Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

My little family has been hit with a stomach bug for the last two weeks, hence my lack of posting. We’re all better now, thankfully, and I’ve got some catching up to do. If I can manage it this week, I’ll try to write about Claire Messud’s two novellas, The Hunters and A Simple Tale; I enjoyed both very much. Messud is a very confident and intelligent writer and I’m looking forward to her next book, whenever it may come out.

I also read Martha Southgate’s The Taste of Salt. This is the second Southgate novel I’ve read – the first was The Fall of Rome. Southgate is an interesting writer because she very gracefully straddles black and white America in her work. She writes about black Americans who have made their way into academic white America, and she looks very sharply at the issues this migration entails. She manages to do this within a story that could be written from either a white or a black perspective – in other words, her stories are human while the tangential details involve race.

I’ve also made some good progress in Volume Two of Virginia Woolf’s diaries – she is writing Jacob’s Room at the moment and discussing process much more than she did in Volume One with regards to The Voyage Out and Night and Day. In a way, I see her gaining confidence – it’s very interesting.

I also read The Lola Quartet, a forthcoming novel by Emily St. John Mandel. Mandel is well-known in the United States if you pay attention to the independent presses. I consider myself a broad reader, but until I started paying more attention to the indie houses, I had never heard of her; once I did, I felt a little silly for not having read her before. She’s of my generation, she’s writing about contemporary America, she’s a very good writer. The Lola Quartet is her third novel.

It’s interesting to me, this split in the United States between the independent publishers and the bigger traditional houses. Obviously, there are aesthetic differences in terms of what gets published, especially when looking at some of the micro presses with very particular publishing agendas. But on the whole, the more I read from both publishing worlds, the more I find the separation false. Such great books coming from both sides of that divide – and yet many of the books published from the independent houses will get overlooked by the greater readership. I realize this is a situation that has probably always existed, but I do wonder about how it might be becoming exacerbated as those traditional publishers seem to get bigger and bigger. Something to think about, and research further.

Finally, I’m reading Lily Tuck’s I Married You For Happiness. Some years ago I read Tuck’s The News from Paraguay, and despite admiring her writing, I disliked the novel. I wish I could remember why exactly, but all I’ve got left is a vague notion of being dissatisfied, of feeling there was something vulgar about that book. I suspect it may be the fact that I don’t often get on with historical novels. In any case, I Married You For Happiness is worlds apart from The News from Paraguay. It is contemporary, intensely personal and involves math, marriage, infidelity and death – so far it is a lovely read.

8 Responses to “catching up”

  1. Helen

    Sorry you’ve been ill, that sounds grim. I’m glad you’re all better now!

    It’s interesting what you say about publishing. I couldn’t say about American publishing, and my experience has only ever been with independent non-fiction publishers, so my actual knowledge of the difference between the types of publishing is pretty small and confined to what I’ve read (which hasn’t been much contemporary fiction these last few years). But I think that in Britain there IS a slight difference. Independent publishers are more prepared to take a risk and I think that’s generally to do with their set-up, they are smaller and don’t necessarily need such a large profit margin on every book. They’re also more likely to direct themselves to a particular niche market. Certainly I think it’s fair to say that a very large proportion, if not most, of translated fiction in Britain is published by small presses. But I wonder if any of your other readers have some more definite experience?

    Good for you for being so open minded about Lily Tuck! I think I should try to follow your example. Unless I have a very strong suspicion that it’s the subject rather than the writing I have disliked, I don’t tend to give authors a second chance.

    • Michelle

      Helen, you’re exactly right for the US independent publishers as well. Risk isn’t such a problem and these places are able to take books that might not ever see the bestseller lists, but are still wonderful pieces of literature. The translation market is also held aloft by indie houses in the US, so that seems universal. (And bless them for doing it!)

  2. litlove

    Oh you poor things – stomach bugs are the worst! Very glad to hear you are feeling better now. Claire Messud is someone I keep meaning to read, and Martha Southgate, a new name to me, sounds fascinating. I am very tempted to go and look for something by her right now! You are always reading very intriguing authors, Michelle!

    Oh and before I forget, the best book on publishing (in America and the UK) was Merchants of Culture by John Thompson. A very subtle and sophisticated study of the industry.

    • Michelle

      Thank you, Litlove, I’ve made a note of the Thompson book on publishing and look forward to reading it!

  3. Lilian Nattel

    I’m glad to hear you’re better! I also wonder about the divide, and whether indie publishers may get more readership in the e-universe.

    • Michelle

      Yes, I think the Indie houses spend a lot of their time working with book bloggers, for example, to help with marketing their authors. But I don’t know if more general readership readers read more from the Indies than from the big houses – I think the big houses still win on that one. Something I have noticed is that once a reader becomes interested in reading from the Indie houses, they often become fiercely loyal. So in that sense the independents promote an image of themselves that appeals to certain readers.

  4. Biblibio

    Just a warning: my experience with Messud’s novel The Emperor’s Children left me with a very different impression of her writing. To be frank, I hated the book. Poorly written, badly characterized, and overly pretentious, it certainly did not come off as intelligent (but certainly overly confident…!). Some readers have found more depth to it than I have, but I quite disliked it…

    As for indie publishers, I used to think that the divide between the indies and the major publishing houses was exaggerated and overblown. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that because smaller publishers don’t rely on certain guaranteed bestsellers (the authors who carry the weight for most of the publishing house), they can be more specific and particular with the books they publish. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re inherently better than anything the majors might publish, but more precise. Does that even make sense?

    Also, I definitely agree that readers can become very loyal to a specific publisher if they like its output, but that can also be true of larger publishers. It’s just that with larger publishers you have so many more options that you’re bound to find quantitatively more books you dislike, though proportionately the same as the smaller presses… Because of this skewed approach, I think it’s easier to become more loyal to a smaller press, but not necessarily more justified…

    • Michelle

      I read The Emperor’s Children maybe three, maybe four years ago, and I liked it. I didn’t find her writing pretentious, so I’d love to hear what gave you that impression. I didn’t agree with all aspects of the book, but for satire (which is very hard to accomplish, I think) I liked how she handled much of her social critique.

      Yes, I think you’re spot-on about how smaller publishers can be more specific about what they publish. Their lists tend to have a particular feel to them, which means they can more easily attract followers. But it also means they might never gain a wide readership. I’ve been really excited to see several new Indies comes into being in the last few years – like Atticus Books and Engine Books – that have a broader list and a lot of energy for promoting their writers.

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