The Market-Ready Free Verse Novel

April 22, 2008 § 3 Comments

Just finished: Sharp Teeth.

Reading next: The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.

One of my favorite comedians, Bill Hicks, had this incredible bit in which he suggested that anyone working for an advertising or marketing firm should just go ahead and kill him- or herself, and then speculates on marketers’ reaction to his “going after the anti-marketing market.” Hicks was about a decade and a half ahead of his time and was funny as hell, with or without a mullet.

I bring this up because, much as I try to avoid delving into authors’ bios (and yet I’ve done it twice since I started doing this, what a hypocrite!), I can’t help but notice that Toby Barlow works in advertising. More than that: “Toby Barlow is executive creative director at the advertising agency JWT…” It’s right on the back of the book. The man’s no drone; he’s a big shot. (JWT used to be known as J. Walter Thompson until they “relaunched their brand” a few years ago — a la “KFC,” I suppose — and, in my ongoing quest to Fully Disclose, I suppose I should say that my employer holds the archives of this agency. All views only my own etc. etc. You know the drill.)

Okay, so actual (very prominently displayed) copy from the JWT website: “At JWT we believe advertising needs to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.”


Advertising does play a small but significant role in Sharp Teeth: there’s a campaign orchestrated by the rogue wolf Baron and his friends in the industry to stop the execution of strays and plaster L.A. with celebrity-endorsed ads to take in a stray dog. It’s a strategy to infiltrate homes with werewolves planted in the shelters, gradually taking over the city for the wolves, and it works for a while; then the reprieve is lifted, the campaign ends, the adopted remain adopted, waiting for a signal to strike that might never come. So Barlow doesn’t shy away from the dark side (or at least the darkly humorous side) of his day job, it would seem.

What we have here, then, is the work of a nighttime novelist. There’s plenty of precedent here; I mean, DeLillo and plenty of others wrote ad copy, too. Kudos to Toby Barlow for juggling work and more personal work. The book is remarkably devoid, in this day and age, of brand names; no complaints there.

It’s tempting to see a self-allegory in this tale of white-collar workers transforming into vicious dogs and wolves at will, but the book seems to resist that: one of the best things about this book is its playing with the werewolf trope without simply exploiting the wolf-man dichotomy. They’re doggish-wolfish-mannish beings, in this book, their desires and motives and appetites all jumbled up. It’s clever that there are white-collar wolves in law and advertising, but it doesn’t seem to be more than a slight joke, a touch of surrealism, and a Zevon homage.

Now, I’m an old fogey when it comes to advertising. (I don’t think advertising firms even like to call themselves advertising firms anymore; it’s all branding and promotion and such.) I like ads to be ads, the better to ignore them. I hate it when songs I love get plopped into commercials. Hearing about viral marketing campaigns and product placement (even — hell, especially — ironic product placement) and branding strategies is nails-on-a-chalkboard stuff for me. (I hate that I know the terms, actually, but what can you do?) So it bothers me that the book is in free verse which often seems just like prose. It seems like marketing, which is apparently something Gavin Grant, Elizabeth Hand, and others have also indicated.

The book’s a novella, really, if it’s on the page as prose: 150 pages, tops, probably less.

No one buys a novella. No one reviews a novella. No one sells a novella, much less a first novella.

Then there’s the climax. Don’t worry, I won’t give anything away; let’s just say that the presence of a Blackhawk helicopter and government snipers made it seem an awful lot like a glorified film treatment.

I’m bothered by this book, because I liked parts of it an awful lot. The parts where nothing important is happening are great: people falling in love, keeping secrets, going to work, feeding dogs, playing bridge, hanging out at the beach, telling tales. There are some lovely passages in here, and some really great action-packed prose that does flow as fluidly and naturally as poetry.

And yet it bothers me that the book has this gimmicky no-dust-jacket design (which does, I suppose, help the book stand out on a shelf, but it’s impossible to keep the glossy labels on the covers in decent shape), and that there are blurbs all over the front and back endpapers. I know, I know: you’ve got to sell books to keep publishing more books, I know that even the most lily-white work of art needs a patron. And yet it bothers me, like graffiti ad campaigns bother me, and Clash songs showing up in commercials bothers me.

(I promise to be less cranky with the next contemporary book I read.)

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§ 3 Responses to The Market-Ready Free Verse Novel

  • Toby Barlow says:

    Interesting interpretation.

    I also find the relationship between advertising and literature a fascinating one, but not in the ways you mention (my interest lays more in exploring how the industry of marketing and the practice of literature’s different evolutionary principles effect one another.)

    The concept that “Sharp Teeth’s” free verse form is a “marketing” concept is, as you say, one that a few people have already posited.

    All I can say – as an actual marketing big shot – is that if, hypothetically speaking, some aspiring author approached me and ask how he could sell a whole bunch of books, I seriously doubt I could professionally recommend he write it in any way resembling any sort of verse. Poetry, after all, sells less than any other genre in publishing, distantly trailing behind dog grooming guides, topiary garden manuals, and yogurt cookbooks.

