Category Archives: Jessica


50 Years in 10 Books?


I realize that this infographic is not new, but I found it a little staggering.  Granted, an infographic is only as accurate as the data from which it was created, but even taken with a generous grain of salt, the “top ten most-read books of the past 50 years,” are surprising. It’s interesting to note that a good number feature magical thinking; Hobbits, Harry Potter, teenage vampires, an Alchemist, and in a slightly different vein, Think and Grow Rich.  Funny to see Margaret Mitchell and Mao Tse Tsung occupying the same shelf, or Anne Frank and Napoleon Hill.  Trying to draw conclusions about the era in which we live based on the primacy of these ten books is probably an exercise in absurdity or despair, better left to philosophers, practitioners of literary mash-up, or the list-makers at Buzzfeed.  And yet.  

 A year or so ago the BBC and the British Museum did a fascinating book and accompanying radio series called A History of the World in One Hundred Objects  available here—I wonder if a similar project—the history of the past 50 years–could be undertaken in ten carefully selected books.  What’s omitted would be as important as what’s included, but I’d be curious to see the upshot!

Any nominations?

For another, slightly longer list, you can check


Better with Age?

Last week’s New York Times featured an article that I absolutely loved, a piece by musician and author Edward Kelsey Moore on making his fiction debut at age 52.   I’m always a little surprised at the way in which the media treats serious writers who produce their first works well past thirty (a literary debut at 52! Imagine that!) As if debut works should be written by actual debutantes.

I suspect that someone, somewhere has actually studied this, but by my unscientific reckoning, it seems to me that good writing gets better with age.  Sure there are plenty of literary wunderkind, from John Keats to Jonathan Safran Foer, but to steal a line from Wordsworth (who was himself obsessed with the dimming of his genius as he grew older)  I think it makes sense that folks who have an ear for “the still, sad music of humanity,” those who call upon decades of observation and experience in their work, who have perhaps been writing for years while pursuing other careers or raising families, should wish to write—and, amazingly enough–write well. Moore’s whole essay is worth reading, but at risk of ruining the punchline, I’ll include his final lines:


So, these days, the question “Aren’t you too old for this?” brings to mind a list of things that I’m definitely too old for. But I answer, “No, at 52, I’m not too old to be a debut novelist. But, luckily, I’m way too old to be the writer, musician or man I was at 30.”


How does your age inform your writing? Do you feel like you are coming into your own voice?


Do’s and Don’ts for Pitchers


In the past few weeks I’ve done several pitch sessions (pretty much the only sort of pitch I’m likely to entertain, since I’m not much of a baseball fan) and although my advice may well be familiar, my experiences would indicate that it bears repeating.

Do: Relax. Pitches are good practice, but your ability to pitch your project does not necessarily determine its fate.  What matters most is always on the page, so don’t treat the meeting as a summary judgment of your future in publishing.

Do: Identify a few contemporary writers to whom you feel your style/work compares. I am always surprised when an aspiring writer can’t come up with a few “like” books or authors.  This is a basic and almost inescapable question.  Having an answer at the ready shows that you know the market and are reading in the category into which you hope to be published.   Once you’ve pitched your book and made a couple comparisons, feel free to turn the question back on the agent/editor.  “Having heard my description, is there a project that you think sounds like an apt comp title?”

Do: Follow up via e-mail.  If an agent has invited you to send along your query or additional materials, you can feel free to issue a gentle nudge several weeks after your meeting.  Mention the conference in your subject line or in the first few lines of your letter.

Don’t:  Bog down in a play by play synopsis of the plot. Think about your summary as back cover copy and try to craft a description that is as more persuasive than exhaustive.

Don’t:  Arrive at your pitch session in search of an idea. It’s fine to field a concept in hopes of soliciting feedback, but know that agents and editors can seldom suggest a book idea upon meeting someone.

Don’t: Try and present more than one (or at most, two) ideas at a time. Fine to mention that you have other projects in the works, but concentrate on the single pitch that is strongest and most suited to your appointment.

Do you have any pitch related questions? I would be happy to field them. (It seems baseball metaphors are impossible to escape in the spring).



