Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Trouble with an Interview

Note: The complete text of an email interview with Patrick Somerville, the author of Trouble, follows this entry.

I have 186 books by my bedside waiting to be read. The stacks got so absurd and dangerous a few years ago, that I put up four shelves to hold my eclectic combination of fiction, university press poetry, baseball books, literary classics, history tomes and graphic novels. That wasn't good enough for me. Much to my wife's consternation, I now have three stacks of books, mostly advance reader's copies (free, pre-publication paperbacks that the publishers distribute), piled up beneath the shelves.

Still, I'm not satisfied. Occasionally, I can't find anything that I want to read. When that happens, I hit the slush pile of advance reader's copies (ARCs) at the office. Each month we get shipped about 200 ARCs. It's unwieldy trying to find readers for that many books, and despite the staff''s best efforts, many of the them go unclaimed and unread. These homeless books compose the slush pile.

The best book I ever plucked out of this neglected stash of titles was Zadie Smith's White Teeth. What a surprise and revelation that novel was, with its riotous humor and outrageous characters. Last week, I dipped back into the slush pile, and I pulled out a great debut story collection, Trouble, by Patrick Somerville.

Perhaps, I chose it because of the forlorn adolescent painted on the cover, I was that guy for a good five years. Perhaps, it was the challenge issued on the jacket: "We dare you not to be entertained." Whatever the reason, I soon found myself engrossed in Somerville's stories about guys, young and old, getting into trouble.

Somerville's great sense of humor pervades all of these stories, and this is evident from the very first page of the collection. In the opening story, we get a list of all of the benefits of puberty, including everything from heightened sexual allure due to a deeper voice and a larger penis, to improved basketball dribbling skills and confidence in public speaking. That list sets the tone and gives a framework to all that will follow in the story, from humorous bouts of humilation to misguided bursts of confidence.

Beneath Somerville's humor there is always a sense of foreboding or violence lurking. Characters run into cars with their bikes, they crash into trees while skiing, they get their noses broken playing basketball and some even get killed by the bizarre shadowy deathblow. The combination of humor and violence creates an exhilerating tension in these concise tales.

"If I step back and look at the books as a whole, I can see these violent moments sort of sneaking up and overwhelming the characters....Maybe it's because I'm a young writer, but I can never fully resist the urge to give the characters what they deserve -- to punish them, or to dangle their temptations in front of them and allow them to do whatever," Somerville wrote in an email interview.

The collection's finest story, "Black Earth, Early Winter Morning", breaks the pattern a bit. There is a violent accident (two, actually), but unlike many of the stories, the humor doesn't overwhelm the characters and their tragedies. It is a thoughtful, almost meditative, piece about physical loss and also the loss of expectations. That's not to say there aren't funny moments in the story. On the contrary, the bumbling teenage boy tries to make out with a college girl moments after she's vomited. Sure it's gross, but what a perfect encapsulation of an adolscent boy's sexuality.

When I asked Somerville about the humor in his stories, he pointed to "Black Earth, Early Winter Morning" as a conscious break from the rest of the collection. "Sometimes the story should just be really sad.... 'Black Earth, Early Winter Morning' was the last story I wrote, and it is by far the most tragic. I told myself beforehand that I would not make it funny, would not get wacky, would not try to achieve any of that balance."

Trouble is a wonderful book and I also dare anyone to read it and not be entertained. My only regret is that it is Somerville's debut. There isn't any more of his pithy humor and accident-prone characters to amuse me. So, it is back to the slush pile for me, since none of the 186 books in the bedroom is capturing my imagination. Just don't tell my wife, or I'll also be in trouble.


Kash's Book Corner (KBC): Trouble is certainly an apt title for this collection. Your characters have all kinds of difficulties; one character smashes into a tree while skiing, another crashes his bike into the same car twice, a 57-year old doctor has an affair with a teenager. Do you think of an entertaining accident or disaster first and build a story around it? Or do you start with a seemingly normal character and then they find trouble?

