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Well then. The Times recently ran a story noting the sudden abundance of books using the events of 9/11 as a theme. Abundant they may be, but not exactly early. No, it took the serious writers a while to get around to writing about 9/11, the Times notes. Lesser books have come and gone. But it took three years for Literature to come to grips with this tragedy in a way that will endure. All praise and hosannas to these brave and battling artists!
One of those books was written by Nick McDonell, a 21-year-old novelist already “acclaimed” as the author of Twelve, a first novel written when he was yet innocent of two decades. Twenty one years old is mighty young to be dealing with human tragedy on a grand scale. I think of Hamlet asking the actors visiting Ellsinore whether they subscribed to “the late innovation” when they performed, referring to the Elizabethan-era gimmick of having children perform the grownup dramas of the day by keening their lines at the tops of their voices. Shakespeare didn’t care for it.
Now, I am all in favor of children writing serious books. I have no doubt some of them write very well. Only I suspect that the renown they enjoy says more about the publishing industry’s need for saleable stars than the presence of practiced skill.
As discerning as we all like to think ourselves about writing, it’s nevertheless true an author’s reputation sells a book faster than its quality. Publicity departments declare authors prodigies for the simple reason that the great unwashed readership lacks the time for comparative judgment. Greatness usually doesn’t show for many years anyway, but publishers need the return right now. Especially in the case of authors, who is called good is considered good. Which is why I can’t remember the last book whose author was not proclaimed brilliant by his jacket copy.
Marketing departments also love it when prodigies can be made of unlikely material, like children, or former illiterate people, or former dead people—anyone about whom they may speak in not-completely-disprovable wonder.
My friend went to hear this author read during the publicity tour for his first novel. He was nice, she said. Afterwards, playing a hunch, she asked him how it happened that a large publishing house should so much as glance at work from such an unlikely a source.
Well, said the source, his father worked in New York journalism; he knew a lot of publishers.
My friend liked the kid. But knowing as many starving writers as she does, she could not exactly applaud his success. It seemed to her—even to her, a bystander in this game—that the laurels too often went not to those who worked hard and wrote well, but to those it would be fun to gog at in amazement.