This episode, two big new novels of fall. First, why is Jonathan Franzen’s work so beloved and Jonathan Franzen, the author, so polarizing? Novelist and critic Thomas Mallon will join us to talk about Franzen’s latest book, “Crossroads.”
And what’s Josh Ferris’s new novel about? Ferris will join us to talk about his latest book, “A Calling for Charlie Barnes.” Alexandra Alter will be here to talk about what’s going on in the publishing world. Plus, we’ll hear from two brand new critics, Molly Young and Alexandra Jacobs. This is the Book Review podcast for The New York Times. It’s October 15. I’m Pamela Paul.
Novelist and critic Thomas Mallon joins us now from Washington, D.C. He writes about the new Jonathan Franzen novel, “Crossroads,” this week in the Book Review. Tom, thanks for being here.
Thanks for having me.
We will talk about this new book, but I do feel like we need to do a little bit of a Jonathan Franzen primer because there seems to be an assumption that everyone knows, has read, has an opinion, maybe has not read but has an opinion, about Jonathan Franzen, and then there are a lot of people who don’t know what any of this is all about and why everybody gets all heated when talking about this particular novelist. So let’s just start with Jonathan Franzen himself. Who is he?
Well, he’s, I guess, about 60 years old now, maybe a little past that. And I think he first came to people’s awareness — most people’s awareness — about 20 years ago with “The Corrections” and particularly because of his little dust-up with Oprah Winfrey when he didn’t want to be part of her book club. I took pains in the review I wrote not to address that episode since it seems to follow him around for his entire life.
But I tried to review this new novel in the context of these big books from “The Corrections” on, “The Corrections,” “Freedom,” “Purity” and now “Crossroads,” the books that people have really, I think, been aware of. He has a couple of substantial early novels, but I don’t think they’ve been much read in recent years. And a lot of people do seem to have a problem with him in a kind of visceral way. I’m not entirely sure why.
I think he’s never less than an interesting novelist. He extends the tradition of realism into our time. He is very civic-minded. He’s issue-oriented. I think he has a yearning to be prescriptive. One of his characters says, “How to live, that’s the big question.” He’s a man of enormous skill. But he does seem to get under people’s skin in a way that is a little bit baffling to me. I don’t know why.
Oh, darn, because I was going to say, why, why, why? But you don’t know.
I don’t know. I mean, it’s maybe this sort of bespectacled and serious aspect of him. He writes, too, about, in a way, a large demographic of American life that is, by all kinds of cultural forces, being pushed a little bit toward the margins now, whereas forever, it seemed to be the mainstream. And he’s really writing about Protestant middle America. And he’s extending a line of fiction that was dominant in America for literally centuries, and not just middle America, but on the Eastern seaboard as well.
I mean, you go back to James and Howells and John P. Marquand and Updike. And in many respects, he’s an heir to Updike, I think, to Updike’s people, or a kind of isotope of Updike’s people. And I think that for that reason alone, he seems to — I don’t know — perhaps irritate people as being a kind of throwback. But he’s an important writer and has a lot to say about a lot of different things.
He’s consequential. His books are large. They’re relatively few and far between. Years go by between them. And I think he’s trying to engage with the culture in a way that makes him remain a novelist. He’s very issue-oriented. His books are about preoccupations, political ones, consumerist ones, all of these big thematic issues.
But he’s trying to engage with them as a real novelist. He’s trying to dramatize these ideas and these issues through plausible people. And I think he struggles with that, has great success with it at times. And I think that that’s kind of laudable. I think there are other novelists — I mean, Richard Powers is much in the news right now with this latest novel.
And I like Richard Powers’s early work very much, but I think today, I have the feeling that he sometimes seems less interested in being a novelist than in being a saint. He’s overwhelmed by these issues and what may be our impending earthly apocalypse in a way that doesn’t help him as a novelist, whereas I think Franzen remains very alive to people, to agons both large and small. And his work, it has its irritants, but it has a lot of vitality to it.
You mentioned earlier that Franzen has a lot to say about a lot of things, and I actually read that he tries to keep his politics out of his novels. Do you think he succeeds?
I think one of the things that makes him worth reading is his effort to do that. And he wrote sort of famously about this 25 years ago when he was struggling in this essay that he updated a few years after he wrote it. And, you know, it’s really about his efforts not to be a scold and his efforts to write about people and what he calls the novelist’s duty to entertain, as opposed to — his phrase is “the burden of news bringing.”
And I think he tries to strike that balance, whereas I was indicating that of late, Richard Powers is overwhelmed by it and theme is in danger of crushing character and narrative and things like that. And Franzen strives mightily to have this balance in his books, but he is fundamentally a social novelist. And his basic unit of society is the family. Always, families are important in Franzen, and we move outward from the family into the business, into the town, into whatever the larger units are.
His novels are likely to remain as indicators of what the world was like at the time he was writing. This new novel is a little bit different in that he’s going back 50 years. The Nixon era is now definitely historical novel material.
They’re finally coming around to your period here. OK, before we get into the time and place, I want to pause on something you said, because you were saying he’s really interested in family. And I just read an interview with him in which he said, people think I’m a family novelist. I’m not really a family novelist, but maybe, finally, I’ll write a book about a family. I mean, what do you make of that?
I’d have to say no. If the shoe fits, you need to wear it because —
We’ll tell you what kind of novelist you are.
The Berglunds or the Lamberts or the Hildebrandts, I mean, these are families. I think when he moved away from families in “Purity,” the novel that preceded “Crossroads,” I think that was when he really, in a way, ran into trouble. There were family connections, but they were buried in secret, and they had to come to light. And that was, to some extent, what the book was about.
