Would you like a playlist with that?

playlist

For the past two years Paper Cuts, the book blog at The New York Times, has been asking high-profile authors to jot down a playlist of their favorite songs—songs that inspired their writing, or songs related to the subjects of their books. This series, called “Living with Music,” has become the most-tagged set of posts on the offical blog of the paper of record.

In recent posts, Charles Bock describes his favorite holiday songs, and Sloane Crosley explains what she does when the batteries in her BlackBerry fail. Are you skeptical that Ben Greenman knows what it’s like to be a black funk singer in the 1970s, like the protagonist of his new book? Maybe his playlist will change your mind. Suzanne Vega contributes a playlist, too. Because if you like books, well, maybe you also like Suzanne Vega?

All of this reminds us of a joke Mitch Hedberg used to tell.

When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things. “All right, you’re a stand-up comedian. Can you write us a script?” That’s not fair. It’s like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I’m a really good cook, they’d say, “Okay, you’re a cook. Can you farm?”

Today we expect authors to farm. They finish a book and we say, “Okay, you’re a writer. Can you organize a publicity campaign? Can you get on TV? Can you recommend some decent music?” To some extent these are necessary ways of promoting a book. But after a certain point the publicity becomes the product, and the book seems like an afterthought.

What is “Living with Music” trying to accomplish? Sometimes it seems to contradict itself. As we’re reading a book, should we be listening to songs recommended by the author, or songs recommended by a New York Times book critic? Sometimes the playlists seem like an obligation. If John Wray listened to heavy metal while writing Lowboy, does that mean we should download a Sunn O))) album, even though it has nothing to do with the story, and we don’t enjoy heavy metal?

We can see how a book blog would be tempted to connect with readers by discussing music. It’s certainly easier to hook someone’s interest by talking about a song—often a three minute clip of something familiar from the radio, or easily found online—than by talking about books, which generally demand a greater investment of time, money, and attention. Music also lends itself to a more casual sort of criticism. If you like a Madonna song, you just like it; nobody can argue with your tastes. But to discuss a book, you have to start with a synopsis, an author bio, and at least a rudimentary evaluation of its worth. It’s probably easier to fill a book blog with posts about music.

And we can’t fault the authors for going along with it. Publishing is a tough business, and you do what you can to sell your books.

But we the readers don’t have to put up with filler, especially when it removes us from the work we should be focusing on.

Paper Cuts is not the only place where you can find ancillary material to enhance your reading. Largehearted Boy, a music and books web site, has been posting author playlists for a long time. And occasionally someone will suggest an alcoholic beverage (or a whole meal) to gussy up that book you’re reading. It’s like we’re anxious that reading a book is not enough of an “experience,” and we have to submit to additional rituals to make the stories come alive.

Maybe we should take this as our cue to get philosophical about what constitutes a book. What if the real product is the whole package—the stuff between the covers, the stuff an author says in interviews, the stuff they listen to (or claim to listen to) on their iPods, the stuff in their public appearance photos that was airbrushed out of their jacket photos, and the stuff we’re eating and drinking as we read? If these are part of the way we understand the book, then maybe they’re extensions of the narrative itself, from the opening sentence to the blog commentary about the webcast.

Or maybe we should just remind everyone to skip the bonus features and read the books.

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10 Comments

Filed under Hooray Fiction!

10 responses to “Would you like a playlist with that?

  1. dannybayridge

    I do find these sorts of extraneous details interesting, but usually it’s after I already enjoyed the book. It can extend the pleasure of the reading experience to learn more about the “story behind the story.” Mmmm… extended pleasure…

    Don’t we have whole fields of academia dedicated to discovering such seemingly trivial details (what music an author liked, what she ate, etc) and making them less trivial? I can’t see how it’s okay with dusty library books and bad with shiny first printings. So what if publishers are tapping into our other interests and curiosities to get us to consider buying a book? Are you a communist?

    In short, I think we should all pay list price while shopping at BNN. But that’s just me.

