The Best of Just About Everything

Book readings/signings draw an interesting mix: people in the biz, people who want to be in the biz, people who simply love books, and so on. The featured author reads from his brand-new novel, takes a few questions, signs some books, and then folks stand around talking until the bookseller ahems discreetly, at which point people look at their watches and realize they should go home.

I went to one of these events a few weeks ago (in fact, I’ve already written about it briefly), and I want to tell you about the author and his book, because I really enjoyed it. Them.

I was introduced to author Michael Dahlie (pronounce this like daily) by my friend Beth, who is working on her MFA at Butler University, where Dahlie is a writer-in-residence. She sent me his A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, which won the 2009 PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel—follow this link and scroll through the list of winners; he’s in very good company—and later won the Whiting Writers’ Award (look here for winners).

“Read this,” she wrote. “You’ll like it.”

I did and I did. So when Beth let me know that Mike would be at Parnassus Books reading from his latest novel, The Best of Youth, I wrote it on my calendar. When the time came, I was one of the interesting mix. Which brings me back ’round to that question-and-answer session.

We discussed the author’s life in New York before he sold his first book. (New York City features prominently as a character in both A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living and The Best of Youth.) Dahlie lived there eight years, much of it as a starving artist, and that insider view of the city and its foibles and inhabitants is on every page.

From there we moved to the subject of editing (“on average, how many rewrites do you go through?” and suchlike) and then one gentleman brought up Dahlie’s editor. If the editor requested changes, he asked, would such requests be to make the book more artful or to make it more commercially viable?

Art or commerce? Boy, that’s a conundrum. (Naturally I wanted to leap up and say, “I’ll take this one, Mike!” Ha.)

Dahlie gave a graceful answer, paying tribute to his editor, Jill Bialosky (a poet and novelist herself, as well as editor at W. W. Norton & Co.), who he believes edited his work for its art, although he pointed out that Norton is the last of the Big Six (er, Big Five) publishing houses to remain independent of international conglomerates. He reminded listeners that books do need to make money. And then he said something so real and so lovely I got my pen out and wrote it down: “Believe me, when you are broke in New York, [editing a book for commercial viability] is something you think about.”

This is a subject Dahlie deals with very cleverly in The Best of Youth. Young twenty-something Henry Lang—innocent, sincere, possessed of a talent for writing and a very large inheritance—moves to a hipster neighborhood in Brooklyn, which he believes to be the center of the literary universe. Eventually he is given an opportunity to ghostwrite a novel for a celebrity actor (Kipling) who, according to the agent making the pitch, is “leveraging himself into new things and thinks this might be a good line for him.” Ah, yes, the Commerce School of Bookwriting. Naturally, it involved a meeting with the “author.”

“I’d write this myself,” Kipling went on, “but I’ve got so much going on right now. Of course, if this were real, not a book for kids, I’d never let anyone write it for me. I mean, I want this book to be great. Really. […] And it’s just, well, I thought if I had someone to work with … I mean, you’re the writer. But I have a vision for all this. I’ll be working very closely with you.”

Again, Henry slipped back into wondering if this was all a terrible idea, but he simply said, “Yes, Merrill said you had some kind of outline. I’d love to look it over.”

Kipling shook his head and said, “No, no, I don’t have an outline. I don’t even know who the characters are, or what happens, or where it’s set for that matter. But those things will come if we think about the thing that’s been on my mind for awhile […] What I’d like to write is a book about a young person, a twelve-year-old, say, who’s friends with an old person.” […]

“So there’s no plotline or anything laid out?” Henry asked again. […] It struck Henry that if this was what Kipling thought an idea looked like, it would all be hard going.

I laughed ’til I cried when I read this particular passage, because it’s happened to me—the celebrity, the lack of ideas. (And that’s all I’m going to say about that!) There’s plenty more commentary on the art (or artifice?) of the book biz where that came from too.

The Best of Youth is both subtle and hilarious. Henry is at once a naïf in hipster Brooklyn and yet certain of what he wants, if not how to get it. He is so inept—everything he touches turns to awkward—I laughed and cringed in equal measure.

Unlike Henry’s book, which is conceived in commerce, Michael Dahlie’s charming book is all art—a “send-up of literary life, modern culture, and the meaning of fame,” as one reviewer notes. I loved this story. And after all that cringing, it has such a satisfying ending—if it hadn’t been nearly midnight and I in bed, I’d’ve stood up and cheered.

Tweet: Art or commerce? Boy, that’s a conundrum. @MichaelDahlie nails it.
Tweet: #TheBestofYouth is both subtle & hilarious. I laughed & cringed in equal measure.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Books You Might Like, The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , , , , | Bookmark the permalink | Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Reading Around the World on 26 December, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    […] at least a year of reading books outside the American culture I’m used to—but then a friend had a book published, and there was a memoir I absolutely couldn’t wait to read, and before long that international […]

  2. By The Bonus Round (2013 Edition) on 3 February, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    […] Queen, The (Louise Erdrich) Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo) Beloved (Toni Morrison) Best of Youth, The (Michael Dahlie) Better Angels of Our Nature, The (Steven Pinker) Blackwater Lightship, The (Colm […]