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The Boston Phoenix Coattail Lit

How familiarity breeds nonfiction

By Tom Scocca

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  When you watch the movement of books en masse -- say, by reading the publishers' lists for the autumn book season -- it becomes clear that new literature does not arrive at random. If the literary marketplace were the clear fall sky, books would pass across it much like geese, in flocks. They would fly in V formations, fanning out behind proven sellers, all honking the same tune.

This is especially true of nonfiction. One of the biggest flocks right now, for instance, is following Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, a firsthand account of the Mount Everest climbing disaster of 1996, which was a runaway bestseller last year. Right with it at the front of the formation are Sebastian Junger's maritime disaster, A Perfect Storm, and Krakauer's own earlier wilderness tragedy, Into the Wild, which got a retroactive lift from Into Thin Air. Chasing those successes are two more reports about the same Everest disaster, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest, by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt, and Broughton Coburn's Everest: Mountain Without Mercy. Behind those come Arnold Ruskell's Breaking the Ice, Alvah Simon's North to the Night: A Year in the Arctic Ice, and Jon Turk's Cold Oceans: Adventures in Kayak, Rowboat, and Dogsled. These and other new titles present people hurling themselves into most anything: the Himalayas, the Arctic ice pack, the seas off Tierra del Fuego.

Now, selling familiar merchandise is not necessarily a bad thing; we welcome it, for instance, from grocers and computer dealers. But the cachet of book publishing is still the cachet of art. The whole point of writing and printing a nonfiction book should be to tell people something new, to pick a subject out of the great wide ignorable world and express something about it that's worth reading. Marketing a book on the coattails of someone else's success means that a publisher is either pulling a bait-and-switch -- trying, paradoxically, to pass a new idea off as an old one -- or giving up on originality entirely.

Take the new book of case studies from Harvard Medical School psychologist Deirdre Barrett, The Pregnant Man: And Other Cases From a Hypnotherapist's Couch. Title sound familiar? Her publicist hails it as being "in the tradition of the classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," the best-selling 1992 collection of case studies by Oliver Sacks. Andrew Todhunter's Fall of the Phantom Lord, a book about rock climbing, promises on its jacket that it "will surely take its place alongside Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm as a classic of adventure literature."

Publishers see flocking as a necessity because books are notoriously unpredictable sellers. The only available data for forecasting the sales of future titles are the sales of past titles. So to some extent, almost all publishing is copycat publishing. "Ninety percent of all acquisitions in publishing is . . . the track record of other books," says New York literary agent Daniel Greenberg. "You have to sell these books to bookstores, and bookstore owners see millions of copies of Krakauer flying out the door." Agents pitch manuscripts to publishing houses as "Jurassic Park in the water," or "Tom Peters for the '90s," Greenberg says. "I hear last year, somebody bought a 'gay Cold Mountain.' "

To be fair, when they're not being used to sell apples as oranges, such comparisons are of value to the reading public. "That's why there are genres," says Megan Newman, who acquired and edited Cold Oceans for HarperCollins. "We're human beings; we like to categorize things. We kind of know things by what they resemble."

Some publishers abuse this tendency, putting out the likes of Monty Roberts's The Man Who Listens to Horses and Nicci Mackay's Spoken in Whispers: The Autobiography of a Horse Whisperer (on the grounds, presumably, that readers took to The Horse Whisperer not for the love story, but for the horse training). But copycat publishing isn't always fatuous -- in some cases, it can lead people to worthwhile books that might not otherwise have made it onto shelves. Greenberg cites The Climb. "In a sense it's a knockoff," he says, "but everybody says it's a really good book."

So on the spectrum from crass rip-off to innocent victim of coincidence, where do this season's books fall? We picked a few titles from the vast lists and set out to see how they made it into print -- and whether they deserve to be there.



Fall title: There Is an Isle: A Limerick Boyhood, by Criostoir O'Flynn

Lead goose: Angela's Ashes: A Memoir,by Frank McCourt

Criostoir O'Flynn would like not to talk about Frank McCourt. At least, that's what the veteran Irish author and playwright says while discussing his memoir There Is an Isle: A Limerick Boyhood -- shortly before he circles the conversation right around to McCourt again. Whatever O'Flynn may want to say about his childhood, he has trouble saying it without bringing up "a certain chap," as he puts it, the one whose own memoir of Limerick boyhood, Angela's Ashes, sold millions and raked in a Pulitzer and a National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.

But while readers the world over have embraced McCourt's book (and his brother, Malachy McCourt, has landed a memoir of his own on the bestseller list), O'Flynn, a veteran controversialist, has taken McCourt's page-one assertion -- "worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood" -- as the provocation it was meant to be. "He's not a native of Limerick," O'Flynn says over the phone from Dublin. "We natives of Limerick say the man's a liar. It's a lot of piffle."

