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Literature as Life Style : White Palace by Glenn Savan (Bantam New Fiction: $8.95, paperback; 416 pp.)

August 02, 1987| Tom Jenks | Jenks initiated the Scribner Signature Editions series of trade paperbacks and is currently the literary editor of Gentleman's Quarterly. His first novel, "Our Happiness," is forthcoming from Bantam. and

Three years ago, when Glenn Savan was still wondering if he'd ever make it as a novelist, and the Bantam New Fiction series, which Savan's "White Palace" launches, wasn't even a gleam in the publisher's eye, the rights market for fiction reprints was already inflated. A hardcover title that might ordinarily have earned $1,000 to $5,000 in a paperback edition was selling for two to 10 times that. Editors rushed to find material from which to fashion and refashion quality trade paperback lines--Vintage Contemporaries, Penguin Contemporary American Fiction, Harper's Perennial Library, the Scribner Signature Editions and many others, the names suggesting up-to-the-minute classics. Neglected titles--from excellent to indifferent--were sucked back into print.

Soon the lines began to imitate each other or to parody themselves in choice of authors and book design. Store windows, aisles, counters were given over to inexpensive softcovers so handsome, so pliable that anyone wants to touch them--the packagers' successful sense of objet --heightened colors, strong graphics, the urban aura of money and cocaine, sex, ennui, despair, knockoffs of chilly modern art, MTV, record album covers, slick surfaces. Jay McInerney--a Salinger for the MBA set, reviewers termed him--had broken from the gate.

Fiction for original release in paperback was now in demand, especially first and second novels and short stories by young writers without a demonstrable record of middling to low sales, without figures in the loss columns. It's much easier to package and hype the unknown than to understand and explain the body of a writer's work. Until Don DeLillo's "White Noise" took off in hardcover, Knopf editors stood around at cocktail parties musing, "I wonder why DeLillo doesn't sell more books." The question's been forgotten but not answered: DeLillo demands a lot from a reader, more than most are willing to bring to a book unless it's been hyped, or perhaps, like McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City," it hooks into major atmospheric disturbances. Before "White Noise," DeLillo had six titles in slow-selling, handsome trade paper editions. Then he changed from Knopf to Viking, was well promoted in hardcover, and "White Noise," slightly more accessible than his earlier novels, won the 1985 American Book Award. Much of the success of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," the first novel to find an enormous trade paper audience, is explained in the comment of a black man reading it on a transcontinental flight. He was almost done and his white seatmate asked if it was good. Fanning the pages, the man replied, "Well, everybody says it is."

Market success may say little about intrinsic worth.

Advances for new fiction have overmatched reprint inflation, with $25,000, $50,000, $150,000 going for first novels considered literary , i.e., good work that doesn't usually sell. Publishing bulls have predicted the death of the hardcover and even the salvation of older, mid-list--barely profitable-- authors through trade paperbacks. The author who would have reached 5,000 readers would now reach 35,000, near best-sellerdom in literary (Updike, Robert Stone) terms as opposed to popular (Harold Robbins, Stephen King) millions sold. Richard Ford and Max Apple's third novels succeeded as trade paper originals. Bullish claims have been sustained by a consumer trend away from hardcover prices as well as a paperback preference among an audience that grew up reading Penguins--books to toss in a satchel, to dogear, or to leave open, face down on a table, literature as life style, which is the newspaper section many of the lines have been reviewed in.

Front list publishing--like fashion retailing--runs on novelty, not just new titles each season but new styles immediately recognizable. The success of trade paperbacks has focused attention on young writers like Glenn Savan. Media interest in the process--the life behind the work, the pages fresh from the writer's desk, the buying and selling of authors, the making of fame, what's hot and what's not--rises beyond consideration of the work itself.

Gossip travels fast in publishing circles. The phone rings--a magazine editor wanting to know if I think Glenn Savan is the next McInerney. The phone rings again--a book editor calling to say she's heard that McInerney dismisses Savan, decides not to read him, after seeing Kakutani's glowing review in the daily New York Times. In a late-night long-distance conversation, an old classmate of Savan's from the Iowa Writers Workshop tells me Savan's no good at all. "But he writes great sex," I say.

"No, he doesn't!" snaps the classmate.

"Well," I offer, "not as good as you."

In the battle for reputation, Tama Janowitz stands outside rock clubs handing out Tama Janowitz flyers. Mona Simpson learns literary politics inside out. But as Savan's old classmate puts it, "Jayne Anne Phillips hustled but you forgive it because the work stands up."

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