Popular novels come in pairs

Posted on May 31, 2011

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I know this is an oversimplification that will annoy people, but here goes: novels, it seems to me, often become popular in pairs, by subject matter. It’s happened three times that I can think of in recent years (I’m sure there are many more examples but I’m thinking only of cases where both novels have gained a lot of positive buzz and earned great reviews, right around the same time), and when it does happen, I think it’s to the detriment of each book on its own. Or maybe in terms of sales, it’s actually a booster, I don’t know.

My first observation of this was a few years back when I read and loved Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, only to start seeing great reviews only a few weeks later for Personal Days by Ed Park. “Much is likely to be made,” wrote Mark Sarvas in his 2008 Times review, “of the similarities between “Personal Days” and “Then We Came to the End,” Joshua Ferris’s 2007 National Book Award finalist… But considering the ubiquity of the work experience in American lives, and the thousands upon thousands of novels published annually, perhaps the question shouldn’t be why there are two work-related novels right now but why there aren’t many more.”

Well, sure. But that sound and fair logic belies the reality that, each book being independently worthwhile or not, most readers are unlikely to read two books that approach a similar topic in similar ways. And the Ferris and Park books are indeed similar: I recount the ways here. (The covers even look the same.) And though they came out a year apart, that’s close enough to make it seem like a very “of the moment” trend from that time.

The same goes for four other books in which I’ve taken an interest. First, Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges and Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, which were published closest to each other of the three pairs I’m discussing here: the former in October 2010, the latter only four months later in February 2011.

I read The Privileges and really liked it. From the first sentence it is appealing in an airy, cute way. (“A wedding! The first of the season.”) I haven’t taken the time to write any long review of it here and won’t because it’s slim and I don’t have anything especially interesting to say either critical or laudatory, other than that it’s a great beach read (which is not to say the writing is not at a very high level; it is, but the book is easy to follow and moves quickly) about a young, imperfect marriage and the trouble with making big money. (It is also about the young son resulting from that young, wealthy marriage; his storyline is the best part of the book.) It’s a story that only flirts with the financial crisis, really in fact doesn’t touch it at all beyond the husband’s insider trading, despite the fact that it became widely identified as a novel that was a product of the economic collapse. It was very well reviewed, and deservedly so, though I don’t believe it is destined for modern classic status the way that, say, Netherland seems to be.

Union Atlantic, too, deals with the wealth, and indulgent lifestyle, of young bankers/hedge-funders/analysts, and the ramifications of the economic crisis. It’s very different from The Privileges (Haslett’s book is really more about a real estate battle between its army-vet main character and a sympathetic old woman, as well as the main character’s controlling, unhealthy sexual relationship with a teenage boy), but nevertheless, they are continually mentioned together, and Amazon suggests one to you when you’re viewing the other, and both have been included in articles about the fictionalization of the market meltdown. So I have trouble believing that many people will want to devote time to Haslett’s novel if they’ve already read Dee’s (or vice-versa), because I expect them to think, “been there, done that.” That’s too bad, because I read both and liked both. (Perhaps the fact that I did read both of them negates my argument, but I don’t think I’m a fair example, because I read far more fiction than is healthy.) I liked both but my edge would go to Haslett’s book, which alters narration between the male protagonist and a smart, bitter old woman who talks to herself and hears the voices of her two dogs in her head (I have to assume she is at least partially inspired by Beryl Peoples from Nobody’s Fool). Dee’s novel is more adept at showing the intricacies of romantic relationships (Union Atlantic‘s only romance is the sick, submissive sexual connection between the older guy and younger boy and it is flat and loveless), and at making you love, pity, and also resent, at times, the characters. And yet Union Atlantic has stuck with me more in my mind.

Finally, and similarly, we have Witz and The Instructions, only the second of which I’ve read (all it took was the free Kindle sample of Witz to know I couldn’t stand the writing style). The first, which dropped May 2010, is Joshua Cohen’s 800-page darkly comic dystopia about the sudden destruction of all Jews except for one, Ben Israelien, and his subsequent ascent to pop culture idol (it sounds very Survivor). The other, published by McSweeney’s six months later, is Adam Levin’s 1,000-page doorstop that delivers a similarly far-fetched, though slightly more plausible story about a 10-year-old that thinks he may be the Messiah. While I’m sure these books are very different and offer varied experiences, and I expect their authors would especially protest their pairing (fascinatingly, and foolishly, the Times tapped Cohen to review Levin’s, and he was not too kind), it’s hard to overlook the fact that both are very long, very ambitious books, about Jewish young men, by Jewish young men. And while each of them interests me, the chances that I would read both (and shit, I read almost everything) were slim.

So I’m not at all suggesting that authors of any of these books were conscious, when finishing up their work, that a similar tale was being written or about to come out. Some of them may have spent six years on their book and had no clue when it would finally come out. A similar phenomenon happens in the film industry: actors shoot a movie and never have any idea when it will show up in theaters. (This, famously, was the case with Natalie Portman, who was criticized when previews for that shitfest No Strings Attached started popping up on TV right around when Oscar buzz was building for Black Swan. People kept commenting that the No Strings Attached marketing assault was undermining her Oscar chances and budding reputation as a serious actor, but what could she do? She likely had no clue they’d come out any time close to each other. Furthermore, No Strings Attached came out right around the time of Friends with Benefits, and they had the same exact plot; bad, bad timing.)

I’m merely realizing the irony inherent in this occasional publishing snafu, if it’s fair to call it that, and suggesting that at least in my view, it’s unfortunate when it happens. Publishers ought to communicate better, because in one year, I’m unlikely to read two novels about the office, or two about the economic meltdown, or two about insanely complex Jewish fantasies, but were those pairs to be split up by a few years, I’d dive into all six books. But again, there’s also the likelihood that both achieve a little boost in popularity or press coverage thanks to the other. And yet in most cases one comes out clearly on top in terms of sales and reviews.

Any other similar subject pairings you can think of in novels that came out around the same time? And, if you’ve read both of the books in the second or third pair I’ve mentioned, would you recommend one over the other?

Posted in: DBR Blog