Ann Patchett Considers the Back List of Six Big Fall Writers
Oldies But Goodies from Jesmyn Ward, Jennifer Egan, Nathan Englander and More
Imagine you have a new baby who’s getting all the attention from everyone who walks in the door, while meanwhile your perfectly well-behaved older children don’t get the time of day. Imagine how lovely it would be for someone to say, “I think this new baby of yours is so terrific that I’m inclined to invite your 7-year-old to the park.” Wouldn’t that be nice? Or conversely, imagine someone saying, “I love your 7-year-old so much that I’m going to babysit your new baby, because based on past experience, I know your children to be delightful.” I bet both scenarios would rock a parent’s heart with joy.
Well, for writers, the older books are a little like the older children. If you ever want to make an author happy, just tell her you’re reading her back list. When a new book comes out, the new book gets a ton of attention—reviews, interviews, a book tour—all the things that will help it get launched in the world, while the back list sits quietly on the shelf (if it’s lucky, because bookstores don’t have infinite space to stock everybody’s back list). I like to think my books are all connected, and the idea that one will help the others along makes me feel like the Patchett books are part of a big, happy family that looks out for one another.
As long as I’ve got a metaphor going, let’s take it one step further: what if the arrival of your friend’s new baby makes you realize that the last kid is now 7 years old and you still haven’t sent a present or a note of congratulations? Do you want to read the new book when you have yet to attend to the author’s previous titles? It’s a question that bears considering.
This fall brings a host of Big Books by Big Authors, and I thought it would be nice in these waning days of summer to address the issue of the back list. Maybe you’ve never read any of the author’s books before, or maybe you’d like to re-read your favorites, or maybe you’d just like to be reminded of those wonderful previous books so that you can pre-order the new one. (Hey, people, Amazon’s not the only outlet for pre-orders: a lot of independent bookstores are happy to send you the book you can’t wait to get your hands on, right on the day it’s published.)
Please note: for the purposes of this back list report I’m listing only one title per author—my personal favorite—though each author has plenty more books to choose from. Do some digging. There’s gold in them there bookshelves.
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing (9/5)
Back list favorite: Salvage the Bones, published in 2011: Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for her second novel. I bought it when it came out simply because I loved the cover (a white dog on a green background, very minimalist). It’s the story of a family in Pass Christian, Mississippi, just before Hurricane Katrina. The challenges of daily life are almost insurmountable, but when the storm barrels toward them an entirely different level of survival comes into play. The writing is so fresh and vivid that I can close my eyes all these years later and see Esch and her brothers and that white pit bull like they’re sitting in the room with me. If you have any interest in hurricanes or brilliant novels, you don’t want to miss this one.
Nathan Englander, Dinner at the Center of the Earth (9/5)
Back list favorite: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, published in 2012: If you bought this book and only read the title story you’d be getting your money’s worth. It’s a straight-up masterpiece that is surrounded by other masterpieces like “Camp Sundown” and “How We Avenged the Blums.” The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I would love to know if Nathan Englander ever gets tired of being compared to Philip Roth, or if Philip Roth gets tired of it. I’m guessing not. This is a book that could stand next to Goodbye, Columbus (you’ve read Goodbye, Columbus…right?)
Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (9/12)
Back list favorite: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, published in 2011: Frankly, if I had published The Swerve in 2011 I would still be in lying on some beach in the South of France, marveling at my own genius. It’s the story of how “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius was lost, and how it was found, and how the finding and reading of the text changed the world. Do you ever feel that intellectual discourse has come to a screeching halt these days? Read The Swerve. It won the Pulitzer in 2011. It will make you whole again.
Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark (9/12)
Back list Favorite: History of Love, published in 2006: Nicole Krauss is one of those rare authors who manages to imbue her novels with both great intelligence and great heart. This is the story of Leo, the old man upstairs who is so much more than he appears to be, and Alma, the young girl who is determined to unravel his secrets. This is one of those books that never goes out of style.
Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach (10/3)
Back list favorite: A Visit From the Goon Squad, published in 2010. Here’s a fun fact: I was worried about this book when it first came out. The cover wasn’t great and the title didn’t exactly draw me in, and it was published around the same time as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which seemed to be getting all the attention. Boy, was I wrong. A Visit to the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer and received the universal love and attention it richly deserved. It was and is an insanely original book in which narrative and point of view and story all seemed to play on musical chords. If somehow you missed this one you’re going to want to correct your mistake immediately.
Jeffrey Eugenides, Fresh Complaint (10/3)
Back list favorite: The Marriage Plot, published in 2011: Sure, Middlesex might seem like the obvious choice (it won the Pulitzer in 2003) but my heart is with The Marriage Plot. It’s the story of Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell, what they do with their educations after they graduate from Brown, and what they do with each other in a love triangle based on yearning and projections (as love triangles so often are). There’s a lightness to the book which is underscored by a Jane Austen theme, even as it tackles weighty topics.
I’ll stop there, but I hope you’ll stop by your nearest bookstore soon and ask your local booksellers about more back list titles. I know they would be happy to show them to you.
A version of this post also runs today at Parnassus Bookstore’s blog, Musing.