the complete review Quarterly
Volume II, Issue 3   --   August, 2001

Whoa Nelly !
Real Life, Lucky Girls, and Advances in Non-Fiction

A Literary Saloon Dialogue

The Scene:

       It is relatively mild out, for August. Inside the Literary Saloon, it is almost cold. The air conditioning is turned up high, rattling as it loudly churns and vents the chilled air. A steady stream of cold flows round the room.
       The Literary Saloon is almost empty. The usual clientele -- the littérateurs and wannabes, the power brokers and the broken, the editors and authors, the readers -- aren't to be found.
       It's summer.
       The city is quieter, restless, hot. People have fled. They continue to flee -- for long weekends, or for longer. They are on trips. They are on vacation. At conferences. Abroad. At writers' retreats. In beach house summer-shares. On excursions.
       Replacing them are the imported summer stand-ins. The tourists.
       The Literary Saloon is a destination, of sorts. For wide-eyed foreigners and country-folk, looking to see what big city literary life is like, hoping for a whiff of the bohemian.
       The tourists don't fit in -- even less than the literary misfits that usually crowd the place -- but they are here and almost no one else is, so their money is welcome. The publican won't admit it in the fall, but for now he grudgingly serves daiquiris and piña coladas and whatever other concoctions are in demand.

       A is here too, the rare local who is a regular even in the off-season. He is on his third or fourth whisky, leafing through a magazine.

       Busy B arrives after a day filled with employment-related activity. Loosening his tie he nods to A and sits down beside him. He orders a beer.

       Mightily drunk D lolls a stool or two farther down.

The Dialogue:

