We live for the road.
There’s nothing that a writer wants more when he’s in the middle of a book. It shimmers there before us, like some blacktop highway mirage. The time when the writing is finished, all the writing and rewriting, the endless revisions and the copy editing, and the editor’s notes. When the book appears at last, a tangible, irrevocable thing between hard covers, and the publisher sends us out to meet the public, our fans, and read to them from what we’ve done. A 10-city—no, 15-city, 18-city—tour. Giving out autographs, flying to places we’ve never seen before, staying in first-class hotels with an expense account. Being driven door-to-door by helpful media escorts who grab our bags, make sure we’re fed, whisk us from one bookstore to another.
Then comes the Friday night in Winnetka, Illinois, when you pull up to a street where the only light is coming from the bookstore, and you realize this won’t be good. There’s one customer inside, and the reading is canceled, but you talk him into buying a book anyway. There’s the night in Memphis, Tennessee, when no one shows up, an evening spent signing stock with the store staff. There’s the afternoon in a small, depressed Arkansas town when, after the helpful media escort has driven you past mile after mesmerizing mile of ripe white cotton, you’re greeted by the depressed owner of the local, depressed bookstore, who tells you that the promised crowd and the television film crew have all been canceled, preempted by a big football game. Three middle-aged women walk in, escorting their senile grandmother, who they’ve brought back to town after an absence of 70 years to see what she remembers, which is nothing. The bookstore owner flips a thumb at you: “Why don’t you do your little show for them?” And you do, dear reader, you do.
We hate the road.
For the likes of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, for the writers of certain detective fictions, romances, teenage-vampire series, pet horoscopes, Star Wars novelizations, dog-buddy stories, celebrity memoirs, novels that have recipes in them, and other peculiar genres, the book tour is indeed a triumphal, rock-star road trip, complete with lines out the door and readers dressed up in costumes. For the rest of us, for those of us who just write, the book tour can be a lonely, disorienting experience, one that will tempt you to do any manner of ill-advised things.
This is the story of how one writer lost his way altogether on the road: the funny, farcical, occasionally scary tale of a novelist who became an object of vituperation from any number of people he never met; castigated on book blogs around the Internet as the “whiny,” “favorite son” of the literary establishment, a “hysterical,” “young MFA grad”; and—much less hysterically—even made the target of a Webstalker promising physical harm to his family.
It’s difficult to fathom if you know the subject. The last thing Darin Strauss resembles is an Internet pugilist. A scruffy, soft-spoken, 38-year-old writer with an absentminded smile and a sneaky sense of humor, he looks a little bit like a graying Jake Gyllenhaal. A faculty member at NYU, where he teaches writing to both graduate and undergraduate students, Strauss has published three novels that have garnered good reviews and good sales—good enough, at least, to afford him a two-story home in Windsor Terrace with his wife, the Newsweek writer Susannah Meadows, and their young twin sons. It’s the sort of publishing success that is much rarer than it may seem, something that Strauss himself is the first to acknowledge: “I feel bad complaining about anything.”
Yet beneath the success lies a more uneasy story, the sort that many writers have—a lifetime of feeling like an outsider, even a fraud. Despite growing up in Roslyn, Long Island, Strauss was one of only a handful of Jews in his school—a status that once provoked “what was, seriously, a 15-on-15-boy fight” in his grammar-school yard. Thanks to his family’s history of spectacular rises and crashes in the real estate and construction industries, “people at school thought we had a lot of money,” with Darin growing up in a big house with a pool that, in fact, his parents could barely hang on to, and which they lost after he went to college. Then, at 18, real tragedy struck. Strauss was driving some friends to play miniature golf one sunny, spring Saturday morning, when a girl he knew in high school suddenly swerved her bike in front of his car, for reasons that were never determined. She bounced off the windshield, and was killed instantly.
It was an accident that Strauss recently talked about on This American Life, and one that he writes about with excruciating honesty in a forthcoming issue of GQ—right down to his recollection of how, while still dazed minutes after the accident, he played up to a couple of pretty, rubbernecking girls who happened by: “. . . knowing the girls were still watching, I dropped to my knees and covered my head with my hands, fingers between the ears and temples, like a man who just won the U.S. Open. This movie-ishly emotional reaction, acted out for girls I’d never see again, is one more stomach-turning fact of that afternoon.”