Not long ago, I was reading a piece in the New Yorker that gave me chills—Hisham Matar’s account of returning to Libya after many years of exile. His father, a prominent member of the opposition to Muammar Gaddafi, had been arrested and imprisoned in 1990.  Matar never saw his father again, and aside from two letters (smuggled out of the prison six years after his capture), had no word from him either.

The piece was harrowing, beautiful and moving. Since I was wearing short sleeves, I could watch the goose bumps rise in waves across my arms.  I paused for a moment, reflecting not only on the power of good writing—which both thrills and reassures me in an existential sort of way—but also on the absolute weirdness of this physiological response. Why do we have physical reactions to the awe-inspiring? Fear I understand—the autonomic nervous system kicks in, preparing us to fight or flee—but as an aesthetic reaction the function is not entirely clear.  Probably because I spend a good deal of time reading, it’s usually a written passage that sets my scalp tingling, but I get a similar reaction to music (the Goldberg Variations), to poetry (T.S. Eliot’s the Hollow Men or Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach), even the color of blue on some clear evenings just after twilight but before night has properly fallen.

What about you? What’s the last thing (besides a cold snap) that gave you shivers?



It seems to me that of the seven deadly sins, the one most disastrous to a writer is envy. After all, where would A.J. Liebling have been without gluttony, E.L. James (and the cottage industry that surrounds her) without lust,  the author blog/Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook account without  pride? The Darwinian nature of the book business selects against authors with a surfeit of greed (writing is a terrible get rich scheme) or sloth (at least inasmuch as it is a barrier to creative output) but writers, in particular, need to beware the corrosive effects of envy.  A recent funny and self deprecating piece in Salon by writer Alexander Nazaryn on the pain of multiple rejections demonstrates this.

Nazaryn, a successful journalist, spent ten years trying to sell a first novel, working with various agents—all of whom recognized his talent, and one of whom bragged that he received only six figure offers—but to no avail.  The book did not sell, and Nazaryn spirits were understandably  low.

He writes: “ I had started reviewing books, a dangerous occupation for an aspiring novelist, sort of like inviting an arsonist to join the fire department. As my own rejection letters piled up, it became unbearable to stomach the notion that others — many of whom seemed, from their biographies, to have sacrificed much less than I had — were being celebrated while I lurked in the byways of the literary world.

Consequently, the reviews I wrote came to bear a stench of bitterness, none more so than one I wrote for the Village Voice in 2008 in which I took on two debut novelists, Keith Gessen and Nathaniel Rich. After comparing them to James Joyce and Ralph Ellison, I proceed to snidely savage their work. It is true: I did not like their novels. But my dislike was set aflame by jealousy of young men whose profiles were similar to mine and who had managed to do what I had not. I remain more embarrassed by that piece than by any other. Keith, Nate: I am sorry.”


I imagine Keith and Nate felt just a bit vindicated. I know few authors who do not, at some level, take reviews quite personally.  It is something of a truism that savage reviews are written by frustrated writers, but in this case the truism was true.

It’s also worth pointing out that envy is not only an issue for struggling unpublished writers.  When I was an editor, I encountered a bestselling author who seemed utterly incapable of appreciating his own success.  Stuck on the book industry’s own version of the hedonic  treadmill, he was obsessed with the commercial writers who outsold him, and desperate for the praise of the literary community.

How do you guys cope with envy?


(Borrowing) By the Book

No too long ago the New York Times Book Review introduced a nifty new feature, the “By the Book” interview, in which the editors pick the brains of a celebrated writer–folks like Joyce Carol Oates, Ian McEwan, Karen Russell, Alain de Botton–on assorted literary questions.  It seemed to me that this is a feature worth replicating (read: stealing).

The questions vary slightly from one week to the next and depending on the interviewee, but I’ve lifted most of the core questions.  In the spirit of sharing, and with fingers crossed that I am violating no intellectual property rights–sorry Gray Lady–I’ve included my answers below.  Please share your own in turn.


What was the best book you read last year? I’m  awful at the business of anointing a single winner, but the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud were all wonderful.

Where and when do you like to read? In an ideal world, in the sunshine, when I can be uninterrupted for several hours. In reality, anywhere, anytime: on the train, in the car, to myself when my children are sleeping, out loud when they are awake, as a reward for accomplishing odious or challenging tasks, as a means of procrastinating odious or unpleasant tasks, as an aperitif, as a digestif…

Who are your favorite authors: Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer, Margaret Atwood, Naguib Mahfouz, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Franzen, Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman.

