menu Language Is A Virus

Anatomy of a Hype

by Laura Shapiro and Ray Sawhill, Dateline: New York, Newsweek, September 7, 1992

Big bucks, a little luck and PR can turn a first-time novelist into a star

Who is Donna Tartt and why is everyone talking about her new book? OK, maybe not everyone ("One thing I can tell you is, everybody's not talking about it in Iowa City."--Paul Ingram, bookseller, Iowa City), but Tartt, 28, is featured in the latest issues of Vanity Fair, M, Esquire, Vogue, Elle and Mirabella. In September she embarks on a 20-city publicity tour (including Iowa City). Her book is called The Secret History (Knopf. 524 pages. $23) and Knopf paid $450,000 for it-an astonishing amount for a first novel, especially one that isn't just glitzy trash or about eave dwellers. Foreign rights have been sold to 11 countries for more than $500,000, paperback rights went for another half million, it's a Book of the Month Club selection, and Alan J. Pakula ("All the President's Men") has bought the movie rights. Most first novels get a first printing of about 10,000 copies; Tartt's is getting 75,000. "I can't remember a first literary/ commercial novel with this much push from the publisher behind it," says Ingram.

All this for a book that shows a great deal of talent and ambition but remains every inch a first novel. A murder without the mystery, "The Secret History" is about a coterie of college students fanatically devoted to the study of ancient Greek. Halfway through the novel the group murders one of its own, and from then on the book is concerned with the ramifications of their deed, especially the psychological consequences. This could have been a successful page-turner if only the characters were compelling, but they are the weakest element. It's impossible to distinguish one student from another without continually flipping back to the page where Tartt introduces them. She adorns them with quirks, but none has a personality; and her amateur's device of keeping them constantly drunk or on drugs gets tedious fast. Unlike the truly startling debuts of recent years, such as Mona Simpson's "Anywhere But Here," or Jonathan Franzen's "The Twenty-Seventh City"-highly sophisticated achievements both technically and emotionally--"The Secret History" feels strained and pretentious, as if Tartt were determined to Write a Novel, rather than eager to tell a story.

But it's nice and fat, it's set on a college campus, the characters scatter classical Greek quotations across their conversation like parsley and Knopf is betting that the same readers who made best sellers out of "Presumed Innocent" and "The Firm" will stick "The Secret History" into their briefcases and backpacks. "This is an audience that looks for quality and reading pleasure at the same time," says Knopf president Sonny Mehta. "I think this book has got a kind of classic status available to it, or at the very least some kind of cult status."

Mehta is famous for his ability to catapult writers to stardom; what's unusual about Tartt's case is that stardom has been scheduled to begin right at the outset of her career. Tartt began writing "The Secret History" while she was a student at Bennington College. One of her classmates was Bret Easton Ellis, whose own first novel was the best-selling "Less Than Zero." (The two are very different writers, though their characters-vacant-eyed Yuppies with designer wardrobes-are kin). Ellis introduced her to his agent, and then Tartt got lucky. Her book went up for sale in the spring of 1991, just before the convention of the American Booksellers Association, the publishing industry's giant annual confab. The big-bucks auction, the sale to Knopf, the foreign publishers rushing to obtain rights and the fact that by chance no other major book was being touted at the time all resulted in what one editor calls "a huge buzz" at the ABA. "The book might not have caused such a fuss if it had been bought at another time of year," says an editor at another house. Knopf kept the buzz going all year by sending galleys to booksellers, whipping up the sales force to pitch the book and using the 1992 ABA to hawk the novel and introduce Tartt to booksellers and reviewers.

"People say we're great at hyping, which I don't think is the case," says Tartt's editor, Gary Fisketjon, Knopf's curator of hip fiction. Many would disagree with him. "Sonny has done a pretty amazing job," says bookseller Paul Yamazaki of San Francisco's City Lights bookstore. "With all the publicity, I'm sure it will do well at first. The real question is whether we'll still be selling it in two months."

Another real question is whether-money aside-such a gigantic fuss is in the best interest of a first-time author. "The landscape is littered with the corpses of over-praised young writers," says a New York editor. "You need space to make mistakes." Anthony Brandt, author of a forthcoming history called "In the Mouth of Fame: The Making of Literary Reputations," says the big publishing houses can't afford to give young writers that kind of space. "They have so much overhead and so much in the way of profit expectations that it's tough for them to justify letting a writer grow, maybe losing money on three or four books before they make money," he says. "It's produce or die."

Whether Tartt will be a star for more than an instant is unknown; her novel has just hit bookstores, and the early reviews are mixed. Right now she is still in something of a daze over her good fortune. "A piece of cataclysmic luck like this is a force of nature," she says. "There are plenty of extraordinary people who write books far better than this that don't get half this attention. It's like the lottery. I'm expecting a car to hit me to offset this." Tartt's response to all the hype has been miraculously sensible: she went straight to work on a second book and is trying to make it better than the first. "There really are no child prodigies in writing," she says. "You have to have been around the track. My best work is ahead of me. I'm young!" And rich! Which she also likes. "I wrote this for fun, not for money," she says. "I'll never write a book for money, and with this I'll never have to. That's a wonderful feeling."

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