Somerville: I think the latter is probably more accuarate, at least relative to the stories in the collection. If I step back and look at the book as a whole, I can see these violent moments sort of sneaking up and overwhelming the characters, and what's more, I can see, now, what it meant to me then, what I was trying to do. Usually it's something blatant and not-too-subtle. Maybe it's because I'm a young writer, but I can never fully resist the urge to give the characters what they deserve--to punish them, or to dangle their temptations in front of them and allow them to do whatever. I admit that there are probably a million better, more aesthetically-interesting possibilities, but this is what I'm doing now. I also love slapstick humor. Having a character trip gives me way too much pleasure.

KBC: Violence, whether in the guise of grisly accidents or shadowy deathblows, haunts these stories. Can you speak about its role in your work?

Somerville: I wouldn't even say that I'm very interested in violence--it just tends to end up in my stories, usually in the form of accidents. So many of the characters in the book think they can control life by being smart. Accidents are the antidote to that disease.

KBC: Most of the characters lead emotionally isolated lives, is that just a condition of men in our society or do you have a unique bunch of guys here?

Somerville: I'm in no position to make claims about men, or most men, in our society. What can I say? Some yes and some no. I'm certainly interested in writing about people who lead emotionally isolated lives, but whether or not it's a widespread problem is something I just don't know. In my own experience, I usually find it much harder to communicate with men than with women. With men, there's often this whole added level of defenses--guarded appraisals, comparisons, macho stuff. All of it is incredibly boring, and usually takes up so much time that you've both already gone home to sleep before you're anywhere near actually knowing one another.

KBC: I can't tell you how many times I laughed out loud when reading these stories, especially "English Cousin." Does the humor come naturally to you or is it something that needs as much or more revising as the other aspects of the writing?

Somerville: Quote unquote humor is something that is built into the way I write, definitely, but whether or not it's actually funny when it first comes out is another story. Usually I'll try too hard at first, and it will be totally over-the-top. There used to be this complicated masturbation scene in "Crow Moon" that went on for 4 or 5 pages and involved photo developing. Maybe there was enough to it for some chuckles, but in the long run, it seemed to hurt the story more than help it, especially because that story is pretty heavy compared to some of the others. I have an impulse for balance, as though tragic moments need to be balanced by comic moments, but as time goes on I'm realizing that this formula can get very repetitive, and is also limiting. Sometimes the story should just be really sad. Sometimes the opposite. "Black Earth, Early Winter Morning" was the last story I wrote, and it is by far the most tragic. I told myself beforehand that I would not make it funny, would not get wacky, would not try to achieve any of that balance. In the end, it's turned out to be one of my favorites. Sort of a downer at readings, though.

KBC: Where did you come up with Dan Oxford swallowing coins in the story "The Future, the Future, the Future"? Seems like a bad idea.

Somerville: You mean a bad idea for the story or a bad idea in real life? Isn't this supposed to be a nonconfrontational Q&A? No, I'm assuming you mean bad in real life. I definitely didn't eat any coins to do research for this one. I do remember, though, walking home in Ithaca one day and looking at garbage and thinking about how garbage is a completely different thing to the rich, and it can be virtually anything. I imagined a rich guy standing next to a trash can, dropping hundred dollar bills into it, and then I imagined him eating them and laughing. For the last five minutes of the walk, I just tried to think about how I could use money-eating in the story, which I'd just begun. Coins has already been established as an interesting little node, but I didn't know how, exactly, I was going to use them later in the story. I ended up with Dan eating coins whenever he feels as though his life isn't working properly, as a way of venting. He's a character who connects happiness to money over and over again, and who sees both things as down the road, in the future. So his meltdown moments involve him revolting against his big plans. I agree, it's very strange. But I like strange.

KBC: Your characters have great, culturally relevant names like Gidget, Garfield, Oxford -- how and why do you use these in your stories?

Somerville: I have no idea. The names just come into my head and I ask myself, "Can I actually use that?" Usually the answer is yes, because why not? It's better than using Tristan.