B:    Good evening.
A:    Right.
B:    You know, I think you're the only one I recognize here tonight. Everyone's summering elsewhere.
A:    Right.
B:    Oh, but D's here, of course.
A:    Right.
B:    How's it going, D ?
D:    It's going down smoothly, thanks.
B:    No book, A ? Just a magazine ?
A:    The New Yorker.
B:    Doesn't look like the issue I saw on the newsstand ...
A:    It's the June 18 & 25 issue. The "Summer Fiction Issue".
B:    Magazine fiction ... oh dear. I didn't realize they still published stories. Anyone familiar ?
A:    There's a story by E. L. Doctrow. The Ragtime man. You remember him, don't you ?
B:    If you say so.
A:    But the centrepiece of the magazine is the "Debut Fiction" section. Four stories by "young writers who have not yet published a book".
B:    They couldn't find stories by any writers who have published books ?
A:    I think the idea is to showcase new talent, to expose a larger audience to the writing of these up-and-comers. You know how hard it is to break into print -- and The New Yorker is one of the few large-circulation periodicals that still publishes some fiction. I think it's nice that they make some space for young, untested talent.
B:    I see here that they warn that "other début writers will appear in the magazine later this summer."
A:    Surely it's an admirable idea. A great opportunity for aspiring writers. They have a pretty hard time as is, getting anyone to read their work, getting published.
D:    The New Yorker didnae effin' invite me, did ay ... they ?
B:    Yes, D. Perhaps you no longer meet the "young writer" criteria ...
D:    Young at heart .....
B:    Maybe next year.
     So who did make it ?
A:    Well, I've never heard of them ...
D:    But now you will.
     It's a great springboard, this New Yorker issue.
     A veritable trampoline.
     One big, bouncy trampoline.
A:    Yes, actually that's why I got out this issue again. Seems there's some fuss and to-do already about one of the contributors.
     Where was it ? Oh, here we go: Nell Freudenberger. She's written a story called Lucky Girls.
D:    Lucky girl. No effin kiddin ...
A:    PJ Mark at reported that on the basis of this one story -- "her first published story", says The New Yorker -- the sharks ... pardon: the literary agents immediately deluged her.
D:    I've been deluged .....
B:    Deluded, D. You've been deluded. Still are. Never deluged.
D:    Right. Right. But there's still a chance, right ? Or is it only: après moi ... ?
A:    Nell Freudenberger eventually -- indeed, rather quickly -- signed with Amanda "Binky" Urban.
B:    Binky ?
A:    High profile. At one of those ultra-mega-agencies. It's a big deal.
B:    I've never dealt with anyone who called themselves Binky. You ?
D:    Bunky. Does that count ?
B:    'Fraid not, D.
     So what did Ms. Urban do for Nell ?
A: reports: they turned down a half a million from somebody (apparently Hyperion). Sold the North American rights for a collection of stories that haven't yet been written -- except, I guess, for Lucky Girls -- for a measly hundred thousand.
B:    Why so little ?
A:    The very literary editor Dan Halpern, at Ecco, offered his services, guidance, and name.
D:    Dan 'alpern at 'arperCollins, you mean.
A:    The Ecco imprint remains.
D:    The Ecco label, you mean. But at HC. 'e sold out to HC. They own it. And it was HC's cash 'e forked over, don't you think ?
A:    Still, it's a reputable imprint, and Halpern is a leading literary editor. Seems like a good deal all around.
B:    But only a hundred thousand ?
A:    British rights for two Freudenberger books -- "the unwritten collection plus an unwritten novel" -- apparently went to Picador UK, "in a low six-figure deal".
D:    An' she's nae sold 'er unpenned memoirs yet for a quarter of a million ?
A:    Not yet, surprisingly.
B:    But Binky's probably shopping them around.
A:    No doubt.
B:    Wouldn't surprise me if there hadn't even been a half-million dollar offer, if they merely tried to create this literary aura around Freudenberger by showing her to be focussed on the art, not the cash. After all, Dan may be the man -- and he is a bona fide literary editor of the highest calibre (everything in the publishing world being relative) -- but who in their right mind would give up four hundred thousand for the privilege of working with him ?
A:    I wouldn't put it past an agent -- or the PR teams that are probably already in place -- to float some bluffs out there. But there are plausible reasons for taking the smaller amount. It'd be almost impossible to earn back an advance of half a million, for one thing -- and the taint of failure would be all the stronger.
B:    I'm still suspicious ...
A:    In any case, there is still a lot of money involved here. Making for an interesting situation. Since publishers are generally so responsible and careful with how they spend their money ...
D:    Careful with that irony; you nae wanna be laying it on too thick.
A:    Oh, I think the publishers do that for me .....
     So I was curious. Because it is rather unusual for someone with essentially no track record to be so eagerly courted.
D:    You see the picture accompanying 'er story ?
B:    Where ? Oh, yes, I see what you mean. Nell Freudenberger, suppliant. Kneeling before us. Looking up, wide-eyed ...
D:    And 'er 'and. Patting beside 'er. Motioning. Me. To join 'er. To ...
B:    You know, you're right. I recall a Mid-Eastern trip, a visit to a bordello where the girls gazed up and offered themselves in just this pose, with just these gestures.
D:    Who could resist, eh ? I'm sold.
A:    I must say I do like the aluminium-foil skirt.
B:    Don't know much about fashion, do you ?
     But my god, she'll never live this down.
A:    Far from it ...
D:    Right. It's brilliant -- I've got the pic pinned up over my desk already, as do a 'undred other literary aspirants.
