The race to be the next Jonathan Franzen thunders on, with Garth Risk Hallberg a shoo-in for that coveted Time Magazine front cover “Great American Novelist” position. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. Because Knopf and Jonathan Cape already have, paying respectively $2 million and a “a substantial six-figure deal” for his first full novel, the 900-page City on Fire. Oh, I do hope they’re not taking too much of a … you know … risk?

publishingSome choice quotes from the NYT and Guardian coverage on Hallberg and his debut novel:  “Off the charts in its ambition, its powers of observation, its ability to be at once intellectual and emotionally generous” – Diana Miller, editor at Knopf

“It’s a large, spacious and extremely ambitious novel. It has a richness to it, and that was really what I responded to almost immediately” – Sonny Mehta, chairman and editor in chief at Knopf

“[City on Fire is] the only thing people are talking about in the industry … It’s a distillation of great American writing,” he said. “You can feel people like Don DeLillo, James Baldwin, Tom Wolfe and Patti Smith animating the writing” – Alex Bowler, Hallberg’s UK editor

There, I’ve done the blurb writer’s job for him. And that saves me having to worry about my homework next time I want to drop in on a London publishing conversation. All I need to do is bone up on Hallberg.

Disclaimer: Hallberg may actually be  a very good writer;  he may even transcend all the hype. He has a proven pedigree in shorter fiction writing. That said, an awful lot of people appear to have an interest in having something like him around. Someone who writes books with titles like A Field Guide to the North American Family. (So reminiscent of The Corrections.) Someone who writes about North Americans. And Families. And New York. Someone who brings back that Bonfire of the Vanities buzz without having to be Tom Wolfe. Someone for your publicity machine to hyperventilate over. Someone you can pour buckets of money over without having to answer too many awkward questions from the board. Someone young, but not too young. Edgy, but not too edgy. And not too … you know, non-white.

And City on Fire, all 900 pages of it, is now going to go into hibernation until 2015, according to The Guardian, while Hallberg concentrates on “fine-tuning” it. I hope no one runs out of breath before then.

Who can honestly worry about the crisis in publishing or fret over Amazon’s plans for global domination when Knopf is happy to throw $2 million at the wall to see if it sticks? Plus ca change.


  1. Good piece! Yes, the everyone knows everyone scene in NYC is in full tilt with every reporter with any connection to the PR game doing stories on this and now TIME mag? This novel will turn out to be a collossal fail. This is pure PR hype and publishing hype and for TIME to put an unpubbed novel on its cover is silly. Who are they fooling? Oprah?

  2. and that TIME reporter LEV Grossman, he wrote the PR puff piece for TIME he is part of the entire NYC PR game. pure BS. he should be ashamed of himself. this kind of BS PR is what is killing the book biz. RIP

  3. Hype is usually a danger sign. Does anybody else remember the big advance Martin Amis got for a novel? It wasn’t his masterwork. I don’t think it was the snake oil of novels, but the publishers had a case of buyers remorse if I recall correctly.

    Nonetheless, I’m glad publishers are still willing to put out big books — especially by a new author. I’ll probably check it out when released. Buying it and reading are less certain.

  4. Woohoo, Dan, it worked! I thought that parallel with the ludicrously overwrought puff surrounding Franzen would stick. And once again,same story: An author early in his career overpromoted into an inflated sock puppet proxy to fit a highly conservative and hidebound [no pun intended] industry’s idea of what a Star Author should be. I’d almost feel sorry for Hallberg having to deal with this as a writer. But not that sorry.

  5. Yes, it worked. I totally believed that cover, until I began to see the photoshopping, but for ten minutes i was floored. Mea gulpa! GOOD ONE. I am not a gullible person but in this case, you got me 100 PERCENT BRAVO

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