So O'Flynn counters McCourt's grim tale of poverty and unhappiness with an account of his own poor but happy upbringing. "My most strenuous efforts," he writes, "can dredge up very little that savours of pervasive discontent, recurrent unhappiness, or real deprivation." Suicide and brutality pass by at a polite distance, outside the warm glow of a welcoming, if crowded, family home and the light of "glorious" days spent sporting on the banks of the Shannon. Frank McCourt writes scenes about his father coming home drunk, his mother screaming at him for drinking up his pay; when O'Flynn tells of his grandfather's cargo-importing plans collapsing due in part to constant drinking, he writes simply that the old man had a "thirst."

There Is an Isle is, for all its nostalgia, a belligerent work; where McCourt's memoir has the streamlined prose of fiction, O'Flynn's bristles with historic details, complex locutions, and editorializing digressions. O'Flynn has an especial beef with a particular class of secular-minded modern intellectuals and critics, whom he sees as McCourt's chief proponents and who pop up repeatedly as straw men in his own book.

"When I say that we sometimes went to school barefoot," he writes, "our academic sociologist will be wary now of making false deductions. . . . In our classrooms, the floors were of wood, and this, like the pavements, made going barefoot a pleasure." It's not that the O'Flynns didn't have shoes, he reiterates by phone: "We didn't want to wear the bloody things!"

Though his book doesn't mention McCourt or his family, O'Flynn disputes the other author's claims of family privation. As a teacher, he says, he taught the youngest McCourt boy, Alphie. "He was the best-fed kid in the class," O'Flynn declares.

There Is an Isle was not, however, written in response to Angela's Ashes. The book was an existing manuscript that suddenly became marketable when McCourt's book took off. "When I wrote the book," O'Flynn says, "I couldn't find a publisher, because memoirs weren't in fashion." After McCourt's jaunt up the bestseller list, he says, "I took it off the shelf and dusted it off." So despite O'Flynn's disgust with Frank McCourt -- besides "piffle," he calls Angela's Ashes "lewd," "horrific," and "scurrilous" -- his book is inextricably bound up with that other Limerick book.

Against McCourt's artful bleakness, O'Flynn's rampant cheer can seem preachy and implausible. And his fierce nationalism and pro-Catholicism, says his Mercier Press editor Jo O'Donoughue, "didn't fit with the Zeitgeist" of a liberal, modern Ireland. For an audience offended by McCourt, though, the book stands as a corrective. It may seem wishful to a neutral observer, but it raises the suspicion that McCourt is being wishful, too. "If I could put a copy of my book in the hands of everybody in America who read his book," O'Flynn says, "I would do it."

If they think he's a "raving lunatic of a Catholic," he says, so be it. "I published my own book," he says. "People can take it or leave it."



Fall title: Forgiving the Dead Man Walking, by Debbie Morris

Lead goose: Dead Man Walking, by Helen Prejean

At first glance, Debbie Morris seems not to be offering anything new in her autobiography (written with Gregg Lewis), Forgiving the Dead Man Walking. It's easy to misjudge the book -- and its relationship to the book and hit movie of almost the same name -- by its cover. Behind a color photograph of Morris is what appears, to the casual eye, to be a blatant movie tie-in: a fuzzy black-and-white film still of Sean Penn in his Academy Award-nominated role as death-row convict Matthew Poncelet.

The picture behind Debbie Morris is not a film still, though, but a Baton Rouge Advocate news photograph of Robert Willie, one of two escaped killers who murdered one woman, then kidnapped a 16-year-old girl and her boyfriend, raped the girl repeatedly, and shot the boyfriend in the head, leaving him for dead. Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who counseled Robert Willie in prison, wrote Dead Man Walking and was played by Susan Sarandon in the movie directed by Tim Robbins. Matthew Poncelet, the convict character in the movie, is a composite stand-in for Willie; Sean Penn was cast in the role partly because he bore such a disturbing resemblance to the real rapist/murderer. The 16-year-old girl Willie raped, who appeared only briefly in Prejean's book and not at all in the movie, was Debbie Morris.

Though the book is pointed about tying in to the film (on the cover, the title is actually rendered forgiving the DEAD MAN WALKING), it's hard to dismiss it as a knockoff after reading it. The fame of Willie's case is an essential part of Morris's experience as a crime victim, and what could have been a self-centered story is broadened and complicated by its account of what happens when someone's life becomes public property. Prejean's and Hollywood's best intentions -- intentions that the reader may have approved of -- led to painful private consequences that led in turn, Morris says, to the spiritual journey toward forgiveness that's the central subject of her book.

If her past had been left alone, Morris likely never would have written her story at all. As she relates in the book, she contacted Helen Prejean when the movie was coming out, hoping to get over her "feeling of resentment" at the fact that the nun had never been in touch with her. After they talked, Prejean invited her to take part in a Frontline documentary about the cases involved in Dead Man Walking. "I'd been praying for months for an opportunity, any opportunity, to make something positive out of my negative past experiences," Morris writes. "Could this be it? I'd been thinking more along the lines of volunteering at a rape crisis center or something like that."

