Are Sudden Breaks Good News or Not For Serious Books?

You might think Jonathan Mahler would have been pleased when he heard on the afternoon of July 18 that Guantánamo

You might think Jonathan Mahler would have been pleased when he heard on the afternoon of July 18 that Guantánamo detainee Salim Hamdan was going to face trial just as Farrar, Straus and Giroux was getting ready to publish the book that Mr. Mahler had spent the last four years writing about him.

Instead, the 39-year-old journalist panicked a little. He hadn’t expected the trial so soon, and the timing made him self-conscious. What if readers thought his book, a rigorous chronicle of the Supreme Court case that led up to the trial, was just some thrown-off quickie meant to expire and disappear within a few news cycles?

“My concern was just that there would be a little burst of interest in my book, and that would be the end of it,” Mr. Mahler said. “It’s a paradox. Of course, you want your book to get a lot of attention, but the best way—sometimes the only way—to get that sort of attention is to find a way to spin your book as newsy. But the obvious downside is the risk that you’ll be pigeonholing your book as a sort of current-events book that doesn’t have any enduring importance. You kinda can’t have it both ways, I guess.”

Mr. Mahler’s editor at FSG reassured him that the improbable timing was a stroke of luck, not a setback, and when The Challenge came out on Aug. 5—just a day before the trial ended in a partial conviction—he braced himself and took full advantage of the synchronicity. That meant writing an essay about the trial for The New York Times Magazine, preparing an excerpt for publication in Time, and giving interview after interview on the radio in which his book went all but unmentioned.

Mr. Mahler did these things because he felt compelled to promote the book “by any means necessary,” but the fear that he was somehow cheapening it persisted. Mr. Mahler wanted The Challenge to be a timeless work of contemporary legal history, like A Civil Action and Gideon’s Trumpet. But would it survive its reception by the media?

It’s hard to blame Mr. Mahler for his anxieties. After all, as a writer of book-length, narrative nonfiction, his goal wasn’t in fact to break news like an A1 reporter, but to contribute to the larger conversation over America and its place in the world. Imagine: a writer has the foresight to propose, sell, research, write and publish a book—a years-long process—only to be greeted with the possibility that its essence will disappear into thin air after a few newsy headlines. Copies may sell, of course. But the seriousness of the project, and the commitment of the undertaking, will be forever eclipsed.

Take Ron Suskind’s new book on the Bush administration, The Way of the World, which also was published last week. A proven scoop artist whose previous two books yielded major headlines, Mr. Suskind knew that the only thing anyone would know about his new work immediately after its publication was that it contained an explosive revelation about a letter from Iraqi intelligence to Saddam Hussein, which the C.I.A. allegedly forged at the request of the White House in order to bolster the case for the war in Iraq. It was a big, irresistible scoop, and it had captivated the media since Mike Allen first reported on the contents of Mr. Suskind’s book for the Politico late last Monday night.

On the following Friday morning—following defensive denials from the White House, former CIA director George Tenet, and Mr. Suskind’s on-the-record sources—Joe Scarborough welcomed Mr. Suskind to Morning Joe, the show he co-hosts on MSNBC.

“What did you learn in this one, Ron?” Mr. Scarborough asked, as if conducting a courtside postgame interview with an NBA player who’d just put up a triple double.

Mr. Suskind laughed a little. “Lots of new things,” he answered with a smile. “Lots of new things.” Then, confidently: “It really, interestingly, is a book that is oddly hopeful. That’s not where people are yet. They’ll get there once they pick it up and read it.”

Mr. Scarborough seemed to understand Mr. Suskind’s need to urge people to actually read his book rather than let it be swallowed up by the news cycle. “Unfortunately,” he told the author, “I think with this book, too many people are just focusing on the fake letters. Of course, that makes headlines that drive book sales, but you’ve written about many other things that are much more important for the future of this country!”

Making the hard sell, Mr. Suskind later said: “Look, there are parts of the book, readers read it and weep. And I kind of wept as I wrote parts of it! It was a moving journey.”

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Mr. Suskind said one would not be wrong to detect a little insecurity in his remarks.

Are Sudden Breaks Good News or Not For Serious Books?