But I think he was a little bit unmoored in that novel. And it did not have his strengths. And I think that’s the novel of his that a lot of people started and never finished. There’s nothing wrong with being a family novelist. Most novelists have been, I think, in one way or another. It’s the way in which a novelist becomes a social novelist. In order to be universal, you have to be parochial. I mean, I’m hardly the first person who’s made that point.
And I think that the small conflicts within families, certainly in Franzen’s families, they’re often brought about by larger social issues. The family members don’t agree on how to live, to ask that question again that Walter Berglund asks in one of his books. They have different views of what priorities are, what proper behavior is, what ethical behavior is.
One of the things that his characters are always doing is they’re trying to live ethically. They’re often failing at it, but it’s a constant preoccupation for them. And I think that that, too, in a way, makes him sort of a throwback. He’s not really interested in characters who are exploring their own identities the way fiction is so preoccupied with that right now, especially autofiction.
But identity politics governs the country right now. And questions of identity, individual identity, I think govern our fiction to far too great an extent. Franzen’s characters are, in many ways, trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be as citizens, as citizens of their town, as citizens of their country and the world. And I think that that’s a healthy thing. I think that the social net that he casts is very important.
And to try to do it in the way that he does to try to struggle to maintain the intimacy of a novel, to have living, breathing people and not just have some abstract clash of ideas, I think is a really noble and necessary effort. He almost raises the question of whether a character can be over-realized and that sometimes the characters are so round, they have so many dimensions to them, that they lose any edges. We almost know too much about them at times.
And he has a way that I’m not entirely fond of, of kind of withholding a character’s early life until you’re well into the book. And then you get this large flashback, which almost begins another story. I do feel sometimes, when I read him, that I’m reading a novel that is a series of linked novellas, the way that sometimes you read a novel that is a series of linked stories, sometimes consciously, deliberately so. Sometimes that becomes a kind of default way of presenting bits and pieces that never quite cohered in a normal novelistic fashion.
He is interested in doing things through people, through characters, and characters that are not all like himself. I mean, there are obvious bits and pieces of his experience in his books. That’s certainly true of this new novel, “Crossroads,” where he’s clearly drawn upon his own experiences as a young person in a church group that was operating in his hometown in Missouri, but I don’t think he’s fundamentally interested in presenting his own experience in a book. And I continue to feel that that’s largely a healthy thing.
I was going to say, it’s very refreshing.
And I mean, I think it’s Eliot who talks about poetry being a relief from the self. I’ve always felt that that was the case with fiction in my own novels. And I always try to approach criticism of novels — when I’m writing reviews, when I’m writing criticism, I always try to approach it as a practitioner of the form and to bring in my own experience.
I don’t think that being a critic ever made me a better novelist, but I think being a novelist myself has probably made me a better critic of fiction, simply because you think of it in terms of how you try to do it yourself. And I know that in my own books, I’ve always felt better the further away from myself I was moving. Even if I was writing about the history that I lived through, it was still history. It wasn’t me. And I think that that’s how he generally approaches his own times.
Let’s talk about time and distancing a little bit because we think of Franzen as a novelist who looks at the way we live now. But as you mentioned earlier, this novel does not take place now, unlike his other fiction. This novel takes place in what is now a historical period, the Nixon era. As a novelist, you’ve worked in this area. Why this time and place?
Well, I think the ‘70s were an enormously interesting decade. The ‘60s still gets more press than the ‘70s. But I think it was Updike who said that the ‘70s were the — it was the decade when the ‘60s trickled down to every man. The real social changes that were enduring in America — the women’s movement, the gay movement, a lot of these things that changed daily lives — really belong to the ‘70s more than the ‘60s.
To some extent, even the fulfillment or greater fulfillment of the civil rights movement is a ‘70s phenomenon more than a ‘60s phenomenon. So I think it’s of definite interest in and of itself. And this novel is supposed to be the first novel in a trilogy. So my assumption is — I guess you’d have to ask Franzen himself — but my assumption is he’s going to bring this family forward, the Hildebrandts, several decades.
But it’s interesting to me to see him writing about the past, which he really hasn’t done up until now, because for a novelist who is very interested in social issues and who does have these not just descriptive tendencies, but prescriptive tendencies, who definitely has ethical opinions about politics, about how people live, it’s rather tricky to do that in historical fiction because it can only operate, to a certain extent, allegorically. Historical fiction is deadly if you try to write it as a conscious allegory to show how, well, that decade 50 years ago was just like things are today. And if you keep giving the reader an elbow in the ribs, it’s just fatal to the novel. He doesn’t try to do that.
But if he is trying to make points about the current world via the depiction of a world that’s 50 years old, it is trickier. A reader of “Crossroads” will have those moments. There’s a character, Frances Cottrell, who, she’s part of this suburban church group that has an affiliation with a Black church in the city, the south side of Chicago. And she is a kind of well-intentioned, blundering white liberal. She’s a highly realized character. But the blundering that she goes through, I think, will be familiar to people today who feel that racial tensions are such that they’re always about to make a wrong move, even if they don’t mean to.
So you’re seeing a kind of earlier version of that in Franzen. And when you read it in this book, you can’t help but be struck by certain similarities to current anxieties and current preoccupations. But it’s a different way of writing about society and writing about present-day society. And I think, finally, what you have to do — and I think, largely, he succeeds in this — is give yourself over to the period itself and realize that that was a living, breathing period. And it doesn’t really exist simply as some kind of template for today. You have to bring alive the time you’re writing about, just as if you were writing about the present day, in fact.
