Thursday, November 24, 2011

Market Positioning





"Helen DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai, was published in 2000 to almost universally rapturous praise. It sold a hundred thousand copies in English. If literary publishing were a rational enterprise, even along narrowly capitalistic lines, DeWitt would have no trouble finding a permanent home at a major house. After all, whatever else we might say about her excellence as a writer, DeWitt sells.
     But publishing is far from rational, and so we have had to wait eleven years for her second novel, Lightning Rods. Adding to the absurdity of this long wait, DeWitt completed a draft of this book in 1999, before she even sold The Last Samurai, but was unable to publish it until it was released from its contract with Miramax Books, which had the option to publish it, chose not to, and yet would not allow the book to be released elsewhere. [...]
     Whereas DeWitt often talks about fiction as if it were a vehicle for presenting exciting ideas, the tendency of American culture is toward relaxation. Since the sixties, Americans have systematically de-formalized themselves, on the tacit theory that formality is equivalent to authority, and that authority is, more or less, equivalent to authoritarian oppression. [...]
     We can already see why the good folks at Miramax Books might not have known what to do with Lightning Rods. After all, if the typical American reader doesn’t want to be forced to learn about Greek, Japanese, or Arabic on the beach, it seems quite unlikely that she — and overwhelmingly the American reader is female — will want to read about the frankly bizarre sexual fantasies of a loser who lives in a trailer park. Which is a shame, because Joe’s fantasies — and what his fantasies inspire — get uproariously funny.
     In short order, Joe derives a scheme, inspired by his fetish, to help solve the problem of workplace sexual harassment. Joe will hire women to pose as regular workers — he calls these women Lightning Rods — who will make themselves available for anonymous intercourse according to a computer-determined algorithm. To ensure their anonymity, Joe’s Lightning Rods place their lower bodies through a hole knocked out of a wall separating the disability toilet cubicles in adjoining restrooms. After developing the system, hiring his first few Lightning Rods, and finding his first client — the description of this process takes considerable narrative space — Lightning Rods proceeds to describe in meticulous detail the way Joe transforms his sexual fantasy into a massively profitable business. Joe must conquer reluctant clients, emotionally distraught Lightning Rods, conservative Christians, and, in time, the FBI. All predictably fall to Joe’s entrepreneurial verve, his infallibly optimistic belief that he is making the world a better place."
— Lee Konstantinou, Los Angeles Review of Books
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