KBC: Trouble is out as a paperback original, which is great because it's more affordable, but it is often harder to get review attention in this format, unless you are Jhumpa Lahiri or David Mitchell. Did you have any qualms about going straight to paperback?

Somerville: None at all. It's an affordable book for young people, and I think young people are its best hope. Also, it's not a long book...who wants to pay $25 for 200 pages?

KBC: Are you on tour? Where are you going?

Somerville: I am on tour, and have already been to the west coast. I'll be heading to Boston and New York next week, and after that, a lot of midwest. You can see the details at

KBC: What's next? Will you stick with stories or do you have a novel hidden somewhere?

Somerville: I'm working on a novel.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Worthless Authors

What do David Baldacci, Elizabeth Berg, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Stephen King and Nora Roberts have in common? You could answer that they all write mega-bestsellers or you could say that their backlist books (their older titles) are absolutely worthless. Both answers are correct.

For years the Boulder Book Store store has struggled to sell these authors' previous books, but I blamed that on factors unique to the store and to our community. Although we sell their books used, these authors' new books aren't nearly as popular in Boulder as they are nationwide, and we don't do well with mass market paperbacks in general. So, I was surprised to find out that all of these authors, and dozens more, were truly worthless nationwide.

A few days ago, I received an email detailing "pre-shipment sorting guidelines" for a company that accepts donated books and then sells them on the internet. The proceeds are split evenly between the company and the store or library that has donated the book. Our bookstore sends them sale books we can't sell, rejects left behind in our used book buying office, and some books that we can't return to the publishers. It's a motley assortment of titles, but every month we get a check for a few hundred dollars and a list of books that have managed to sell for two or three dollars apiece on the internet.

The pre-shipment guidelines are designed to prevent the company from being inundated with unsaleable books. It saves the company time sorting through the titles and it saves money for the different libraries and organizations shipping them these books. The letter starts off innocously enough -- no damaged books, no books without ISBNs, no books written in a language that doesn't use the Latin alphabet -- but suddenly veers off into a list of popular fiction authors that are "uneconomical".

The list is a who's who of contemporary fiction.
In addition to those mentioned above, it includes such mystery stalwarts as Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton and John Sandford, horror masters like Robin Cook and Dean Koontz, and sappy romance writers including Danielle Steele and Fern Michaels.

I love this list. So much of what I can't stand about publishing all compiled under the heading "popular fiction authors to avoid." I couldn't have done a better job myself. These authors' new books are foisted upon us time after time, season after season, no matter how bad they are. Instead of pushing well-written, innovative fiction, the publishers give us a huge marketing budget and a million-copy print run of the latest logorrhea from James Patterson and his team of "co-writers." It's all formula blockbusters all the time, and the publishers want to know why the independent bookstores don't sell their share of it. The answer is simple -- because we value thinking and originality.

The day before I received the email containing this list of authors, I was offered a deal from my Random House sales rep. She had a list of backlist titles that Random House was offering an extra discount on. I skimmed down the list, which was amazingly unremarkable for the biggest publisher in the business, until I came to a trio of ancient John Grisham titles. I looked up at my rep, and said, "I'm done. Does anybody sell these Grisham books at full price anymore? Who thought up this list?"

The market is flooded with these books, and the market tells us everyday: they are worthless. My only wish is that consumers would realize this when the books were brand new and pick up something different. After all, if you really need the guilty pleasure of Danielle Steele, you could just wait a few months and buy her new books for less than a buck. Amazon is currently selling her two 2006 releases for 79 and 22 cents.

Take a chance on something like David Mitchell's brilliant new novel Black, Swan, Green, or read Marisha Pessl's wildly inventive Special Topics in Calamity Physics. By the way, you won't find either Pessl or Mitchell's books listed online for pennies anytime soon. Now, if those two books headed the bestsller list, that just might force the publishers and even some of their blockbuster authors to start thinking.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Buying for the Kids

I never thought I'd rave on and on about a book called Tickle the Duck, but from the moment I read the sample copy in my office, I just could not get enough of the silly duck with the big belly and impish grin. It's a work of pure genius. The combination of an outrageously funny, infantile, illustrated duck and a simple plot (if a duck begging the reader not to tickled him can be considered a plot) creates endless hilarity for anyone over the age of one.

