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Jeffrey Eugenides takes literary fiction to the bestseller lists with ‘The Marriage Plot’.

October 24, 2011

I can think of few more heartening developments than the appearance of Jeffrey Eugenides, who will be at this year’s Miami Book Fair, on bestseller lists all over the land.

Eugenides, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his second novel, Middlesex, is a literary novelist, which makes the ascendancy of his third novel, The Marriage Plot,  all the more striking.

Yet there it is,  No. 4 on The New York Times list, cheek by jowl with the usual assemblage of thrillers (Lee Child’s The Affair at No. 4), crime fiction by the likes of John Sandford and Sandra Brown, and a Nicholas Sparks romance, The Best of Me, with pride of place at No. 1.

Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the glittering author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20. More details to come. Watch this space!

Lest this seem some kind of Gotham fluke, The Marriage Plot is No. 2 at Publishers Weekly,  No. 9 on the USA Today list, No. 13 at the Los Angeles Times, and, on the list that, alas, probably means the most in terms of sales, if not prestige, No. 16 (and rising!) at Amazon.com.

Why some literary novels become bestsellers while other, equally worthy ones do not, is a bit of a mystery, an esoteric conundrum only partially explained by luck, publicity, past performance, or the fickleness of the reading public. But there’s no doubt Eugenides has struck a nerve with a lot of readers.

That’s unusually hard to explain in the case of Eugenides, whose career defies several bits of received wisdom. For one thing, he’s not prolific, producing only three novels in 18 years. Generally, the more product a writer producer, the more readers he reaches.

For another, each of his books marks a striking departure from the one that preceded it. His first, The Virgin Suicides, is a tightly written story of contagious female suicide and adolescent male longing. Middlesex, by contrast, is a sprawling multigenerational saga with a hermaphrodite as its protagonist.

This kind of variety is almost — but obviously not quite — always a bad idea for any writer who wants to sell a lot of books. Most writers are (rightly) advised to pick one genre or even subgenre, and then give its devotees what they want again and again (The Affair is Child’s 17th Jack Reacher thriller since 1997).

So why is The Marriage Plot a bestseller instead of any of the dozens of promising literary novels published this Fall? The Virgin Suicides was made into a well-regarded independent film, but that can’t be it. Several of Russell Banks’ books have been filmed to high acclaim, and his new novel, Lost Memory of Skin, while excellent, is nowhere near the top o’ the charts.

Nor can it be the reviews, which have ranged from the slam William Deresiewics gives to Eugenides entire career in The New York Times Book Review to the much more positive if slightly reserved assessment of Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times daily pages.

Side note: I do love when The New York Times disagrees with itself. It’s one of the things I admire most about America’s most important (and self-important) newspaper.

Entertainment Weekly concludes that “Plot‘s story line wobbles and ultimately loses its way,” but hastily adds: ‘Still, there are serious pleasures here for people who love to read.” Meanwhile, USA Today, in four-star review, calls The Marriage Plot  “a grand romance in the Austen tradition,” while the LA Times says “it is layered with exactly the kinds of things that people who love novels will love.”

Apparently, then, The Marriage Plot is for people who…like to read.

With his high forehead, courtly manner, and archaic facial hair, Eugenides’s visage has always reminded me of a Civil War general, or a gentleman gunslinger, or perhaps a lost cousin of Edgar Allan Poe. This has nothing to do with anything, but I’ve always wanted to mention it somewhere.

Maybe Eugenides can explain the method behind his bestselling literary magic when he’s here in Miami next month. To tide us over, whet the appetite, here’s an indepth profile from The Daily Beast. Enjoy.

 

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