All right, speaking of allegories you mentioned earlier and also the past, you said this was a beginning of a planned trilogy. And he’s called the trilogy “The Key to All Mythologies,” which is, of course, the title of the failed novel or grand work of Casaubon in “Middlemarch.” So what did you think of that?
I’m not really sure. I’m going to have to see the second and third volume to know what he really means, although that title has come down to us as an example of hubris and blindness. There’s no such —
Right, like a fruitless, foolish errand of an idea that’s never going to be realized.
I think Franzen has a humorless image among a lot of readers. And I don’t think that’s entirely the case. There are a couple of clearly self-mocking, self-deprecating passages in his book, where he seems to make fun of his own maybe excessive attention to detail and so forth. Perhaps he’s poking fun at the futility of such an effort, the idea that you can explain anything in its entirety in a novel or in a book. I think that may be part of what he’s doing. But I don’t really know just what he’s going to be up to in the rest of this.
All right, final question — where does this novel, “Crossroads,” fall for you in the kind of pantheon of Jonathan Franzen novels?
It’s a lot better than “Purity,” the one that preceded it, which I think was the only one of the, let’s say, this big four, the four books of the last 20 years, the only one that I think you could count a failure would be “Purity.” But I would say this is probably kind of up there with “Freedom.” I still think “The Corrections” is probably the best of the four. But I think that this is a book that one can engage with.
I mean, I’m reading it as somebody who was the age of some of his characters 50 years ago. I was in college during the time he’s writing about. And so, I’m naturally reading it with a lot of memory in mind. I don’t know how vivid or resonant the book will be for people who are younger and don’t have living memories of that time. I’d be interested in seeing what younger reviewers and critics have to say about the book.
But I do think there’s a difference with this one. The writing in this book is a little bit looser. It’s not so much a tour de force. I mean, he is a stylist, Franzen. He has a peculiar kind of lyricism. And this book has fewer figure eights. The writing is not attempting to dazzle you in the same way that it is in some of the other books.
And I have the feeling that that’s deliberate. I don’t think that’s a slackening of his powers or his gifts. I think he’s trying for a different sort of accessibility in this novel. And I think the book would be interesting to his devotees, to people who have read a lot of him before now. I think it would be interesting for them to see a certain stylistic variance in this book.
Tom, we have to go. I want to mention quickly that many of your own novels have been recently rereleased in paperback. And just tell listeners quickly the title of your most recent novel.
My most recent novel is called “Landfall.” And it’s the third volume in a trilogy, a political trilogy. I’ve sort of become the chronicler of Republican catastrophe. There was a book called “Watergate” set, obviously, during the Nixon years, “Finale,” which was set during Reagan’s time, and “Landfall” is set during the time of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War.
Obviously, that’s very rich territory for fiction. Tom, thank you so much again for being here.
OK, thank you very much, Pamela.
Thomas Mallon is the author of many novels, including, most recently, “Landfall.” And he reviewed this week in the Book Review the new novel by Jonathan Franzen, “Crossroads.”
Something fun coming up from the Book Review — as part of our yearlong celebration of the 125th anniversary, we’re throwing a subscriber-only virtual event on October 25. It’ll be at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. Join deputy editor and regular podcaster Tina Jordan, some of our books colleagues here, and a few other faces you might recognize, as we share the classic books we got wrong and some we got right, plus, favorite letters to the editor, Book Review trivia and more. You can RSVP at nytimes.com/bookreview125.
Tina Jordan joins us now to help celebrate the 125th anniversary of The New York Times Book Review. Hi, Tina.
Hey, Pamela. So today, I’m going to bring you an opinion piece from 1903. It’s called “Objectionable Books,” and it appeared right about the time that what the Book Review thought of as fizzy, frothy novels were taking over. And here’s what the editor had to say.
“Some publishers are permitting their readers and other advisers to lead them out of the safe path, until lately there had been a decided improvement in the moral quality of popular books. Unless a great name, sometimes but not always signifying a great mind, is signed to a book, it is not safe for it to deal with generally avoided subjects in a frank or coarse way. Not many recent novels, either English or American, may fairly be condemned for coarseness, but one, which we decline to review this week and which possesses striking merits, is as brutally frank as any book by an 18th-century writer.” Now, you’re going to ask me what this book is, and —
— I immediately went to do a search, and the thing is, I don’t know! I searched advertisements, I searched the issue before, I searched the issue after. I looked at the date and went on ProQuest. So I’m inviting our listeners. Who knows what this really scandalous book from the summer of 1903 was?
I look forward to hearing nominees.
All right. Thanks, Pamela.
Joshua Ferris joins us now. He is the author of four books, three of them novels, “Then We Came to the End,” “The Unnamed” and “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” a collection of stories, “The Dinner Party,” and his latest novel, “A Calling for Charlie Barnes.” He joins us from the lovely town of Hudson, New York. Josh, thanks for being here.
You are welcome. Nice to see you — or talk to you, anyway.
That’s right. No, no one sees anyone, except on screen. How has the pandemic been for you?
Well, kind of a slow, long slog, I suppose, not much different from many folks. I mean, I was home for years before the pandemic hit, so it’s sort of like business as usual, but with an overhang of depression and grimness, I guess.