    Despite the good and honorable efforts of people like Billy Collins, the thought of reading poetry, whether it be free verse or metered verse, is something the average reader is completely loathe to do. Just grazing through “Sharp Teeth” comments online one can find a ton quotes like this one “I looked at it and saw it was in verse and immediately put it down.” or “I opened it up and then shut it just as fast.’ugh’ I thought, ‘free verse.'” This isn’t surprising in a country where the educators force students to lug around the two thousand page Norton Anthology so they can be forced to muddle through a few lines of Donne. Given that sort of torture, it’s no wonder they now base their decision on where the line breaks are, as opposed to the content, characters, ideas, language, humor, pacing or other things that one would hope are fundamentally more important.

    But such is the world we live in.

    Given all that, perhaps, and one can only speculate on such things I suppose, but perhaps this entire book is in fact an act of anti-advertising. After all, as you state, it was written by an advertising professional at night, off the clock. Now I don’t if this is true everywhere, but most workers I know upon leaving work tend to head as far away from the office as they possibly can. They play with their kids or drink or smoke crystal meth or garden or pump iron or watch reruns of “Friends” or hole themselves up in a dark room and type odd stuff that they’re absolutely sure nobody will ever publish.

    ‘Cause, after all, who the hell reads poetry?

    Finally, I’m also a huge mondo tremendously big fan of Bill Hicks. One can listen to his final recordings and the politics and humor are just as pertinent today as they were when he recorded them (during Bush I)

    In one of his best bits he recounts how, while he was sitting in a Waffle House reading a book the waitress came up to take his order and asked, “What are you readin’ for?”

    Not “What are you reading?” but “What are you reading for?”



    Appendix I: Authors who worked in advertising: Don DeLillo, Augusten Burroughs, Dorothy Sayers, William Burroughs, James Patterson, James Dickey, Shalom Auslander, Elmore Leonard, Fay Weldon, Joseph Heller, Peter Mayle,and Dashiell Hammet.

    Appendix II: Advertising writers who should have been authors: Hal Riney, Bill Heater, Steve Simpson, David Fowler, Jeanette Tyson, Janet Champ, Eric Moe, Howard Gossage, Jeff Goodby, Matt Ian, and Paul Mimiaga.

    Oh and the poet William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician, the composer Charles Ives sold insurance, and the writer Louisa May Alcott shot ping pong balls out of her nether regions at an infamous New England brothel.

  • willhansen2 says:

    Well, that was unexpected. Thanks, Toby, for responding to my concerns; your points on the realities of poetry reading in this country are well taken. One of the reasons I work in a special collections library is that I’m interested in publishing history: the physical forms books take, the integration of format and content. The packaging and marketing and distribution of books: these things matter, greatly, to how we read, interpret, and remember works of art.

    The book does seem to be getting quite a bit of attention for a first novel/first book of poetry, you have to admit: reviews in mainstream outlets, books on the chain store shelves (it was in some kind of special display at B&N, as I recall, and it was at my local indy store, too). I put Sharp Teeth on my “must-read” list after I read the advance review in Nick Hornby’s Believer column; I think it’s the only poetry I’ve seen him review. And I suspect the print run’s pretty generous, as first novels (or book-length poems) go. I don’t know if any of that happens if it’s a prose novella (and it would be a damn fine prose novella). That’s more of what I meant in my post: wondering how much the marketability of the book played into the form it took.

    All that said, by and large, I’m glad Hornby reviewed the book, glad I read the book, and glad an author trying to do something interesting with format is getting some attention.

    Also, it’s always nice to hear from another Bill Hicks fan. The Waffle House line is classic. I think my favorite Hicks bit might be his long routine on the Rodney King riots in L.A. on the “Arizona Bay” album, actually. (Although I do love his Elvis “impression,” too.)

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on Zevon, if you have any.


  • Toby says:

    I think you’re asking the right questions, only, as I said, not quite from the angle that I would. “Marketability” is a funny word. Unlike “gimmick” it’s not always pejorative, but it can be. I will say that I think that walking into a bookstore for the most part feels like walking into a sea of sameness and something that is different can stand out.

    I think literature is on its back legs here. We are in trouble if we can’t figure out a way to live up to what Halo and Battlestar Galactica and The Wire are giving us. We are time stressed and Nickle and Dimed through life with little time for our children and less for ourselves. Amongst all that, I worry that literature can feel a little protective of itself when it should embrace the fundamentally elastic nature of its existence.

    Could “Sharp Teeth” have been a novella? Possibly. Would a publisher have been as interested in publishing that? Possibly not. Would I have been as interested in writing it? Definitely not. What I enjoyed about the free verse style was the way that it allowed the story to jump around faster, in a hypertext sort of manner, from perspective to perspective. When one reads or writes prose, there is an accepted manner of moving from one section of a story to another and changing those rules can be extremely jarring to the reader. However, poetry is something the reader knows is “crazy!” so one has freedoms of expression that can feel liberating.

    I do think marketing is important. I think books should play with all sorts of styles and all sorts of means to get people’s attention. Literature is one of the only things left in our culture that can convey thought and philosophy to a wider public. And we, as a culture, are in desperate need of ideas and philosophy, or else we’re little more than two legged beasts.

    Speaking of which, I like Bill Hicks’ bit about his mother discovering his porn wing.

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