There was a reading last Tuesday night at a performance space in Chelsea attended by a lot of young publishing types. Some of them had jobs at places like Farrar, Straus & Giroux, The New York Review of Books and the Wylie Agency; some worked at Harper’s magazine and others were in creative writing programs. A lot of these people carried bags full of notepads and pens. But one man, seated in the front row, did not. He had only a book, which he held tenderly in his hands.
The book was Philip Roth’s Indignation, and it was a beauty! The cover bifurcated diagonally, half orange and half green; the title written in bold, black Franklin Gothic along the middle split; the author’s name, in pale yellow lettering, in the upper-right-hand corner. Its pub date: Sept. 16, 2008, a day more than two months away.
There were people who stared at the man and his book. Was it an old Roth they’d somehow never heard of? No, no, it was definitely new. But where did it come from? How had this person procured it? Were there more copies somewhere?
This is what happens when someone reads a galley (a.k.a. ARC, or advance reading copy) in public: publishing people take notice and begin to wonder about certain things. There’s the galley’s provenance, of course. But what about its owner? Where does he work? Does she like the same things I do? Is he single? It’s almost like a secret society, a world of readers set apart from the majority, bonded together by their ability to spot a galley in the first place, and to know what possessing such an object means. These people can find each other in parks, coffee shops and, perhaps most often, subway cars.
“Books are pretty much the only thing I might conceivably be interested in having a conversation with a stranger about. I feel like at least once a week I see someone reading a book that I know is not out yet,” said Nick Antosca, a 25-year-old novelist who used to review books for The New York Sun. “I saw someone reading the new Chuck Palahniuk book before it came out and I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I want to get that!’ I wondered whether she was a reviewer or if she worked at the publishing house.”
She could have been an agent, too—or a journalist, or a friend of the author. All of these, Mr. Antosca said, are “kind of interesting.”
Interesting because if you see someone clutching an early copy of Roberto Bolano’s 2666, coming this fall from FSG, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll have a lot to talk about if you find a way to transmit your appreciation for their treasure across the L train.
“If you’re reading a galley on the subway, and someone comes to talk to you, you’re going to share a lot of things in common with them,” said Tom Meaney, the former literary editor of The New York Sun, who is currently a graduate student of modern European history at Columbia. “You can have the right jeans or the right purse or whatever … but if you’re reading How Fiction Works in March, you know, three months before the book comes out, and you get the one girl who is interested in [New Yorker literary critic] James Wood, well …” Our imagination is going wild! “It’s just an incredibly selective object.”
IT CAN BE a prestigious one, as well: a status symbol, indicative—if you’re being generous!—of an intense engagement with culture or a personal involvement in its production. Or it can simply be an instrument to pick someone up.
As young novelist Karan Mahajan put it, “Reading galleys on the subway is the closest the publishing industry comes to having a standardized mating call.”
This may be especially true for publishing newbies particularly susceptible to the temptations of conspicuous consumption, whom Mr. Meaney compared to “old Japanese men who read porn on the Tokyo subway.” He added that the behavior of these youngsters is partly attributable to the fact that they’re not yet hardened and still excited by the notion of owning certain books before everyone else.
Of course, even regular books—ones that anyone can just buy—are a common subway pickup prop in their own right.
“There’s a really great Mark Strand story, ‘True Loves.’ You know him? The poet? I think he teaches at Columbia,” said Mr. Meaney. “He was the poet laureate a couple of years ago. He’s got a great story about a guy, and he’s reading, like, Sons and Lovers or something in the subway, and he sees a girl across the way who’s also reading Sons and Lovers. And then the next week he’s reading Women in Love and she’s reading Women in Love. And he keeps trying to get her attention and he just can’t. It’s just sort of a funny, tragic New York publishing story: the literary guy who wants to be recognized for reading the right book when the right girl is looking at him.”
Advance galleys are even more thrilling, and possibly more effective: Sport one of those, and you signal to potential suitors not just a certain taste in literature but a specific—some might say desirable—station in life.
Few would admit to using their galleys to flirt—though one veteran publisher expressed delight that literature was still being used for this purpose—and perhaps more to the point, many of those who would be in a position to do so happen to be too introverted to ever engage with a stranger.
“That happens if you read Publishers Weekly on your way home in the subway, on the F train in particular,” said Liz Maples, an assistant editor at the Hill & Wang imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “I usually hide it for exactly that reason.”
Mr. Meaney, too, likes to keep a low profile: “I don’t ever really approach anyone, just as a general policy.”
Mr. Antosca, though, has n
o such reservations—“Someone was reading an Elizabeth Wurtzel book last fall, and I started talking to them just because Wurtzel was at Yale Law School while I was there and I’d met her at a master’s tea”—and he is totally open to turning his galleys into dates.
“It’s absolutely possible,” he said. “One time I had a galley of my own book and somebody asked about it. I pretended I wasn’t the author. It was very brief—I started a conversation with a girl, and I had the galley in my lap because I was proofreading. At some point she asked what it was, and I was like, ‘Oh, this? It isn’t bad.”
Bookish women are clearly open-minded on the topic as well.
Mel Flashman, a literary agent in her early 30s at Trident Media Group, said that if she saw a cute young man reading a galley by one of her clients—the cultural critic Walter Benn Michaels, for instance, with whom Ms. Flashman studied in graduate school and now represents to the trade houses—she would not hesitate to approach him. “I would totally use it as an excuse to talk to him. That said, I would almost automatically have a crush on any fellow reading WBM!”
And what would your opening line be, Ms. Flashman?
“‘Did you read Our America? The Trouble with Diversity? What are your thoughts on intentionalism versus reader-response theory?’”
Meanwhile, Ali Heifetz, an editorial assistant at Norton, said that while she has never been moved to approach someone based on the galley they were reading, she would not rule it out. “If and when [I saw] a cute dude reading a galley on the train,” she said, “he would be more attractive to me than same dude not reading a galley.
“But less attractive than the same dude carrying a guitar case,” she added.
—With additional reporting by Caroline Bankoff