I mean, you’ve said previously you tend to work a 9-to-5 day, which I think is somewhat unusual for a lot of writers. I feel like I more often here the, oh, I can only write for a few hours, so I get the writing done, and for some people, that’s the middle of the night, and for others, it’s early morning. And then I feel like they have this really nice lifestyle. Do you actually work straight through from 9 to 5? And did the pandemic change that?
Well, yeah, I got clobbered by the pandemic. I just couldn’t find it in me anymore. And in fact, I’d been working on this book for a long time and just sort of — I don’t know — needed a change of pace. So I ended up doing different things and just writing less, doing a lot more reading. And it was just very, very hard, I think, for most folks to stay committed to whatever they were doing. And I certainly found that to be true.
The pandemic either knocked people out in terms of writers and their process. Or for some, they felt like it was a free, but less exciting and less social enforced writing colony. And a lot of people had a similar reaction to the Trump administration, where they either felt invigorated or defeated, what is it that I’m doing and what does it really mean? Did that have an impact on your writing?
Absolutely. I mean, there was all this sort of like — I don’t know — call it infrastructure or this stuff below the writing that when it gives way, the writing itself doesn’t have a lot of motivation or meaning. So as the world’s going to hell, it’s very difficult to sort of, for me, anyway, to take refuge in this thing that seems to be predicated upon life happening and good life happening. And I mean, whether it be meeting with friends or just feeling as if a certain optimism about the world.
And I can remember, actually, the closest analogy, although in a very different sort of — happened very differently — was September 11. After September 11, fiction felt so thin and unnecessary and kind of dwarfed by the event of that day. This was similar. It happened in a much more gradual way in that sort of steady drip, drip, drip of restrictions and big societal changes, but that same kind of underlying questioning and feeling of insignificance entered my work.
And I found it very difficult to get my stride back. Luckily, I was at the end of this book, so I could finish it and then move on and do something that I felt was more productive and out in the world and active and mitigating of those despairing feelings. But boy, the work really — it suffered.
What was it you did afterwards to mitigate those feelings, that out there in the worldness?
At that moment in time, so right around March, there was this fellow in Red Hook, New York, which is about a half hour from where I live — not even — had started this relief organization called Red Hook Responds. And all of a sudden, sort of overnight, these signs appeared in people’s lawns and out on the main highway to sign up.
And I called, and shortly thereafter, this guy was delivering, like, 100 meals a night to people in the community. I mean, he just did this lightning fast, and it was so extraordinary. And I kind of just jumped into that and spent a lot of time participating in the creation of this thing and in the execution of it. And it was such a contrast to the work that I had been doing.
Yeah, I was going to say, it’s like a diametrically opposed activity to sitting inside and working on a novel.
Yeah, and the perfect cure for whatever ailed me, because I was sick of writing this particular novel, that the work itself, as I say, was not coming very easily. And so, here was this just remarkable thing. And it happened, as I say, in lightning speed. And it was a cure for so much of the helplessness of that moment and the feelings of despair. I mean, this guy, his name is Dan Budd, and he runs a cafe called Taste Budd’s in Red Hook. And he just made it happen. And he brought the community together.
I think within that month, the month of March, he had, like, 400 volunteers and mobilized four or five different volunteer lines, like neighborhood chats and grocery delivery and prescription delivery and then these hot meals that brought together the restaurants who were suffering and didn’t know where their income was coming from. He got a small grant, and he would pay them to make these meals. And then he got this fleet of people to deliver them. And it was just a real antidote to everything that was awful about that time.
All right, well, despite the fact that you worked on this for, I guess, maybe six or seven years, and you were sick of it, it’s brand new and our listeners are not sick of it. It is new to them. Tell us what “A Calling for Charlie Barnes” is about.
I guess at the plot level, it’s basically about a guy who has floundered all his life until the moment that he gets pancreatic cancer. And his diagnosis is a little back and forth. He’s not really being honest with too many people in his life about what’s going on.
But eventually, this rather thundering and life-changing disease happens to him. He’s got to deal with it. He’s got to get an operation and go through chemo and all the rest of it. And he changes his life. That’s sort of the plot of the book, I suppose, but it’s narrated by a tricky fellow who is related to him and determines the narrative as much as Charlie himself.
All right, tell us about that narrator, Jake.
He looks and maybe talks a lot like me. He’s a novelist. He sort of mythologizes himself in a way that maybe people would think that a novelist can do. But he’s constantly doing that, not just with himself, but with Charlie as well. And he is slowly sort of taking the narrative over. In the first 100 pages or so, it’s probably pretty clear that Charlie’s telling the story. He’s got his ups, his downs. He’s got quite a lot of history there. It takes him through five marriages and three or four children and any number of failed business enterprises.
But it’s really Jake telling that story, and it’s Jake who’s determining that story through a sense of real loyalty and love toward his father and toward this man that is easy to look at a little dismissively for other people. Jake doesn’t do that. There’s something very endearing and very inspiring of loyalty to Jake about this particular individual.
And it’s really his devotion as a father that redeems him in Jake’s eyes. And because of that, Jake eventually mounts quite a big defense in Charlie’s name against those folks that would judge him a little differently, a little bit more harshly. So it really kind of becomes a kind of dueling narrative, to some extent, Jake versus the world.
You’ve said on previous occasions that when you write and you start with a character, you like to think about what their profession is, what it is they do all day. Why is that? And then, what is Charlie’s profession? And how does that play into who he is as a character?
Maybe there are some psychoanalytic reasons that go back to being a kid and being poor and growing up poor and not knowing where I was going to get the money I wanted to spend on the things that I wanted. I got a job as a young kid. I was out there mowing lawns by the time I was 10. And I worked at Godfather’s Pizza, cooking pizzas and washing dishes. And I worked there for about six months until the district manager discovered that I was only 11.
