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So I’m at the Jewish Book Council’s (JBC) open auditions, in the main sanctuary of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan, in the front row of the L-Z section of authors who have written a book with a Jewish theme and who would like to sell more than three copies of that book over their lifetime, which is — let’s be honest here — what will happen to most of us if we don’t get invited to speak at a Jewish book fair or two next fall.
My publisher, generous by any standards, has flown me here and put me up in a five-star, Madison Avenue hotel, all expenses paid with two publicists in tow — which isn’t a bad deal, really, I realize, and am terribly grateful — and all he asks in return is that I make a good impression on the good men and women of the JBC during the two minutes I’ll have to make my presentation.
But now I’m looking around at the rows upon rows of authors ready and eager and each carrying a copy of his or her book like a weapon and all I can think of is how much my poor publisher is going to hate me when he sees the first sales figures on my book and realizes he should have invested in a game of roulette instead.
I do like my book, you know, and I do believe it should be read by countless millions — though I will easily settle for dozens — who will mob the bookstores at midnight, dressed in costume, having legally changed their names to those of the characters in my story. But I also realize I’ve come to the world of publishing with a gross handicap — I’ve written a novel, as opposed to something useful, like a book of nonfiction, which is what everyone else seems to have written — and that nothing I can say at the podium tonight is going to tilt the balance in my favor.
You see, nearly 200,000 books are published in the United States every year. More than half of those are works of nonfiction-how-to, inspirational, biography, memoir. Those are the books people buy. People buy them because they serve a purpose — an actual function that justifies the $24 and dozen or more hours of time they consume. The rest — novels and collections of short stories or poems — are useful only as a tax write-off for the publisher, against profits from books of nonfiction, or the occasional novel about kites and wizards, or something that was written 30 years ago and suddenly discovered yesterday by Oprah. So if you’re smart, or semisensible, or at least not of the “don’t change the lightbulb; I’ll just sit in the dark” school of thought, you will write nonfiction.
Tonight, for instance, we hear from a professor of Jewish history who has taught at a major university for 50 years, and has now written a book about it. His facts are solid and his credentials are impeccable. And from a woman who has written about a boat full of Jewish immigrants that, 50 years ago, sank before it reached its destination. And from a rabbi who has written about the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States. This is all good stuff, you say, important stuff. And I agree. This is the kind of thing people should read, instead of some little story about things that never happened and people that didn’t exist.
I do agree with you. I really do. I can see why these writers’ careers should rise meteorically while mine lingers in the marshlands of publishing.
But then we have an author who calls himself “an investigative reporter” and who says he has “spent the last five years investigating your marriage.” He says his book will answer all the questions any woman ever had about a man, like “why your husband leaves his socks on the floor.” It’s not a book about Jews per se, he admits, but it could be: many Jews are men, and many of them are husbands.
So he’s over-reaching a bit for the Jewish angle, you say. But he’s spent five years researching this book, and maybe people should care more about socks on the floor than about my little novel, regardless of how much my poor publisher is paying for my hotel tonight.
Edward R. Murrow is followed by a woman who has written a book about bread. Good old ordinary bread. As in the kind you eat. Bread and the many things you can do with it. She holds the book up and, sure enough, there’s the picture of a loaf of bread right on the cover. Look inside and you’ll find the answer to all the questions you’ve always had but were afraid to ask.
The connection between bread and Judaism? Challah, of course.
And then there’s an author who has written a book about aprons. The history of aprons, to be exact. Why they were invented and what they’re good for. The author is wearing one herself, and she carries a cardboard suitcase — like the one Blanche carried to Stella’s house in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In the suitcase she has brought more aprons, each with a different print. Feel free to wear one while you make challah for your Jewish husband.
But here’s the strange thing in all of this: at some point in the course of the evening, I realize I’m not having such a bad time after all. I’m actually enjoying this, actually eager to know what each book is about.
Somehow, this most blatant form of self-promotion, this venue that, until a couple of hours ago, had looked to me like a literary meat market, has suddenly reminded me of the reason I started writing in the first place: to tell a good story; a story about Jews; a story that in its own small way continues the tale of this people who have had to struggle, in every generation, to ensure that their story doesn’t end. And I think this is what all the other people in this room have also wanted to do — to write a word, a line, a chapter in that great story, and to make sure our story goes on.
Gina B. Nahai’s new novel, “Caspian Rain,” will be published this fall. Her column appears on the first Friday of every month. She will write more about the evening at the Jewish Book Council next month.