Preferred genre—probably literary fiction

Guilty pleasures: Buying books at second hand book stores, garage sales, thrift stores, and other quirkily organized non-royalty reporting venues.

Best book about your home state (NJ). Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Tom Perotta’s Election.

What were your favorite books as a child? Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, The Chronicles of Narnia, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, anything to do with King Arthur—Marion Zimmer Bradley to Thomas Mallory to Mary Stewart, L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon and Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, the Fairy Books (Red, Brown, Green) collected by Andrew Lang.

A book you wish the President would read: a memoir written by a client of mine, to be published by FSG this April called A FORT OF NINE TOWERS: An Afghan Family Memoir—a joyous, heartbreaking, eviscerating chronicle of a boy and a country in impossible times.

Author, living or dead, who you might meet:  I have a special place in my heart for the English Romantics—William and Dorothy Wordsworth, the Shelleys, Byron, Coleridge, Keats. I would also have liked to tag along with intrepid women travel writers like Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark.

Do you organize books in a particular way: I used to attempt to group roughly by category. I have since given up entirely  on a system and now shelve more or less by size and how best I can make them fit.

Paper or electronic? I prefer paper, but read a greater volume electronically.

What do you plan to read next? The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.



Golden Age?

A few days back, NPR did an interesting interview with Little Brown publisher Michael Pietsch, best known for being the editor of authors like David Foster Wallace and James Patterson, who is just about to take over the helm of the Hachette Book group, one of Publishing’s “big six” conglomerates.  His declaration that we are now in “the golden age of publishing” might strike you as Panglossian delusion, or—if you are me—maybe, just possibly, a little bit true.

I suppose, as Zhou en Lai said about the impact of the French Revolution, it’s too early to say.  Pietsch is a persuasive spokesman for what the new indie publishing movement might regard as the ancient regime.   It’s true that he’s not all that likely to rail about the benefits of creative destruction—but he made some good points.

“What has changed in a really exciting way is the ways you can get people’s attention. It used to be one book review at a time, a daily review, maybe you get into Time magazine. Now there’s, with the Internet, this giant echo chamber. Anything good that happens, any genuine excitement that a book elicits can be amplified and repeated and streamed and forwarded and linked in a way that excitement spreads more quickly and universally than ever before. And what I’m seeing is that really wonderful books — the books that people get genuinely excited about because they change their lives, they give them new ideas — those books can travel faster, go further, sell more copies sooner than ever before. It’s just energized the whole business in a thrilling way.”

I do agree with Pietsch. But it’s also true that the internet is so vast, fractured and compartmentalized, that lighting this wildfire word of mouth—getting something to go viral—is harder than a status update and a clever tweet.  Once upon a time, back in the (possibly mythical) days of the “monoculture,” when most Americans had some shared sense of big books, popular musicians, and hit TV, Time magazine had a huge subscription base—a review there, or a spot on a leading morning show could launch a book into best-sellerdom.  This is still true to a certain extent, but I have heard plenty of publicity directors note (and sometimes mourn) the demise of the old certitudes.  It seems to me that publishers see the potential of our new paradigm, where newspaper book reviews are few but book bloggers proliferate and readers can rave about their favorite authors to a potentially unlimited audience, but are still figuring out just how to leverage it. Publicity and marketing plans includes online marketing and social media, but publishing houses are a long way from mastering these new tools.

As you all doubtless have heard, cultivating an on-line presence is regarded as much the author’s duty as the ability to write.  This can feel a bit burdensome, but it’s also true that authors have greater influence over the fates of their books then once they did.  Most authors were never in a position to call up a Today Show producer and pitch their stories, but they can, with diligence and work and a pinch of luck, try to connect their book with its readers.

What do you think?

Golden Age?  France in 1788?


The End of History

In line with January’s inescapable “New Year/New You” promotions, I ran across this article in the Times a little more than a week ago that would indicate that promise of a New You is not simply a marketing ploy. In fact, if anything, people tend to underestimate how much their interests and tastes will change over time.   (m

In an article titled “You Won’t Stay the Same” John Tierney writes “When we remember our past selves, they seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years. But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same, a team of psychologists said Thursday, describing” what is referred to, somewhat apocalyptically, as the “end of history” phenomenon.  But like our recent apocalypse-that-wasn’t, the actuality is not so dire.  Regardless of our age, we (mistakenly) regard ourselves as finished products, fully-formed, unlikely to change.