Out of desperation, I took over our store's children's buying two years ago. We'd gone through three buyers in a couple of years, and there was no one passionate about kids' books in the store willing to take on the job. I figured that at least I knew how to buy, even if all I knew about children's literature was Dr. Seuss and The Island of the Blue Dolphins. For years, I recommended Scott O'Dell's classic to anyone buying a book for a child between the ages of three and fourteen. "Oh, you've got a middle school grandson into snow boarding? Well, he will really love this book about a girl stranded on an island."

Now I finally have two assistants who should be able to do most of the children's buying, but I am having a bit of separation anxiety. Earlier this week, I was buying Penguin's winter children's list and training one of the new buyers. We attacked the box of samples like two kids opening Christmas gifts. As we leafed through the piles of books, the riot of colors, drawing styles and silly stories almost overwhelmed us. We argued, we laughed, and we marvelled at the creativity.

Berkely Breathed's Mars Needs Moms, a zany and almost dark story from the creator of Bloom County, was the obvious hit. I was also surprised and wowed with Cal Ripken's The Longest Season, a moving tale about the low point of his amazing baseball career, beautifully painted by Ron Mazellan. The sleeper on the list was Helen Ward's melancholy Little Moon Dog, magnificently illustrated in muted tones by Wayne Anderson. Who wouldn't love the two
Skippyjon Jones board books about the crazy Siamese cat that thinks he's a Chihuahua? By the way, who invented board books? They should get a medal, or at least a gold sticker.

By the time we sat down to buy the books, my assistant and I had read all the books on Penguin's winter list. We didn't have to wildly guess about which ones were good and which ones were all publisher hype. How long would it take to read even one percent of a major publisher's adult list? Sure, I got a little sick of the nauseatingly sentimental string of books about mommy animals with cute babies, and I wondered why half the books were being published. Okay, more than half. My assistant was flabbergasted by Penguin's outsized publishing hopes for the winter. "Why don't they publish a dozen good books and really get behind them?" she asked. Ah, the answer to that question could save a million trees.

Even looking at this single list, I was struck once again by how many talented artists are illustrating children's books. It's not easy being an artist in America, but here's a field that values excellent work and even encourages unique artistic styles. My favorite illustrator, David Catrow, had a paperback, Our Tree Named Steve, on the list. Who else in our culture would pay Catrow over and over again for his thin-necked, big-headed, wide-eyed illustrations of people and dogs?

Speaking of illustrators, I attended a breakfast featuring Jon J. Muth (Zen Shorts) and Jim LaMarche (Rainbabies) this past weekend at the Mountain & Plains tradeshow in Denver. Muth spent most of his speaking time in front of an easel. He painted with a huge chinese brush (about the size of his arm) and watercolors. With just a few strokes he made paintings of a panda, a gorilla and a stalking cat. The cat was so magnificent that LaMarche praised him loud enough for the whole room to hear. Muth's outstretched cat was so simple and yet so fluid, it reminded me of Picasso's one-line drawings of bulls.

Sometimes I wonder if we would recognize a Picasso among us. Would we value the magnificent draftsmanship? Would we marvel at the brilliant colors and the oddly shaped figures? Or would Picasso be one illustrator among 50 on a children's book list, waiting for the patient, appreciative bookseller to recommend his title? I'd like to think that Picasso would get plucked out of the massive stack of samples, even if he was illustrating a silly duck.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

John Shors: A Gem of an Author

John Shors, the author of Beneath a Marble Sky, is hustling every day in an effort to break out his debut novel. He quit his day job in July and is now working full time to promote the paperback release of his tale about the building of the Taj Mahal. So far he has spoken to over 200 book clubs, and there is no end in sight. For most writers -- heck, for most marathoners -- this would be exhausting, but for Shors, who went through 56 drafts before pubishing his book, it appears to energize him.