Absolved from any wrongdoing by the police and a bevy of witnesses, Strauss was supposedly forgiven by the girl’s parents. Yet, soon thereafter, they sued him for millions of dollars, a case that was eventually settled out of court for a nominal fee, but not until it had hung over his head for five years, leaving “this financial ruin looming over me”—already a familial obsession. Beyond the money, Strauss was haunted by the accident’s randomness, trying for years to figure out how it could have happened and always afraid of someone not knowing “that I’m a good guy, or whatever.”
“I think the idea of her parents being out there and blaming me for her death was something that really bothered me for a long time,” he says now. “After I saw the article in the paper about the accident, I was always thinking, ‘Anybody in Long Island who meets me is going to know that I did this and get the wrong idea. They’re not going to know that she’s completely to blame.’ It’s funny—even watching a sitcom, if someone is misunderstood, I have to leave, or turn it off.”
For years afterward, he remained in a sort of lingering emotional shock, as he graduated from Tufts University and tried to scratch together a writing career. There was the part-time gig writing about the local nightlife for the Aspen Times while he worked in a bakery by day, and nearly a year of funk delivering Chinese food while living back with his parents on Long Island and reading all the classics he had skipped in college. More years of writing seven articles, every two weeks, for a financial-technology newsletter when “I didn’t understand anything about finances or technology. It was like writing in another language.”
The job plunged him back into a cauldron of unworthiness—”I got an ulcer from that job. I think it was from the stress, because I knew I was a fraud.” The ulcer was one of many physical manifestations of his guilt over the accident, as Strauss has written, including a possible hiatal hernia—”that haze of mystery discomforts called IBS . . . another murky ailment called CPPS, or chronic pelvic pain syndrome. My internal climate was a hurricane alley, where storm after storm had plenty of fuel to develop.”
Balm came in the form of an MFA program at NYU, where Strauss went to night classes and learned to write fiction under E.L. Doctorow and Peter Carey. Unlike most MFA students, his writing was never strictly autobiographical, but returned again and again to questions of identity, often placed in the most exotic settings. Strauss’s debut novel, Chang and Eng (2000), was a daring work about the original (literal) Siamese twins, 19th-century sensations who, in real life, as in the book, ended up as married fathers and slave owners in antebellum North Carolina—”the first famous interracial marriage in American history.” The Real McCoy (2002) was a still more experimental historical novel, this one inspired by the legendary turn-of-the-century wrestler, who kept altering his own identity.
Strauss’s newest work, by contrast, is a contemporary novel published earlier this year by Dutton: More Than It Hurts You. It’s a brazenly ambitious work, what Strauss likes to call “full-dress fiction,” a mass-audience story that’s also trying “to say something about America.” The plot revolves around a yuppie Jewish couple on Long Island whose infant son suffers a series of scary, unexplained medical episodes. The mother is accused of having Munchausen’s-by-proxy, a syndrome by which she deliberately causes harm to her own child in order to get attention. It’s a controversial disorder, one that some parents’-rights groups insist does not exist at all but which, according to Strauss, most pediatricians claim they’ve witnessed but will often let slide because it’s so hard to prove. In Strauss’s book, the situation is further inflamed by the fact that the doctor doing the accusing is an African-American single mother, who happens to have an ex-con, Muslim-convert, sometime-black-nationalist for a father. Ultimately, family, doctor, hospital, and community are pitted against each other, all under siege from a leering media that distorts every piece of information it’s fed.
Strauss’s own past is strewn throughout the story, from the damning newspaper articles to the stomach-churning court hearings. The African-American doctor, Darlene Stokes, is a good person, trying to do right, but one whose every motive is deliberately distorted by conniving lawyers and journalists. The seemingly ideal Jewish couple, the Goldins, are not really what they seem. In the end, through a series of brilliant set pieces and some flat-out, bravura writing, Strauss, like all outstanding novelists, elevates his personal obsessions to a wider indictment of our culture and its wobbly, often conveniently fraudulent relationships with truth and identity.