That was the end of your pizza career.
It was. But my mother was a very focused person. She was a social worker for 30 years. She was very devoted to her job. She went out late at night. 2:00 in the morning, would get emergency calls and would just be gone. She was an example for me. And my father was a little bit — was a little different. He was more of a dreamer. He was more of an enterpriser. He wanted to make a killing. He wanted to make it big. And so they had these real two very different perspectives on work and the nature of work.
And I probably just fall more naturally in my mother’s camp, but I was always very interested in my father’s dreaminess and his hope to make it big one day and that kind of — I don’t know — romantic illusion about what you can do out in the world. I mean, this is sort of symptomatic, I think, of people of his generation, the sort of midcentury American white man who would have the world — if he wanted it, the world was his oyster. And he would go out and conquer it and be a kind of Napoleon of the era or whatever.
And ultimately, it seemed to me, at least the way that it was promoted for men like my father, it ultimately seemed to be kind of bankrupt. There was certainly not a lot of ethical judgment in market capitalism. And we’ve seen this come to bear. The thing that passed for progress in my dad’s age is now seemed the biggest impediment to progress.
And that switcheroo was reflected in the 2008 Great Recession, when the book is set, where it suddenly seemed that all of the things that my father had dedicated his life to were corrupt in some manner, or at least, it was too easy to fleece the American public. And I think this was a wake-up call. At least, it was for me.
I want to go back to that period and your choice there and setting this in 2008, but we were talking about work and ethics and the influence of the profession on your writing and on your characters. You started out in advertising in Chicago in the ‘90s, which is a really good time and place for all that. Were you in account management, or were you on the creative side, writing?
Yeah, I was on the creative side. I had an English degree, right? So what else was I going to do? I don’t think I was qualified to do anything but that. And even then, I wasn’t terribly qualified. I mean, I remember going and giving the first set of headlines or copy or whatever, and I had written 2,000 words for a 50-word advertisement. I mean, I thought I was still in academia or something. I was still an undergraduate.
I had a lot to learn, and I learned quite a lot about writing during that period of time. It was very useful to think about communicating, just getting away from essays and the things that I was writing in school and trying to win somebody over. It was very enlightening.
Did that inform your fiction writing in any way? I mean, any of the discipline that you had to pick up in writing to sell things?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think at its root, it really wants two things. It says, bring the world in. You’re not writing academically. You’re not writing to impress. You’re writing to sort of communicate about the wider world.
Randall Kennedy said something recently on the podcast that I liked and differentiating between writing in an academic setting and writing for magazines, say, or a book reader, which is that in academia, people have to read what you write. So you really don’t have to worry about them too much. But of course, everything else, they don’t have to read you. They have to choose to read you.
Yeah, I think what advertising says is, if you can communicate well and brightly with excitement to an eighth-grader, you will have done your job. And I think there’s something about that, just simply going forth and saying, well, does this really need to be so complicated? Can’t it be more winning? And at times, it can’t be because you have to deal with thorny issues or complicated matters or whatever it may be. And you have to go for something more elevated or complicated, but it’s not a bad rule to live by in general.
All right, well, show us. Would you read a little bit from “A Calling for Charlie Barnes“?
I would love to. This is basically Charlie becoming a young man. “His career as a working stiff began, for all intents and purposes, on a night in October of 1956, when a young lady named Sue Starter walked by him at a high school football game as he was picking his nose in the middle of a dreamy youth. Against all odds, she found him fetching enough in his buzz cut and bib overalls to make a demand.
“Buy me a Coke,” she said. His reply was a dumb and startled look. “Who, me?” “What’s the matter?” she asked him. “Don’t you got any money?” Hell, no, he didn’t have any money. He had a curfew and a birthday: the sum total of his worldly possessions in 1956, and an indication of his sweeping power. At the sound of Sue’s voice, he woke from his boyhood as if stepping through an interdimensional shimmer dividing before from after, dreamer from damned, and vowed there and then to get a job.
Before long, there were more demands just like it. Buy me a milkshake, Charlie. Buy me a cheeseburger. Buy me those shoes in the window. Let’s go to the dance, Charlie. Let’s go to the movies. Let’s go to the state fair.
He would not last long as a paperboy — four months, by his current reckoning. At the time, it felt like an ice age, waking in the pre-dawn in the heart of winter, sick to his stomach from a lack of sleep, pedaling through the freezing dark and wanting to die long before bundling the first of those morning editions. He started looking for a new job almost immediately.
By the time he graduated from high school, he’d worked at a poultry farm, a lumber yard, the Lauhoff grain mill on North Avenue, and the refractory plant in Tilton, a two-mile walk. Never a calling, these jobs. Thrilling at first, with the promise of more pay and future potential, they soon grew dull and proved short-lived, premised as they were on a simple exchange — my time for your money. Not even good money, really — one cent a bushel, two bits an hour, three dollars a day.
But what amounted to pocket change and gave him a taste of power ended up blinding Charlie for too long: false gold foreclosing on too much, like a college education, a law school degree, partnership at a law firm (pictured in his mind as a crystal decanter on a mahogany bar cart” or perhaps some steady climb up the corporate ladder, a place in the academy or in the halls of power.
More damnably still, pocket change prevented him from seeking any ticket out of that dead-end town, as he was convinced he wanted what tethered him to it — a wife and child at age 19. Happily he took jobs, quit jobs, got fired, walked into storage closets and meat lockers, forgetting what he came for, his mind always on some more palpable dream.”