At Tuesday night's Boulder Book Store discussion, he was eloquent, engaging and informative. He answered the questions with a freshness that belied how many times he has broached these subjects. Whether he was talking about his first-person narrative in the voice of a 17th-century Hindustan woman, the semi-precious stone work embedded in the seemingly white marble walls of the Taj Mahal, or his feelings about the cover art on his book, his comments were genuine and spontaneous.

It's a good thing that Shors has the energy and the skill to navigate through the messy world of readers. Beneath a Marble Sky, a Penguin paperback, is a fine novel with detailed historical scenes and a great love story. Shors brings us the sights, smells and sounds of an amazing time and place, and he also weaves together a powerful romance. It effortlessly melds into the true-to-life events that form his tension-filled plot. But all of that is not enough to sell the book.

There are a lot of interesting novels that fall by the wayside every year. Shors' work is one of hundreds of debut novels that made its appearance this summer. As a book buyer, it is bewildering to figure out which ones to buy for the store. I am constantly asking the sales reps, "What's going on with this book? Is there any special marketing?" All too often, the answer is either "not much" or "nothing." I'm looking for any publicity planned that might help the book in my market, or some advertising campaign by the publisher, or perhaps contacts the author has with a media outlet.

Often, if the author isn't going to make something happen, the book is going to die silently on the shelves of bookstores and in the warehouses of wholesalers. The publicity departments of major publishers seem to be under-staffed and completely overwhelmed as far as I can tell. They push the big titles and a handful of in-house favorites and hope that the rest will either get great reviews or spread by word of mouth. Reviews are tough to come by for Shors because the book was orignally published by a small house (McPherson Company) in hardback in 2004. Reviewers are notoriously reluctant to take on paperbacks. In order for Shors to get Penguin to rev up its marketing plans, he's got to get word-of-mouth interest going on this book.

Shors is the dream author for a publicity department. He is tireless, likable and willing to do whatever he needs to get some momentum going behind Beneath a Marble Sky. His efforts appear to be working. Sales are growing, and almost everyone left Tuesday night's book group determined to recommend his book to a friend or a husband. Here's hoping he sells enough to get on Penguin's radar. For now, he's just like one of the thousands of jewels embedded in the walls of his beloved Taj Mahal -- you have to get close enough to see his brilliance.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Priestess Does it Her Way

Ten years ago, I cringed when the words self-published were uttered in my office. These stapled or occassionally stitched-together books were often amateurish memoirs, badly constructed novels, treacly poetry or bizarre accounts of the occult. The authors weren't much better. Many were wannabe writers who scorned editing, were embittered against the publishing process that had rejected them and thought they were entitled to the royal treatment at the bookstore.

My, how times have changed. Opportunity, community and publicity are the first three things that come to mind when I see a self-published book nowadays. Many of the writers are established professionals in the community with something to say and a waiting audience. The quality of the writing has improved. A cottage industry of freelance editors and designers contributes their expertise to these projects. Also, self-published local authors often draw bigger and more passionate crowds to book signings than nationally known writers.

Thursday night's signing by Cindy Morris, of her new book Priestess Entrepreneur, is a perfect example of this changing dynamic. Morris, who owned a local flower shop for ten years and has an ebullient personality, was basically told she had no chance of getting a publisher for her book. "You are no one," an agent told Morris when she shopped her idea. Boy, was that agent wrong. Morris has a great deal to say about running a business, trusting your intuition, and how to acheive success on your own terms. As an independent business woman, she also has the credentials to back it up .

I must admit that I went to the event as a bit of a lark. My mother-in-law is in town, and I thought the book signing might provide great entertainment. I knew that music, played on a few bizarre instruments, including a monochord and a crystal ball, would be performed before the reading and that the word "priestess" in the title might bring out some of Boulder's more eccentric characters. Well, the crystal ball turned out to be a sweet-toned crystal bowl and the priestess, Morris, was eloquent, humorous and full of excellent advice.

