One lives in hope.
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Debut novels are big business again. But what are publishers shelling out for?
- By Boris Kachka
(Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)
Poor, lucky Henry Skrimshander: The rangy, corn-fed hero of The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach’s debut novel, is a freakishly gifted shortstop who tries to take a brainy Wisconsin liberal-arts college to the top of Division III baseball. But come senior year, the scouts arrive on campus promising bonuses of up to $600,000—enough pressure to make any champion choke. Will Henry survive the commodification of his talent?
His creator is doing nicely so far. Harbach was, until March 2010, an underemployed freelancer whose biggest job, co-editing the journal n+1, was unpaid. He’d recently been laid off from a gig copy-editing for McKinsey, the consulting firm, when, after nine long years, Harbach finally decided his first novel was ready for the market. The market agreed: Little, Brown beat seven other bidders and paid $650,000 for it.
Harbach, 35, isn’t the only novelist who’s made six figures for a well-hyped debut due out this fall, but he may be the only one to have written an article critiquing the very system responsible for his payday. In “MFA vs. NYC,” which ran in last fall’s n+1, Harbach argued that literary culture has split along two tracks: one dominated by timid writers teaching MFA students in the heartland, the other a New York–based scrum of hyperambitious would-be Great American Novelists fighting over publishers’ kitchen scraps. The first is secure but cloistered, the second unfair and unsustainable. “The rich get richer,” he wrote of the New Yorkers, “and the rest live on hope and copy-editing.”