A:    Indeed: this is what boosts and makes careers.
B:    Come-hither looks ?
A:    That too. But simply picturing well, that's what counts.
B:    What about writing well ?
A:    It helps, no doubt, but it doesn't count for that much. Don't fool yourself: it never has.
     And look, the other debutantes -- Gabe Hudson, Jonathan Foer, and Erika Krouse -- got their pictures snapped too. And it could have been worse for Nell: look at poor Gabe Hudson, he apparently keeps a gas mask handy while writing, and plays with toy-soldiers when afflicted by writer's block. Also: he writes outside (at the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park in Brooklyn), braving strong winds and demanding photographers and still managing to look terribly pensive.
B:    Of course, these kids are so desperate, The New Yorker could have asked them to pose nude and they would have.
D:    I would !
B:    Perhaps another reason why you haven't been featured in these pages .....
A:    I'm surprised one of the writers' unions doesn't step in and fight this madness.
B:    Who's responsible for the snaps ?
A:    Let's see ... a Katharina Bosse.
D:    You can nae k-nock 'er ! She's done everyone from Tori Spelling to Paul Auster. Check out 'er website.
A:    Impressive.
B:    But there must be more to Nell Freudenberger's success than a pretty pose
A:    That's what I'm trying to figure out.
B:    You notice hers is the first story in the Summer Fiction Issue. Do you think that is as far as the scouts and agents read ?
A:    Yes, perhaps they're chasing down these young scribblers one by one, in order of appearance.
B:    I see from the brief contributors-blurb that Ms. Freudenberger is "an editorial assistant at The New Yorker".
A:    Convenient, that.
B:    Too convenient ?
A:    Well, she's a smart, literary lass. Contributed other stuff. She's written some of the Book Currents at The New Yorker, that sort of thing. One of the reasons they presumably hired her is because of her literary talents, so it doesn't seem that odd that they should publish her fiction as well.
B:    Still, you think she'd be published there if she hadn't been able to hand deliver the manuscript, if she'd mailed it in and it wound up in the pile with the thousands of other submissions they receive monthly ?
A:    I am sure absolutely every submission they receive is treated with the same careful attention. Her stand-out story would surely have stood out and eventually also found its way into the magazine.
D:    (Falls off his stool, guffawing.) I luv 'ow you can say that with a straight face.
B:    Well, what else can you tell me about this Nell Freudenberger ?
A:    The New Yorker's contributor note just offers that she "taught English in Bangkok and Delhi".
D:    Touch o' the exotic. Always sells.
A:    She's written some book reviews for The Village Voice -- she reviewed Nomi Eve's The Family Orchard and Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, for example.
     And there's been some previous fiction success. She published a story called Real Life in The Harvard Advocate, in the summer of 1997. (Update (20/10/2002): the story was available online for some four years but was pulled a few months after Freudenberger signed her publishing contract. The link no longer leads to it; to read it you have to dig out the old issue of The Harvard Advocate.)
B:    I thought The New Yorker said Lucky Girls was "her first published story" ?
D:    Now, now, let's nae pick nits. Presumably The 'arvard Advocate 'ardly counts as a publication, right ?
A:    This previous fiction debut apparently also impressed -- even though Binky didn't come a-calling right away. It won the 1998 Dana Reed Prize for Distinguished Writing in Harvard College Student Publications, topping "a field of 38 entries from 6 publications".
B:    Should I be impressed ?
A:    Apparently so. Updike once won a Dana Reed too.
     And, as further validation, she also received an Edward Eager Memorial Fund prize for it -- "given annually for the best creative writing". Though some other people also won -- I don't know if they share the prize or what.
B:    But no six-figure deals yet ?
A:    Not back then.
B:    But now, New Yorker-featured, she has a one-book deal in the US and a two-book deal in Britain. All on the basis of this one story ?
A:    I'm sure Binky and Dan and Picador UK checked out Real Life too. And I'm sure Nell has a bit more to offer. But yes, apparently the deals are for material that is yet to be written.
B:    That's rich.
D:    Is that my mistake, that I actually bother to write a book before I offer it to publishers and agents ?
B:    Can't help, D. Not in this climate. Image, buzz -- that's what you need. The written word ? Secondary. Tertiary. Incidental.
A:    Let's not exaggerate. There is some talent at work here.
B:    Yes ? The Freudenberger story is brilliant ?
A:    I'm trying to figure that out. It didn't catch my eye when the issue came out. I read a few paragraphs and then skipped to the next piece. So I turned back to it when I heard she'd sold stuff she hadn't even written yet.
B:    Bitten by the buzz. See: publicity works.
     So: were you won over this time ? Is it brilliant ?
A:    I'm not much for short fiction, you know. Not a great fan.
B:    So you weren't dazzled ?
A:    I'm not easily dazzled.
B:    Impressed ?
A:    Look, it's a fine story. Not really my kind of story, but certainly competent, the writing solid, the presentation good. Poignant and touching, if you're moved by that sort of thing.
B:    So you would have paid a hundred thousand for the privilege of publishing this and ten or twelve stories that she hasn't written yet -- and an unwritten novel as well ?
A:    Well -- no. And, honestly, I can't see how anyone could pay up-front like that, on the basis of so little concrete evidence.