There we are with the jobs, the professions.
There it is.
You chose to set this novel during not one of the periods of disaster and heartbreak that we mentioned earlier, September 11, some of the recent Trump administration crises or the pandemic, but you went back to the good old 2008 financial crisis. What interested you about that period? And why that for the story?
Well, what interested me for the story, really, was the fact that this guy, Charlie Barnes, is in his basement, being a financial advisor. I believe that I put him there and made him a far less significant financial figure than those who had made quite a killing leading up to that time period, because he had ethics. He has ethics. He wants to do right by his clients. He doesn’t turn their accounts by selling and buying new investment vehicles for a commission, charges them a small fee, and he takes care of them.
And I think what I find so interesting about that time is that the people who were making the most, who were so lauded for the market value of their companies, made so much of their value through underhanded practices. And they became the talk of the town because of it. They were the names that were mentioned in the Wall Street Journal on a daily basis. And that paradox — to be ethical means to work from your basement, and to skirt ethics means to be a big name and make a big killing — really is at the heart of the character and, to some extent, the heart of the melancholy feeling that I have — that the book has — for the country and the future of the country.
All right, well, we have to leave it there. I will leave it to listeners to discover more in the novel, which is called, again, “A Calling for Charlie Barnes,” by Joshua Ferris. Josh, thank you so much again.
Thank you, Pamela. Thanks for having me on.
Alexandra Alter joins us now with some news from the publishing world. Hey, Alexandra.
Hey, Pamela. So, as we know from last week, there’s a new Nobel laureate. And there was a good deal of excitement when it was announced. It’s Abdulrazak Gurnah. And he made a very charming comment. He did a lot of interviews, of course, after the news broke and said, well, I could do with more readers, because while he’s often gotten stunning and stellar reviews from critics and he’s gotten a fair amount of awards recognition, his audience has been quite small, even by the standards of literary fiction.
Some of the Bookscan numbers from the U.K. showed extremely small sales for his books over the years, something close to 30,000 copies for 10 novels. And in the U.S., the numbers were even lower — a couple thousand for his books here. And not all of his books appear to be available here.
So, often, with a Nobel win, the first thing you see is the winner’s book shoot up the best-seller list. Everyone wants to know what the fuss is about, why they have received what’s considered to be the world’s most prestigious literary prize. And that’s certainly the case with Mr. Gurnah. A lot of people are looking for his books right now.
But one issue that is unique this year is that people can’t find them, especially in print. And this is partly due to supply chain issues. Often, publishers are able to quickly reprint books when there is a spike in demand. And so if they have the backlist for the author that wins, within a couple of weeks, new copies are flooding the market because they’ve seen a huge surge of orders, particularly from independents, but also from chains like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
But if you go to Amazon, you’ll see the print copy is not available. It says it’s currently unavailable. We don’t know when it will be available. Sometimes there’s a used hardcover you can get for hundreds of dollars. There are a good number of his e-books available. So I talked to a couple of his publishers in the U.S. And Bloomsbury has the bulk of his catalog here. They have six of his books. And the New Press also has one of his novels, “Paradise.” And they’ve actually had, amazingly, success getting these reprinted because they’re using a print-on-demand program from Ingram.
So their publisher told me that before he won the prize, they had 126 copies of his novel “Paradise” in the warehouse. Those were immediately spoken for, you can imagine, on Thursday. So now they have orders in for almost 12,000 copies, and they’ve already shipped out 4,000. They’ve gotten them printed on-demand. And so their hope is to also get digital copies made quickly. They’re looking into audiobook rights for “Paradise.”
One thing that’s different this year is we’re not seeing the immediate sales bump. But I think down the line, it’s typical for a Nobel laureate to gain a really big global audience. So I was in touch with his literary agent in the U.K. Mr. Gurnah lives in the U.K., and he’s originally from Tanzania. He grew up in Zanzibar, but has been in the U.K. since he was a teenager. So he has a following there, although it’s small. But his literary agent said they’re getting inquiries from all over the world. So you often see a real uptick in foreign rights translations, film rights, audiobooks.
This is one of those Nobel years where people who have been following him for a long time — for example, his U.K. editor, Alexandra Pringle, who’s just been devoted to his career, she said she was feeling despair last year when he had a new book out and it barely sold. She’s overjoyed now.
So I think we’re not going to see the immediate sales bump that we usually do, just because, as we’ve talked about before on the podcast, there are these major backups at the printing presses, backups with shipping, trucks, pallets. Everything you can think about ends up in the supply chain process is backed up right now. But with print-on-demand, one of the publishers is able to at least get one of his books out quickly. And I think others will follow when they’re able. So, I’m sure we’ll see his audience grow quite a bit.
All right, something to look forward to then, I guess, hopefully in 2022.
All right, Alexandra, thanks so much.
Joining us now from New York are two new book critics for The New York Times, Molly Young and Alexandra Jacobs. Hey, guys.
So, Alexandra, this is not your first time to the podcast. You’ve come on here as an author and as a critic. Tell us a little bit about your background at The Times and what brings you to the book critic role.
Well, I’ve been at The New York Times since 2010. On staff, I worked on the Styles desk, both as an editor, a features writer and a fashion critic. But I actually began writing for The New York Times writing for the Book Review. I think it was around 2005. And I never really stopped. I always contributed. And so it really feels like coming home a little bit.
And Molly, you are also not entirely new to the Book Review. You’ve reviewed for us. But give us your background and where you immediately came from.
