There was a certain irony to Gary Shteyngart‘s appearance at The Book Cellar Wednesday night. The acclaimed author was in town to promote his latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, which is set in a dystopian near-future post-literate America, where nobody reads, and yet here he was, playing to a standing room crowd of people passionate about books.
In a publishing environment where Borders touts readings by Giuliana and Bill Rancic, of E! News and “The Apprentice” fame, independent bookstores remain staunch supporters of artistic work that has a small but rabid following. “That’s the perfect role of the independent bookseller,” says Suzy Takacs, owner of The Book Cellar. “We bring together people who love to read.”
Having earned a reputation among publishers for attracting a demographic that leans heavily toward literary fiction, The Book Cellar was a natural venue for Shteyngart. The critical darling – see the New Yorker’s list of 20 under 40 writers to watch – with moderately successful sales (his current title sits at #35 on the New York Times bestseller list) found a rapt and appreciative audience.
After reading an excerpt from Super Sad, during which the Leningrad-born Shteyngart employed a heavy Russian accent he shed years ago, the author fielded questions for the better part of a half an hour.
Top of mind was the challenge novelists face in terms of reaching a populace that has hundreds of other media choices at their fingertips. To spark interest in Super Sad, Shteyngart went so far as to film a trailer, a tactic more commonly used for movies. It features the actor, budding author and current It guy James Franco. “Nobody likes to read, obviously,” Shteyngart joked, “but they love to watch James Franco trailers.” Eighty-thousand hits on YouTube can’t be wrong.
While video might prove an effective marketing tool for authors, it’s also, in Shteyngart’s opinion, their major competitor. “We’re bombarded by textual information all day,” he said. “Do you want to come home and sit down with a book?” Instead people are turning to fare such as “Mad Men” and “The Wire,” which Shteyngart likens to “novels come to life.” The writing for these shows is often as richly developed as anything found in a book, but the experience is more passive, washing over the viewer as opposed to demanding active engagement.
Of course, Shteyngart was among those who are more than willing to actively engage with books, and they were keen to hear what he?s working on next. Perhaps something with HBO, he speculated, but definitely a break from novels. “The satire’s been exhausting,” he noted, not just of Super Sad but his two previous books as well. “I’d love to put together a collection of essays that would of course be marketed as a memoir.”
Already it seems certain any future book tour would include another stop in Chicago. “I tried to fly in early to get Hot Doug?s,” Shteyngart said. That visit didn’t materialize, guaranteeing a return trip. “I’ll be back.”