Now, all he had to do was sell the thing. The early reviews for More Than It Hurts You were overwhelmingly favorable, even exuberant. There was the usual, crowded New York reading to launch the book (New York readings are usually well-attended because so many of us live here and we fill each other’s audiences—something else that may have contributed to the badly warped impression of reading tours that most publishing executives seem to have), at which Darin even performed a comic guitar duet with his former agent, the comedian and satirist John Hodgman.
Then came the book tour.
We all have horror stories about the road. Authors love to confide them to each other, like trauma victims in a support group, though even there we don’t tell quite the whole truth. That audience of five becomes 10; that night no one showed up at all becomes three people, or two, anything . . .
No matter how bad it sounds, don’t believe us. It’s worse. I once read in a bookstore where the entire staff stood around quietly weeping because the place had just been sold and no one was sure who was going to keep their job. I read in a bookstore where there really wasn’t a place to read, but they invited me anyway, the audience stretching or hopping on tiptoes to peer into the aisle where I was standing. I read in a bookstore where nobody bought a book, even though I moved a full house to tears. Selling books is, of course, supposed to be the purpose. The writer is told, over and over, by publicity and marketing types, not to worry about the turnout—the main thing is to meet the bookstore owner or manager and establish a relationship. Then you get there and shake the hand of the second assistant night manager, working his way through college, who gets the name of your book wrong and stands in the back of the room, yawning and shaking his head sadly at the sparse turnout.
Indeed, from the writer’s point of view, the entire book tour is one that seems curiously designed by publishers and booksellers to diminish you and the product you’re all supposed to be selling together. No one takes responsibility for publicity—so, usually, there is none. Beyond this, there seems to be little recognition that reading is generally a solitary practice in 21st-century America. It’s something done at home, or in a library, or on the subway—an activity designed to withdraw you from the crowd, not join it.
I first met and became friends with Darin at a joint reading in a vineyard on Long Island. A small audience listened to us affably, then went back to browsing through bottles of wine—not our books. But this is what an author’s reading is now, too: something to garnish a vineyard, or an ethnic fair, or a street festival with a little class, a little color. We are become parsley.
For Strauss, the 22-city tour for More Than It Hurts You began in L.A.—with an audition for the chance to go to still more readings. Darin joined 200 other writers at a cattle call for the popular Jewish book fairs that are held throughout the country. Each author was given a number and two minutes to make his or her case, while a timer held up signs reading “30 Seconds” or “One Minute” as they made their presentations. It was a surreal scene, with Strauss slotted in between a kosher-cookbook writer and a Holocaust survivor.
“You’re supposed to look in the camera, and say your number and the name of your book. I said, ‘I’m number 98, which is kinda funny, because people always tell me: “That’s funny, you don’t look 98ish.” ‘ “
Crickets—though Strauss ended up being invited to a number of Jewish book fairs, which meant still more trips to still more cattle calls, vying for attention between the concentration camps and the prospect of a really good potato kugel.
The next event after the book affair audition drew only three people, and then no one showed up to hear Strauss read at Denver’s superb independent bookstore the Tattered Cover—despite the fact that More Than It Hurts You was number three on the local bestseller list. That night, back at his hotel, he went online and was informed by a fan about a couple of websites that were abusing him for things like his author photo. It was not a wise thing to tell a new father, already tired and strung out on the road, away from his life and his work and his loved ones.
“I thought, ‘I should see what they’re writing about me,’ ” Strauss recalls—a bad move for any writer alone in a hotel room, and particularly one packing his own blogs, the literary equivalent of a pumped shotgun. Strauss was guest-blogging at the time for both Newsweek and Powell’s Books, another great independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, and after checking out his Internet slams, his frustration bubbled over and he dared to write about the vagaries of the book tour.
Big mistake. Though we all violate it, the unwritten rule for all writers is, “Never let them see you bleed.” The author and journalist Allen Barra likes to relate how, whenever he complains, his wife repeats Lee Strasberg’s words from The Godfather II to him: “This is the business we have chosen.” Above all, there is no dissuading the unpublished, who are looking in. A free trip around the country, good hotels, nice restaurants, adoring fans—what could be better? I remember reading about such excursions myself before I was published, with an avidity that made me salivate. (But that was before Arkansas.)