I immediately came from another publication that has New York in the title, which is New York Magazine, where I was a literary critic for a couple of years, writing about books and language and random government documents that I found on the internet and et cetera. I took a pretty broad interpretation of the job title. But I’ve also been a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine for six or seven years and also have written occasional pieces for the Book Review. So, being here feels like I’m jumping into the mosh pit of a concert that I was previously lingering around the edges of. And I love being in the mosh pit.
So New York Magazine has, of course, an amazing history of book criticism, with staff critics ranging from John Leonard to Walter Kirn to Daniel Mendelsohn and Kathryn Schulz. What was your approach to that role? And did it differ from that of previous critics for New York Magazine?
Yeah, I kind of took a much wider approach. So I wasn’t just thinking about books, but I was thinking about words in general. I thought of my mandate as words in any form, so whether that meant writing about common corporate jargon or Twitter phenomena or a book, just pretty much any place in culture where language appeared.
All of our critics approach their job in different ways. So I kind of want to take through, step by step, with each of you what your process is. And the first question a lot of people want to know is, well, how do you decide what to review? Alexandra, let’s start with you. How do you make that choice?
Thus far, I’ve been reviewing what I’ve been told to review. But I really enjoy poring over each publisher’s catalog and just sort of seeing how books are presented. Fall is the most exciting season. It’s like when they show their most important titles. It’s a very old-fashioned process, in a way. It changed since the pandemic a bit. A lot of things are being received by PDF. But for me, there’s really nothing like flipping through those catalogs.
What is it like having to look at PDFs, as opposed to seeing what I think of — and I’ll probably be attacked here — but what I think of as real books?
I really prefer printed books to PDFs. However, the wonderful thing about PDFs is the searchability, which is a great boon for fact-checking.
And Molly, what about you? How do you decide what to review?
I am that annoying person who insists on the publishers sending me paper books. And sometimes that really irritates them, and sometimes I receive, instead of an actual galley, a sheaf of papers that some poor intern has been forced to print out and collate by hand. But I have zillions of those stacked haphazardly around my room with post-it notes attached to them.
And the post-it notes are cryptic, and I’ve scribbled them to myself. And they have notes about what might be interesting to New York Times readers and what I think is worth highlighting. And sometimes there’s a book that I think is worth directing people away from if it’s not great. But mostly, it’s just, I have a room filled with books. It’s very flammable. If someone wanted to take me out, they could just drop a match in my office, and I would be toast.
I’m going to dwell a little bit on this paper question because you’re far from the only annoying person. Most of the people on the books desk, the Book Review, the people who handle features and news, and the critics, much prefer print to electronic for work, and often for pleasure. And it’s very hard sometimes for — I don’t know — say, people 18 or younger or just very high tech-forward people to understand how an old-fashioned media might be preferable to a newer one. Why? Why paper?
Well, I think the young folk will come around. I mean, the thing about a book is that it’s a perfect technology. It’s kind of unimprovable. And for me, the thing about paper books is that I can’t multitask while I’m reading a paper book. Whereas if I’m reading it on a screen, there’s always that little temptation to go doink around on the internet. And any excuse I can take to avoid that temptation is very appealing.
All right, next question. Moving along in that process, another thing I think that people are really curious about when it comes to professional critics and reviewers is, how do you read differently when you know you are reviewing something, as opposed to just having fun with a book? Alexandra?
I mean, the main thing is, I take notes. I read quite quickly, so I might do one pass of a book where I’m not taking notes and then another one when I am, especially for fiction. But I mean, certainly when I’m reading just for fun, I’m not folding down corners or underlining or scribbling in margins or doing any of that nonsense.
What about you, Molly? What makes work reading different from play reading?
Well, I’m a slow reader, actually. So I do the double read method, where I will do one pass of a book where I’m just reading it for the kind of overall gestalt of the book. And then once I know that I’m reviewing it, I will reread it with a pencil in my hand and I’ll take notes. And I’ll be more actively kind of forming an evaluation in my mind, rather than just absorbing it.
Each critic of The New York Times has, obviously, different tastes, different areas of expertise. Jen Szalai, of course, only reviews nonfiction. Dwight is our primary poetry person. But you’re all pretty wide-ranging. If you had to describe the areas that most interest you and that are sort of your sweet spot, what would you say, Molly?
Oh, God, I think my sweet spot is actually probably way too big. I mean, I’m just kind of endlessly curious. And whatever catches my eye catches my eye. And it would probably be a great thing if I could narrow it down. But sadly, that’s not the case.
When you read, do you like to switch it up? Do you need palate cleansers? Or do you tend to deep dive and say, OK, I am now in a full-on Anita Brookner stage or whatever it might be?
I like to alternate. I think it always reminds me of listening to a Beastie Boys song, where the three rappers are alternating lines. But I like to read — I’ll read David Graeber, a history about debt, and then I’ll pop over to a Sally Rooney book. And then I’ll go read some alt lit from the internet era 10 years ago and kind of be skipping back and forth. I think it keeps me on my toes.
What about you, Alexandra?
Probably my sweet spot is — I’m a biographer myself, and I am attracted to biography and memoir and personal stories and also books that are not exactly books but more news moments. I’m fascinated with people sort of representing their selves or having their selves represented in the page because I feel like there are some parallels between a book and a life, always, even in fiction. That tension fascinates me.
