Publishers wonder if it's a familiar syndrome, the Trump effect, with the public too caught up in the headlines to focus on new and challenging fiction
Book world hopes for literary breakthrough in autumn
As the book world's most literary season approaches, the industry still awaits the year's big literary publication.
While critics have celebrated Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo and other works, no 2017 releases have approached the sales or the impact of such older titles as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and George Orwell's 1984. Publishers wonder if it's a familiar syndrome, the Trump effect, with the public too caught up in the headlines to focus on new and challenging fiction.
"People are indeed distracted, and there's no sign of it letting up," says Paul Bogaards, an executive vice president and executive director of publicity at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. "Many are weary from their social feeds — mentally exhausted — and some, perhaps, are simply choosing to binge watch their favorite television series and eat copious amounts of ice cream rather than read a contemporary, literary novel."
"We've been disappointed in sales, and other publishers have been disappointed," said Scribner publisher and senior vice president Nan Graham, who hopes to break the spell this fall with new fiction from prize-winners Jennifer Egan and Jesmyn Ward. "I think it's harder for new books to break through because people are reading the books that other people are reading. They're looking to talk to other people about something they have in common. And that drive seems more intense right now. Is that the Trump effect? Sure."
Bogaards says good books can "still surface and stick" and readers able and willing can look forward to some of the most acclaimed writers of recent years. Egan's Manhattan Beach is her first novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad; Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing, her first novel since the National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones; and James McBride's book of short stories, Five-Carat Soul, his first fiction since winning the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird. Louise Erdrich, Celeste Ng, Salman Rushdie, Carmen Maria Machado and debut novelist Gabriel Tallent also have books coming. Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides, whose novels include Middlesex and The Marriage Plot, will release his first story collection, Fresh Complaint.
"In some ways, it's harder to write a short story than a novel," Eugenides said. "There's no room for elaboration or expansion, both of which come naturally to the novelist. In creative writing courses, of course, we start students off writing short stories because they're more manageable. But it's like asking someone to pilot a jet on his first flying lesson."
If literary fiction doesn't produce any major hits, other books seem likely bets. John Green's Turtles All the Way Down is his first novel since the blockbuster The Fault of Our Stars. Dan Brown has sent protagonist Robert Langdon to Spain in his thriller Origin and Stephen King and son Owen King have teamed up on Sleeping Beauties. An elderly George Smiley appears in John le Carre's A Legacy of Spies, Lee Child's latest Jack Reacher novel is The Midnight Line and the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series continues with The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, by David Lagercrantz.
Nonfiction releases range from astronaut Scott Kelly's Endurance to Toni Morrison's The Origin of Others, a book of lectures that includes an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Sally Quinn's Finding Magic features memories of her marriage to Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, who died in 2014. Former Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, 91 years old, looks back in his memoir The Dean: The Best Seat in the House, from FDR to Obama.
Several books about presidents past and current should be in the news this fall, notably Hillary Clinton's What Happened, in which she has promised a thorough and candid recounting of her shocking loss in 2016 to Trump. Alec Baldwin and Kurt Andersen have collaborated on the presumably fictional You Can't Spell America Without Me: The Really Tremendous Inside Story of My Fantastic First Year as President Donald J. Trump (A So-Called Parody). The president's first wife, Ivana Trump, will share memories of their three children in Raising Trump. Katy Tur's Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History is the NBC television reporter's take on covering the Trump campaign and being called "disgraceful" among other insults from the Republican candidate. Barbara Pierce Bush and Jenna Bush Hager describe life as the daughters and granddaughters of presidents in Sisters First.
Ron Chernow, whose Alexander Hamilton book is the basis for the Broadway musical, returns with a 900-page biography of Ulysses Grant. Barack Obama's vice president, Joseph Biden, reflects on his White House aspirations and his son Beau's death in Promise Me, Dad. Former White House photographer Pete Souza compiles the recent past in Obama: An Intimate Portrait. Coates' We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy chronicles life under Obama, with a subtitle pointing to Trump.
Coates, winner in 2015 of the National Book Award for Between the World and Me, is among many prize-winning authors with new nonfiction works. Mike Wallace's Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919, is the sequel to the historian's acclaimed Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Anne Applebaum has completed Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine and Stephen Greenblatt has written The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, a history of how the Biblical creation story has been interpreted. The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, is a companion to Burns' television documentary that Ward completed as Trump was taking office.
"I'd get up at 6:30 in the morning and work until 8 at night and I was in the world of Richard Nixon," Ward said. "And then I would have dinner and turn on the TV and I was in the world of Donald Trump.
"It was not a happy period for me."