The Net reaction to Strauss’s complaint was swift and vociferous. Comments on his own blogs ranged from “How dare you bitch about that!” to “You don’t deserve to have more than three people, you’re a loser!”
Two other blogs—deliberately composed of unpublished individuals who wore their rejection slips as badges of integrity—launched slashing attacks on Strauss without having read any of his work, mocking his complaints, the “smirky” author photo, his theories about writing and literary history, and the “millions of dollars” that had supposedly been spent promoting him (an exaggeration of More Than It Hurts You‘s publicity budget by several hundredfold). Vulnerable as only a writer with a new book out can be, Darin was goaded into responses that he would soon admit came to seem, well, pathetic.
“You guys are quite mean. And you certainly have your set opinions, without having read a word of my novels,” he wrote one blogger, then told another, “Keep having your laughs at my expense, in your little playpen”—comebacks embarrassing enough to leave Strauss, months later, laughing ruefully at himself. What took over was that overriding need, again, not to be misunderstood or misrepresented—that need to prove “I’m a good guy.”
“I think the thing that bothers me most, because of the accident, is people out there having mistaken ideas about me,” he sighs. “People saying, ‘He looks like a jerk,’ or ‘I haven’t read the book, but it seems like it’s crappy.’ So I had to address every single blogger who said the slightest thing about my book.”
To acknowledge a blogger is, of course, like giving rain to toadstools. “Does the WHOLE WORLD have to love him, read him, praise him?” read a typical reaction. When Strauss sent one of his tormentors a free copy of Chang and Eng, imploring him to at least read some of his prose before blasting it, the player-hater spent a week ripping the work apart practically line by line on his site, refusing to find any merit in it or even to acknowledge that the prologue Strauss had written to the novel was the actual beginning of the book. What followed was a further tumble down the rabbit hole, in which Strauss ended up exchanging gibes with him about the critic’s own, unpublished writing and arguing over the book sales of Melville and Hawthorne. Less pedantic, or amusing, was an individual who described herself as an anti-Semite, announced that she would be dead before the end of the year, and repeatedly threatened Strauss and his family until he went to the police.
It was a cautionary experience, as any number of other writers could have told Darin it would be—yet it may also be filling an awkward silence in our cultural conversation.
“It’s ridiculous to engage the reader on any level when they’re bitching and moaning, but kudos to Darin for crawling down the wires and dealing with these people,” says the novelist Colum McCann. “One of the reasons that happens is that writers aren’t fighting with each other anymore. There are no spirited debates among each other”—so fighting with one’s public may have to take up the slack.
“It’s like walking into the devil’s chamber,” says George Hagen, author of the novels Tom Bedlam and The Laments. “But ultimately, it’s kind of a devil you have to let in the door, because there are hardly any newspapers left. Anything you can do to make a fuss [is worthwhile]. There should be feuds among writers. There should be vendettas!”
Back in the mid-19th century, literary magazines promoted themselves by putting the nastiest reviews they could get on their covers. Both the targets’ friends and their enemies rushed to buy them, to pore over every word in Village saloons and coffeehouses. A century later, there was Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman battling it out on Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson. Now that the novel is, in Strauss’s words, “a much diminished thing,” the Internet might just have to take up this promotional slack.
The book tour is, after all, just one more dying relic of old-school book promotion, another example of how clueless the publishing industry currently is about pushing its own product. Word is the tour is being phased out, but publishers don’t seem to have anything to replace it. For decades, the major way to sell books has been through newspaper reviews and “by hand”—that is, on recommendations made by the owners and employees of independent booksellers. Both venues have crashed. Newspapers are sinking all over the United States, and they’re jettisoning their book-review sections first—they’ve vanished even from publications as prominent as the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Independent bookstores are disappearing even faster. In 1994, the independents’ trade organization, the American Booksellers Association (ABA), had more than 4,600 independent member companies, with some 6,000 stores. Today, it’s down to less than 1,500 companies and about 2,000 stores. Book publishers, unsure of how to cope with this World War I landscape, have continued to do mostly what didn’t work all that well before, including dispatch writers on long, fruitless loops around the country.
