Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Book of Other People

Like almost any anthology, The Book of Other People is uneven. Edited by British novelist Zadie Smith, the idea was to write a story about a new character, to ‘make somebody up.’ There were no rules about gender, race, or species, so a couple of authors took advantage and we end up with a story about a monster and a story about a dog. All proceeds are to go to 826NYC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children from 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, a service that I wish was around for me when I was growing up. The organization, and its sisters, was started by the omnipresent McSweeney’s empire.

The strength of the collection is its lack of an overall theme or argument, unless one would consider that the theme is to show that there is no fixed way to invent a character, and the varying styles and genres of the stories exh
ibit this fact. I do wonder how the authors were selected, since of the twenty-three stories I was not familiar with seven of the authors. Perhaps not a huge number, but I have been reading McSweeney’s for years. The fact that the book is being promoted in England as well, which is likely why an editor with across the pond appeal like Smith was chosen, probably has a lot to do with it.

Rather than giving an account of all the stories within, let me just say that a few I found very good (Vendela Vida, Miranda July, Aleksander Hemon), one I felt was horrible (Nick Hornby), but most I found unremarkable. The two comic stories by C. Ware and Daniel Clowes were both good examples of creating a character and placing him into a powerful narrative. Of course, in any open call anthology like this, such unevenness is almost always the norm.

Perhaps I am a bit cynical, but I question the honesty of Smith in her preface. Since the anthology is for charity, none of the writers have been paid for their story or their time. This would especially be an especially big commitment of time for Ware and Clowes not to be compensated for. Yet the copyright page lists nine of the stories that have been previously published, six in The New Yorker. Unless I’m mistaken, I think that The New Yorker pays pretty well for its stories. This isn’t to say that submitting a previously published story for a charity anthology should be frowned upon; it just seems to me that Smith was a bit misleading. In a sense, these authors didn't work for free at all. Of course, all authors own the copyrights to their stories, so undoubtedly we will see them appear in another collection in the future (it seems to me that Ware’s comic is part of a graphic novel he has been serializing in his Acme Novelty Library), so perhaps none were really working for free, or perhaps only for free up front.

In the end, I was under whelmed by the book. Perhaps this is due to my cooling to McSweeney’s in general, but perhaps it is due to the lack of quality I found with the book. It’s probably a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

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