Monday, February 7, 2011

On platforms and prisons

Since I'm writing a memoir, I try to keep up on memoirs.

Lately, I've been reading Ari Steinberg's recently released Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian . A really good read. Funny, moving, sharply observed, energetic, and ripe for a TV spinoff.

I recommend it.

I was put on to the book by a friend. This same source told me that a TV deal is brewing (it's also on Steinberg's Facebook page). Which seems a natural, since it's basically a fish-out-of-water scenario.

In brief: A recent Harvard grad from an Orthodox Jewish family ends up taking a job as librarian and English teacher in a Boston-area prison.  A true story.

It's full of characters with kooky nicknames and outsized personalities. Inmates and prison guards alike. A mix of races and types. Pimp jokes galore! And lots of wry observations about how life on the inside often resembles life on the outside, and vice versa. Except when it doesn't.

Here's the thing: It's Steinberg's first book. Before publication, he had a few clips in the Boston Globe, apparently. That's about it. No "platform," as far as I can tell. That is, no proven audience. No following. No guaranteed sales.

Once he got the book deal, however, his byline began appearing on the DailyBeast, in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and elsewhere.

So the question on my (jealous?) mind is, how did this guy get a book deal when I can't?

In fairness, this book IS well written. I concede that it may be a much easier read than mine. Yet it also seems, well, fairly unimportant … an amusing, occasionally thought-provoking entertainment … a diversion. To me, it's not especially deep. It's a small story. Unusual, to be sure, and offbeat, but ultimately pretty safe territory.

When it comes to the vagaries of publishing and personal tastes, most people would just shrug. Still, I wonder.

Despite this book's breezy sheen, it's a memoir, not a novel. Though less gritty, it reminds me a little of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, a book I liked, actually. As you might recall, that's the one that caused a controversy when it was revealed the author made up most of the supposedly true tale.

I'm not saying Running the Books is a work of fiction disguised as a memoir--though I do notice it's the same publisher as Pieces', Doubleday's Nan Talese imprint.  By the way, when I contacted the house about my memoir-in-progress a while back, I was politely told mine "would not be a good fit for our list. We publish only literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, and your memoir sounds much too mainstream…"

These things always baffle me. Doesn't "mainstream" mean that it suits a lot of people, i.e., readers? And isn't that what having a "platform" is supposed to mean, too--that you'll have lots of readers?

Speaking of readers, you should know that I've had about 50 pre-orders for my unfinished book. Which is great! Thank you, all!

But as ever, we need more to put this over. A lot more.

Maybe it's true that there's no pleasing me!

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