This made me consider my own tastes, in food, in music, in parenting, in reading.  I generally believe my tastes will be/have been fairly consistent, then I think back to some of the get-ups I sported in college, and I realize I am wrong.  Very wrong. In addition, as a result of marrying into a family of foodies (my teetotaling wasp family regarded too much discussion of appetites unseemly) I have a better appreciation of gastronomy. I can now understand how the Pixies or the Throwing Muses, two of my erstwhile favorite bands, might not be the melodious crowd-pleasers I once found them to be. By virtue of having them, my notions about raising children have changed, and as a consequence of working in publishing, I no longer marvel at how folks might get around to reading contemporary writers when there is such a back-log of good, dead ones to get through. I actually had this thought in college.

How have your tastes, literary or otherwise changed?


Art and Commerce

Last week I came across an op-ed piece, K’naan, on Censoring Himself For Success – that really stuck with me. In his essay, Somali born rapper and musician K’naan discussed a down-side of his considerable success, the pressure he felt to court and retain a mainstream audience. His record label was keen to see his lyrics, which had been steeped in the politics and history of his home country, “all the baggage of Somalia — of my grandfather’s poetry, of pounding rhythms, of the war, of being an immigrant, of being an artist” to be more accessible, familiar, American.

“If this was censorship, I thought, it was a new kind — one I had to do to myself. The label wasn’t telling me what to do. No, it was just giving me choices and information, about my audience — 15-year-old American girls, mostly, who knew little of Somalia. How much better to sing them songs about Americans.”

I realize that K’naan’s dilemma is no perfect analogue, and that the book business and the music business are different in a thousand substantive ways. In book publishing, I think the field is both broader and more fractured and the financial stakes lower, but the author’s central dilemma, tugged between the countervailing poles of personal expression and the broader marketplace, between remaining true to an inner voice and figuring out how best to broadcast it, is probably familiar to many writers. In an era when publishers and agents exhort writers to build a platform, create a brand and market yourselves, to what degree do you think these pressures affect the creative process? Do you find that marketing concerns influence the content of what you write? Or do you think that there is no inherent contradiction in writing a book and then figuring out how, and to whom, to sell it?


These have been an extraordinary couple of weeks. My home town is still without power in the wake of hurricane Sandy, and my kids are still out of school, making today’s “snow day” a redundancy for my little truants.

Cold and dark as my house may be, I’m among the fortunate—the devastation that Hurricane Sandy has wrought is heartbreaking.  My own family’s “indoor camping” adventure lasted only as long as the relatively mild weather.  When the mercury plummeted, we left for warmer, brighter lodging with family and friends.   My experience of reading by candlelight (charming for the first ten minutes, headache inducing thereafter) has filled me with new-found respect for Abe Lincoln, and most everyone who lived before the advent of electricity.

My older son has missed nearly two weeks of school, so what he sees as astonishing, magical good luck has become a source of increasing consternation to me.  I’ve been cobbling together lessons of my own, which are effective only as much as they increase my appreciation for teachers, who probably do not use m&ms to teach arithmetic.

I’ve been doing lots of reading aloud, which is fun, and also looking for books suitable for my six year old to attempt on his own. We’re not in our own home, so “on level” storybooks are few and far between. Still, when I’m not reading books, drafting worksheets, or monitoring the utility company’s “three day plan” (now in its 9th day) I’ve been thinking about post-apocalyptic fiction–environmental devastation, fuel shortages, breakdown of civil society, etc.   Disasters, even those for which we prepare, are fearsome reminders that dark imaginings we channel into fiction are not entirely fanciful.

Post- apocalyptic/dystopian fiction is not a genre in which I have read widely or recently;  I can think of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Octavia Butler’s Earthseed Books,  a novel from some 15 years ago called Into the Forest by Jean Hegland, in which civilization just sort of petered out, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s Utopia, David Brin’s The Postman ( I think I read this in high school, ditto classics like Farenheit 451 and 1984)  I realize this is woefully incomplete: what other books should I add?