D:    The publicity alone should earn back the advance. Bright, photogenic 'arvard grad, featured in The New Yorker. She'll be profiled in a dozen major weeklies, and all the newspapers. They'll make their money off of 'er, no matter what. Remember: people don't actually 'ave to read the book. Just buy it.
B:    Sales success doesn't mean the book will be any good.
A:    But it might very well be good.
     Still, I don't see why they can't wait until she's actually written something before they commit to buying it. Completed a manuscript. Or maybe even just two or three more stories.
D:    The pre-writing buzz and publicity alone are easily worth the 'undred thousand.
B:    It also puts a lot of pressure on a twenty-something gal.
A:    I'm sure Binky already whisked her off to some backcountry retreat where she can tune out all the things that will be said and written about her and concentrate on the task at hand.
B:    Isn't the task at hand to have lots of things said and written about her ?
A:    I meant that she needs to turn the non-existent fiction she's sold into fiction that is salable.
B:    Won't be easy. There are going to be lots of distractions. And lots of parties to attend. And I'm sure the media backlash has already begun.
A:    Well, how can one avoid having -- and expressing -- doubts ?
    The story is already getting considerable coverage, and it will escalate over time. And not all the coverage will be kind. The Debutante Fiction article at Christianity Today and Dennis Loy Johnson's column at Moby Lives are just the first of what will be many voices raised wondering what the hell is going on in the publishing world when things like that happen. And right they are, all those doubters.
B:    Didn't last year's New Yorker debutantes also land some fat deals ?
A:    One of 'em reportedly got a quarter of a million for a story collection from Riverhead. Another got a two-book deal with Dial, reportedly for about half a million. The first of his two books, a novel-in-stories collection, just came out, I think ...
D:    Right it did. Effing in New York or some such title.
A:    I don't think that was quite it. But I've forgotten the title, and the guy's name. Though he has been getting an incredible amount of press.
     The author has been profiled left and right. The book has been reviewed in Newsweek, People, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times, and who knows where else. So it's being well-hyped. And if you look at the readers' comments at the page for the book at, many people bought into the hype. They read it because it is talked about, because of the publicity. And because he debuted with such fanfare in The New Yorker.
D:    He's a lucky guy to get all that attention.
A:    Indeed. But that doesn't mean he's deserving.
B:    How were the reviews ?
A:    All over the place. Michiko Kakutani suggests what I would have suspected anyway -- and what I fear for Nell Freudenberger: Kakutani calls the story that appeared in The New Yorker (and brought him fame and the book deal) "this volume's strongest entry". She also writes: "the other tales (...) tend to be far more amateurish productions, crippled by hokey plots, cardboard characters and paint-by-numbers psychology." (The NY Times, 29 June 2001) Newsweek considers it "a deft and entertaining debut", but also says that "it's got only a single truly memorable story that towers over everything else" (Newsweek, 18 June 2001) -- the same New Yorker story.
     But in all fairness, others were much more enthusiastic. Erica Sanders calls it "a beguiling debut collection" (People, 9 July 2001).
B:    Did the complete review cover it ?
A:    You know they don't go in for that kind of thing.
B:    Do you think the complete review will do Nell ?
A:    I think they'll do the sensible thing and take a wait-and-see attitude. I think they'll actually wait until the stories have been written and the book appears and then take a look and decide whether or not to cover it. (Updated (10/12/2003): And now they have -- see the review.)
B:    You don't think they'll pre-emptively review it ? Review what they think the collection will be like ? To cash in on the pre-publication buzz ?
A:    I wouldn't put it past them -- but there's not really much for them to cash in on.
     No, it's ridiculous to think of reviewing a book before it exists.
B:    I'd have thought it is ridiculous to buy a book (or a manuscript) before it exists, but once again publishers prove me wrong .....
A:    It happens all the time. I couldn't believe it last summer when I got a reader's copy of Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace. There's a note from executive editor Kate Medina that comes with it, and she actually writes:
An instinct of the heart -- our love for Amitav Ghosh as a writer -- led us to offer a contract several years ago for Amitav's as-yet-unwritten novel. And an instinct of the heart is what inspires the story in The Glass Palace, the brilliant novel Amitav went on to create.
     Now, I think Amitav Ghosh is a decent writer too, but why on earth would they buy an unwritten novel from him ?
B:    Did they make the right decision ?
A:    The reviews were fairly good, some excellent -- with the review at the complete review a rare dissenting voice. It seems to have had moderately good sales. But there seems no doubt that it is a poorly edited book that could have been shaped into something finer. And the publishers would have been in a stronger position to do something about it -- to turn it into a really good book -- if they hadn't ponied up the money beforehand.
B:    But Ghosh at least had a track record. Proven ability -- he'd churned out quite a few books. And proven sales. Or at least some sales. What does Nell Freudenberger put on the table ?
A:    Promise.
