05.13.09

The Literary Life

The Daily Beast’s Sara Nelson attends a party at Zadie Smith’s New York apartment, selects the most exciting novel of the fall (so far), and makes the case for literary piracy.

It was billed as an end-of-year bash for those involved with the Columbia University creative-writing program, but it seemed like the party at the Chelsea apartment belonging to Zadie Smith and Nick Laird was better attended by writer/teacher stars than with those aspiring ones they teach. Among the guests, the fortyish literary set: Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Eugenides, Chang and Eng author Darin Strauss, creative-writing chairwoman /novelist Binnie Kirshenbaum, memoirist Sean Wilsey (with his two small children)—and New Yorker fiction editor Deb Triesman, among many others. (I’d heard a rumor Nathan Englander was there, too, but I’m not sure I spotted him.)

I suppose it’s possible that a disgruntled Amazon employee could leak, say, an unedited manuscript of the new Stephenie Meyer novel, it’s probably more likely that a breach would happen at a not-so-tech-savvy publishing house.

For the record, Smith and Laird have a great apartment-cum-deck, but there’s nothing particularly grand about it and it was kind of odd that Smith would host such a gathering, because I heard she has actually chosen NYU for her academic home. (She also once had a fellowship at Harvard, which may have inspired On Beauty.) And except for a slight mishap—when a bit of the deck slipped downward a few inches—it was a night of little drama. Which, given the egos involved—and the fact that the invitation counseled invitees to alert their hosts in advance of any standing literary feuds—was the most surprising part of all.

There were, obviously, a lot of writers hanging around April’s L.A. Times Festival of Books—in the large and free-food-stocked green room and at the L.A. Times Book Awards that were held downtown one evening.  James Ellroy (who one year was interviewed on stage by Joseph Wambaugh) was the local hotshot in residence. My favorite was Michele Huneven, whose 1998 novel Round Rock is near and dear to some obsessive readers’ hearts and should have won an award for most unknown great book. Huneven may get that or a better award next year, though, when her Blame appears in the fall: I snagged a galley and now defy anyone to find a better, more sly novel about this country’s love/hate relationship with AA than this one. Even James Frey (who was nowhere to be found—could it have been that scathing review he got for Bright Shiny Morning from the L.A. Times?) would be impressed.

And never mind Somali pirates—how about that piece in The New York Times about literary piracy? Alarming as it was, it didn’t address the one issue that has made some publishing folks the most paranoid: that by emailing a manuscript to one’s own Kindle means that it must pass through the Amazon server. (Some prefer the Sony Reader because files never live anywhere but on a computer’s hard drive and the personal device.) Until I read Motoko Rich’s piece, I thought they were just being nutty, and typically publishing-paranoid: Granted, the Kindle has hardly been glitch-free and while I suppose it’s possible that a disgruntled Amazon employee could leak, say, an unedited manuscript of the new Stephenie Meyer novel, it’s probably more likely that a breach would happen at a not-so-tech-savvy publishing house. But then, so could a ticked-off former publishing-house employee. Still, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you—or, as Rich makes clear, piracy lives in many hearts. (An ironic aside: Last October, at a panel at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the fiction editors were so concerned about piracy that they actually lobbied hard for digital-rights management; the information publishers—the ones whose straightforward texts seemed more likely to be hacked—were far less concerned.) For most readers and writers, though, the remark in the Times from novelist Cory Doctorow was probably the most apt; he, seemed thrilled at the thought that anyone would even think to rip off his work. I think the Times missed a chance here: They should have called this piece: “Steal This Book! Please”

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Sara Nelson is a critic for The Daily Beast and the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. She is the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.