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.
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