Ten Thousand Saints, and being confronted with "But why would I read a novel about punk musicians. I'm not interested in the music." And I could argue this out, that you should see this the way you read a novel set in a foreign country you know nothing about, but it can be exhausting, can it? It's simply a hoop to jump through with music novels.
Of course Hollywood has its own baggage. There's the curse of Los Angeles, the idea that books set there simply don't live up to potential, at least outside of the Southern California market. They just don't travel well compared to books, say, set in New York. Of course that could partly be because the national media that covers books is centered there. Much as I like to link to them, book write ups in the Los Angeles Times don't seem to drive the same kind of momentum as a daily review from Kakutani or Maslin, or a front page New York Times Book Review (as long as only one book is featured--multiple front-page reviews don't see to pop for us as well).
When I think of the Los Angeles writer who most embodies the curse, I tend to think of Bruce Wagner, who always seems to wind up on at least some best-of lists, following a year of great reviews. His most previous, Dead Stars, was picked by Sam Sacks as a top ten by the Wall Street Journal, for example. And I have my own cross to bear with this, as one of my favorite writers, Michelle Huneven, author of Jamesland and Blame, had trouble getting sales momentum in our store at least, and that's with me practically begging folks to read it. Do you think my pleading got a little screechy and turned people off? I worry about that.
One of my biggest event disappointments also involved a Los Angeles novel. It felt like everything was coming together for Mona Simpson, in conjunction with the publication of My Hollywood. Attention in the New York Times, some local press, several reads, Simpson had family in the state, who had previously helped get the word out. But the day it, and it was a small crowd. I still feel terribly guilty about this (yes, I carry all event disappointments in a satchel around with me at all times, and to make things more memorable, I also include some heavy rocks) and I keep trying to rethink it. If only I had asked Lorrie Moore (yes, they are friends and she showed up from Madison) to introduce her. Well, can't try that idea now, as Moore is off to Vanderbilt.
A classic test case might be Maria Semple. Her first novel, This One is Mine, was set in Los Angeles. Her second, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, moved its locale to Seattle. Which one was the runaway bestseller, I ask you. Answer: the latter. Semple is coming to Boswell on Wednesday, May 1, co-sponsored by Local First Milwaukee, as part of her paperback tour, which is what got me thinking about this whole business in the first place.
It all started last fall when I read Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub, a different take on a Hollywood novel. And then another bookseller said to me that if I liked Straub's novel, I needed to read Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter (who, by the way, is also coming to Boswell on his paperback tour, on Monday, May 6). I started thinking about doing a table, following up the rock and roll novel table we put together last spring, but I just couldn't come up with enough new titles to balance out the classic novels like Gore Vidal's Hollywood, Joan Didion's Play it as it Lays, and of course, Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls. It just wasn't there yet.
And then I thought, I know what the problem is. Critics see Hollywood is too pulpy for attention. No, not puply, that's too positive--trashy. Literary novels shouldn't think to the depths of In Touch magazine and TMZ, right? But these novels are anything but, and it becomes hard to reconcile in your head. But it shouldn't be--I think a writer could write an amazing and yet erudite story inspired by Lindsey Lohan. How could you not?
I finally got things together after reading the advance copy of Christine Sneed's Little Known Facts. Immediately after finishing this wonderful novel, I thought, "We have to do that Hollywood table." Of course we're pushing our upcoming events, including one with Christine Sneed on March 28 (she's reading with Mike Magnuson), but it's also fun to promote some classic novels that folks haven't seen in a while. On Tuesday, when our pal Mark B. came to hear Peter Roller talk about Milwaukee Garage Bands, he spent some time telling me about the different books on the table he read, leading to a long talk about Charles Bukowski. And Anne, Jane, and I had a discussion about Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locusts, which some consider the best novel about Hollywood ever written.
What other books made it? Why, these below:
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
Children of Light, by Robert Stone
Coldheart Canyon, by Clive Barker
The Day of the Locust, by Nathaniel West
Dead Stars, by Bruce Wagner
Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard
Hollywood, by Charles Bukowski
Hollywood, by Gore Vidal
Jamesland, by Michelle Huneven
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub
The Lawgiver, by Herman Wouk
Less than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis
Little Known Facts, by Christine Sneed
The Love of the Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My Hollywood, by Mona Simpson
The Next BestThing, by Jennifer Weiner
Play it As it Lays, by Joan Didion
Tell All, by Chuck Palahniuk
This One is Mine, by Maria Semple
Temptation, by Douglas Kennedy
Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann
We're hoping to make a window out of this when we get some good props. And after I put this together, we booked another event that features a film-themed novel, Paul McComas's Fit for a Frankenstein. He'll be appearing on Tuesday, May 7, along with David Luhrssen, whose new book, Mamoulian, is film-themed, but actually true!