OK, here’s a big philosophical question, but people tend to have a kind of guiding philosophy around criticism. Some people want to be there for the reader. Other people prefer to write a purely personal response. Some people like to be very factual. We’ve had critics who really don’t ever like to be negative or like to have a very light touch, people who focus on a kind of description versus those who like to analyze or roam freely among the arts and draw parallels. Do you have a philosophy, Molly, in particular, when it comes to book criticism?
Well, first of all, I think you have to write negative reviews. If you don’t, the positive reviews won’t mean anything. So you really have to be honest and willing to candidly appraise a book if it’s not well executed. But for me, I think one interesting thing about books is that if a critic is reviewing a movie or a record, there is a very high chance that the reader will already have some familiarity with the thing being reviewed. So if Jon Caramanica is reviewing the new Ariana Grande album, then many people will listen to the previous one. And so, they kind of know the deal.
But with books, it’s much more often the case that this is the first time a reader is encountering the book or the author, especially if it’s a debut author. And so I can’t necessarily count on a pre-existing interest. And those are my favorite reviews to write because I feel like I’m kind of turning on a flashlight and going down a tunnel and trying to convince the reader to follow me in. And so my philosophy is to engage in a fun and interesting and entertaining intellectual exercise alongside the reader, rather than kind of subjecting them to an opinion that I’m handing down from a high place.
What about you, Alexandra?
My philosophy is to review the book that is written and published, not what I think it should be. I think reviewing for The New York Times is, in my experience, is different from reviewing for other places. We have a very engaged and exacting readership. And so, I’m always excruciatingly conscious of having to be accurate and fair because if not, we will hear quickly.
That is an interesting question. And I think it differentiates what we do from what a lot of other places do when it comes to literary criticism, whether it’s an online literary magazine or an old-fashioned book review that is not tied to a newspaper or just an online source of reviews. What is it about writing for The New York Times that makes reviewing different, in your opinion, Molly, now that you’ve been here for a whole week?
Right, now that I’m fully settled in. Yeah, I mean, I think The New York Times reader is super smart and super engaged and can’t fool them, can’t pull the wool over their eyes. And so, for me, I really try to think about the fact that a book is different than many cultural products, like a TV show or a movie or whatever, in that it requires a significant investment of time. And so part of my job is to make the case to our very engaged readers about why it’s worth it or to demonstrate why it’s not worth it to read a given book, given how many other tempting artifacts are on the landscape for them to consume.
OK, one last question. Our readers will discover, as you go along, what books appeal to each of you. But give them a sense, who are some of your favorite writers, generally? And it can be current or people who’ve died long ago. Alexandra?
In fiction writers, there’s a novelist I adore named Allegra Goodman. I love the work of Lionel Shriver. I’m actually reading her most recent novel right now. I love Martin Amis. My favorite author of all time is John Updike. I mean, I could go on and on.
I would say, if I had to stamp a label on my favorite kind of writer, I would say brilliant weirdos. And I take a pretty broad definition of weirdo, but I love John Waters, the movie director. He’s a great critic and writer. I love Mark Fisher. One person who I would describe as the most brilliant, most weirdo is Henry James. He’s kind of my all-star. Edith Wharton —
I love Wharton, too. Oh, sorry.
What about some recent favorites for both of you? Molly?
I loved a book called “Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun,” by Jeff Chon, is the name of the author. Talk about a brilliant weirdo. It kind of flew under the radar when it came out, but I gave it a great review. I thought it was super original, super funny. It kind of deals with issues of masculinity and race and class. And it’s quite unconventionally written, but also very page-turny. I loved that one. I loved the somewhat controversial, I guess, Patricia Lockwood book, “No One Is Talking About This,” a great novel about the magic and the disenchantments of the internet. And I loved “Intimacies,” by Katie Kitamura.
Alexandra, what about you? What have you read this year that you’ve loved?
I spent the pandemic in a sort of crouch of escapism, avoiding the 21st century. And the book I loved most this year was one I picked off a Brooklyn stoop, which was Anthony Trollope’s “The Eustace Diamonds.” And it sent me into a complete Trollope obsession that I’ve yet to emerge from. And so far, this year, I haven’t found any fiction to equal it, but that’s not the fiction writers’ fault.
I’ve only read the first Palliser novel, and they’re on hold in my brain for some theoretical time where I’m going to be — I don’t know — in a villa somewhere for a month with nothing else to do, and I’ll read the entire thing. But of course, that moment hasn’t come. All right, so let’s end with a fun question, which is, besides books, which are obviously everything, what other art forms, media, things do you like to read, do, see in general? Are you a dance person or a classical music person or a theater person? Molly, tell us.
I’m a movie person. I really love nothing better than sitting down with a bucket of snack in front of me and mechanically moving my hand from the snack to my mouth while being totally ensorceled by what’s happening on screen. And I’ve recently been on a binge of John Carpenter movies. I’ve discovered the great slasher films of the ‘70s and ‘80s and have been slowly working my way through those, which is a great palate cleanser.
As you might expect from a biographer of Elaine Stritch, I adore the theater. I particularly adore the musical theater. And I’m very much looking forward to the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” the gender-switched “Company” that is returning to Broadway this fall.
Well, we will also look forward to a lot more from both of you on books on this podcast and in the pages of The New York Times. Molly Young, Alexandra Jacobs, thanks so much for being here.
Thank you so much for having us.
Remember, there’s more at nytimes.com/books. And you can always write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I write back; not right away, but I do. The Book Review podcast is produced by the great Pedro Rosado from HeadStepper Media, with a major assist from my colleague John Williams. Thanks for listening. For The New York Times, I’m Pamela Paul.