My mother-in-law, who runs a fledgling non-profit with her husband, was extremely impressed and bought the book. She has since read half of it and is enjoying Cindy's multitude of stories and reaping the benefits of the business ancedotes already. She even commented on the book's easy-to-read layout.

To see that a sure winner like this can't find a home at a publisher makes me wonder just what else the major houses and agents are missing. I waded through hundreds of upcoming Simon & Schuster books for seven hours over the last two days and can honestly say that Morris' book was more saleable than 80 percent of them. Simon couldn't have squeezed in a book like this and taken out one of its endless array of cookie-cutter chick lit books?

Even better than banal chick lit, Simon and Schuster's March, 2007 list included a true winner: the "erotic thriller," Thong on Fire. As wonderful as this book sounds, I have a feeling that ten years ago, it would have been the self-published book and Priestess Entrepreneur would have had the backing of a major press.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

These Comics Aren't for Kids

Six years ago, on our first day in Paris, my wife and I ducked into a bookshop. We were looking for a map, but I really wanted to check out a French bookstore. Surely, I thought, they must be high-brow and full of fabulous literature that we could never sell in America. I truly expected a whole section on Foucault, Derrida and Sartre. Instead, I was met with an endless array of comic books (graphic novels, as polite grown-ups call them). It was easier to find Tintin than Camus. A dozen adults perused the section, and I stood dumbfounded while my wife finally located a map and guided us to the Opera House, where I feared a musical production of Dumbo might be in full swing.

For the last few years, I have been told repeatedly by eager publishers that graphic novels are going to be all the rage here in America. A few even ventured that Japanese Manga was going to infest our stacks like Kudzu has taken over the South. I continually try to understand Manga and have come to three conclusions: all the characters' eyes are way too big for their faces, all the girls wear mini skirts that would have been scandalous in the 1960s, and somehow the genre must be related to Hebrew, because you read it backwards.

The predictions finally seem to be coming true. We are becoming graphic-novel crazy. My store is expanding its graphic novel section for the second time in as many years. Sure, it's still not as big as the mystery or science fiction sections, but it is growing steadily. I'm relieved to say that Manga is not leading the charge. People are interested in Persepolis, Sandman, Sin City and now, after the movie, V for Vendetta.

I have found some solace in these more traditional graphic novels. Superman and Batman were my heroes as a child. The Watchmen, Sandman and Hellblazer got me through my bachelor 20s. The other day, when I found myself holding a gift card, I thought it was time to update my collection. Like a kid on a limited allowance, I browsed through dozens of books and finally selected the first two volumes of Transmetropolitan and the opening book of Ex Machina. I was looking for characters that I could relate to, interesting art and settings that weren't too outlandish.

Spider Jerusalem, a chain-smoking, Hunter-Thompson inspired journalist, is the lead character in the dystopian future world of Transmetropolitan. He inhabits a world that no one in their right mind would want to live in. Advertisements attack people in their dreams, and even household machines have addictions in this alien-implanting society. Warren Ellis comes up with the fantastical stories, but a team of illustrators led by Darick Robertson make his wild ideas seem real.

Transmetropolitan really takes off after Ellis has established the ground rules for his insane universe. Jerusalem's job as a columnist allows him to naturally delve into all the nooks and crannies of his city. We find out about people that download their brains into a super-computer and get rid of their bodies, we visit reservations where people are voluntarily brainwashed into forgetting contemporary society and live as Aztecs, we discover the terrible fate of those cryogenetically frozen back in the 1990s. It's a mad, mad world and I love it. No traditional novel could so readily take you into the future the way Robertson's explosive drawings do.

Ex Machina won the Eisner Award (the graphic novel equivelent of the Emmy's) for "Best New Series" last year. This book is set in our world, specifically New York City, 2002. Mitchell Hundred has retired as America's first and only super hero to become the mayor of the Big Apple. An electrical accident gave him the ability to hear machines talk and he can also give them commands. He can tell a bus to stop, he can turn off all the lights in New York City, but in the end, he was only able to save one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11.