The opportunity expanded when Morris was introduced to John Sloan, an editor with Zondervan Publishing House, the Christian arm of HarperCollins. Morris's story had caught the attention of Sloan's brother-in-law, a therapist, who told Sloan it would make a good book. Here, too, the movie played a role: Sloan used film clips to persuade the Zondervan publishing board to take on the project. "What we were looking at," he says, "is a story that did toe, as a carpenter would say, into the major motion picture. You're really in a mode of despair when you get to the end of the movie. . . . This isn't a thing that Zondervan normally would build a book project off of."

Sloan emphasizes the difference between the new book and the previous "Dead Man" properties. "This story is not about Helen Prejean," he says. "You're not going to see Sean Penn, you're not going to see Susan Sarandon."

What you see instead is a plainspoken story in efficient, as-told-to prose. There's plenty of evidence that it's not literature -- big puffy type, too many misplaced apostrophes to count -- but it reads briskly. The first part, basically a true-crime story, is suitably attention-grabbing; the second half is a dignified and sincere spiritual meditation. Whatever its aesthetic shortcomings, it offers a fresh perspective on violent crime, victimhood, and the meaning of punishment.

And it's accessible and ecumenical enough to reach the public. For a publisher whose last big splash came when its 1990 biography of Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry went to number two on the nonfiction list, the Hollywood influence has its points. Ladies' Home Journal has picked up first serial rights to the book, and Morris is on the cover of part of the press run of the October issue (the other edition features Christie Brinkley).

"If Dead Man Walking had never existed, would there have been interest now in Debbie's story?" Sloan asks. "I don't think [there] would have been without the notoriety."



Fall title: Cold Oceans, by Jon Turk

Lead goose: Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer

Jon Turk is used to trusting his fortunes to powerful forces beyond his control. His picaresque adventure-travel memoir, Cold Oceans, relates a series of cheerful sallies into the extremes of nature: being buffeted by Atlantic and Pacific storms at once while kayaking near Cape Horn, rowing a 16-foot fiberglass boat into impassable sea ice on the Northwest Passage, racing a blizzard with a half-trained team of sled dogs.

"Explornography -- tales of adventure and survival -- has never been hotter," gushes the press release for Cold Oceans. Of course, the term explornography is a pejorative, coined by the New York Times Magazine's John Tierney to describe expeditions, like Krakauer's, of pointless suffering by modern adventurers. Jon Turk, whose expeditions in Cold Oceans are mostly of the quixotically ill-fated variety that could be called pointless, sees it as "a little bit of a cheap shot," but he was out of the country when the press kit was being drawn up.

And Turk, who's driving himself around the country on his own book tour, is not Krakauer. His literary ambitions are more modest than those of Krakauer, who is wont to write about, at "the edge of doom," his pondering "some forbidden and elemental riddle . . . no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman's sex." Turk is more apt to observe that "boiled seagull embryos with couscous is a little grim, even if you are hungry"; even his introspective moments keep a more even keel: "Fuck it. Okay, I might grow up to be a weird old man. Fuck that too. I was going to Baffin Island, in the winter, with a dog team. Because I wanted to."

Then there's the thematic difference between the two: in Cold Oceans, Turk says in an interview, "nobody dies. We're not talking about the death scene. I think it's a book that's very much about living, about life. [The] message is that going outdoors is really good. It's a beautiful world, and we go out there to have fun."

"I mean, Jon Krakauer wrote a great book," he continues. "He went on Everest, and he happened to be there when people died. He did the most honest job he could have done. We didn't die, and so we came out with a different message."

Krakauer's emphasis on hubris and doom sets him apart from the pack of adventure writers, who tend to valorize intrepidness and striving, successful or not. Turk stands apart for a different reason: he seems to recognize that when he struggles and fails, the cosmos is not at stake. Indeed, Turk's enthusiasm seems to be less for drama than for the joys of nature. The most dangerous events -- facing bears, risking drowning or hypothermia -- are kept low-key, played for diversion rather than thrills. The geography and geology of the places he travels are explained tangibly and often inventively; they linger much longer than any impressions of suffering or hardship.

Still, the book owes its spot in the HarperCollins catalogue to Into Thin Air. "When I had first tried to buy Cold Oceans," says Turk's editor, Megan Newman, "it was really before the whole genre had exploded. I ended up not buying it, and I was devastated." A year or so later, the field took off; she got another chance to buy it, and -- since she'd changed bosses in the meantime, too -- "it was basically a shoo-in."

If this means Turk is lumped in with Krakauer and Junger, Newman says, "there are worse people to be lumped in with." The popularity of the subject helps raise the profile of an idiosyncratic and personal book. "You wouldn't be calling me if his was the first book out there," she says.

And Turk himself takes a long view of his place in the literary business. "The adventure- travel genre is very old," he says. "I mean, Marco Polo was an adventure-travel writer. The market waxes and wanes."

And even if the market wanes again, Turk won't start whispering to horses or writing case studies or chasing some other fad. "This is what I am," he says, "and this is who I am. I couldn't be another writer. I'm at the mercy of market forces."


Tom Scocca can be reached at tscocca@phx.com.


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