That may finally be changing.
“It used to be common wisdom in the retail industry that two things were immune to recession: books and booze,” notes Avin Mark Domnitz, chief executive officer of the ABA. “I don’t know about booze, but I can tell you that books are no longer immune.”
Domnitz attributes the industry’s losses to the fact that books are “no longer sold as a work of art. They’re now a commodity, just like any other commodity”—and with the loss of the small bookstores, that situation has been exacerbated. The struggle of the independents is more desperate than ever, but now their plight has redounded on the industry as a whole. The last two weeks have witnessed a raft of firings and reorganizations at publishing houses all over town—and more are expected. At least four different heads of major houses are already out the door, and even prominent editors with long histories of signing bestsellers and award-winning books have been canned. It seems increasingly unlikely that some of the most venerable firms in the business will survive, never mind the book tour.
Getting off the tour, at least, might not be the worst thing. Publishers may finally be forced to focus on the selling alternative staring at them through their computer screens. Just look at how effortlessly the blogosphere euthanized the moribund political analysis of the mainstream media this past election cycle. But the question, even for boosters of the Net’s potential, is establishing some kind of rules of the road . . . or rules for a knife fight, for that matter, just so long as the result is worth reading.
“A lot of those people almost ruined that experience for me,” notes Robert Mackey, a writer for The New York Times website, referring to writing The Climb, a blogged account of his time riding much of the Tour de France route this summer as a novice cyclist. While the overwhelming number of comments were positive, Mackey found that a group of self-described “bike snobs” kept sparking dozens of “weird, angry” comments that he had to edit, including the bizarre contention that he had no “right” to do what he was doing, or even that he should hand over his bike to a poorer, more “worthy” cyclist—a demand made by the cyclist himself. It was a black-hole conversation, one that produced infinite heat and no light.
“It was an unbelievable experience—like editing graffiti,” remembers Mackey. “It makes you feel awful about the world.”
This was, ultimately, Strauss’s complaint. In the end, it all worked out. He was able to score appearances on Good Morning America and The Craig Ferguson Show—not easy gigs for a literary novelist these days. More Than It Hurts You did well and is now in its third printing. The only thing missing, as so often is the case in fin de Bush America, is any intellectual engagement: No wider argument about his indictments of American culture or his writing; no discussion on whether or not Munchausen’s-by-proxy is a real, widespread mental disorder.
“The state of publishing is such that you can get all these great things, but people don’t talk about the work. They talk about you,” says Strauss. “There used to be serious critics and an audience. . . . Now, the audience is also in the critic business.” The model becomes Amazon, “where any cranks complaining about books can have the same weight as The New York Times.”
This should provide an example of Web democracy in action. But consider the fact that every writer I know nudges his friends and relatives to offset the mob rule by sending their own glowing reviews to Amazon and similar sites. The result is a culture where everything is a five-star book, and everything is fraudulent. It’s not so much democracy but a corruption of the public square, one that doesn’t so much improve writing as it forces each writer to become his own corporate PR department.
For Strauss, the result is a sort of vast, cultural “rot,” extending across art, music, and cinema, as well as writing. “We have created sort of a post-talent age,” where what began as the heroic overthrow of cultural elites has now devolved to the craven capitulation to the mob: “It’s commercial elitism as opposed to intellectual elitism.”
Others still find hope in the revolution, even while admitting how much static there is to tune out. “Every piece you write now becomes a conversation. Everything you write now has this long tail of antagonism and anxiety,” concedes journalist Jack Hitt, who has had his own tangles with bloggers over the years. “A little pleasure and praise, but mostly ad hominem [attacks]. All of a sudden, we have to argue with our bitterest detractors.”
Yet Hitt still feels that the potential of the blogosphere to revive an older, more valid form of argument far outweighs the weird, angry graffiti.
“The Internet’s returned us all to these sort of 19th-century critics who are trying to judge us by our voice, who are trying to hear the way our soul came through,” says Hitt. “Television just turned us all into courthouse gabbers. [That sort of] punditry is much more awful than anything the blogs have to offer.”
Judging him by his voice, judging him by the way his soul comes through would be fine for Darin Strauss—just so long as he is not misunderstood.