Monday, September 12, 2011

How A Book Is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding

Chad Harbach is broke. He's spent all 10 years of his post-Harvard life writing a novel that, at one point, even his best friend calls "insubstantial." He writes, and rewrites and writes more. Then, he gets his break, and it's a big one. An up-and-coming agent falls in love with the novel, and sells it for $665,000.

That's the basic origin story of this year's debut du jour, The Art of Fielding — a novel I've been describing to my friends as The Help for dudes. (I haven't read it yet, but my copy just arrived and I can't remember the last time I've been so excited to read a book.) And the piece that describes Harbach's odyssey from struggling mid-20s New Yorker to the toast of the literary world is one of the more interesting pieces of journalism I've read in a long, long time.

The article actually takes the form of an 18,000-word e-book written by Keith Gessen. It's an expanded version of an article that appears in the October issue of Vanity Fair. Gessen and Harbach went to Harvard together, remained close in their post-college years and founded n+1 (a Brooklyn-based literary journal) together.

So Gessen has VIP access to Harbach's story. And it's a fascinating one, to be sure. But how The Art of Fielding went got published is also the vehicle that allows Gessen to give us a behind-the-curtain look at the publishing industry. Drawing on his own experience (Gessen published a novel titled All the Sad Young Literary Men a few years ago. I read it. It's okay. Not my favorite book ever, though.) and that of many of his publishing industry friends, Gessen discusses the health of the Big Six publishing houses, their often contentious relationship with Amazon, all that goes into marketing and publicity for novels, as well as how they're sold to bookstores, how a cover design comes to be, and what it's really like to be able to hear from your agent something like "Yes, David Pietsch, David Foster Wallace's editor, has said that if we accept Little, Brown's offer, he'll personally edit your book." How awesome is that?

How A Book Is Born costs $1.99 as an instant download from Barnes & Noble or Amazon. I can assure you, it's the best two bucks you'll spend this week. If you don't have a Nook or Kindle, you can download a Nook or Kindle app for your PC or Mac to read this piece on your computer; that's actually what I did. Isn't technology great?


  1. I finished The Art of Fielding over Labor Day weekend, and truly, you won't be disappointed. Especially if you like baseball, but that's certainly not a prerequisite to loving the book. I thought it was fantastic.

    I also JUST bought How A Book Is Born this weekend, and deeply want to read and review it in conjunction with, you know, the actual book. I'm glad it's worth my hard-earned cash :)

  2. I loved The Art of Fielding, so thanks for bring up this book...just bought it for my Nook.

  3. Okay, okay, I'm buying it now. This whole thing is kind of pissing me off though because: 1) I already wanted to read The Art of Fielding, having become way fonder of baseball since moving abroad (it also helps that the phillies are kicking ass), but thought I could put off reading it for a year or so, 2) I never, NEVER get tired of reading about publishing and contentious relationships with Amazon, but would not have to read an 18,000 word article on these things if it wasn't all wrapped up with the book of #1, and 3) now i just have to read both of them, shuffling some long-suffering books off my reading list.

  4. I bought this ebook when I first heard about it. I'm still waffling, however, if I should read it before or after I read The Art of Fielding. I imagine both would offer intriguing rewards.

  5. I'll spend the $1.99 before I commit to the book; though who am I kidding -- I'll probably buy the book as well.
    I've had my nook for a year and never thought to look for essays. Thanks for the heads up.

  6. Thanks for bringing those books into my attention. Even though The Art of Fielding is too rich for my eBlood I'll certainly consider the How a Book is Born.

  7. I've been eyeing this one for a while. I'm a sucker for baseball stories (have you read Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella? wonderful little novella) and this one is getting rave reviews. I'm going to go download How a Book is Born now, thanks for the recommendation!

  8. Great ost! I've had the first on my radar but hadn't caught up to the first.

  9. Given the fact that I completed the final draft of my Iraq War novel this summer and it's now making the rounds of publishers while I breathelessly wait for that Cinderella-story phone call from my agent, Harbuck's tale hits home. "How a Book is Born" is an instant click for me. Thanks for the great write-up.

  10. That should have been "breathlessly."
    Did I mention I also need an editor? :(

  11. @Kim - I DO like baseball - hence, my total, utter pee-my-pants excitement for this novel. Glad you've vetted it as very good - not that I was worried. ;) And yes, Gessen's piece is very worth everyone's cash.

    @Melody - Nice - enjoy!

    @Ellen - 1) Baseball rules! 2) Me too - and Gessen's article is about as an "intimate portrait" of the publishing industry as I've ever read. Just fascinating. 3) You do. These should be priorities. :)

    @Nomareader - My advice would actually be to read the novel first. The ebook is fantastic, but it gives a little more away about the plot than I'd normally like before reading a book. But that may just be personal preference.

    @Suzanne - I've been so close to buying a Nook so many times, and if articles like this push me even closer. I love the idea of the instant ebook/long-form journalism. The Nook (or other e-readers) is the perfect medium for something like that!

  12. @Man - Do it - it's a great read!

    @Pete - I'm a sucker for baseball novels, too. I grew up on Matt Christopher books! I haven't read the one you suggested, but I'm on it like Pujols on a hanging slider.

    @Pam - Thanks. Hope you enjoy it!

    @David - Good luck with your own Cinderella-story phone call! I can't even imagine what that type of anticipation must be like. You're a better man than me. Cheers!

  13. Loved ART OF FIELDING. Found HOW A BOOK IS BORN to be an articulate and enlightening peek into the publishing industry. But I swear to God, if Gessen mentioned his writing career or the writing career of his Brigade of Young, Hip, Writer Pals ONE more time in that book, I was going to throw up all over my iPad. Seriously, the books was about Harbach and FIELDING. Not Gessen. Not Gessen's girlfriend. Not their quirky male friend who wrote a memoir about wearing dresses. Geez!