“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

Our garage needed re-roofing. I called a roofer.

Sometime last week a stack of shingles showed up in my backyard, near the garage.

This past Satuday three men showed up bright and early to turn those shingles into a new roof.

They worked straight through until mid-afternoon. Roofing on a warm day is a hot job, and I live in South Carolina.

Some time after 3 p.m., the front doorbell rang. The roofer, an older man, told me they’d be knocking off for the day soon.

I said fine.

He turned to leave, but then turned back. Smiling, he asked,   “Are you a writer?”

“I am,” I said, puzzled  at first. It has not been my experience that roofers are great readers – but, to be fair, neither has it been my experience that readers are great roofers. And, frankly, if I were given three wishes, I’d spend the first on do-it-yourself home-repair skills.

“We saw some of your posters in the garage,” the roofer said. “And Tony say he’s read some of your books.”

Tony was one the roofer’s two young helpers, both in their early twenties, I’d guess. The posters were oversized pictures of book covers and blurbs from from readers and reviewers. They come in handy at book festivals in bidding for attention from passersby.

“Tony say you good.”

“Please tell Tony I said thanks.”

“He’d like to meet you. Can you come out to meet him?”

Sure, I said.

Tony smiled from ear to ear as we shook hands at the garage. Then he introduced me to his boss, whose name was given only as Perry, and to his fellow workman, Antonio.

“You working on anything new?” Perry asked.

“As a matter of fact, I’m in the homestretch on a new one.”

“What’s it about?” Tony asked.

“The redemptive powers of rock ‘n’ roll,” I said.

Tony said, “I liked your one about murder.”

Atlanta Blues,” I said.

“That’s the one!” Tony said. He turned to Perry. “You read it?”

“No, but I’d like to.”

“I’ve got a copy or two around here somewhere. Be glad to give you a copy.”

“Will you autograph it?” Perry said.

Sure, I said. Hold on.

Back inside, I found three copies of Atlanta Blues, still nestled in shrink-wrap. I grabbed a pen and scissors, and took the books outside. Leaning on the hood of the pickup truck, I signed three copies: one for Tony, one for Perry, and one for Antonio.

They were happy and I was, too. Couldn’t wait to tell all my friends (both of ’em) that I was, ahem, the favorite author of every roofer I knew.

(top, hardback cover; here, softback cover)

 

Genre vs. literary fiction

An interesting article in the January 2008 issue of The Writer pointed out that genre authors dominate the best-seller lists, while literary authors rarely show up on them. I’ve often said as much to my students.

The article argues that “commercial success isn’t a curse, nor obscurity a perverse badge of honor.” That’s true, of course. But inveighing against literary snobbery seems to me less important than what this “false dichotomy between art and commerce,” as it is labeled by the article’s author (Chuck Leddy), portends for the literary novel. In a publishing industry that has seen nearly all of its old-line houses absorbed into big corporations concerned mainly with return on the investment dollar, the literary novel has become the stepchild at the family reunion. I shudder to think what damage is being dealt to literature by this near-exclusive emphasis on profit in publishing.

Virtually any writer shopping a manuscript around these days has seen how nearly impenetrable Publishers Row has become over, say, the past 20 years. Publisher after publisher has stopped accepting submissions and even queries, opting for agented material only, and gradually even agents have adopted the same policy. Those agents still inviting queries often limit the author to a synopsis only and/or the first few pages of a manscript, seldom more than a chapter, often as few as five pages. No seasoned writer needs to be told that this approach to auditioning new novels (not new talent, mind you, but novels) is worse than useless, borders on insult, and is downright cynical. And in case you somehow missed that point, they usually advise that you won’t hear from them at all unless they’re interested in your submission, and they sometimes add that they routinely accept no more than one percent of all submissions.

Think what that means for the literary novel! Think snowball in hell and you’ll have a good idea. Think further and you’ll realize that novels like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby almost certainly could not find a mainstream publisher today, or even an agent — not least because you also can’t find editors like Maxwell Perkins in Publishers Row these days.

But here’s something worth remembering: Though reviewed favorably when first published, in 1925, Gatsby didn’t sell well at all. Both Fitzgerald and Perkins, his editor, were very disappointed.

Today, however, Gatsby is considered by many to be The Great American Novel. And today, nearly a century later, it’s still selling!

I wonder how the commercial hits of 1925 are doing these days.