A few months back I took advantage of a rare opportunity to spend a morning in the company of my peers. While in one sense we’re engaged together every day in the same grand project, a kind of solitude is written into our job description—we’re independent booksellers, after all. On this occasion, a group of us had gathered from several different stores to hear a sales pitch about the fall lineup from one of the big New York publishers. It used to be common for sales reps to pay visits to all of us individually, but belts are worn tighter these days, and it’s more efficient to consolidate the herd and ply us collectively with doughnuts and Advance Reading Copies. This isn’t entirely bad, since it’s great to see fellow retailers and be reminded of how many of us are still out there, and the reps are nice people, too.
Each member of the trio who hosted the event represented different imprints under the corporate umbrella and covered different ground. We heard about fiction, non-fiction and children’s books from multiple perspectives, but whatever approach they took, variations on one phrase recurred. If a book was in the least offbeat, they said something like, “I don’t usually read fantasy or science fiction, but this is really good.” Surprisingly defensive, I thought. I kept wondering why, if so many of the books in their catalog were a little less than literal, the company hadn’t found someone to pitch them who appreciated that quality. I happen to enjoy liberal doses of oddness with my daily serving of reality (I’m on record about it, in fact), which is why I don’t mind browsing the YA shelves from time to time. It’s one of the few areas where genres mix in relative comfort. Not on the morning in question, though, as Rachel Hartman’s sharp new novel for teens, Seraphina, came with a disclaimer. It’s set in a quasi-medieval world where peace has been tentatively established between dragons and humans, and despite the rigorously logical draconian minds Hartman inhabits, I guess the story is strange enough to justify a warning.
Even picture books weren’t immune. Kate Bernheimer, who’s known for introducing fairy tale tropes into her adult fiction, has lately written The Lonely Book, a real love letter to libraries in which a young girl rediscovers a forgotten favorite. I was more than happy to hear about it, being a huge fan of Bernheimer’s last foray into the kids’ section, the fantastical, meta-fictional wonder The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum. Illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli, it’s a perfect marriage of text, image, and dream, but when I told the rep after the session how much I loved that book, she said only, “Yes, that one was . . . polarizing.”
Horribly misguided as it might be, I don’t hold that opinion against her, because de gustibus non est disputandum, as the nuns used to tell me. It does bother me when someone wallows happily in the mire of genre while writing a book and then insists she’s come out clean afterward. Margaret Atwood has done this on more than one occasion, but at least she’s willing to talk about it. Her latest book of essays, In Other Worlds, is all about her fraught relationship with SF, in fact. She still claims to be more literary-than-thou, but I know better. Worse was an author I met once who’d penned what I think was a very lucrative novel—I know Steven Spielberg has the movie rights—about machines rebelling against their human creators. You’d be hard pressed to come up with a more classic science fictional premise than that, yet the guy was resolute that he hadn’t written any such thing and didn’t want to see his book in that part of the store. It was a techno-thriller, by God, and that was the end of it. That it was, as far as that book and I were concerned.
It’s not that a book has to be weird for me to like it. I feel as much affection for Austen’s Persuasion as I do for Ajvaz’s The Other City. I just don’t understand why weirdness disqualifies so many titles from consideration for so many people. You don’t often see that bias working the other way, and we’d be shocked if it did. Imagine a bizarro sales rep saying, “We’re really high on this next one, gang. It’s about a guy who has a family and a job, and get this—he eats breakfast every day. Everything that happens to him in the story has probably already happened to you a hundred times before. Sounds nutty, I know, and I don’t usually read boring books, but trust me . . .” I could sell a few copies of that, but do you think Spielberg would buy it?
James Crossley spent several years helping turn an Internet start-up into a bookselling juggernaut before becoming independent and using his powers for good. He’s now ensconced behind the counter of Mercer Island, Washington’s long-lived Island Books, and writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog. He spends even more of his time as dad to a two-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy, and was distracted during the writing of this post by horseplay that resulted in a tiny broken foot. “My brother jump over my head,” the victim tearfully reported.