D:    I'll promise you the world too ...
B:    No one's buying from you, D. You don't fit the profile or the image. And you have completed works in your desk drawers. That reeks of failure, that you weren't able to sell them before they existed.
D:    It didnae occur to me ...
B:    Pathetic.
A:    In any case, I find this trend of buying unwritten books -- especially from unproven talent -- worrisome. I understand why Stephen King or Tom Clancy can get money upfront for a pile of still-blank pages, since you know pretty much exactly what they're going to churn out. But some kid straight out of a writers' summer camp who can show you a few paragraphs ? Come on !
     The resulting horrors litter our bookstores (and the remainder piles).
     Agents and scouts go scouring the literary periodicals and the MFA programmes -- meaning they glance through the magazines and listen to other people's opinions about which MFA grad is hot -- and then they sign 'em up and sell 'em out.
     Worst of all is when someone gets a deal for a novel when all they've ever done is written short stories -- as is, apparently, the case also with Nell Freudenberger. As if short stories and novels weren't totally different things -- as different as poetry and drama are.
B:    If they can write, they can write ...
A:    A big if, first of all. And no: some style, some flash -- you can get away with that in a short piece, but a novel is a different beast. And most writers one comes across, most of the supposed up-and-coming talent -- especially when they come via the magazine/short-story route -- they don't have the tools to tackle the novel form.
B:    So what's your Freudenberger prediction ? She's trumped up -- pardon me: trumpeted up -- as a major talent, she has a great deal, a top agent, an editor with an almost impeccable reputation, a publisher with the marketing bucks.
A:    She'll do fine, I imagine. The book will sell, whatever it turns out to be -- her publisher and her agent will see to that.
     As to the quality, as to the books that follow ..... I don't know. These contracts with Ecco and Picador UK are already a lot to live up to. It'll be a triumph if she can deal with that pressure.
D:    I could nae.
B:    Then you're lucky that it's a problem you're never likely to have, D.
A:    But it's an unhealthy way of doing business, all around. I know there's no way she can turn away from such offers -- no way in the world -- but it's not fair to anybody, really. It doesn't make for a nurturing environment to slowly build up a writer who clearly has some literary gifts. Maybe she is good enough and strong enough to deal with the pressure and the attention and bring forth a work that can live up to the hype -- but that's an awful weight to force upon anybody. Seems just as likely that she'll be nipped in the bud ...
D:    I'd nip her there ...
A:    ... if not crushed completely.
     Publishers, putting their limited, greedy acumen on full display whenever possible, can make a hash of almost anything, so I imagine they can make a mess of the most talented authors in the world. And certainly of the less talented.
     As to Freudenberger: surely there is no way to judge her abilities yet. Certainly not on the basis of these two stories. Yes, she's not an illiterate hack -- but is she an author ? I wouldn't want to be making rash pronouncements yet, not for a while. Maybe her agent and the publisher were shown more than we were -- but it still seems like too little to form almost any opinion about what she is capable of.
     But I'm also thinking that there are probably some finished works out there by still-nameless writers that publishers won't even deign to look at which are of definite quality -- and could be had for a smaller advance.
D:    I'll drink to that.
B:    But without the buzz and excitement and Katharina Bosse photos they wouldn't have nearly the same commercial success.
A:    Not in the short, commercial term. But literature lasts, and over the long term it can do surprisingly well. While the hyped fiction du jour -- well, it usually doesn't last. Think of those 1980s brightly lit, big city folk -- some of whom were also New Yorker born and bred. Does anyone even remember these people ?
B:    I think they're still doing quite well. Every now and then they come out with some new books ...
A:    Living on the after-buzz of fame. Give it another decade and they'll be done for.
B:    I'm not sure.
     And Nell Freudenberger ? Fizzle or burning ever bright ?
A:    No way to tell. She's one lucky girl ...
D:    Amen.
A:    She has the opportunity of a lifetime. She can build a career on this, no matter what. How high she flies, how low she tumbles, that all depends on what she can actually do, on what she writes -- and what they let her write. And whether they let her develop.
     As to the publishing industry, well, I don't know if it can recover. Its suicidal death-spiral is becoming ever more impressive to follow.
B:    In this case they're just sewing up new talent, getting a jump on the competition.
A:    The talent is on the page -- and experience should have taught them that one or two stories do not an author make. No, when they bought Nell they bought something else. Maybe those piercing, penetrating eyes captured in Ms. Bosse's peculiar photograph.
B:    Maybe they got an author in the deal as well.
A:    Time will tell.

(Update (20/10/2002): Still no way to judge: no sightings of the promised Freudenberger-collection of stories yet .....)

(Update (6/9/2003): Judge ! Lucky Girls, a collection of five stories by Nell Freudenberger, has hit the bookstores (in the US -- in the UK you'll have to wait until April 2004). See the HarperCollins publicity page, or order your copy from or

(Update (10/12/2003): Read the complete review's judgement !)


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