  2. misswells

    I agree with our Dan that this sort of thing is fun if you’re feeling gluttonous about a particular author or book. And in the right hands, the music/booze/food tie-in can serve as a jumping-off place for broader-reaching observations.

    On the other hand: god, Sloane Crosley is crap. A trampoline? Really?

  3. I just read something relevant in an interview with Jonathan Galassi.

    http://www.pw.org/print/521912?destination=content/agents_editors_qampa_jonathan_galassi

    “We need authors to be able to go on Charlie Rose and the Today show and All Things Considered. We’re dying for them to do those things. We’re selling authors, not books. We’re selling people the illusion of an experience with an author. They want to know what the author looks like, what he smells like. They want the full experience. In the old days it was ‘Read John Updike’s new book.’ Now it’s ‘Meet John Updike’ or ‘Listen to John Updike on the audio version’ or ‘Watch John Updike give a reading.’ All of that can be very distracting for writers. Certain writers aren’t any good at it. If you think about it, if a writer has forty good writing years, and he publishes a book every two years, does he want to spend a third year of that cycle on selling his book, in the United States and in Europe and everywhere else? That’s a big chunk out of his working life. Even though it can make things hard for us, I’m very sympathetic to authors who don’t want to do that. It’s not what they’re best at. Their real talent is writing.”

  4. msnowe

    That’s why I stick to dead authors, usually those who lived before the invention of daguerreotypes. That way, there are no real photos, and you surely don’t want to know how they smell.

  5. Matt

    “In the old days it was ‘Read John Updike’s new book.’ Now it’s ‘Meet John Updike’ or ‘Listen to John Updike on the audio version’ or ‘Watch John Updike give a reading.’”

    I think that’s an interesting point, but I think it’s untrue. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were celebrities in their day, and if anything, the importance of the author seems to have waned as other media have gained ground over writing. Galassi’s argument is a bit like asking why bands tour.

  6. fictionadvocate

    Bands tour because music is something to be experienced, and it’s a better experience live. But reading is fundamentally an exchange between an author and a reader in private.

  7. “[R]eading is fundamentally an exchange between an author and a reader in private.”
    Lie! Or at least, mischaracterization. Reading is an exchange between a reader and a text. I know it pegs me as a stalwart believer in the whole “What Is an Author” vs. “The Death of the Author” showdown, but it’s just as much of a fiction to assume that you know the author through reading his/her text as it is to assume that you know the author after watching him/her on Oprah.

  8. Matt

    Bands tour because music is something to be experienced, and it’s a better experience live.

    Literature is an experience as well, and the idea that music should be experienced live is on the wane. Some music just can’t be experienced live, and the now almost universal use of backing tracks underscores this point. And while I generally prefer music that can be and is performed live, there’s plenty of music I enjoy that simply can’t be reproduced outside of a studio.

    Reading is an exchange between a reader and a text.

    I’ve been thinking about Brian’s post, and I think it really highlights what is and has always been specious about his argument: while it may be technically true and useful for academic discussion, in practice, it’s a pointless distinction. Even the most heartless, coldly intellectual reader enjoys reading about ideas she recognizes, and she does so because she imagines some common understanding between herself and the writer (not between herself and the text). Moreover, making that distinction is a lot like pointing out that you can’t ever truly know another person. Are you engaging with your lover, or are you just interacting with his or her persona?

    It’s not that the argument’s untrue or invalid, but you can hardly live by it. You’d end up saying odd things like, “These words here–they really get me.”

  9. “Even the most heartless, coldly intellectual reader enjoys reading about ideas she recognizes, and she does so because she imagines some common understanding between herself and the writer…”

    I can assure you that I most sincerely have no interest in the histories or intentions of fiction writers.

    Frigidness, thy name is Danielle.

  10. I think there are a lot of music writers that would take issue with the assessment that music lends itself to a more casual criticism (at least all the time), and that there are people who give casual assessments of books.

    Also, not all music is better experienced live. Some bands are notorious for giving terrible shows, but their albums are amazing, and some people’s albums might be grating, but their live show mind-blowing.

    Also, playlists are just fun.

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