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Festival of Books: Novelists and the big picture (it's smaller than you think)

April 21, 2012 |  6:23 pm

Click to view photos from the Festival of Books

Here’s one thing the novelists at Saturday morning’s “The Big Picture” panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books could agree on: None was overly concerned with the big picture in their work.

“I don’t think the ‘big picture’ applies to my book at all,” said Chad Harbach, the author of “The Art of Fielding” and the publishing world’s reigning Sad Young Literary Man. “It’s only really interested in social forces as they impinge on this small group of characters.”

“I didn’t think about the big picture, except for the fact that I followed a character for 40 years,” Anthony Giardina said about his “Norumbega Park.”

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

Jonathan Evison, whose history-drenched “West of Here” might have hewed closest to the theme, concurred as well. “Historical texts generally have a wide-angle lens, but I wanted more a kaleidoscope. It’s a very democratic history.”

Of course, even novels working in small pictures can suggest larger forces at play. And the sense of how broad ideas act on individuals quickly became the theme of the early-morning discussion.

Gainesville, Fla.-based novelist Lauren Groff had the bleakest laugh line of the day when she confessed that the genesis of her book “Arcadia” began during a depression-fraught pregnancy. She said she was “a very bad pregnant person. I read Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ while I was pregnant, and that book is full of people roasting babies.” 

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

But that brutal dystopian novel got her thinking about its opposite, and she saw her commune-set novel “Arcadia” as fitting into a bigger story about the American search for utopia. “We always want to create a place better than where we are. That’s why people come to the U.S.”

“Where do we go when we can’t go further west?” Evison asked. The panel agreed that Manifest Destiny was a very big influence on American mythology. Now that we’ve hit the coast (literally, and perhaps metaphorically in the West's influence abroad), where do we go from here? “I think it’s to artisan-ship. Craft brewing is the future,” Evison said, only half kidding. 

For Harbach, “Fielding” was fundamentally a book about how small failures add up to big ones. He acknowledged that he channeled a lot of his own anxieties about finishing his book into the character of a ballplayer who lost his magic. “I definitely wanted to smuggle in the sense of being an unpublished novelist, but you can’t write a book about someone sitting at their desk,” he said.

The fiction marketplace is a big, vague force that brought a bit of respectful friction to the panel. Groff needled men on the panel, saying that even though three-fourths of literary fiction is read by women, “most male writers have a harder time writing female characters” than the inverse. “If my book had a female narrator, it wouldn’t have gotten nearly the same attention,” she said.

Giardina took a bit of good-natured guff at that, saying that reviewers’ criticism of his books being better with men than women was “bull.”

“But how would you know?” Groff replied. No one had a quick answer for that.

Still, panelists agreed that even given the small pictures of their books, they might add up to something bigger in the end. “Fiction is an act of prolonged empathy,” Groff said.

And that’s the one thing that can make a small world feel bigger.

ALSO:

Publishing in the digital age

Memoirists share private-turned-public lives

Jerry Stahl and others on the book-to-screen trick

--August Brown

Photo: Chad Harbach, author of "The Art of Fielding." Credit: Back Bay Books

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