The Jackal in the Hermès Suit

Andrew Wylie, the literary agent known as “The Jackal,” sat down recently for one of his always delightful interviews with the New Republic’s Laura Bennett.

Literary agent Andrew Wylie and his alter ego

Literary agent Andrew Wylie and his alter ego

Among the many zingers (“If one of my children were kidnapped and they were threatening to throw a child off a bridge and I believed them, I might.” –on what it would take for him to sell a book to Amazon Publishing),  there was some tough love for the book industry that felt to me like a breath of, if not fresh-smelling, at least refreshingly honest air:

The biggest single problem since 1980 has been that the publishing industry has been led by the nose by the retail sector. The industry analyzes its strategies as though it were Procter and Gamble. It’s Hermès. It’s selling to a bunch of effete, educated snobs who read. Not very many people read. Most of them drag their knuckles around and quarrel and make money. We’re selling books. It’s a tiny little business. It doesn’t have to be Walmartized.

It’s not a travesty that not a lot of people read books–it’s just true, and it’s always been true.  So why not leave the “Fifty Shades of Grey”s of the world to the people going after those elusive profits, and serve your small audience the very best?

Rage on, Jackal.

Book Endorsement: “The Patrick Melrose Novels,” by Edward St. Aubyn

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. AubynWhat is it about British rich people that’s so fascinating to us? Not just “I’ve got platinum rims on my Bentley” rich, but “My family has had more money than God since God was young” rich. We’re talking capital-A Aristocracy. There is no “proper” aristocracy in America. The wealthiest Americans are self-made tech tycoons or business geniuses who work for their money–which, if you’re a true aristocrat, embodies the very depths of bad taste. Lifestyle-wise, it’s “Cribs” vs. “Downton Abbey”; when it comes to hobbies, it’s bankrolling the Tea Party and nannying New Yorkers vs. fox hunting and holidays in the south of France. The Aristocrats have class, in ways we admire, despise and obsess over.

The aristocratic family at the center of Edward St. Aubyn’s brilliant, scathing, hilarious, emotionally annihilating and–scariest of all, autobiographical–series, “The Patrick Melrose Novels,” are deliciously horrible: The patriarch, David Melrose, is addicted to the romance of his fading promise–a gifted pianist and doctor who refuses to record his compositions or practice medicine because that would display “vulgar ambition.” David is a snob even about snobbery: “To break even the smallest rules by which others convinced themselves that they were behaving correctly gave him great pleasure. His disdain for vulgarity included the vulgarity of wanting to avoid the appearance of being vulgar.”

David’s cruelty toward his family–rendered with deadly precision by St. Aubyn–drives his wife, Eleanor, to self-medicate into oblivion with drink and pills, and his son, Patrick, to a fall into a decade-long heroin addiction. These descents are hard to watch and impossible to look away from. Take this exquisite depiction of a hangover:

“She felt defiantly sick in a way she dared not challenge with food and had already aggravated with a cigarette. She had brushed her teeth after vomiting but the bilious taste was still in her mouth. She had brushed her teeth before vomiting as well, never able to utterly crush the optimistic streak in her nature…. She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth.”

You can feel the sweet relief of the cold vodka and the crack of the ice, but it’s already couched in the inevitable misery of the aftermath. As for Patrick, here’s David’s theory of education:

“Childhood was a romantic myth which he was too clear-sighted to encourage. Children were weak and ignorant miniature adults who should be given every incentive to correct their weakness and their ignorance. Like King Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, who made his troops stamp thorn bushes into the ground in order to harden their feet… he was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. After all, what else did he have to offer him?”

I can’t say that the experience of reading “The Patrick Melrose Novels” is…. Read the rest on Bookish

Elliott Smith, Torment Saint

Before Portlandia made my hometown’s quirks the object of loving ridicule, the most common complaint against the city was the rain. Fair. But in Portland, the rain is more ambient than pounding, surfaces reflecting the opalescent sky. Elliott Smith is the soundtrack to a wet Portland day–and he’s still in my head on green-gray day in New York. This October marks the 10-year anniversary of Smith’s death, and there’s a new biography: “Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith,” by William Todd Schultz. What is the thing that Smith had that we haven’t heard since?  I asked Schultz to propose a few theories why Elliott Smith is still in our heads.  Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith

Link

‘In Death’ and the Most Twisted Murders in Fiction

Murder: Be CreativeDrilled to the wall through the heartBeaten and drowned in a river by droidsStabbed through the heart with a stilettoPoisoned with a pieSuicide by hanging, induced by mind controlling virtual-reality gogglesRaped, sodomized and strangled with a Christmas garlandBled by artificial vampire fangsBludgeoned with a Maltese Falcon statue. These are just some of the deaths in J.D. Robb’s bestselling series featuring Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her husband, Roarke: “In Death.” Robb’s latest installment, “Thankless in Death,” is her 46th in the series, and by now Eve has dealt with a lot of creative carnage. Here, we pay tribute to the thrillers that have given us the ghastliest murderers and the most deranged demises that fiction has to offer, from Sherlock Holmes to Stephen King.

National Book Award for Fiction 2013: My Longlist Predictions

Gallery

This gallery contains 10 photos.

It’s always fun to take bets on upcoming prizes, and this year the National Book Awards have given us a treat: a longlist! Herewith, my predictions for that list. Nathan Rostron’s National Book Award for Fiction longlist predictions: Tenth of … Continue reading

Thomas Pynchon Conspiracy Theories

With old J.D. gone, there aren’t many writers left who defy connectivity in all forms. Cheers to Thomas Pynchon, who (still, amazingly) resists simulacra propagation (as he might say).

Who is he, really?

Who is he, really?

Still, we can’t help but wonder… so I asked David Gilbert, Ramona Ausubel, Toby Barlow and Teddy Wayne to offer their Thomas Pynchon conspiracy theories.  Pilot? Pot Smuggler?  Sounds plausible to me.

Macbeth and Walter White

My talk with Texas public radio program Good Books Radio about Fictional Characters Who ‘Break Bad’:

With the final season of “Breaking Bad” ramping up, we’re eager to see just how far down the road to perdition Walter White will go. Walt’s turn to the dark side has plenty of literary precedence–from Macbeth to Jack Torrance in “The Shining” and “Gone Girl” Amy Dunne.