What I Picked Up at BEA
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
I’ve just returned from Book Expo America, that annual circus attended by the animal tamers (editors), clowns (self-published authors), trapeze artists (publicists), jugglers (publishers), and human cannonballs (authors) of the book industry. This year’s big tent was pitched in Los Angeles, a perfect place for a circus anyway, with its clownish basketball team, the Lakers, its glittering and surreal landscape where the artificial is carefully constructed to appear as the real, and its towering carnivalesque buildings (just try to make your way through the maze of concrete and steel on a Saturday night to find a well-tucked away restaurant in the US Bank building or simply try to find the lobby in the now-famous, Escher-like Westin Bonaventure). The Los Angeles Convention Center—itself a monument to the hollowness and artificiality of modern life (much as I loathe the Eagles’ “Hotel California”—they were a much better band before Joe Walsh joined and before Bernie Leadon left—that song does indeed capture the excess and the emptiness of southern California life)—played host to the BEA carnival, and a better place to hold a three-ring circus has yet to be found.
You could enter the West Hall and meet the costumed characters of children’s publishers waving you over to whisper their secrets in your ears. The West Hall also played home to the autographing lines, where on any given day you could have your book signed by circus denizens from Salman Rushdie, whose new novel, The Enchantress of Florence (Random House), is a lushly evocative creation of the mysteries and intrigues of a medieval world whose enchanting and seductive stories captivate and transport us in ways reminiscent of his early novels like Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, to all stripes of romance and mystery writers. On the three-mile walk between the West Hall and the South Hall, you could stop by the free Internet Café to check your e-mail, if you wanted to wait two hours to stand in line, or drop in the librarians’ lounge to have a cup of coffee and chat—if you were lucky—with some of Library Journal’s finest editors. Once you made it to the South Hall—where almost all of the major trade publishers were camped out—the carnival really started. On the west side of the South Hall, three aisles of remainders companies jammed together buying and selling feverishly. In fact, these aisles were open the day prior to the official opening of BEA. If you want a good signal that the book industry is in trouble, this is certainly one of them. When the remainder companies are doing a brisk business—and they always do a steady business no matter what the climate of the industry—it’s a sign that publishers have become bloated with excess inventory and must find ways to make a few dollars off of that inventory they’re writing down. Walking on through the South Hall, you would encounter all breeds of publishers, from small, independent presses to university presses to large trade publishers, who, as in the past, were the ringmasters in the circus.
In spite of the rowdy atmosphere, this year’s BEA was quieter than usual, a sign of continued trouble in the book industry. There were no big buzz books, although there are some books by major authors making their way to bookstores this fall. Perhaps the clearest sign that there’s trouble in River City is a booth for Amazon’s Kindle—which is not a book, of course, but an electronic device for transforming digital equations into pixels that resemble the page of a book—nestled alongside the publishers’ booths at BEA. I’m no Luddite trading in apocalyptic proclamations, but it’s a bit ironic (not lost to those canny enough to look at their surroundings this year in LA) for the product that’s touted to replace the book to be nudging up against those books. It’s a little like placing a booth for a slaughterhouse next to the horse stables at the fair. In addition, Borders, B&N, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor continue to return books to publishers in droves, and the unusually high rate of returns was the buzz of the show for many publishers. The major wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor are themselves experiencing transitions and have passed their own economic challenges on to the publishers. Moreover, BEA has ceased being a place where bookstores meet with publishers to buy books; long ago—about five years now and earlier—BEA was the place for independent booksellers to meet with publishers to chat about the fall books and to place orders. No longer; in some ways, BEA has become the outside shell that covers the hollowness inside of the industry, in much the same way that the convention center is the glitzy shell of an empty hall.
In spite of the troublesome times in the publishing industry revealed at this year’s BEA, I nevertheless picked some up a few interesting advanced reading copies of titles about which I’ll be writing over the next few months. Here are some of the more interesting books I picked up at BEA this year.
Philip Roth, Indignation (Houghton Mifflin)—More from the prolific Roth, this little novel follows the exploits of Marcus Messner as he moves from his working-class Jewish family and neighborhood in New Jersey to his sophomore year at Winesburg College in Ohio. I had a chance to read this novel on the plane home; it’s a cross between Roth’s novel Everyman and his The Plot Against America. The novel is a bauble and not nearly as satisfying as Roth’s effort from last year, Exit Ghost. This is one of Roth’s twilight efforts, where meditations on death and afterlife mingle with reflections on sex. Although it’s minor Roth, his fans won’t be able to turn away from it.
John Updike, The Widows of Eastwick (Knopf)—Like Roth, Updike (who’s even more prolific it seems) gives us a new offering every year. In this one, he revisits Jane, Sukie, and Alexandra (The Witches of Eastwick), the original trio for whom sex and the city meant a seaside town in Rhode Island and a cleft-footed, horny devil named Darryl Van Horne. The witches are now widows and must come to grips with their pasts and muster the courage to face the rigors of old age. Like Roth, Updike continues to grapple with sex and mortality in elegant prose.
Ron Rash, Serena (Ecco)—Rash is one our great undiscovered treasures and deserves to be much better known. His Saints at the River is a haunting novel about the power of suffering and human nature’s inability to grasp the mystery of suffering. In this new novel, he returns to the South, where his previous novels have been set, to explore the conflict between the powerful timber empire and the nascent environmental movement. Dark secrets surround the central characters in the novel, and the beauty and mystery of love and violence unleash themselves in Rash’s fine new effort.
Jayne Pupek, Tomato Girl (Algonquin)—First-novelist Pupek creates an astonishing tale of a young girl who must assume the mantle of adulthood long before she is ready.
Neil Gross, Richard Rorty: The Making of An American Philosopher (University of Chicago)—When Richard Rorty died in 2007, America lost its most original philosophical voice since John Dewey. Not a biography in the true sense, Gross’s book examines the cultural, political, and social forces that made Rorty a uniquely American intellectual.
François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (University of Minnesota)—While this might not be bedtime reading from most folks, Cusset’s instructive and lively (yes, lively; unlike most American academics, French academics know how to write in a popular style that is compelling and elegant) tale of the ways that French theory migrated to America and dominated the American academy in the 1970s and 1980s is must reading for anyone who has ever asked the question, “So tell me again what deconstruction is?”
J.J. Long, W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity (Columbia)—Sebald is hot right now, and this is one of three or four books about his work that have appeared in the past year. Long’s book is one of the richest because it moves the critical debate beyond the boundaries that consider Sebald as a Holocaust writer only.
James Agee, A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text, edited by Michael A. Lofaro (University of Tennessee)—This is the first volume of a planned ten-volume edition of Agee’s works. An exciting development, this novel restores Agee’s novel to the manuscript he had left completed at his death but which his publisher and editor David McDowell heavily edited. The changes are so dramatic in this newly restored text that we now have what amounts to a completely new novel.
Marilynne Robinson, Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)—Robinson picks up where she left off in Gilead in her hauntingly evocative new novel.
Thus, in spite of the doldrums of the book industry, publishers continue to release exciting and timely new books that will continue to engage us for years to come.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at