Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New Interview in Poets & Writers

Thanks to Nathan Bransford for pointing to a Poets & Writers interview with Jonathan Karp.

If you pay attention to publishing, you already know that Jonathan Karp is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve, the Hachette Group imprint that only publishes twelve books a year.

I had a particular reason for being interested in this article. Four months ago, in late June, Mr. Karp gave another interview . . . to the Washington Post. During that interview, while talking about the "ephemera" on bookstore shelves today: "self-aggrandizing memoirs by recovering addicts; poignant portraits of heroic pets; hyperbolic ideological tracts by insufferable cable TV pundits" -- you get the picture -- Mr. Karp made the following statement:
Many categories of books will be subsumed by digital media . . . Readers of old-fashioned genre fiction will die off, and the next generation will have so many different entertainment options that it's hard to envision the same level of loyalty to brand-name formula fiction coming off the conveyor belt every year. The novelists who are truly novel will thrive; the rest will struggle.
Humph! As a proud writer of formula fiction and a devoted reader of genre fiction, I found Mr. Karp's humor engaging, but his comments patronizing. And I responded:
While Mr. Karp and I are in agreement that consumers today have a dizzying array of choices on which to spend their entertainment dollars, I think his hope that "the age of disposable books won't last . . ." is somewhat elitist. I suspect it is also a form of self-soothing for a man who suddenly finds himself trying to cope with a turbulent industry facing radical change.
The new interview left me with a different opinion of Mr. Karp . . . I'm sure he's relieved [grin]. I found him self-deprecating, generous with his praise for both his authors and peers, and thoughtful.

In talking about Seabiscuit, one of his non-fiction books, Karp said
"What I learned from editing that book was just how important it is for a book to actually leave you with a feeling. I had been a very analytical guy up to that point, in terms of my editing. For nonfiction, I had always assumed that if it made sense and was well written and had an important point to it, people would respect it and like it. But that isn't what it's about, ultimately. People have to be moved by it."
My love for genre fiction was imprinted on my soul at a very early age. I was a spooky little shrimp of a kid, all orange hair and freckles, and scared of my own shadow. I was also a huge fan of boys' books. I preferred the brash courage found in those novels over the pallid books written for girls. I can remember reading all of Edgar Rice Burroughs (especially the Barsoom and Pellucidar series) and all of Zane Grey.

As I look back on those days, I suspect I was vicariously trying on different emotional suits, learning how it felt to be brave and fearless and decisive.

Those "disposable" formulaic genre novels provided me with the hope that I would one day be able to step out of my corner and be audacious.

I've often said on this blog that readers seek specific emotions when they buy genre novels. And I don't think that need will ever go away.

The author of the interview asked Mr. Karp "about the three main reasons why people read . . ." He responded,
". . . there are three Es. People read for entertainment, education, or the expressiveness of the language. The best books combine all three . . . I was so amused that right after Seabiscuit, people began publishing all of these books about horse racing. They completely missed the point. The book didn't succeed because people were dying to read about horses. It succeeded because it was a beautifully written story that was emotionally satisfying and interesting from beginning to end."
Jonathan Karp completely won me over when, in talking about the only novel he'll be publishing next year, he said: ". . . it's one of these novels where characters reveal things that, in your own life, people never say out loud."

What a delicious thing to say about a novel.

To read Mr. Karp's June interview in the Washington Post, go here.

To read his latest interview in Poets & Writers, go here. He has some great insights into the relationship between writer and agent, too.

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