 buyouts. But, even before this great purge, your magazine was notably egregious. Malcolm Jones couldn’t be bothered to perform the basic professional task of reading the entirety of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, but you ran his “review” anyway instead of canning his ass. (Interestingly, Mr. Jones’s “review” has been conveniently deleted from the Newsweek website.)

The Newsweek “article” posted today, Jennie Yabroff’s “Is Author Richard Russo A Misogynist?,” an ostensible “review” of Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic, is easily the stupidest and most gaffe-ridden article I’ve read this year. And I read a good deal of arts journalism. To call your magazine a “news outlet” would be as honorable and unpardonable as handing out AK-47s to mass-murderers. You people are amateurs on the arts front. And you have no business running such sloppy journalism.

Beginning with Yabroff’s misuse of “sprung” (instead of the grammatically correct “sprang”), your editors proceed to permit Ms. Yabroff to commit a relentless series of mistakes, all easily confirmed against the book in question. Ms. Yabroff does not seem to understand that Russo’s male characters are helpless without the women who surround them. But because Russo often writes in a comic tone, Ms. Yabroff overlooks the “roughness” within Russo that she praises in several elder literary statesmen. “Humankind” is one word, not two. Kent Haruf a “homey” writer? Uh, no. Haruf’s novel Plainsong deals with brothers who leave their ranch to go to college. (So, for that matter, does Wally Lamb in part with college.) Homey is “home” or “comfortable,” not small town. And I think it’s safe to say that Lamb’s Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters puts to rest Ms. Yabroff’s false conclusion. (And if interviewing women prisoners doesn’t “extend to readers who carry Y chromosomes,” I don’t know what does.)

And that’s just the first paragraph. Where the hell were your copy editors? Or your editors? Did they even read the piece?

Ms. Yabroff writes, “Shrew or saint, they are single-minded and laser-focused on their goals, which are either to aid (the angels) or thwart (the bitches) the protagonist in his pursuit of happiness.” Um, no. It is actually Joy (Griffin’s wife) who is rather certain with her goals, while it is Griffin who cannot decide whether he wants to be a professor or a screenwriter (or even a fiction writer). You see, in the book, which it appears that Ms. Yabroff skimmed instead of reading, the couple settled on The Great Truro Accord, in which Joy and Griffin agreed to get their act together by a certain time. It is she who demands that Griffin take a loan from her parents and be an adult. And in the example that Ms. Yabroff uses from the story “Monhegan Light,” she fails to point out that Martin is regularly revealed to be wrong. The story’s first sentence? “Well, he’d been wrong, Martin had to admit as the Monhegan began to take shape on the horizon.” We immediately understand that the claims of wrongness come from Martin’s perspective in close third-person. His observations about Beth come from the same perspective, as does the raised eyebrow. But what Ms. Yabroff doesn’t report (and this is pivotal to the story in question) is that Martin’s wife has died and Martin hasn’t been honest with Beth. And he hasn’t been honest with himself. His grief has colored his ability to relate to all people. This is clearly not Martin’s pursuit of happiness. Later in the story, Russo writes: “What folly, Martin couldn’t help concluding, bitterly, as he contemplated the lovely young woman sleeping at his side; it was his destiny, no doubt, to sell her short as well.”

Russo’s women “aren’t afforded the luxury of conflict or shortcomings?” Where do we begin to refute this false generalization? Empire Falls‘s Janine — the ex-wife of Miles? Or Tick, the angry daughter disapproving of Janine’s marriage to the Silver Fox? Bridge of Sighs‘s Sarah Berg, who must choose between two high-school classmates while knowing that she is the one who keeps them together? (Her choice, incidentally, forces her to confront significant artistic shortcomings.) Or how about Nobody’s Fool‘s Beryl? The octogenarian landlady who knows more about life than anybody in the novel? It appears that Ms. Yabroff has possibly confused Russo’s deceptively simple prose for the insipid sitcoms she appears to be quite fond of. Understanding Russo involves enjoying the subtextual behavioral mannerisms and the quiet little lines that reveal wisdom. What does Griffin’s mother say to her son in That Old Cape Magic? “Wait till you’re my age and memory is all you have.” One sees with this simple line the perceptive failings that transcend both age and gender. This is a long way away from trashy television.

And, no, Joy doesn’t “condescendingly” inform Griffin of the line. The specific phrasing from the book: “as if she would’ve liked to ask where in the world he’d done his graduate work.” The meaning here is clear. Here is a professor so supposedly smart, but unable to see what’s before him. That’s not condescending. It’s the “Geez, you dolt. It’s all right in front of you” reaction that people are prone to adopt. I don’t know how young Ms. Yabroff is, but I suspect that she is quite possibly not possessed of the pivotal life experience required to understand such distinctions. Either way, such a clear misreading of Russo indicates that she was obviously not cut out for the job.

I believe I’ve already sufficiently responded to Ms. Yabroff’s outright irresponsible claim that “Russo’s books simmer with hostility toward women in general.” And if Ms. Yabroff is such a sheltered and terrified individual (certainly, your magazine must be if it cannot find the courage to print the commonplace word “pussy”) as to not understand the everyday conversational exaggeration that occurs when men get together (an opening scene in Empire Falls cited, rather ridiculously, as “resentment”), then she cannot be helped in comprehending the fantastic spectrum of humanity.

No, Ms. Yabroff is such an incompetent reader that she finds one passage “troubling because it’s impossible to tell who’s speaking.” As I have already elucidated in the paragraph about “Monhegan Light,” Russo commonly employs a close third-person narrative device. If Ms. Yabroff is incapable of comprehending the difference between first-person and third-person — a rudimentary aspect of reading comprehension that is taught in most elementary schools — then your contributor clearly lacks the brains, the interpretive exigencies, and the perceptive acumen to review books for a national magazine. I do not know how such a boneheaded and incompetent reviewer could have possibly been selected for your pages — particularly when Newsweek has the pick of the litter what with many freelance journalists looking for work and a rising unemployment rate.

The only logical conclusion is that Newsweek isn’t a serious magazine and isn’t interested in employing serious writers or editors. It is far more concerned in proving its irrelevancy with such astonishingly amateurish pieces. And you will die a very hard death if you keep this up. The people aren’t nearly as stupid as you think they are.

I demand an explanation for how you could allow so many mistakes and so many curdish and tone-deaf observations to pass through your ratty cheesecloth.


Edward Champion

[UPDATE: Bethanne Patrick also offers a lengthy post refuting Yabroff’s claims.]