Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why Everyone Should Read and Enjoy Stephen McCauley, and Yet There is Still Something to be said That I Should Market it to Gay Men*

A blog post that uses as a jumping off point, our event with Stephen McCauley on Monday, June 14th...

One of the more curious side-effects of the mainstreaming of GLBT publishing is that you walk into a general bookstore and at least in most of them, you can’t find the gay fiction; it’s all mixed together. Sometimes you can’t even figure out that a book is about two men getting it on by reading the jacket copy; there’s a lot of code words that you have to unravel.

This is not necessarily a sales pitch for Outwords (though perhaps it is) or for a website (with its virtually unlimited way of categorizing, it can be all things to all people), but a real quandary of what does a person of non-mainstream sexual orientation when they want to browse, particularly fiction, though more and more stores will have their few LGBT (note, I use both acronyms alternatively) in current events, relationships, humor.) You can do your research beforehand, but then where’s the fun of the discovery.

I haven’t solved that problem, and though I want to play with fiction subcategories, I still fear the ghettoization of culturally meaningful fictions. (Translation—I don’t want Toni Morrison in the African American fiction section, unless I can cross shelve, but I can't afford to have two copies of all her novels in stock). You want to pump the sales of the more genre titles that you wouldn’t sell well unless you placed them together, but you don’t want to hurt sales of your other authors. I’d be a good test case of that. And we’ve found that our sales of books like David Ebershoff’s The Nineteenth Wife and even Sebastian Stuart’s The Hour Between have had a market as much to our core customer, which if you’ve shopped in a bookstore in the last 20 years, you know is middle-aged and older women.

Boswell, due to its location and somewhat eclectic mix of titles, probably has a stronger component of younger and male customers, but even still.

So that said, what to do about one of my favorite books this spring, Stephen McCauley’s new novel, Insignificant Others? It faces the double whammy in that it’s a comic novel, which as you know from reading my blog, does not get its share of respect , at least in the United States. I love one of the reviews that the publisher has been using, from Darcy Casper in the Los Angeles Times, writing about his last novel, Alternatives to Sex:

“A writer with a fierce, occasionally lacerating wit; a gimlet eye for human foibles; and a commendable willingness to dally in ambivalence and moral ambiguity with not entirely likeable characters—talents put to excellent use in his latest novel... How Americans were affected by Sept. 11 provides this novel’s leitmotif; fear, and how we sublimate or—much more rarely—reckon with it, is the theme. McCauley uses his twin narratives, and a bevy of subplots and appealing tertiary characters, to explore this material with impressive dexterity and a refreshing lack of portent. As always, McCauley has a light touch. The comic set pieces, clever banter and savagely efficient character descriptions for which he is known are all here. But make no mistake: McCauley is a social satirist in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde—and like them, he's a serious writer indeed."

I've been told by the publisher that Alternatives to Sex saw an upswing in sales for McCauley. I felt the third novel, The Man of the House, was probably the toughest book to read, very dark and not particularly funny. It kind of pushed the reader away a bit, instead of drawing him or her in. Not that that can't be great writing, but it's harder to sell. True Enough was definitely back on the upswing for me. In some odd way, it reminded me of my friend Mameve Medwed, who also writes comic novels with a bit of a dark edge. I knew they were friends, and I thought, "I can sort of see Mameve in this book." I never asked them about that, though.

Then came Alternatives to Sex. There's an orgy scene that was somehow written in such a veiled way that I could have possible read it to one of my older female customers. As I was working a lot in the old Mequon location of Schwartz at the time, it turned out that the two folks I'd gotten to read Alternatives were both older women, and they thought it was just crazy funny. I call this the "Will and Grace" affect. Or maybe the E. Lynn Harris equation.

The new book is the story of an HR fellow who has a long-term relationship, and also an affair on the side, with a married man, no less. The problems are many, but are compounded when he discovers that his boyfriend also has a lover, and it’s become serious. This obsession leads him to step up his compulsive exercising, which leads him to take his mind off his job, which doesn’t help when a rather disturbed employee creates a work crisis.

The humor is sharp-edged, and yet McCauley writes with such warmth that I can’t help feeling emotionally connected with so many of the characters. The story takes some inevitable turns and some unusual ones. But I’m saving my review for elsewhere, so I’ll say no more.

So what do I do with the book? Well, all our usual bells and whistles to our customer base, some outreach to LGBT groups, an ad in the Wisconsin Gazette, which I can’t normally afford to do, but I had promised I would do something when I had the right author. I also wanted to show Simon and Schuster that I was doing whatever I could to promote the book, particularly because McCauley’s tour is pretty limited. We only got him as an add-on to the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago. As I’ve been a fan since day one, it’s a true joy to host Mr. McCauley, on this, his sixth novel.

Oh, and back to Sebastian Stuart, who, it turns out, is McCauley's partner. He just was awarded the Ferro-Grumley award for LGBT fiction.

*Even though the "gay novel is dead." Is the gay novel dead? Read another take here.

I got through this whole post without mentioning The Object of My Affection. Imagine that.

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