Elliott Bay Book Company, 101 S Main St, 624-6600, Mon. Oct. 16 at 7:30 pm, free.
Haven't you always wanted to become Big Publishing's worst nightmare? I certainly have. Now, thanks to the Internet, we can live our dreams.
--Neal Pollack (an excerpt from "An Important Note from Neal Pollack")
Neal Pollack is an icon: proposed running mate of Ralph Nader, husband of Nicole Kidman, role model for Rwandan boys. He is worshipped by the masses with such fervor that the city of Denver had to ban his book readings for fear of rioting. He has in excess of 500 lovers. Heralded, by himself, as the greatest living writer--this is Neal Pollack, the larger-than-life, egomaniacal, mythic hero of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature.
Neal Pollack, the actual living person and author of the Anthology, is poised to achieve the same notoriety as his fictional namesake. As a staff writer at the Chicago Reader and regular contributor to McSweeney's, Pollack already has a substantial following resulting in such accolades as Rolling Stone's "Hot Writer." Vanity Fair praised the Anthology as "inventive and hilarious."
The Anthology is a collection of essays written by "Neal Pollack," the worldly, pompous magazine journalist. The essays chronicle his adventures from Malta to Chiapas to a guest appearance on Oprah. While the essays touch upon social issues such as poverty, racism, and teen angst, the focus of the book is not the issues themselves but contemporary media's complete inability to address them in a meaningful manner. It is, in effect, a literary mockumentary of the shoddy journalism that taints "legitimate" and "important" magazines in the U.S. He captures the egotism, elitism, and utter lack of perspective that makes publications like Talk so dreadfully bad, and he manages to do it so that you laugh rather than throw the rag down in disgust.
Given the high quality of the book, praise should be expected. But Pollack's nascent success comes without the traditional Big Publishing corporate machine. Instead, the Anthology is published by McSweeney's Books.
McSweeney's, founded by Dave Eggers, started as an unconventional but highly praised magazine. The Internet site came next. Then Eggers authored his own book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which was published through traditional venues and made the bestseller list. Eggers has consequently helped other authors avoid the pitfalls of Big Publishing. McSweeney's fronts the money to publish the book and then recoups the cost, but all profits go directly to the author. McSweeney's can readily promote the books because the website has established a large following; the books are advertised there and distributed independently. Even Barnes & Noble bought 3,000 copies of Pollack's book, anticipating consumer demand based on the McSweeney's reputation.
Pollack contends that McSweeney's Books fills a void. "McSweeney's proves that people who read want good writing... there is a market out there for quality literature. The book industry panders to everybody but the people who actually like to read and that, to me, is inexcusable."
"Why can't book tours be like rock tours?" he asks. "Why not have authors read in bars? That's where people like to go."
"I want to open for Beck," he adds. Sure. Authors could be like rock stars, demanding special food on tour, playing to the wild crowds, and attracting groupies. "I'm not in it to get laid," protests Pollack. No, he has a far more serious motivation: to make some money. Enough to have the luxury to write creatively.
But there are pitfalls to being unconventional. Because of the McSweeney's brand, critics inevitably compare Pollack's book to Eggers' book, and label them both "postmodernist." Pollack firmly rejects this. "I'm not a postmodernist. And it's not meta-fiction, although I have some meta-fictional ideas."
The other danger is that people just won't get it. One writer, James Herbert at The San Diego Union-Tribune, declared that Neal Pollack actually does not exist and that the Anthology was really written by Dave Eggers. Pollack's mom wrote a hilariously scathing response: "If Mr. Herbert would take the time to read Neal Pollack's book, he would find that the joke is on him as it takes on pompous, self important journalists who jump to conclusions."
In the end, Pollack probably won't be the publishing industry's bogeyman. And it is unlikely that Simon & Schuster will ever replicate Dave Eggers' largesse in financing authors without remuneration. Nonetheless, Big Publishing could learn something from Pollack's tour: "Literature could use a little shaking up. I'd like to be the person to help start that process."