April 17, 2015

What’s the best way to publish “binge-reading”?


Area XLitHub is off to a strong start, already making us forget it wasn’t here six months (or even one month) ago. Yesterday the site ran an article by the great Alexander Chee, who works hard to name the “Goldfinch of last year.”

He and a friend were discussing publishing trends in 2014. Nothing came to them right away, the way The Goldfinch had. What titles were gaining popularity? What was everybody talking about?

Chee writes:

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven rose to the top—she recently announced on Twitter it had gone into an 18th printing. But other than being a bestseller, it wasn’t like The Goldfinch. Besides her, [Karl Ove] Knausgaard and [Elena] Ferrante led the pack in my mind. Also Jeff VanderMeer. Lev Grossman’s concluding volume to his Magicians trilogy. The new Marilynne Robinson Gilead novel, Lila—her third thus far in the Gilead novel series. The new St. Aubyn had reminded many that they missed the old one—of the five novel Patrick Melrose series. They wanted another Patrick Melrose novel.

And then I knew.

The Goldfinch of 2014 was not one novel, but many.

“Everyone is reading a series,” I wrote next. “And many are reading more than one.” I knew people who were caught up with Ferrante, the Knausgaard and the VanderMeer. If the novel was still dying, it seemed it was reacting by propagating with cycles and serials, as if it could survive better when defended by gangs.

We’ve written about Garth Risk Hallberg and Eleanor Catton in previous years. Doorstoppers were a common theme in 2013. (The short story boom was made up in a New York Times article.)

But have we entered a time of binge-reading? After all, Chee points out, we listen to hours of “Serial,” we watch episode after episode of The Sopranos or The Wire. Netflix now releases whole seasons of its original series at once. We’ve had the luxury of consuming a narrative, no matter the medium, all in one go.

So do publishers need to adapt their schedules to accommodate the most voracious readers? After all, Chee writes, many young readers “cut their YA reading teeth on an seven-volume series of novels about a boy magician in a fight for his soul, each one as thick as a phonebook.”

The titles Chee mentioned aren’t the first books to come to your mind when you think of series, right? They’re categorized as literary fiction, for one (though the genre crossover was most explicit in Grossman’s books).

They were published in radically different ways. Farrar, Straus and Giroux released the three VanderMeer titles in paperback in February, May, and September 2014, later publishing the set together in a thick, striking hardcover. It was an unusual schedule, one that must have included more than one title in a single seasonal launch, but it worked.

In America, the Patrick Melrose novels were published as a box set, then as a thick paperback (with deckled edges) that came out simultaneously with the final book. This is an odd experiment, gambling that readers will be willing to take a risk on four novels by a Brit, but the four-book volume became a national bestseller.

Edward St. Aubyn’s six books and VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy are now packaged for the reader’s unbroken attention. Ferrante and Robinson’s books are designed to be read as individual volumes; each should look like a novel you could pick up without reading the books that preceded them. Knausgaard and Grossman’s are marked with clear numbers, obviously a part of a series meant to be read in sequential order.

Let us not forget that the Ferrante and the Knausgaard had to gain a foothold with American readers while their translators were still hard at work on the next volume, and then the next. That’s troublesome any way you look at it; a good translation takes time, and it would be best to work with one translator for the whole of the series.

Again, the “publishing industry’s woes” are not necessarily that “the book will no longer look like the book.” In this article, Chee makes us wonder whether other forms of media have actually elongated our attention spans. That many readers want not just one doorstopper with the painstaking detail of Karl Ove’s daily life, but six of them, from his band’s first paid gig (spoiler: the guy who hired them paid them to leave), to the toll his own writing takes on his wife.

Instead of turning into that Infinite Jest nightmare of pleasure-obsessed TV consumers, some readers are using the attention they exercised in early encounters with wizards and applying that to volume after volume of Robinson or Ferrante.  They are turning into that old Mitch Hedberg joke:

A friend gave me a drug for attention deficit disorder, because he’s afflicted, but I’m not. So what happened to me is I suddenly had an extra-long attention span. People would tell me a story, and it would end, and I’d get all mad. “Come on, man, there has to be more to that story.”

Last night I attended a piece of the marathon reading of On Immunity by Eula Biss at Powerhouse. A small crowd gathered to take in the whole work in one sitting. Surely this desire to hear the book all at once stems from the same impulse.

Chee concludes:

To the extent that anything connects Rowling to Tartt, and to the current craze for Knausgaard, Ferrante and the rest, I think it is that feeling, something I’ve noticed friends mention while reading the Ferrante, amazed at the spell she casts: a desire to return to those “primal and innocent delights” [quoted from James Wood], not just of childish reading, but of reading. All of these writers have in common readers who offer their loyalty the way any reader does after finding a novel they want to enter and never leave.

This was the year we never wanted to leave.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.