introducing readers to writers since 1995
November 09, 2004
Hanging Out With Christine Schuttby Ron Hogan
I met Christine Schutt for lunch last week at a diner near her apartment on the Upper East Side, and while we waited for our sandwiches in as quiet a corner as we could find, I asked if she felt that she'd had a chance to enjoy the nomination of her novel, Florida for the National Book Foundation's fiction award, given the almost immediate backlash against her and the other four nominees. She had, she said, though she was "quite surprised" by the negative press. "I thought the judges were very brave to fly in the face of the expected and the commercially proven," she continued, "to take up books that had not sold very many copies, that aspired to a certain daring kind of performance at the risk of being less commercially successful. I thought that was something we all wantedliterature thats not necessarily easy at first, that asks the reader to participate. But the response has been otherwise."
So she was somewhat nervous when Deborah Solomon called wanted to interview her for the NYT magazine. "'You want to just eat me alive,'" was Schutt's immediate reaction. "But I thought she was quite wonderful and did a shapely little piece. I didnt feel attacked, though some people thought she was mean to me." (As one of the people who thought precisely that, her more direct experience with Solomon has caused me to rethink my opinion somewhat; I'm wondering now if my reaction is just a matter of ambiguity surrounding Solomon's possible playfulness, which frequently reads as confrontational and badgering.)
Like Solomon, I noted that Knopf, which published Schutt's collection of short stories, passed on the novel. "Gordon Lish, my first editor, had seen Florida and loved it," Schutt recalled, "but he had been fired and wasn't there to back it. The editor who took over from him liked Florida enormously, but I don't think she had the power to put it through...I had the impression, though nobody said it to me, that they just werent impressed by the sales for Nightwork. It was just a corporate decision." I observed aloud that another division of Bertelsmann had been Matthew Sharpe's publisher until they made the same corporate decision and turned down The Sleeping Father, which similarly found a home at a small press and then found broad recognition (in Sharpe's case, a Today book club nod). Stories like his and hers seem to undercut the argument from big publishing houses that books that aren't obvious commercial blockbusters are bad for the industry; if anything, they indicate that the biggest players might ever-so-slowly losing their touch for picking good books. "Its about time that the industry started thinking about what it could do for writers," she nodded, "and how we might be able to keep more of these midlist writers afloat as opposed to offering celebrities million-dollar advances. You live long enough to see it happen again and again, and you get used to it, but still... If you gave Madonna a smaller advance, you might be able to cultivate more assiduously the Mark Costellos, the Matthew Sharpes, the Matthew Derbys I know a lot of great writers who could stand to be taken up by the industry, and it would be to the betterment of the culture, I think." (Before we left, she would hand me a copy of Noon, a literary annual edited by another one of those writers, Diane Williams.)
The problem affects even those nominees who were published by the major houses, as Schutt learned when she tried to buy their books. "I couldnt find a single book by these women in the bookstores, except for Madeleine Is Sleeping, and thats only because it came out so recently," she vented. "I dont usually go into Barnes & Noble, but I did this time, and I went to the information desk and... it was as if I was talking about stale bread." She did, however, know many of the other women before they all got the nod from the Foundation, and one of them promptly suggested that they form an email group to keep each other posted about developments in the coverage of their nomination, a show of generosity that left her very impressed. For now, she's looking forward to joining the four authors on a road trip to the public library in Darien, Connecticut for a group reading this weekend, and then the awards ceremony next week. "Im really looking forward to meeting Garrison Keillor," she enthused. "I listen to "The Writers Almanac" whenever Im in Maine and what Ive always admired about him is that he finds obscure poets. Im quite charmed by that, whether somebodys helping him or hes reading all these poems by himself People say the poems are difficult, but he proves they aren't."
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