December 9th, 2012

Susan Zakin writes:

Take the case of Chris Beha, one of the writers who appeared at the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses conference held in New York in early November. Beha is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine, and he is not anyone’s idea of a mediocre talent. An unassuming genius in the David Foster Wallace mode, Beha studied with Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton. Grove published his first book, a memoir titled “The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else,” to stellar reviews.

But Beha is really a novelist, not a nonfiction writer. His next book was a novel about a struggling young writer living in Greenwich Village and a girl he loved in college who had abandoned her literary calling for Catholicism. “What Happened to Sophie Wilder” examines the difference between living life and writing about it.

Unfortunately for Beha, the novel violated the cargo cult belief among publishers that nobody wants to read about writers. (If you’re a literary type and tempted to mention that Philip Roth didn’t get the memo on that one, you wouldn’t be the first.) When “Sophie Wilder” failed to win a contract from one of the Big Six, Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House Books, jumped at the chance to publish it. The story has a happy ending: Amazon featured the book as a digital download deal of the day and it wound up No. 1 in literary fiction, selling more than a thousand copies in 24 hours. D.G. Myers, a critic for Commentary magazine, called it, flat out, the best book of the year.

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