In the past many months, I confess to feeling jealous as Library Journal began reviewing eoriginals in genre fiction; I don’t assign reviews in that area, and I felt left out. So you can imagine my delight, not purely unselfish, when New York Review of Books announced that it would begin publishing select ebook originals in contemporary literary fiction and narrative nonfiction. The series, NYRB Lit, launches this September and will be edited by Sue Halpern, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, longtime contributor to the New York Review of Books, and author of several praised titles, including Four Wings and a Prayer and, most recently, Can’t Remember What I Forgot.
Halpern became interested in editing a high-end ebook series for two reasons. First, as she explained in a phone interview, Traditional publishing can’t accommodate literary fiction. Authors who aren’t immediately marketable, who don’t make a pot of gold straight out of the gate, are often neglected; stunning authors from abroad can have an especially hard time finding a foothold. In addition, said Halpern, she got tired of hearing that the brave new digital world would take away from readers and writers. As a writer I don’t want to hear that, she explained. Maybe the electronic platform can be used to our advantage.
As a writer and a reader, Halpern understands that with the multiplicity of books out there‚ and with the struggles of libraries and indie bookstores, historically the two institutions that offer big support for book culture, as Halpern observed‚ it’s getting harder for many of us to decide what to read. One of her goals, then, is to reposition literary fiction in the market. I’d like to be involved in making literary fiction a genre. One thing that’s clear in the social media world is that people love genres, and one thing that publishers love about genre readers is that they are highly identifiable because they identify themselves.
Halpern sees the distinction between literary and commercial fiction as questionable; obviously, plenty of literary fiction is juicy good and sells like hotcakes. But literary fiction does stand out for its allegiance to language, in her felicitous phrase, as well as its commitment to ideas, to a larger sense of where we are. To find authors who rivetingly deliver that one-two punch of gorgeous words and gorgeous thought, she’s been actively soliciting agents both here and abroad‚ and shaking off the illusion that if we get a book Monday, we can publish it Tuesday. With ebooks, there’s not the physicality, but the rest of the process is the same.
NYRB Lit will publish monthly ten times a year (skipping February and August), and the books Halpern has found so far are richly promising. September brings us Whitbread Award winner Lindsay Clarke, whose The Water Theater won the 2011 Fiction Uncovered Award in the UK. Its protagonist, reporter Martin Crowther, is fighting a personal battle as he tries to convince the estranged children of his dying mentor to visit him one last time.
Zena El Khalil, a visual artist, activist, and 2012 TED fellow, reflects on leading a normal, even cosmopolitan life in the midst of war in Beirut I love You in October (It’s a voice I’ve never heard, declared Halpern). In 1948, coming in November, 84-year-old Yoram Kaniuk recalls his experiences as a young soldier during the Israeli War for Independence, choosing to call the book fiction because he can’t claim total recall. That book won the prestigious Sapir Prize in Israel.
December offers up Sahitya Akedemi Award winner Kirin Nagarkar’s Ravan and Eddie, the story of a friendship between two boys‚ one Hindu and one Catholic‚ in a Mumbai housing tenement. Pulitzer Prize winner Katharine Boo, whose recent Behind the Beautiful Forevers examines slum life in Mumbai, has called it a masterpiece. Finally, in January, look for On the Edge, a psychological thriller by Swiss writer Markus Werner, which has been published in 15 countries and sold 400,000 copies in Germany.
As of now, all NYRB ebooks, including NYRB Lit titles, can be bought through Overdrive, 3M and Baker & Taylor. For libraries, the current one copy/one user policy remains in place, but while NYBR books are distributed through Random House, Random’s pricing policy doesn’t apply. These books are all priced at $9.99. Look for LJ reviews soon, and remember when you buy you’ll be defining a trend: literary fiction as genre, great for one and for all.