Jonathan Littell’s previous novel made critics want to vomit. What now?

November 4, 2013

Debut novels are easy. Second novels are a challenge.

Jonathan Littell may present the most extreme example of that publishing truism.

In 2006, his first non-genre novel, “The Kindly Ones,” was a sensation in France, where it won the Grand Prix and the Prix Goncourt. HarperCollins reportedly paid $1 million for the English translation, but American critics were repulsed. Writing in The Washington Post, our reviewer said, “The book is narratively empty and intellectually incoherent.” And that wasn’t the worst of it. The San Francisco Chronicle said, “The reader ends up wanting to vomit.”

So how can a publisher put those reviews behind and present Littell’s new novel, “The Fata Morgana Books,” with a fresh face?

In a particularly bold move, Two Lines Press, a small publisher in San Francisco, has sent out postcards high-lighting some of the most brutal critiques of “The Kindly Ones”:


Two Lines Press doesn’t bury the bad reviews Jonathan Littell received for “The Kindly Ones.”

I asked Two Lines Press marketing manager Scott Esposito a few questions about this unorthodox ad campaign. Here’s an edited version of his responses:

What made you decide to advertise Littell’s new book like this: 

We’re a new press publishing exclusively translated literature, so we’ve really got to fight to draw attention to our books. We don’t have a huge ad budget, and it’s very expensive to bring our authors to the States for a tour (even when they do speak English), so we’ve got to be a little unconventional in our approach. Unfortunately, simply extolling the benefits of your book doesn’t get you very far. We wanted something that would really grab people.

Littell has developed a reputation for being controversial, and I think that’s in no small part because he is willing to do things in his fiction — and do them very well — that very few other authors can or will. Keying in on the immense polarization that his first book caused seemed like a great way to remind people of this, as well as to let everyone know that this isn’t “The Kindly Ones” Part II but in fact a very different book: It’s short, it uses language in very different ways, it’s a lot more playful, it asks very different questions about what art is and what it should do, about love and sex and desire, and the narrative voices are completely different.

But are there risks to this kind of approach?

I suppose the main risk here is the possibility of alienating editors and buyers at bookstores, or at least giving them the wrong impression. The other risk is that people will talk about the media campaign to the exclusion of the book, or think that the campaign is the book. Based on the evidence so far, these postcards are really grabbing people’s attention; I just hope that this attention extends to reading the book.

What do you expect to gain with this campaign?

In the world of translation, it’s uncommon to work with an author who already has the reputation in the States that Littell does — and one who can inspire such polarization. So being able to leverage that is huge, and, actually, a lot of fun. That’s one thing that too many presses (big and small) forget: We’re in this business because books inspire our wonder and fascination. So this campaign is in part a way to inject some of that fun back into the discourse.

Another nice thing is the possibility of starting a seriously interesting dialogue about this book and its predecessor. My colleague C.J. Evans and I, in fact, had mixed feelings about “The Kindly Ones,” and we actually like “Fata Morgana” a lot more. The reasons for why this is are, I think, interesting and worth talking about. My hopes are that this comes across in some small way in the postcard and that readers will begin to compare the two books and think about these questions.

What kind of reaction did you get from Littell?

Jonathan was very, very involved in the translation and editing of the book. His level of fastidiousness around all aspects of the book as an artifact is uncommon in my experience. But for all his attention to the book itself, he made it clear that he didn’t want to be involved with the marketing to any extent. This comes from a principled place, and we respect his viewpoint, but it cuts both ways (it’s unfortunate that our best English-speaking author so far won’t be available for interviews). Nonetheless, I do appreciate the free hand to market it as we see fit.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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