Three years ago Keith Gessen wrote All the Sad Young Literary Men, a comic novel about three young writers trying (though not very hard) to forge a literary career. The founding editor of n+1, a very good literary magazine, Gessen has now written a journalistic account that covers the same territory — with success rather than failure (or, at least, procrastination and delay) as its theme. How a Book Is Born: The Making of “The Art of Fielding” is the story of Chad Harbach’s debut novel, which is being released today by Little, Brown, from its origins in a creative writing classroom to the 35-year-old author’s $650,000 advance. Gessen originally wrote the story for Vanity Fair, but he has now expanded it into an ebook.
Harbach’s novel is already being compared to Bernard Malamud’s tall tale The Natural and Mark Harris’s pretend autobiography The Southpaw, a book that a couple of us called the best baseball novel of all time. Since Malamud and Harris have little in common besides baseball as a subject, the comparison is not particularly enlightening.
Harbach sounds like a regular fellow, and some of Gessen’s excitement is commendable happiness for a friend’s good fortune. (Harbach cofounded n+1 along with Gessen.) Nevertheless, the celebration over Harbach’s huge advance — four times larger than Michael Chabon’s for The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the largest ever for a first novel and astounding to old literary hands at the time — suggests just how far the conception of a literary career has drifted from the years after the Second World War when modernism was an accomplished fact, creative writing was not yet the standard training and common experience for young writers just starting out, and according to the late Malcolm Bradbury (born this day in 1932),
the literary imagination, rich, generous and humane . . . came to be identified as the central, pluralistic, comprehensive (or as F. R. Leavis would put it “mature”) form of intellectual exploration and concern. In its scepticism and empiricism, its irony and ambiguity, its great moral and analytical power, in its concern with selfhood and the human person and the personal relation to society, in its passion to know and discover, to love and to dream, to criticize and to understand, literature in its liberal, humanistic and educative functions became important, and it also became culturally redefined.
No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, I know. And the reminder that economic realities undergird all human activities, even the tussle with irony and ambiguity, has the virtue of checking much of the shallow eloquence of literary criticism. I know that too. Even so, I am nostalgic for a culture in which the publication of a new book was an event because of its literary ambitions, because it was important, and not because of the size of its author’s advance. Call me square.