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days starts out promisingly enough, as we are given the background story, but by the end, we are left scratching our heads as to why anyone would want to be the mayor of New York. Hundred's two main crises involve an artist who has offended everyone in the city and a serial killer who is picking off the city's snow plow drivers. Who turns in their super hero tights for that? Still, Brian Vaughan has created an interesting post-9/11 world that has some real potential, and we can only hope the mayor has an opportunity to be a little more heroic.

I can't wait to dive back into the stacks and discover what the French have known all along -- graphic novels are great fun. Also, if they are well written, like Transmetropolitan, they can become a vehicle for commenting on religion, television and other sacred cows in our society. All of this has me saying, "ooh-la-la!"

Friday, September 01, 2006

The next Marley and Me?

What do you get when you cross the bestselling Marley and Me, the tear-jerking memoir by John Grogan about his dog's death, with last fall's sleeper hit A Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's heartbreaking work about the death of her husband and daughter? According to HarperCollins, the answer is Mark Doty's forthcoming memoir Dog Years.

This crazy comparison game is a favorite that publishers play when they are trying to sell new titles into bookstores. When I read, "part Marley and Me, part A Year of Magical Thinking," in the catalog, I looked at my Harper rep incredulously and said, "what, the dog and his spouse die at the same time?" The rep deadpanned, "it's two dogs and a lover with AIDS." When I showed the catalog to other people in the office, we had to wonder if Harper took out an ad seeking someone who fit this profile. This is all kind of a shame for two reasons: Doty is one of our greatest poets, a truly sensitive writer, and he really went through this incredibly difficult and painful experience.

Doty's isn't the first book and certainly not the last to get the Marley and Me treatment. Harcourt pitched Thomas Healy's memoir, I Have Heard you Calling in the Night, as Marley and Me with an alcoholic. When I heard this, my colleague and I replied in unison: "The dog drinks?"

As you might have guessed, this game drives me crazy. I think it is disingenuous as a sales tactic and also a disservice to all of the books involved. I can't recall how many books were supposed to be the next Angela's Ashes. There was never another Angela's Ashes. Frank McCourt's writing style is unique, the setting is originally drawn and the emotions are brutally honest. The book was a hit because it was unlike anything else. To constantly hawk every new memoir as the next Angela's Ashes diminishes McCourt's accomplishment. Also, I can only guess how many worthwhile books got sold as another Angela's Ashes and then were quickly seen as a disappointment because they were never appreciated for what they really were.

Many books used to get compared to Pam Houston's bestselling short story collections. Pam and I are friends, and each time I saw her I would tell her of the different books being billed as "in the tradition of Cowboys are My Weakness," or "part Pam Houston and part someone else." Pam usually rolled her eyes and said, "Wow, I'm a tradition." The ironic twist to this is that Houston's latest book, the novel Sight Hound, isn't even in the Pam Houston "tradition." Unlike Houston's other books, the lead character isn't always seeking solace with difficult men, but she's in a relationship -- albeit a crazy, humorous one -- and the focus is on the love she has for her ailing dog. If it was being sold now, it would be hailed as a fictional Marley and Me, because the beloved dog dies in the end.

I realize that publishers need a quick handle to sell books -- after all, Harper was showing over 500 books to me the past two days --but I can't believe they know just how trite all of these silly comparisons sound. It's a running joke in the office. I mean, how does Harper want me to react when I see the quote about Doty's book? "Oh boy, we should buy at least a 1000 copies, if it's going to sell like Didion and Grogan's memoirs."

We read memoirs because we want a new experience, we want to meet a unique person. What we loved about Marley and Me was much more than the surface story. A great book can be about absolutely anything. Somewhere in the beginning of the book we fall for the author's voice and we trust him to take us somewhere special. When the writer fulfills that expectation, when he tell us of an experience in a voice so personal it almost feels like our own, then we have the real potential for a great book. Perhaps Marley and Me, despite having a completely different storyline and setting, was the next Angela's Ashes. I can't guess what the next Marley and Me will be, but I'm positive it won't involve a dog.